Spec work has been around for a long time and it's not a secret that a lot of agencies or freelancers do accept this kind of work. A recent occasion brought a new kind of attention to this problem and made me want to write about it.
First of all, I am not writing this to speak negatively about the particular organisation or put organisations into a bad spot. This is rather about making clear why spec work isn't a good thing to do and why it doesn't work in either the organisations nor the designers favour.
Secondly: Yes, I have done spec work in the past. For various reasons. There might even be a case where I would do it again. It depends. But I generally try to stick to my own rule: I don't pitch for projects and if so, I only try to rather pitch a process instead of any designed deliverables.
Too Many Chefs Spoil The Meal
The particular case that triggered a reaction strong enough to go public about this, happened last week. My company was invited to attend a pitch briefing session, which turned out to be an all-possible-participants-in-one-room session. When I found out about this, I was slightly surprised and slightly amused at the same time, since the probability of meeting a few friends from other agencies was very likely.
As predicted, this was indeed the case and a few of us had a chat and were wondering how many agencies would turn up and took our guesses. Our guessing stopped at around 7 agencies. In the end it must have been about 16 (sixteen!) agencies, all in the same room, happily awaiting the brief.
Gambling In A Responsive World
The topic of spec work has been widely discussed in the past and there are numerous articles and discussions out there. These three should be enough to get the main point across:
It's 2013 now and an additional factor comes into play, one that makes spec work even harder, let alone impossible, even if you really wanted to do it.
The introduction of responsive web design and the need for ubiquity have changed the way we work and how we think about the web. To make a long story short, to succeed in building a device-agnostic and future-friendly experience, we need to let go of the waterfall workflow we have gotten used to over all the years and adapt to a new process which is based on iteration and collaboration.
As if spec work isn't bad enough already, this approach is impossible in a spec work environment. It forces us to deliver a result that is far from what is possible and far from what the result should be. It forces us to deliver exactly what we are trying to get away from, delivering Photoshop comps that are as far from the final product as they could be.
Another problem is the lack of content. There is hardly any content available or provided when a pitch is called.
Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration.
— Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) <a href="https://twitter.com/zeldman/status/804159148">May 5, 2008</a>
How is it possible to design a solution, when we don't even exactly know what the problem is? The pitch simply asks for a decorative solution. The focus lies too much on the "pretty looks', not on the function or usefulness of the project. This couldn't be more true in today's web design world, where we require iterative workflows and a back and forth between client, designer and developer.
No Winners, All Losers
In this particular case, chances that you win this project are fairly small. There will likely be some agencies that will not participate. Some others will, even though they shouldn't. The results, especially in this particular case, will be the decoration of an undefined problem with fairly vague goals trying to be solved by doing guess work.
The client will lose.
The agency will lose. Even if they win the project.