5.2 Pitches and Spec Work

Invitations to participate in various kinds of speculative work abound in the design world. They come from clients, potential clients, from organizations, from publications, perhaps even from friends or family members. In whatever variation, the basic proposition is: You design something for me. If I like it or think it's worth something I'll pay you for it. This sort of invitation, no matter how tempting, is an invitation to corruption and a direct assault on your professionalism. It is, therefore, unacceptable.

Note that I'm not referring here to an instance where, out of the goodness of your heart, you decide to make something for your brother-in-law or your best friend for no charge. That's each individual's own concern. Rather, I'm referring specifically to those instances where compensation is based on whim rather than contract.


Sometimes a potential client will try and trick you into doing work for free or perhaps even blatantly demand free work by soliciting what's called a pitch. The pitch is common fodder in the advertising world and, as such, is just one symptom of how broken and unprofessional the ad industry is.

If the practice of putting together a pitch were not bad enough by itself, it is made ridiculously inane by the fact that pitches are typically a competitive endeavor, wherein a number of candidate agencies all vie to win the client's account. The pitch process then becomes a sort of client-manipulated puppet-show version of a Greek tragedy, with agencies falling all over themselves to outdo each other at who can be the most unprofessional, most corrupt, and least profitable. When a “winner” is selected by the client, the folks at that agency then have the contemptible task of trying to pretend that they still have some dignity as they begin work with the client—the client running the project(s) and the agency playing the part of the good waiter. Here's your order, ma'am. Hope you enjoy it. Oh, not enough pop? My goodness! You're right! I'll send that right back and give the chef a good talking-to! The results of that sort of relationship are predictable.

Despite the sort of beat-up-hooker-in-the-gutter lack of dignity the pitch process typically eventuates, it's still a mainstay of the advertising world and is not uncommon in the design world. It requires a terrible corruption of professional values to participate in such things. I sincerely hope that you never do.

The Cattle Call

Another form of spec work is the cattle-call design derby. It may be that XYZ Corp. wants a new logo so they invite “the design community” to offer up logo candidates, promising to pay the designer of the selected logo $1,000. Or perhaps your favorite design magazine has invited you and every other designer to take a stab at redesigning their masthead. The winning entry will be used and the corresponding designer featured in that first, fresh issue.

Thoughtful designers understand that there can be no successful result from cattle-call derbies. Lacking any legitimate discovery process, the results are always inappropriate and wholly inadequate. Therefore, all involved—on both the client side and the cattle side—are revealed to be shallow-thinking unfortunates that should be avoided by everyone involved in the professional design world (seriously, word gets around).

Like all other forms, this form of spec work is anathema to professionalism. Never do it. Those who ask for you to perform work on spec are not suitable as clients. To associate with them is to harm your reputation and your brand. Avoid them and decline their invitations and overtures. It is no more complicated than that. If your standards allow for you to entertain these forays into corrupted practice, your standards lack professional value. What's more, your behavior makes all of this plainly obvious to all who see it.

Look to other industries and professions for guidance. No dentist or plumber (or even prostitute!) would ever consider performing work for you with the “chance” of payment in return. If a service or deliverable has value, it has a corresponding cost. If you leave to chance the prospect of compensation, you're denying the value of your work. Zero projected value equals zero respect.