“What is Speculative Work?” Article

Published on the Society of Graphic Designer of Canada

Be sure your proposals don’t ask for “spec” work

Occasionally, professional designers are asked to provide speculative design solutions on project tenders. Speculative work is design work done for free or for a nominal fee (usually unrelated to the value of the work). These tenders usually also state that these design solutions will play an integral role in a final selection process. Often, enormous commitments of resources are  requested, for quick solutions without a proper briefing.

Read about ways to avoid asking for speculative work: click how to hire a designer.



The Downside of Speculative Work

Best Practice in Canada, the US and the UK … advocates against speculative work for new business presentations. “Let’s see what the Agencies can come up with?” sounds fine, and it’s not immediately obvious why it’s a bad idea, so we will develop this point in some depth. Perhaps this is the most vivid objection:

To pick an Agency based on speculative work is like picking a bride off  the internet—you have no idea what the future holds.

– Peter Elwood, Past President, Lever and Lipton


All speculative work shares the same shortcomings. It does not reflect the very thing you are looking for—what a sustained ongoing relationship will be like. Advertisers who have transferred to the Agency side are astonished at the resources that are thrown into speculative work, much of it freelance or otherwise not provided by the ongoing staff. It takes resources away from existing advertisers who end up “paying for it”.

Strategic, creative and media capability is, of course, pivotal in picking an Agency, so how do you assess it? Best-practice is clear. Get the Agency to show you its work, and explore with them (to the degree of detail you need) everything from how they identified the problem or opportunity, through strategy and insight, to execution, to results, to lessons learned. This rigorous and diagnostic approach is much superior to speculative work, for the following reasons:

  • Speculative Work—because of extensive use of outside resources—gives a non-predictive picture of an Agency’s ongoing strategic creative or media capability.
  • It is rarely based on in-depth knowledge, which (for confidentiality reasons) is usually not entirely revealed in a pitch briefing.
  • It hardly ever gets to market. This alone indicates that it is a false yardstick.
  • Creative can influence search teams with a powerful magnetic force—leading to decisions that are later regretted. Advertisers should contrast this to well-run research—where immense effort goes into making sure that “executional factors” do not distort the underlying truth of what is being investigated.

Speculative work adds significantly to an Agency’s costs. Although you may say “that’s their decision to make” the fact is that different Agencies will make different decisions. As shown by the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” optimal results are not found by letting things take their natural course. (Two prisoners are accused of a crime. They are interrogated separately, and offered various sentences, dependent on what the other chooses. Fearing what the other one will say, they almost invariably do not pick the best answer.)  An Agency may do better on the day because it outspends its rivals, but having won the business it has to find ways to recoup its investment. This is all part of red-blooded capitalism, but it does not necessarily find you the best partner.

from the Institute of Communications and Advertising


“Show us three concepts, and if we like them we’ll give you the work”

“Do your best design work, send it in and we will let you know if you get the job or not.”


Have you ever asked this of a designer?


The practice of asking for free design concepts in order to choose the ‘right designer’ or the ‘best design’ or the ‘best logo’ undermines and devalues the professional designer’s education, experience, hard work and the entire design industry. GDC Members do not engage in contests or other speculative, commercial projects.

Do you work at your livelihood for free? Do you give your professional services away at no charge? Designers are constantly asked to compete for work by providing creative ideas and design work at no charge. This practice does not compensate designers for their work or their time. Designers run businesses, have staff, offices, overhead, mortgages to pay. Designers have had years of education, training and experience. Graphic design is not our hobby, it is our livelihood. We create valuable tools for the world – for businesses, large and small, for government, for non-profits. Our work benefits areas of education, finance, culture, entertainment, health, labour, sports, recreation, tourism, environment, and many others. We build wayfinding systems, design packaging, create maps, books, floor plans, exhibits, signage, corporate identities, trademarks and logos, stamps, posters, displays, web sites, multimedia, interactive CD Roms, advertising, transit shelters, television and film graphics, newspapers, magazines, reports, manuals. We designed the labels for your clothing, the gum wrapper in your pocket, the text book your child is reading in school, the logo on your cheque book.

Some clients may not understand that our “ideas” are our inventory, that our creative is our stock in trade and that we’ve learned how to do this through hours of education, training, practice and hard work. Finding an effective design solution takes time. It includes a thorough analysis of the problem, its context and constraints.

There must be collaboration between the client and the designer, for design to be an effective business asset. Without the experience and expertise a professional designer brings, design buyers may end up with design solutions that don’t reach their target market; digital files that don’t work when they reach the printer, identity systems that that don’t work across different media, and extra costs for reprinting.

From the client’s point of view, speculative creative work often works against a marketing plan, unless there is proper assessment of the objectives. Clients will benefit from a professional designer’s approach which can help them meet their marketing goals more successfully and more economically.

Members of the Graphic Designers of Canada can make a client stand out, motivate potential customers, cultivate brand recognition, and influence public perception of companies, services, products. Experienced graphic designers understand this – extending  clients’ reach into the marketplace and helping them achieve their full market potential.

A professional graphic designer is a business partner, seeing projects from the planning, concept development and budgeting stages, through to production, quality control and the finished product.

When you hire a Member of the Graphic Designers of Canada, you are tapping into expertise in communication strategies, effective problem-solving, and highly specialized design skills.  A designer will help articulate business objectives and crystallize ideas, and reward clients with thoughtful visual communications that make their messages clear.

When you think about graphic design, and its potential for your business, remember, quality design is effective design. To find the right designer for your project:

1. Evaluate several members or firms through referrals, interviews, professional standing and presentation of their past work. By reviewing the work of several designers, a client can match a designer’s expertise to the requirements of a particular project, rather than having too many design firms competing on a project. While this process requires more investment of time for each candidate, it reduces the number of candidates that require client evaluation, and provides evaluation at a more thorough level.  Click  Find a Designer for a list of nationally certified designers.


2. If you are certain you require a presentation of creative ideas from more than one firm, it is recommended you pay a fee to each competitor for their presentation. The fee should be a reasonable design fee for a similar project under normal circumstances. If such an expense cannot be justified for the project, choose a firm based upon past experience. Limit the number of candidates for the competition to those designers you are seriously interested in, and notify each candidate about whom they are competing with, or at least about how many firms are in the competition. Limiting the number of competitors increases the motivation for all candidates to participate fully. Select design firms that can demonstrate similar capability. Selecting firms with widely differing levels of expertise and administrative support can skew the results of a competition.


3. Prepare a thorough and detailed outline of the project and adequately brief the contending firms. Be sure that the contenders are all quoting on the same project description.