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Free pitching is a term used to describe the supply of design services without payment.
Free pitching may be initiated by a customer who requests the provision of free services, or it may be initiated by a designer who provides free services in the hopes of later payment.
Free pitching is condemned by professional design organisations around the world.
Free pitching undermines the value of design services and destroys the professional standing of designers.
On the client side there are many ways, both obvious and disguised, in which designers are encouraged to provide their skills for free. In general a professional designer should avoid providing their skills for free except in genuine cases of charity or in competitions where there is no intent to avoid the purchase of professional services.
On the designer side designers initiating free pitching as a marketing method is a very messy area. It is a continuum that ranges from the blatant to the apparently innocuous. It includes actions such as deliberately trying to displace existing professional relationships by providing free design, the provision of design concepts within a tender or a request for quotation, participating in a design ‘competition’ to ‘win’ a public project, and handing over brain-storming sketches at an initial client meeting to select a design consultant.
It would be a rare designer who could say that they had a completely clean slate.
A further complexity is the existence of well-established traditions such as public competitions in the field of architecture for major public works. And the agency pitches that are a media cliché in the advertising industry.
Precedents such as these make it very difficult for a professional body to establish a clear rule. The DIA's Practice Note PN008 Free Pitching and Design Competitions includes guidelines for running design competitions to avoid situations that take advantage of designers. The DIA has been successful on many occasions in having competition conditions changed to provide fairer treatment of designers.
Young designers trying to carve a niche in a market with well established players face strong temptations to free pitch. The best advice is to think clearly about the extent to which you are undermining your ability to sell your services in future dealings with the customer and the degree to which you are destroying your professional credibility. Spending the same time and resources on an existing client relationship or the broad search for clients prepared to engage you on the strength of your folio is likely to yield more certain returns.
The onus is on experienced designers to lead by example. They have the folios and commercial experience to avoid free pitching. They are more likely to be in a position to explain to a customer why they don’t provide services for free and why it is likely to result in a poor commercial outcome for the project.
The following chart has been prepared to help you visualise whether you are dealing with a free pitching issue.
View free pitching matrix (opens in a new window).
Along with many other major professional design bodies throughout the world, the DIA resolutely opposes ‘free’ pitching.
More importantly, the DIA opposes all types of pitching – for reasons that are explained here in more detail.
It is said that there are only two certainties in life, neither of them pleasant: death and taxes. Depressing as this may be, designers also have a third issue to contend with: pitching.
There is possibly no other single aspect of design that is more contentious.
Like it or not, pitching is rife within the design industry, and as competition increases, there are some individuals who feel that the only way to survive is to undercut the competition.
A pitch is commonly defined as: ‘to try to sell or promote something such as a product, personal viewpoint or potential business venture, often in an aggressive way.’ Interestingly, (for those who disapprove of pitching), pitch is also defined as: ‘to fall or stumble, especially headfirst.’
In the context of the design world, a pitch is most often a situation where a designer or design business is ‘invited’ by a potential client to deliver a design concept or strategy at little or no cost, in competition with one or more other designers.
The client then ‘assesses’ the efforts of each designer, with the ‘winner’ usually being awarded the client’s business – at least until the next pitch.
Rather than define ‘free’ pitching, the DIA believes the real problem is pitching in whatever form it takes.
Free pitching may be the most commonly used term, but it tends to distract attention from all other forms of pitching, all of which are damaging for designers and the design profession.
The DIA therefore defines pitching as:
Pitching is any practice that involves the speculative or competitive provision of design services (including concepts) for a commercial client that results in the designer receiving or charging less than their normal professional rates for work that is intended or likely to be commercially realised or in an attempt to win new business.
There are various arguments for and against pitching, with most of them being summarised as follows:
Pitching in the design world probably originated as a spin-off from the advertising industry. For better or worse, both are popularly regarded as being in the ‘creative’ domain, and therefore the methods used in the advertising industry for appointing new business were extended into design.
However this neatly overlooked the fact that traditional advertising agencies could better afford the many costs of pitching, as they made a substantial portion of their income from additional media commissions. Design studios have no likelihood of gaining media commissions and cannot afford the costs of pitching – even aside from the philosophical issues involved.
The DIA holds the view that any form of competitive pitching – paid or unpaid – is inherently flawed, and therefore by implication, unprofessional.
If designers wish to be thought of as professionals, with the economic benefits that entails, then professionalism must cover every aspect of their business and design skills, not just some of them. You can’t be half pregnant: either you are a professional or you’re not.
Some people believe that entering ‘competitions’ rather than pitches is legitimate, and in some cases it may be. But this is an area that can be notoriously open to abuse by unscrupulous organisers seeking to disguise the pitching process.
Whatever you choose to call it, any competitive design process contains a fundamental flaw that will necessarily compromise the final ‘winning’ design. As a simple matter of logic, the designs you’ll see in a pitch are designed primarily to win the pitch – not to produce the best commercial design solution for a project.
Any designer who pitches against other designers therefore, must inevitably direct a substantial part of their design energies to ‘winning’ the pitch itself.
Are you in the business of winning pitches or designing?
Professionals in other professions never pitch at all, regardless of how much they’re paid or how the pitch is structured.
Some design bodies, perhaps trying to retain some control over a practice that they regard as inevitable, have suggested ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ for those designers who feel unable to resist the pressure to pitch.
They argue that if a designer uses these guidelines, and manages to obtain their full hourly rate for all work entailed, then the process has achieved a relatively favourable outcome. The DIA does not favour this approach.
Assuming all designers in the pitch do get fully paid (an extremely unusual occurrence) it does not overcome the arguments advanced earlier about the disadvantages of any competitive design process.
Perhaps even more importantly, it is still undermining the fundamental principle that true professionals from any profession do not pitch – ever!
As a result, the DIA regards participation in any form of pitching – paid or unpaid – as unprofessional, and therefore opposes it.
The DIA does not oppose the delivery of genuine pro bono work by its members, however it is necessary to precisely define the nature of pro bono.
Pro bono is an abbreviation of the Latin pro bono publico, which means ‘for the public good’. In common usage, pro bono is usually interpreted nowadays to mean providing work or services for free.
Some professional designers may occasionally choose to provide design work or services for free on a pro bono basis. However pro bono work differs from pitching in that pro bono work should not be provided as part of a competitive process designed to win new business or extra publicity, nor on products or projects ultimately intended for commercial gain.
Designers providing any pro bono work do so entirely at their own discretion, usually for moral, ethical or philosophical reasons, and usually for non-commercial, not-for-profit organisations or deserving individuals. If competitive or commercial factors are present, then it’s not pro bono.
Design competitions are a good example of the difficult grey area surrounding the issue of pitching. The DIA definition of pitching has attempted to allow room for designers to enter genuine competitions if they really wish to do so.
However great caution should be observed to ensure that the competition is indeed genuine, and that you have not crossed the line into a cleverly disguised pitch.
The grey area surrounding competitions is that the benefit in winning them is usually all about gaining publicity, which, it could be argued, is ultimately about generating a future commercial advantage.
However much ego gratification is involved in the short term, any designer winning a competition would reasonably like to expect that the status of winning a competition might translate somewhere down the track into potential new business enquiries.
This therefore fulfils at least one of the DIA’s definitions of a potential pitch.
To determine whether you are entering a genuine competition or a cleverly disguised pitch, a professional designer should apply the various questions of commerciality outlined in the DIA definition of a pitch.
Is the winning design likely to be used in the future as a commercially realised product? Does the competition holder own any commercial rights to the winning design? Is the competition holder a commercially established concern with a record for using or manufacturing competition designs further down the track?
What is the exact nature of your ‘prize’ for winning the competition? Do you receive, or expect to receive, any payment in any form for the design work you have embarked upon? Are you competing against other designers with a history of pitching for other design work?
Ultimately, it is up to you as a professional designer to decide whether a competition is uncomfortably close to being a pitch or not, and act accordingly.
One of the major problems facing designers is that they are still often perceived as an industry rather than a profession.
Professionals from nearly every other business field – with appropriate qualifications, expertise and a suitable professional body behind them – have a public and business credibility that shields them from the necessity of demeaning activities like pitching.
Have you ever heard of a dentist offering to fix your fillings on the basis that if you like his work afterwards, you might pay for it? How about a doctor? Or an accountant? A mechanic? A plumber? Even the trades don’t do it.
Professional credibility is crucial to achieving long term financial viability for all qualified designers – but will be quickly undermined if professional designers break ranks and indulge in activities like pitching.
The proliferation of unskilled, unqualified, unprofessional ‘designers’ in an unregulated sector means that these individuals will almost certainly continue with pitching as one of the few competitive ‘advantages’ they have.
However for professional, qualified designers to fall into the trap of descending to their level and pitching when times are tough, is simply disastrous. If a designer simply gives away their expertise, or publicly seeks to undermine their colleagues, what possible reason can there be for their work to be valued in the future?
Whether you provide creative ideas, concepts, strategies, visuals, renders, thumbnail sketches, rough mockups, whether you do it ‘out of hours’ or ‘when there’s nothing else on’, whether you get your junior to do the work or not, it doesn’t matter – you’re still pitching.
All designers obviously need to constantly seek new work, and to sell their expertise to potential new clients. That’s why you have a portfolio, and client testimonials, and a website, and a capability statement, and well honed presentation skills.
That’s why you are a professional.
As such, you want to work with professional clients; like minded individuals who recognise expertise when they see it, and value it accordingly. Leave the other types of client to the other types of designer.
Why would you want to work with clients who will probably drive you crazy at every step of the process and likely end up not paying their share of the pittance they’ve screwed you down to anyway?
Surviving in a crowded design world is tough, and may yet get tougher. The key to surviving in such an environment can only be differentiation – creating a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’ in knowledge, expertise, qualifications, creativity and professionalism.
Refusing to pitch is another, key method of differentiation available to professional designers. Combined with the necessary personal qualifications and expertise, and reinforced by continuing publicity and support from professional bodies like the DIA, refusing to pitch becomes a badge of honour – a declaration of professional status.
Amateurs pitch – professionals do not, not under any circumstances. It sounds harsh, but when all is said and done, if you’re not good enough to get business without pitching, the only thing you’re really good at is discounting.
‘ “It looks good” is the worst feedback you can get.’