Q+A: To Spec or Not To Spec

Wednesday, October 28th 2015 Q + A

A few weeks ago I got an email from a friend, who as a new designer, wanted to know a bit about spec/comp work without actually asking about spec/comp work – because they didn’t know it was a thing. But it is, and it’s a big thing designers and developers have had to deal with way back since everyone likes to get things for as little as possible (ie. For-ev-er).

According to AIGA, spec work is considered:

Speculative or “spec” work: work done for free, in hopes of getting paid for it

In other words, you do the work and then the client decides after seeing it if they want to pay for it. This is an issue in a lot of fields, but espcially designers, developers and online creators. Hell there is a whole site deticated to it, and why it’s wrong. Their question though had to do with the one thing that absolutely should never even be mentioned alongside ‘free,’ or ‘spec work’.

I’ve added a logo/branding package to my design services and I’ve had a few people send me quote requests. They usually say something like, “I have this site and my business is ABC, and I think I want 123 but I’m not sure- do you have any design ideas you could show me?” Do you get this ever, where someone wants to see ideas you have for their specific project before they’ve put in a deposit?

I really don’t mind sketching out a few ideas and sending them on, but at the same time obviously I don’t want to commit too much time and effort into doing work I haven’t been paid for yet.. do you ever send out design ideas, like rough drafts or sketches, etc. before someone makes a deposit? I was just wondering how you deal with this sort of thing.

In short, no.

Don’t ever, no matter the reason, work for free. It’s that simple. Generally, if someone asks for you to do your work for free, no matter your profession, they typically don’t understand the work that goes into it, and therefore won’t appreciate it as much as if they had to pay for it.

The general attitude then if you agree turns into, ‘well you’ll do it for free, so it can’t be that hard,’ and then enters the million changes that they think are just two second tweaks because not having to pay has set no expectations for your time or it’s value.

The only exception I would say that this has is if it’s for a legitimate non-profit, usually though, even non-profits have some sort of budget for websites, design, etc. So don’t feel like you have to do it because it’s a good cause – you being able to provide for yourself and your family is a good cause too.

But I’m a n00b

If you’re in your first year, or building your portfolio, sometimes it feels like you need to take on those projects (and ALL the projects). If you do (I did at one point), protect yourself and realize that a payment doesn’t need to be monetary.

If you’re put in the position where someone approaches you to do something for free, figure out if there is an exchange that can happen. Be it services, word of mouth, constant promotion, etc – make sure you’re exchanging something tangible, and make sure you have it in writing. The promise of more work in the future coming the same client who wants you to work free now, will probably end up being more free work. A small credit line on a business card or flyer though, can mean exposure without having to rely on the client to do something on their own.

The longer answer? Absolutely not.

Web design can sometimes come at the speed of light. You connect with a client, they like your style, you’re on the same wave length, and a design is born out of excitement and sleepless hours two days later.

If you’re way, way, way, beyond averagely productive, and have no other work, maybe you could get a branding kit + guide done in two days. For the average designer though, this will never be the case for branding. Branding, when done right, isn’t something that can be thrown together. It involves research into your client’s chosen field, into their competition, what works in their field and what doesn’t, and research into things like copyright and trademarks.

Unless of course you want Susie with the lemonade stand down the street to sue you because your logo looks a whole lot like hers, your business has the same objective, and is within 50 miles of each other (limitations on distances from similar businesses vary per state).

With branding, once you’ve gotten to the point of having actual concepts to show, then you’ve already invested so much time into the project that unless they book you, you’ve wasted hundreds of dollars worth your time. And since they’ve invested no money in the work you’ve done it’s easy for them to say ‘no thank you, that’s not what I’m looking for,’ and move on rather than put the time and effort into constructive feedback so that you can reach that goal together.

How do I say no without making them hate me?

There is a fine line between trying to onboard a client, assuming you want the client who originally wanted you to work for free, and completely offending them beyond reason.

Usually it goes something like thanking them for their time, politely declining, but still letting them know you’d be interested in working with them if they’re ready to invest in their brand/site/whatever it is you do.

Did you notice the word I used? Invest.

When a client emails you and wants you to work for free, they typically don’t understand the value of what you do – or the value it’ll create for them. It then becomes a part of your job description to explain it to them. The best way that I’ve done this over the years, is to explain to them that what they’re doing is an investment. When a client looks into re-branding it’s because they think their brand should be doing more for them, or doing something else for them, that it’s not currently doing. They might end up spending $2000 on a branding guide and strategy but what they’re getting in return is so much more than that – it’s an image and quality to their brand that they didn’t have before. And that, is priceless.

Typically when I have requests like this from clients, my response will look something like this (and feel free to use this if you want!):

Hey X!

I’m glad you like my work, and your business sounds awesome! I would love to work with you on developing a brand that’s unique to you and your business, but unfortunately because of the research and work involved I can’t offer any sort of upfront look at what I’d do – other than what’s already provided in my portfolio.

It’s not fair to me to spend my time on something I’m not getting compensated for, and it’s not fair to the clients who have already booked with me to push their projects aside.

If you like my work though, and are ready to make an investment in your brand and your business I would love to get a contract sorted out for you so that we can put you on the schedule and get to work on that at my next available opening!

99% of the time this does the trick. Not only does it show enthusiasm in working with them, but it also plainly tells them that I value my time, my clients time, my previous commitments, and if they were a client I would do the same for them.

Then in the last sentence it drops the key word, ‘investment,’ which tells them exactly how I feel about my time and their business, and how they should also feel about it. The choice to re-brand your business or blog shouldn’t be easy, it should be something that is thought long and hard about, and should only be done when a client has found a designer that understands their business, their ideas, and what direction to take them in to help them solve their roadblocks.

Which they should be able to know by talking to you and getting a feel for your process, personality, and well before any designs are shown. If they feel iffy or act like they’re unsure, even after you’ve talked about it at length, you are not the droid designer they’re looking for.

Q+A: To Spec or Not To Spec

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