Is Speculative Design the Right Approach?

Some time ago we were asked to put together a pitch for a large international manufacturing company. As part of the pitch they wanted to see design ideas for how we envisage the website could or should look. When big budgets are involved it is understandable that clients want to ensure they choose the right company for the job, but for me this raises a number of issues:

Lack of Research

At Ballyhoo, before we develop a new online presence we will usually interview key people within the organisation that has engaged us to get an understanding of how the company operates, who their target audience is and their natural collective style. This takes a good amount of time but it is always worthwhile to ensure that we produce work that the client will love and, more importantly, that their customers will respond well to. When we are asked to produce design work speculatively we do not have the time or even access to a business to go to such lengths. Ultimately, what we produce is virtually guess work.

At this point two major risks emerge. Firstly, if we are successful in our pitch the client may expect us to use the design work done speculatively as a basis for the final design work. In a sense, we are forced to continue with foundations based on little to no research.

Secondly, if the client accepts that we want to carry out our usual level of research once engaged, 99% of the time this will result in us completely scrapping the design work already produced. What a waste.

Hindering Collaboration

When producing design work we often develop rough designs or wireframes and run through these with the client to ensure we are going in a direction they are happy with. This is an iterative process where we work closely with the client throughout to ensure the very best end result. Again, if working on speculative designs, we don’t have the time or access to do this and the design suffers.

Selling not delivering

Producing design work purely for the purpose of impressing a client (i.e. as a selling technique) is also a very different process to delivering a design that will prove successful. You’ll be naturally inclined to to produce something flashy and showy that won’t necessarily consider the target audience or usability. Again, if you are then compelled to follow through with these designs you are starting off on the wrong foot from the outset.

Graphic design is not the same thing as art

"For a designer it’s a good thing to have constraints: rules, clients, limited budgets, a specific audience. Because if you don’t have those, you stop being a designer. You’re an artist."
Erik Spiekermann - Typographer and Designer

One argument for asking an agency to produce speculative design work is to get a gauge of their natural style and whether that is something you like. It’s important to remember that, while every graphic designer will have their own natural style, a good graphic designer should be able to create whatever is needed for the task at hand. They may prefer glossy three-dimensional effects but if the brand guidelines for a company dictate that a clean, simple, flat interface is needed then that’s what should be produced. You only have to take a look at the portfolio of a good graphic designer to see the breadth of the design work they are capable of. We like to think that our own portfolio is very varied.

Cost

I personally don’t see the cost of speculative design work as a major factor. However, it is certainly worth considering that if three or four agencies put forward a pitch including design work then only one is going to get the job. This means the “also-rans” will have to recoup the design costs from the next job that they are successful in procuring. Even if they swallow the cost, ultimately someone somewhere down the line will lose out.

In conclusion, my opinion is that speculative design work is a no-win situation for all involved. As a client you may not get the best out of your chosen design team. As a designer you risk trying to show the client what you think they want to see only to start again from scratch.


As a client, do you want to see speculative work? Do my fellow web designers share my sentiments? Or is this something you are willing to continue with because “it’s the way things are”? Your comments are welcome and much appreciated.

Anthony Chaffey

By Anthony Chaffey

Anthony is Ballyhoo's Managing Director and Web Developer, responsible for building your website and keeping it online.