Take Your Spec Work Request and Shove It.

The Request for Free Work, and Why it Sucks.

It’s happened to all of us, especially if we are in the business of selling design services. We are reading through a juicy new RFP or moving through the delicate dance of trying to land a new client, and then the bomb is dropped.

They ask for spec work. It’s like expecting a flat surface but instead it’s a step down. It’s like seeing your iPhone slowly sink away into a pond you’ve just dropped it into. It’s like being kicked in the gut by a donkey who has been camouflaged as a kitten.

After I resist the urge to vomit and scream at the same time, I do some deep breathing exercises and I try to compose myself.


Now I have some decisions to make:

  1. Do I want to continue the dialogue with a team that is clearly working with a different set of rules than I work with, and doesn’t respect my teams’ time?
  2. If I do want to pursue the client, can I educate them as to why this request is a bad idea, and leave them feeling OK that they asked in the first place?
  3. Does the request signal such a red flag that even if we can get past it, it’s a harbinger of more bad things to come?

Assuming I’m still willing to speak with the prospective client contact, I will usually compose an email to explain to the “offender” why this request is completely inappropriate and ignorant — in a nice way of course.

It’s never an easy email to write, and I often find myself struggling to explain the complex reasons why spec work is bad for many more reasons than simply,

“You’re asking us for free work you A$&HOLE”.

In the spirit of sharing, I give you my most recent correspondence with a prospective client who will remain unnamed.


The email I received from the prospective client (from someone I had previously never heard from or met before, after we’d already been out to pitch in person, and spent almost a full day in long meetings with various constituencies.) is below:

The President’s Cabinet is energized by the possibility of having a fresh new look for the [client] homepage. We are down to the wire in the selection process and have one request that I hope you’ll believe is reasonable and feasible. If not, please let me know.
We presume that you have done a great deal of research into the current design and its content. By peeling away at the pages, it should tell a story about us; it just isn’t visible to the outside world. We would like to have a “mocked” up homepage of what you would envision of who/what should be on that page and how we position ourselves and illustrate our mission and our uniqueness. We are not asking for operable links; just a look.
We would like to have this by Friday, Month, Date, in order for me to disseminate this to the Cabinet for our Tuesday, Month, Date meeting. I would be happy to discuss this with you.
Sincerely — [Client]


  1. They spelled my name wrong (a true sign of someone who doesn’t really give a shit)
  2. They were giving us about 5 business days to provide the spec
  3. They assume we’ve already been conducting research on them from afar, for free — how sweet
  4. Notice how they so nicely say they don’t expect operable links — well gee then OK it’s not that big a deal

Insert image of me saying “What the fuck” repeatedly to myself sitting at my desk, while I think of all the time and money I’ve already wasted going out to pitch to this client. And insert an animated gif of a heart monitor machine going ape shit crazy as my head just about explodes. But hey, it’s cool. I take a chill pill and do some deep breathing.


Hello [Client]
Thank you for following back up with us and letting us know where you are in your decision making process. While we would love to be able to provide you with the things that will convince you Fastspot is the right fit for [Client], we don’t feel providing a comp will accomplish those goals. We don’t provide comps for any potential client for a few very important reasons that have to do with our respect for you and our respect for our team’s process.
A comp is a rushed attempt to give [Client] something to be excited about, and has more to do with bells and whistles than real strategy or research-based processes.
A comp poses a very real threat of giving the client something “weak” that they may become attached to, and which we may feel is a wrong direction after we conduct our Discovery phase and research.
At this point we know [Client] at such a preliminary level that there is simply no way we can provide a comp that reflects the work we put into every project we create for a client.
A successful website design has as much to do with content strategy, information architecture, usability and navigation as it does to do with “design”. When asked for a comp it sends us a red flag that perhaps the client doesn’t respect those elements and the importance they have in the successful outcome of the project.
I hope you will give consideration to our responses and rationale for why we can’t and do not offer comps as part of our competitive process. We feel the best way to judge our effectiveness as a potential partner is to look at the fully evolved works we have created for similar clients.
I am happy to discuss our design process with the [Client] committee or the Cabinet, and provide examples from other projects to illustrate how findings from Discovery, and things revealed during focus groups and outside research, combined with a strong focus on target audiences, information architecture and usability, have resulted in very powerful, unique and highly successful projects.
The process we provide, and the expertise, is designed to generate successful results for our clients. We are confident we can accomplish the goals [Client] has expressed in their RFP (as well as additional goals which have yet to be discovered), and we hope to be considered for the partnership!
Best Regards,


In conclusion to my story, we didn’t get the job. I’m actually counting my blessings, as I suspect I was chasing cars with this one and likely would have been roadkill if I’d caught it.

Sometimes you just have a bad feeling about a prospect and I had one with them from the beginnings. I should have listened more carefully.

One golden nugget emerged from this pile of crap, and it was this email. I happily give it to you for contemplation, replication, conversation, alteration, copy and paste, or just a good laugh.


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