Before I decide whether or not to get started on my project, would you be able to whip up a sample design so that I can get a better idea of what you can do for my project?

While we understand why it seems sensible to ask for a sample design, we really can’t do any work unless we’re contracted for the project. The industry term for sample work is called Spec Work, which basically means doing work without any guarantee of payment. There are a host of reasons we can’t perform spec work. We’ll talk about each below:

If we work for free, we’ll soon be out of business

Since design is the product we sell, doing spec work would basically be giving our product away for free. Design is a very subjective product, which seems to make people think there is a different set of business rules for a design firm than for other service firms. Let’s take our industry category (design) out of the picture and put another industry in its place. Would you ever ask a builder to start on your home before you decide to hire them? To tear down a few walls and start building before you commit? Probably not. How about a plumber. Would you have a plumber fix a leak or pipe or two before you contract them to do the full repair? When it is put like that, it seems silly to ask a designer to start working on a project before they are hired. If those comparisons don’t help, take just a few minutes and think about whether you would go to work each day if you didn’t know if you’d receive a paycheck for your time and effort?

Spec work usually equates to uninformed work

When someone requests sample or spec work, they are typically under the impression that a design can be put together quite quickly. However, in order to do a project well, there are several discovery, research and inspiration steps that need to be completed to lay a proper foundation for the project. These phases can take many, many hours. Without going through each of these phases, we would just be guessing at how to solve your design challenges. And we would never want to offer you guesswork as a basis for your judgement or selection of our studio for a project. On the flipside, doing free spec works takes us away from our paying client work, which just isn’t fair to them. You can imagine how slighted you might feel if you were a paying client and found out that your designer was being sidetracked from your project by free speculative work. As you can see, this just wouldn’t be a fair way for you to judge our work and it wouldn’t be fair to our existing clients.

At this point you’re probably thinking, if I can’t see some sort of sample work, how do I know if a designer is right for my project?

Trust is paramount to the design process

With that being said, the best way for you to choose a designer is to select someone who you really trust. Good work simply cannot happen without trust. Ultimately, this matters more than any design sample a designer could create for you. Many designers can produce nice-looking work or can copycat the samples they are shown, but to get truly great work from your designer you need more than a sample to prove they are the right choice. More than anything else, you need to go into the project believing that your designer understands your mission and having confidence that they are experts in their craft and that have your best interest at heart (even so much as to challenge your requests because they won’t be the best choices long-term).

Communication is key

Similar to trust, you absolutely must have good communication with your designer. It is important that your designer truly listen to your wants and needs and be able to reflect that back to you—that they take the appropriate time to explain things and make you feel comfortable and confident. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they should follow your requests letter-for-letter. After all, you are looking to hire a designer because design is not part of your own skillset. However, your designer should listen keenly to you, and you should be able to tell through their emails, conversations and suggestions that they are hearing you, internalizing your opinions and processing them into the type of advice and solution that moves in the direction of solving your business problem. They may divert from your requests, however, if they do so, they should point it out and clearly explain why they chose to make the diversion. It is also important that their communication is timely and that you always know where your project is at. If they’re flaky from the beginning, they’ll probably be flaky throughout the process. Some people might be ok with this, but in our opinion, this is never ok.

The proof is in the portfolio

Finally, you’ll want to look honestly at their portfolio. While many designers have a broad range and no portfolio shows every single thing a designer is capable of, you can get a very good idea of their style from the work showcased there. For example, if you are looking for a complex, intricate design, but your designer’s portfolio is very simple and straightforward, this might not be a good fit, because it is quite obvious that this designer’s specialty is clean, crisp design. Likewise, if you are looking for an illustrative solution, but your designer has no illustrative work in it, it might not be a good fit unless you are open to other ideas. If you’re ever in doubt, remember that communication is key and simply have a conversation with them about whether they feel capable of creating the type of design you are hoping for—you never know, they might have done that kind of work in the past, or they might open your eyes to a completely different idea or perspective you’d never even thought of!

More information about this topic

Hopefully this was helpful in clarifying the reasons why sample or spec work is not a good idea. If you want to read more about this topic, there are several additional resources available to you (it’s a pretty hot topic in the design industry!). Check out the links below:

The American Institute for Graphic Arts’ (AIGA) stance on spec work/ »
A collection of articles about spec work by WeeNudge »
NoSpec initiative to educate the public about spec work »