Design agencies and speculative work

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When you’re in the process of choosing the best design agency to work with, it’s tempting to ask them to produce some speculative work to demonstrate their style and ability. However, there are a number of reasons why this isn’t the best way to approach an agency, and plenty of better ways to begin a productive working relationship.

What is speculative work?

It’s work you ask an agency to produce before you’ve hired them or fully briefed them on the project. The idea is to get a feel for their skills, style and speed - but it rarely provides an accurate metric by which to measure the suitability of an agency.


Why isn’t it a good idea?

Money

Firstly, you’re asking an agency to produce work for free. While it might seem like a simple request to knock up a quick logo, design work can take a lot of time, focus and effort - most agencies will only give this up for a fee. You don’t want to get your relationship off on the wrong foot, and asking for free work can be taken as an insult. If you really want an agency to produce speculative work, be prepared to pay for it.

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Motivation

Creative work is something most designers are really passionate about, but it’s hard to find motivation if the work you’re being asked to produce may never end up getting used. You’ll get the best out of designers if you take the time to brief them properly, and give them meaningful objectives they can aim for. Asking for speculative work indicates that you don’t fully trust those designers to produce work of quality, which is not a motivating thought. Relationships built on trust and respect are always the most fruitful.

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Understanding

While some agencies might be happy to quickly produce a generic bit of design work for your business, the better agencies will want to take the time to get to know you and your business first. It’s really difficult to design the right logo and colour palette before you really understand the core values of a business. Equally, it’s impossible to design a website without first understanding all the user journeys that need to be taken into account. While asking for speculative work might give you insight into an agency’s skills, it will not give you an accurate idea of how well they will be able to produce the right work for your business, because they don’t yet have that understanding. The only thing they’ll be able to produce is something really generic, and that shouldn’t be your aim.

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It’s a beauty pageant

Asking for speculative work from a pool of agencies allows you to compare them against one another - but you’re basing this comparison purely on how you feel about the speculative work they produce. While aesthetic is important in design, how something looks is only a tiny part of why certain designs work and others don’t. It’s also vital to be objective in your critique of design work, which can only be achieved if you have a design brief against which to measure each element. If you’re judging the abilities of an agency based solely on whether or not you ‘like’ a piece of work they produce, you’re not judging them objectively and you’re seeing only a fraction of their creative process.


Miss New York

What can I do instead?

View their portfolio

Take a look at the agency’s portfolio. A good portfolio will showcase an agency’s skills, versatility and ability to work to a brief. Taking a look at completed projects will give you a much better idea of how well an agency is suited to taking on the work you need.

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Ask questions

Instead of asking for speculative work, ask your agency the following questions:

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • How does your creative process work?
  • What examples can you share?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot more about an agency than speculative work. You will be able to learn about their core values, and see if they coincide with your own. Most relationships work better when each party has similar belief sets. You’ll also understand better how their creative process works, and how important detailed briefing and communication can be to a successful design project. Getting them to share and talk through their portfolio will give you a great deal of insight into their skills and abilities.

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Offer something in return

If you really must ask for speculative work, make sure the agency is compensated. Either allow them to quote for this work, or provide them with something of equal value - such as discounted rates on whatever your business produces.

Keep talking

Ultimately, the best relationships are born from communication. Understanding your agency, and giving them the chance to understand you and your needs, will culminate in higher quality work and a more productive partnership.

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