debbie millman

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Commentary: Spec This

True story: a very prominent and (what most would consider very cool) entertainment company called us at Sterling and asked us to pitch a project. While initially we were thrilled, as soon as we heard the pitch details our excitement quickly waned. Apparently, this very prominent and cool company wanted the various firms they were asking to pitch the project to do speculative work for said pitch. For those that may not be totally familiar with the concept of speculative work, it is when a prospective client asks several agencies to do “free” work, ostensibly so that they can get a sense of how they would approach the project and get a little “look-see” as to the type of creative they could expect.

Now, I understand that the way most advertising agencies get their business is by doing speculative work, as they are investing in winning business that is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars. This investment is considered “part of the agreement.” But design firms…well that is another situation entirely. I do not believe in doing speculative work. Not only do the fees not warrant that type of investment, I believe that if a company is interested in working with you they should be able to assess your work and your philosophies and strategies towards design by your portfolio, by your intellect and by your proposal. Anything more than that is giving it away for free, which in my opinion is unfair. It is also demoralizing. It is also wrong.

You might ask, ‘why’? Why is it wrong? Well. We are professional practitioners who make a living by designing things. Many of us are educated, with degrees in design or business or both. Would anyone ever ask a doctor to do work “on spec”? How about a plumber? Or how about borrowing a pair of shoes from a department store “on spec”? If you like the way they feel after wearing them once or twice, (and get the requisite number of compliments) cool, if not, bring them back and you won’t have to pay for them. Hmmm. I think not. Requesting a designer to participate in a scenario wherein they deliver actual work requires an actual fee. Anything less denigrates the profession of design and all designers everywhere.

In any case, we turned the cool company down. As much as it smarted to tell the prominent entertainment conglomerate “thanks, but no thanks” I also felt proud that we stood up for our values and ideals, and at the end of the day, could hold our heads high.

But let me be totally honest about my history with spec work. In the late '80s I started a company with a partner and we were hungry for work. Desperate is probably a more accurate word. We were asked to do some spec work for the same company I was referring to earlier in this post. We were told who the other agencies were that were pitching the account as well. We were a small fish in a big pond, several other much more prominent agencies were asked as well. We did it, just to get our foot in the door. A "you never know" type situation. Plus, it was a cool job and we thought our creative team would be pumped to work on this type of project. All the other agencies except one (Frankfurt Balkind) agreed to do the work as well. So we stayed up for days on end and killed ourselves to do great work. We didn't get the project. About a year later, I found out that Frankfurt Balkind got the work. The client didn't like any of the pitch/spec work from ANY of the agencies, and hired the one firm that had said, "No, we won't work for free."

I learned my lesson that day.

So bear with me when I repeat: Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our hearts for free, and we give away our souls.

Cat Morley, the brilliant woman behind Designers Who Blog has started an incredible resource for anyone interested in more information about the evils of spec work. The effort is called NO SPEC and more information can be found here: Go there now.


Blogger Happy Obituary said...

Hi Debbie, is your film available on the net?

3/15/2006 08:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Sol Pandiella-McLeod said...

I couldn't agree with you more Debbie, I too have had a similar experience and have heard of many more designers who have been 'burnt' by creating free spec work. Design and Interactive studios should not have to comply with an antiquated process that advertising agencies have practiced for years. It devalues our profession and implies that designers create work that is just aesthetically pleasing, and which serves no real purpose but to decorate the world.
This of course couldn't be further from the truth but the reality is that our profession often falls into that trap.

In order to create effective design that communicates the clients message with the appropriate target audience, a lot of research and conceptualising has to be done before pixel goes on the screen.
Free spec work implies that all of this preliminary work is created as a result of assumptions and not real research. Which again leads me to think, that clients who are requesting free spec work wouldnt value great visual communication anyway, so they are probably not worth working with, no matter how desperate one is for income. thanks for a great article!

3/16/2006 12:09:00 AM  
Blogger 2danimator said...

nice blog. it's so very hard to get started. everyone wants something nice to represent them but no one's willing to pay. i'll keep this in mind the next time. thank you for giving integrity to our endeavors.

3/16/2006 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Cliftonite said...

Boy am I glad to discover that I'm not the only one facing this nasty problem. I'm a No!Spec supporter all the way. Good luck!

3/16/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger fivemcclungs said...

I really appreciate the effort to expose the problem of spec work for clients. It is a problem, and it is only getting worse as design enters the global economy. While we may have a problem with spec work here in the States, I can bet you that designers in India and China won't. They are "hungry", litterally, and will take risks to get the business.

As such, I hope that No!Spec will consider focusing more time and energy on educating businesses about the value that non-speculative design brings. Unfortunately, when I read the No!Spec site the tone is angry and I'm not sure helpful at all to clients. If that is who you hope to reach with No!Spec, then I'd say you'll just turn them off. If you want to just rally the design troops around a banner, then you'll be sucessful.

Please consider the tone of No!Spec (even the name), you goals, how that will not only impact the profession, but our clients as well.

3/18/2006 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your topic, as we all generally hate spec work (most veterans have a story or two). Still, your article could do more to show how it's bad in a literal and practical way.

Saying "It denigrates us" isn't an argument unto itself. Maybe you could list the risks or research some cases where spec work was stolen. Or the percentage of spec work that is throwaway?

8/12/2009 04:17:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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