Spec work

As most designers do I have been approached on a number of occasions to do spec work (nice way of saying free work). When I was first starting out in the industry I fell for this approach and was burned. It almost always starts the same way “Hey, would you be interested in doing a bit of work for me? The project has fantastic potential and the exposure for you will be amazing … and so on”. In short if the person pushing you to do free work has such faith in the potential of their project then why aren’t they willing to invest in it by paying you to do the work for them? The long and the short of it is, no other professional does work for free on the promise that it might lead to other paying work or exposure so why would designers? I should add one caveat to this, doing work for non-profits or charities that you support is a different story.

In conclusion I would like to share the below email exchange that perfectly sums up how most people looking for free work from designers should be handled.


Yes good design makes a difference

I know that this is going to sound self promoting and in a sense it is. However, it’s not just about me or what I do but what design as a profession can do. In a recent article(Study: Good Design Is Good For Business) the excellent online content provider Co.Design from Fast company highlighted a new study that found the top performing companies on the S&P 500 all had design as a key part of their brand strategy. Now to me I don’t find this very surprising at all but to many people I think it would come as a shock. I feel the main reason for this is that design in general is viewed as some form of mystic cerbial art that can only be understood by those whom make it, almost akin to witch craft. Well in reality this is very far from the truth. We all appreciate good design whether we notice it or not is another matter. It is quite often said that good design should go unnoticed, that it is so thoughtlfully put togheter that it blends seamlessly with a persons life. Through our recacnintion of good design we reward (generally with our purchasing power and brand loyalty) companies that embrace and promote good design.


One of the most famous examples of this in the last 20 years of course has been Apple. I won’t dwell on a story that almost everyone knows but lets just take a visual walk through of the first iPod vs it’s competition at the time:


First Gen iPod

Original Diamond Rio Player


There are clearly many design advantages to the iPod versus the original Diamond Rio. What you don’t see is the thousands of things that were left off. The goal of good design is to break things down to the core elements. To effectively communicate what it is you are doing or your product can do. What happened many times over with the multitude of competitors that entered the market space after the iPod was released was that they forgot to focus on simple design principles. Instead they got caught up in what I refer to as Shotgun design. That is where you try to be all things to all people at once. This has been and will always be a recipe for failure. Design success comes from clear vision. What are you trying to achieve, how will you achieve this and most importantly whom are you designing for.


I can say with a great certainty that all of those companies noted in the study refereed to above have an underlying design principle behind the decisions that they make regarding their brands and products. This clear vision needs to be lead and breed by an individual or group that has the clear goal of good design principles as the driving force.

Printers are not Designers

I should start this brief piece by stating one thing clearly. This is not intended as a shot at the many outstanding suppliers I have worked with in the printing industry over the years. Rather it is to clarify a difference in roles that I think many clients and by extension printers miss. The confusion lies in the fact that many printers seem to think that they are designers because they may have some of the same tools as Graphic Designers. Just as having a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter nor does Adobe Creative Suite make you a designer.

The reason I bring this to light is the numerous times I have had a client say to me “Oh well the printer said if I just send them the files they can modify/edit them”. Well this maybe true if we are talking about changing a date or a phone number but this is rarely the case. In fact it is usually someone trying to turn around a job with unrealistic timeline or cut corners on their budget. Inevitably what will happen is that the work will suffer and nine times out of ten the project will need to be redone. This then leads to more time and money being spent on a project then originally would have been if the correct professional, in this case a Graphic Designer, had been used from the outset.

it is usually someone trying to turn around a job with unrealistic timeline or cut corners on their budget.

There are two main reasons that the above mentioned situation ends up happening. The first is expertise, in most cases the individual that is editing the above mentioned files at the print house is not a trained Designer and as such may not have the necessary skill set or experience to complete the job effectively. Of these skills one of the most important is communication, it is imperative that a Designer can effectively communicate with their client. It is through this communication that major pitfalls can be avoided, some times it is not what questions you ask but how you ask them that can produce the most useful answers. The second reason comes down to good intentions. The printer thinks that they are helping out a client by taking on the work and thus the client will appreciate them and return with future work. The problem here lies in the fact that the printer is taking on a job they are not equipped to handle, this can then have the exact oppositie effect from what they intended. The client ends up dissatisfied with the end result and the printer loses future potential work.

Again as I stated above this by no means is a knock against the many great printers out there. Just as Designers shouldn’t try to be printers, printers shouldn’t try to be Designers. We both want the same end goal, to create great work for our clients. By working togther and understanding and respect what ech brings to the table everyone will succeed. Also, by extension, some times the best thing you can say to a client is “No I don’t have the expertise to do this for you but I do know a great designer that can”, you will be amazed how much more work you will get this way.