an online conversation
about design management


Working for free

There are at least three studios in Melbourne that are happy to work for free. Here’s how I know.

We’re into annual report season, and while we have a solid, loyal group of clients, each year we are usually asked to submit quotes for clients with whom we have never dealt. Last week we submitted estimates and capability documents to two new prospects. Both were using the documents to shortlist three designers and then making a final decision after meeting with the designers.

The first prospect is a large corporate in the health sector. They are open-minded about how the final document may look/fee and want to be part of a collaborate, explorative design journey. The budget is around $30,000, excluding print. The objective of the meeting was to judge who they felt most comfortable working with/alongside.

The second prospect is a much smaller not-for-profit – also in the health sector. It was a quite specific brief for a smaller report: they liked last year’s report and wanted something similar. The budget was around $6,000, again excluding print. Their email included the following sentence:

We are inviting a number of design firms to quote on this job and we will ask those shortlisted to come to our offices in Footscray to present two concepts.

Our submission included a covering letter stating that we didn’t offer a free design service. I felt sure that our capability document would prove our design credentials and our estimate of costs would demonstrate value for money. Designs would be prepared once our role in the project has been confirmed.

The prospect called to say that our capability document was without doubt the best she had read. And the estimate of costs was well within the ballpark of others. Did we want to reconsider? There were three other design studios that had agreed to present designs.

I can see two ‘wrongs’ to this situation. The first is a prospect who is just plain lazy. Too lazy to put together a good brief and too lazy to meet and discuss options with designers – they just want to be given the solution – they’ll know it when they see it.

The second ‘wrong’ is the element of risk. I’m up for a gamble, and our business has got where it is because we’ve been willing to take risks. But let’s think this through. The budget was around $6,000 of which design was arguably around $2,000. So – the gamble is, do you risk $2,000 dollars worth of work to try to win $6,000?  That’s not entrepreneurial by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just senseless risk-taking because the decision is based purely on a subjective decision made by a client with unknown likes and dislikes.

Who would take that risk?

Of course I’ll know soon — it’ll be the designers with their name on the report.

Carol Mackay