The Biondo Group has a lot of design experience under its belt. We’ve got a good reputation, earned over time. We are regularly invited to take part in processes and “contests” to get new client work.

Clients have choices of design and marketing resources. As with a 50 page menu in a restaurant there is a downside to having too many choices.

If you’ve ever placed a help wanted ad in Craig’s List, you’ll know what we mean by “too much”.

With all these choices, we don’t envy the client’s job of looking for a design firm to partner with. It’s mind numbing to filter through website after website and locate the diamond. At the end of this activity the client team selects a number of firms based on specific criteria and issues an RFI.

If the selected firms cross the first hurdle, an RFP is issued next. RFP’s for the most part are fill in the blank .xls sheets that have the personality of a brick. We’d not want to have to rely on these documents to help select the creative firm driving design work.

The Biondo Group recently participated in a RFP contest that had speculative work baked into its process. The prospective client was enterprise size, domestic and the project smack dab in the center of the Biondo Groups sweet spot: food packaging.

The project was a perfect fit and the timing couldn’t have been better.

The nature of this opportunity required we conduct an extensive speculative concept exploration, what we call a Phase 1 Design Exploration. Surprisingly the terms dictated that even if we were not selected, the Client would own all the work we’d have produced for free. In the event the client found favor with one of the concept’s we’d developed, they’d be able to finish our work independently.

In the event we were assigned this project, we’d be starting development at what we call Phase 2- Design Refinements. We would not have the opportunity to re-do or get paid for a Phase 1 Concept Exploration. Finally, there was no guarantee that the firm awarded the project would get “all” the work. There would be no “design firm of record” opportunity.

What to do? Do we agree to the terms and produce the work for free in the hopes we’ll get the larger body of (paying work). Amortizing the upfront investment in spec work is the pivot for the green/red light call. We know based on experience that it rarely works out that we’re made whole for the investment in up front spec work. We can’t afford to fool ourselves, nor can we work for free, so we took a pass.

Bowing out is a heart breaker, it makes us unhappy. We are about doing work, not turning it away.

But we understand what is driving the Clients request for spec work. How does a Client know if a firm can meet the challenge if they don’t see the work? They don’t want to gamble that a firm can deliver the goods, so they ask for spec work. But since so many firms refuse to enter spec work arrangements, at the outset, the Client is not getting a full cross section of firms to compare.

Most busy, successful firms have clear no spec work policies; rarely do they have the time or team to dedicate to speculative work.

But there is a better way for a Client to select a packaging design firm partner. Do the online research necessary to identify the firms that fit the challenge. These criteria should include: category familiarity, design aesthetic, workstyle and culture. Geography might play a part of the decision; so only include firms that are in the geo area you are considering.

Select 6 qualified firms, schedule (15-30min tops) Skype calls/Webex virtual meetings. Get face time with the teams you’d be working with. Have an agenda for these calls, make them count.

After reviewing portfolios and meeting the various design firm teams you will, have a sense of who you’d like to work with.

At this point the field of contenders should down to no more than two qualified firms. If there are more firms in your set, find criteria that allows you to trim. Focusing your efforts is important. We’d suggest a second in-person (or Skype/Webex) meeting. This 2nd call is for discussing the project with the two contender firms. After this call, make your selection and deliver the news to both firms within a week.

There are alternatives to this process that pull design work into the process. Maybe ask the two contender firms to conduct a “paid for” design exploration. After a review meeting, one firm would carry on with the work they’d started. There are other creative ways of managing the selection process, that we’d be happy to share.

If you respect a design firms time, talent, experience, commitment and process; you will be well on your way to enjoying an important, productive, win-win working relationship.

To continue the conversation and learn more about the criteria that you might want to consider in selecting a design firm, please contact us at:

To view an amusing video on the subject of Speculative Work click below: