The right way to decline free pitch work


Recently I published a post describing my ten recommendations for improving the way design operates as a business.

One of these concerned the antiquated practice of free pitches. This is where a prospective client approaches a design agency with a new project, and asks them to begin design work for free – and based on limited information – presenting high fidelity concept mockups in a competitive pitch against other firms. This is effectively ‘try before you buy,’ and is intended as a way to compare and judge design capabilities. To my amazement, I am still approached on average once a month by companies expecting this kind of arrangement.

To the inexperienced, this free work must seem a real win – people get to directly compare multiple designs without investment, and whomever they choose to hire, they get to keep a range of concepts to use as they see fit. However, there are several reasons why this is a false economy.

1. The concepts will be way off the mark
To create the mockups, the design team will have to use the only information available to them – the one or two page brief provided by the client. However, almost every successful project we carry out requires first that we undertake a Discovery process, getting to know our clients’ business, helping them build a solid understanding of customer needs and defining scope, before we can begin designing with confidence. Without this critical foundation, any design work is guess work, and there is no way concepts will be representative of the site or application that will ultimately be delivered.

2. The design process will be hampered
In the past, projects I’ve worked on that have begun with free concepts have always landed in trouble. An effective design process is one that is iterative, done in close collaboration with the client, development team and customers. As is the norm in any creative process, designs evolve over the course of the project as we learn and test. By beginning with a mockup that appears to show us the ultimate deliverable, client expectations are already set and it becomes very difficult for teams to deviate from this direction, even as new information comes in that indicates a better solution. People have often ‘bought into’ a particular design which ultimately is probably the wrong one.

3. The design team are de-valued
To create the mockups, the agency can easily dedicate several days to this effort, all of it unpaid, and with no guarantee of reimbursement. I cannot think of another industry that operates in this way, and it effectively says that the design team’s time is not worth money. When one considers the enormous return on investment that good, customer-focused design work can generate, this kind of practice appears utterly ridiculous. It is bad business for designers.

For agencies then, this kind of work sets a precedent which is more trouble than it’s worth. For clients, it may appear a shortcut to good design on the cheap, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. At best, it is a good-looking idea which doesn’t deliver the project outcome they need. At worst, it wastes huge time and money by leading the project in a direction which needs to be changed – at considerable expense – later, not to mention souring any working relationship.

In my last article, I advocated for a standard response that agencies could use to respectfully and professionally decline requests for free design work. I have begun using one I wrote recently and would like to share it here. I hope that others may find it useful.

“Occasionally, [our company] receives requests for free design concepts as part of a project pitch. Prospective clients usually ask for these as a way of judging an agency’s design capabilities. [Our company’s] policy is to a deliver a robust project plan with clear time and cost estimates and deliverables, but we do not provide free design concepts to prospective clients. 

These concepts can require several days of unpaid work to create, and in our experience are almost never representative of the high quality product that we can offer you, as they are created without a thorough understanding of your customer and business needs. 
Our design work has been delighting customers for years. We believe that our credentials and track record demonstrate this, and that our designers’ time is worth paying for. We are certain that should you choose to work with us, you will be delighted too.
In our experience, great design work is best done iteratively, in close collaboration with our clients, and grounded by a clear set of customer and business insights, which we can help you gather. This approach delivers better results and better return at lower risk to you.
Thank you for your understanding.”

Matt Corrall