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Entry no.: 875

23 May 2006, 7:38 PM

Comments: 0

Design The 'free pitch' practice

Open letter to the Romanian design community.

At the first draft this was a very abrasive article against designers who comply with 'free pitch' client tactics. Then I thought that what we really need is a bit of education, not aggression—I'm sure some of those designers don't know much about industry ethics regarding this practice. And neither do many clients, but this is not their problem—it's ours.

What is free pitch? Free pitch is a situation in which a client is asking for free speculative work from one or more design companies or freelance designers, before any contract is signed, in order to decide which company or freelance designers is going to 'win' the account or project. Free pitch is a 'competition' where designers are required to submit free speculative work in order to 'win' the project.

It's a free market, why would this 'free pitch' be wrong?

Erik Spiekermann answers in Form [see Pitched out]:

Clients love to invite designers to a pitch when they think they need help with an unsolved communication problem, and the fee usually doesn't even cover the cost of the color prints. That would be like visiting several restaurants in a row, trying the food in each one, and then refusing to pay the bill because none of the dishes were really to your liking.

Taking part in a pitch where concepts are sold for a fraction of what they are worth - in other words: given away - makes you a loser three times over. First you lose any respect for our business, because if it can be given away, it can't be worth much. Then you lose money by not being paid for your most valuable asset: ideas and their visual manifestation. And finally, you lose any chance to show the client that it takes a dialog to solve design problems.

AIGA Boston's chapter president, Amy Strauch, reinforces the same opinion [article "To spec or not to spec" is no longer available on AIGA's web site]:

In my eyes, there is nothing right about this. I don't ask my lawyer, broker, doctor to do work for me for free while I scope out who might be better at it. To me, that shows disrespect and is a waste of time for all parties involved.

And a third quote, from Lana Rigsby—AIGA Houston [from the same "To spec or not to spec"]:

Unpaid competitions are more likely to end in frustration than in good design. The "winners" are just as likely to wind up frustrated, since they're now somewhat locked into an approach devised before they had a chance to do any real homework... in addition to being grumpy about having been put through the hoops along with total strangers. For no money. The spec work approach demeans us all, and perpetuates the myth that design is all about how something looks.

We see that opinion leaders in the design community—Mr. Spiekermann is a design legend, Icograda is one of the strongest voices in the design world and AIGA needs no introduction—these leaders define free pitch as a bad practice and the act of taking part in free pitches as a bad conduit that erodes and devalues design as a profession.

Some time ago I heard of an ad agency creative head passing the details of a logo contest to his team, thus encouraging them to participate in the spec competition. At the same time, the ad people are pretty furious about the horror stories of clients inviting 20 agencies in a pitch.

What goes around, comes around. When you encourage the concept of free pitch, don't be surprised when you'll get your share of it.

Any solutions then?

In the advertising industry the free pitch practice rules and it will take them a long time to clean their act. In the design/identity/branding industry it's not too late. There are two solutions: one would be the 'No, thanks' answer—'No, we do not endorse the practice of free pitch, sorry.' The second is the paid pitch. Even if the pitch fee is only $1000 (but we'd better talk about something like 25% of the project costs), that client would've think twice before flexing its pitch-organizing muscles and invite anyone in the marketing section of Yellow Pages.

In the end, straighten your spine and have a good look at what Drew Davies has to say in Be A Design Group's article This week's 4-letter word: SPEC:

I know to some that it would seem that the design world has heard all it needs to about the practice of engaging in speculative work. But if the past week has taught me anything, it's that we don't talk nearly enough about it. The reality is that engaging in spec work continues to erode the value of what all of us do as designers, and if any of us want our profession to have even a modicum of respect in the world, we'll answer the call for spec work with an emphatic No.

Most importantly, it's frustrating because, at its core, this is an issue we all have to fight together. All of us in the design profession are on the same team. If the entire business community understood the value of good design, and saw the effect we can actually have on their bottom line, there wouldn't be nearly enough design firms to handle all of the business. But when any creative firm reiterates to a business client that it's okay to give away what we do on a gamble of a big payoff, it's a huge setback. So I'm raising the horn again and sounding the rallying cry: if we all band together and tell the business community that, like any other professional service, we provide something of great value that is worth paying for, only then can we win the war. Fellow designers, please join me in saying no to spec work.

Just say no.


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