We all know that Spec work is bad. I've written about it here before.
There are professional organisations that have official codes of conduct on the subject. Industry campaigns continue to educate ill-advised clients, yet the more I'm in the service industry, the more I realise the 'not doing speculative work at all' is not quite as cut and dry as these organisations would have us believe. And, taken to the extreme, could be damaging for the industry and your business.
First of all, let's get grips with what 'spec(ulative)' in this context means. The AIGA believes:
...that professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients. To that end, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into client projects with full engagement to show the value of their creative endeavor, and to be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.
Quite right. But what they don't do is state what that work is. Presumably they mean design consultancy producing output, be it wireframes, user interface mockups, logos, advertising campaigns etc. What they're failing to very clearly state here is the speculative work that goes on in securing a client that is not design related.
Good client relations begin from the very first contact. At Mark Boulton Design, we probably have a similar approach to most small studios in engaging with potential clients: we spend time trying to understand them, their needs, the business and the project -- at least from a high-level perspective -- before committing to working with them. Sometimes this takes the form of a formal RFP from them and a subsequent proposal from us, but more often than not it takes place over many weeks over email, phone conversations and face to face meetings. This is before any contract has been signed. Like any relationship, we're seeing if we like each other before we commit. And just like other relationships this is speculative; you are speculating your time on a successful outcome.
You see, to my mind, some of the work we do is inherently speculative if you are charging your clients for time. Your time = your money. Every conversation you have with a perspective client spent during a project and client discovery is time you are spending.
So, when we talk about Spec Work in relation to web design, let's be specific: we're talking about speculative design work. Not all speculation is bad. In fact, some of it is unavoidable.