13 November 2006
David Robertson, FDIA, Design Institute of Australia
David Robertson, FDIA, Design Institute of Australia

Nothing arouses more emotion in design circles than free pitching - competing for a design job by providing free work. This practice is widely condemned by professional design organisations, including the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), but it continues to occur. Why is it so difficult to stamp out? Surely giving away the only things you have to sell, your time and your expertise, doesn't make good sense?

In the creative industries the issue of time and the value of expertise is complex. Designers are motivated by the opportunity to demonstrate their creativity. They have come through a lengthy educational process that has reinforced the attention they get for their skills. Their willingness to participate freely in competitions, community projects and events, and to 'over-service' school projects with pictorial embellishment has been continuously rewarded. The lure of external recognition fuels them. Their hopes are fed by stories of being discovered.

And then they enter the work force. Why should the rules be different now?

Free pitching is not the only issue in the design professions. Over-servicing, or more correctly supplying unbilled time is endemic. A DIA survey indicated that, on average, designers were potentially giving away one third of their time. So designers are already doing a hell of a lot of work for free. This points to bad work practices.

Free pitching is a bad work practice. There is an enormous amount of paid work available to a design practitioner. Concentrating on finding paying work rather than providing free time in either write-offs or free pitching has got to be better business practice. Of course the assumption is that money is the measure of success, an assumption that is far from universal in the creative industries.

Free pitching might be a bad work practice but is it bad marketing practice? And is it a bad ethical practice? Here the debate gets messy, and too complex for this article. The first thing is to spot the ways in which you may be providing your skills for free.

The ways in which businesses acquire design services extend from fee-for-time to pure charity. Part of this continuum includes the acquisition (or theft) of design services for no payment. This unpaid acquisition is sometimes done willfully, sometimes through unthinking ignorance, and sometimes done with the very best of intentions (for example competitions that involve children in community issues).

Thinking clearly about the methods that are used to get your services will help you to understand when you are being taken advantage of. Typical methods used by business to get creative services are request for quotation, tender, public competition, awards, pro bono, paid pitch (competition by invitation), and free pitch.

Request for quotation and tendering processes are normal commercial practice. However designers should watch for requests to provide concepts or design solutions with their fee-for-service proposal. Your proof of competence should be established by your answers to tender information and your relevant past project experience.

Public competitions occur when an organisation advertises for creative solutions to a brief. Competitions produce good results when the outcome required is largely publicity or community engagement. Using competitions to develop commercially critical designs is dangerous. The variables associated with lack of direct communication between client and designer, the various skill levels of the participants and the relative design assessment skills of the judging panel all contribute to unreliable results.

Designers may choose to enter public competitions. However professional designers should avoid competitions where there is a clear intent to avoid the payment of professional fees and where there are conditions that reduce your intellectual property (IP) ownership (especially when you are not one of the 'winners').

Design awards may have a design community support focus or a commercial publicity focus. Industry support awards usually require entering existing work. Commercial publicity awards may be based on existing work or may require the designer to fulfil a brief. Industry support awards are often annual events with the reward being the prestige and publicity rather than a prize. Awards that are primarily intended to build the strength and reputation of the profession are worthy of support. But be aware that some award processes are used for the collection of commercial ideas and to avoid the payment of professional fees.

Professional designers may choose to provide pro bono services in support of organisations and activities that have a public benefit. Check that you're not displacing an existing paid professional relationship where the organisation is able to afford the professional fees.

A paid pitch occurs when a number of designers are asked to compete for future business, or a project, based on providing a paid sample of their work. Payment may be at a set rate or as quoted by each designer. Professional designers do not provide their services at a discounted rate for the commercial gain of others. Make sure that the proposal will fully recompense you for your time. Ensure that the ownership of all IP arising from the brief is clearly defined. You should question the ability of the company to appropriately brief each designer and assess the submitted designs. Your time may be better spent on an existing client relationship.

Where free pitching is most damaging is when a business approaches a number of designers and asks them to compete for their work or a project based on providing a free design. This may be a wilful attempt to get services for free or a misguided understanding about the best way to select a designer.

Professional designers do not provide their services for free for the commercial gain of others. Customers who try this should be advised that free design solutions are likely to be badly flawed as the normal process of professional interaction between client and designer has been eliminated. If lured into a free pitch make sure that you retain all IP that results from your work and be vigilant that the organisation isn t benefiting from designs that it has not paid for.

Blatant requests for free pitching are easy to spot and avoid. It's the borderline requests for more information with tenders and quotes, the lure of fame in competitions and pseudo-awards and the not-so-poor organisations requesting pro bono work that have the best of us giving it all away.

David Robertson FDIA
National President
Design Institute of Australia

About the article

This week's Feature was first published in Artichoke (August 2006) and is reprinted with permission. Artichoke is endorsed by the Design Institute of Australia (DIA).

About DIA
The Design Institute of Australia (DIA) is a professional Member of Icograda. You can read more about their policy on free pitching online.