Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Why free-pitching is bad for clients

Posted in: Articles, Design, Ethics

I’ve written about free-pitching before and I hope my opinion of it is fairly obvious. Many designers don’t like it but this is often just seen as sour grapes or that these designers are out of touch with the new economy of competition. I thought it would be useful to describe why free-pitching is bad from a client’s perspective. This might sound like an oxymoron: how can clients not get a good deal from free work?

Most people work for a living. Most people need to earn money. Designers are no exception. So ask yourself this: how long would you spend working on something if you weren’t getting paid for it? How long would you work on it, if you had other paid work to do? Most people would answer, ‘not long’. So the idea of asking someone to not spend a lot of time on your project doesn’t sound like a great idea.

Everyone likes a bargain. Especially in the UK, we have developed a sale culture: ‘buy one get one free’, ‘50 per cent off’, ‘offer valid for today only’. We like to think we are getting something for nothing. The reality is we are usually ‘tricked’ into thinking that we have bagged a bargain. There is no such thing as a free lunch and anything given away for free isn’t really free or is it recouped later at some other time. And so it is with free-pitching; the free part of the design is paid-for by making designers (often juniors) work long hours, missing out on seeing their family and friends. Or it is recouped by marking-up future design costs, or other services like print-buying or, hidden in impressive sounding technical stuff for web development.

It has been well documented of designers ‘cutting corners’ to produce design work on spec. There have been instances of free clip-art downloaded from the web being used, logos being re-used for several companies, plagiarism and even children designing on crowdsourcing websites. Some have even used stock imagery for high-profile ‘design work’ which sounds fine, until you realise there are no copyright restrictions preventing anyone from re-making that same design. When there is no money to be made, quality suffers and so do morals.

Good business relationships are built on trust. Looking for speculative work means there is little trust in the client–designer relationship. The client is only using the designer to gain a cheap product; the designer is desperate for work. The designer has little control over the process and little control over intellectual property or copyright. The relationship isn’t equal. Good design comes from collaboration and is most definitely a two-way process. Free-pitching is a one-way street where the designer must react to the client’s demands or be out of the running. A lot of a designer’s work is about client education and hand-holding through the sometimes grey art of design and print, but this can’t happen when there isn’t trust.

I’ve been in situations like this. I was once called at 5.30pm on a Friday afternoon by a client we had worked with for years. Another designer they used had let them down and their newsletter needed doing ASAP. Can you help? I did work over the weekend and got the job done. Then a few months later I was asked to free-pitch for work for this same client. Loyality? Trust? It had gone. I said no and I never worked for them again. If they were dropped in it again and they called, I would say ‘no’ again. Sour grapes? A little, but I need to trust clients if I’m going to work all hours to help them out of a tricky situation. I need to trust them as much as they need to trust me. Free-pitching encourages a one-off, me-first, no thought for the future approach and this just isn’t good business sense. Putting designers out of business isn’t good business sense either; no designer or design agency wins all free-pitches they enter. Free-pitching isn’t sustainable business.

And talking of sensible business practice, is it wise to obtain work where no contracts have been exchanged and no ownership rights discussed?

Another problem with spec work is consistency. If you ask ten designers to design a poster, regardless of how tight your brand and design guidelines are, you will get ten different designs. This is the nature of people – we all look at things differently. If you want a patch-work quilt approach to your identity then this isn’t a problem. If you care how you are seen, then free-pitching encourages a fragmented approach, and clearly isn’t a wise choice. Long-term relationships with designers, encourage a long-term view of your objectives and needs. A designer who you’ve been working with for years will understand your hard-to-put-into-words concept or project. A designer you’ve found from a free-pitch listing website, will not.

This penultimate point is a tough pill to swallow: are you being lazy by putting your project out to a free-pitch? Usually free-pitch briefs will be minimal and lacking detail. Clients sometimes see free-pitching as a way to get their thinking work done for them. It is an easy and risk-free way to come up with something good, where something didn’t exist at all beforehand (it isn’t a designer’s job to to the client’s job for them). If it works and a designer puts in the hours and gets it right, great! If not, then it’s not the client’s fault. It can be explained away to managers that the designers didn’t get it spot on, when the truth is the project was ill-thought through. The solution? Another round of pitches.

And what about the moral question of asking someone to work for free? Would you ask a plumber to install a new toilet with the chance of ‘winning’ the new shower project? Sounds rather silly doesn’t it? Asking people to do work for free just isn’t right.