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Spec Work – Designing Websites for Free



I used to be flattered by invitations to pitch, but sometimes these days, I don’t even respond.

A pitch is an invitation to quote for a project, but inevitably it will involve some level of spec work. Not sure what spec work is? Basically it’s another way of saying ‘working for free’. Take a look at this great explanation:

Here’s a real life example. In the summer we were invited to tender for a prestigious project to redesign a website. Naturally I was very excited, until I received the most frustrating tender document I have ever seen. Some highlights included:

1. The tender documents were received 10 days before the tender had to be submitted… 10 days. What were we meant to do? Drop all our client work and get started straight away?

2. In case I was in any doubt, the document very explicitly stated that all costs associated with tendering would be borne by the Tenderer. They actually put a clause in there to say “you’re doing this for free”.

3. The weightings for helping them make a decision had “Supplier Competency” at 10% and “Home page / Wireframes” at 20%. This states that they were twice as concerned about how a piece of speculative design looked than the competency of the agency they chose.

4. We were asked to submit a completed Home page design, and wireframes for 13 other templates.

5. If we made it through the initial round to the presentations, we had to present a live website (Home page only). This meant we had to build it for free as well.

In short, the invitation to tender was saying that we had to do all the Information Architecture, and a good portion of the design and build of the website, just to be considered. And all for free, in less than two weeks. Needless to say I declined the invitation. This example illustrates everything that’s bad about pitches, and highlights the reasons why we don’t get involved.


Good design is about listening and research. It’s about challenging a client and designing for their audience. In our example above, there was no time for any of this, and the purpose of the design is to win a competition by giving the client what they want without ever knowing what they want. That doesn’t serve the client well, and results in inappropriate design that may well have to be thrown away when the project is won.


We charge for our time, most designers do. It’s precious. It’s our life blood. Because it’s so precious, we schedule it carefully. If we’re asked to create speculative designs at short notice, then someone has to miss out. Either we delay an existing client’s project, or we ask a designer to work in their own time. Neither of those is professional.


Every agency who takes part in a pitch will incur a cost for doing so. They will be paying their staff, paying for travel, and paying for presentation materials. Only one agency will win the pitch. That means that all the other agencies will lose money. That either means they will not be profitable, or they’ll just charge their clients more to cover the pitches they lose. We don’t find either of those options palatable.


Competition is healthy, I get that. But I’m also a realist. If twenty agencies pitch for the same project, then each has a 5% chance of winning the project, and thus a 5% chance of getting paid. I don’t like those odds.

The worst thing about the pitch we were invited to in the summer was that it was run by a public body. In our experience the public sector are the worst offenders. All the talk of support for small business is blown out of the water by behaviour like this which demands that those same small business give their time for free. There has to be a better way.


We’re proud to have recently become members of NO!SPEC, the campaign against speculative work in the design industry. We won’t be giving our work away for free.