Why we work the way we do, Part 4: Spec work

Firstly, it’s important to answer the question “what is spec work?”

Spec work, also known as free pitching, is where, to create ‘goodwill’ and for no upfront remuneration, designers produce ideas and mock up projects to show a client, or potential clients what their logo, brochure etc might look like if they went with that designer.

no spec logo
You can find out more about spec work by going to http://www.nospec.com/

We don’t do spec work.

You may wonder why? Well, we’re a business based on our ideas. As an example, some years ago when we were just starting out in West London, and against our better judgement, we came up with some ideas on spec for a potential new wine merchant client who seemed very keen to engage our services. We duly produced the designs according to his wishes, at which point, he stopped returning our calls and emails. Imagine our (lack of) surprise, when several months later, we were leafleted by that very same company—and their logo was exactly the same as the one we had designed. It had the same typeface, colours and even logomark. Exactly the same.

Basically, this chap had taken our designs (the ideas are our business—they are our intellectual property and the basis on which we trade) and asked another designer to artwork them (the easy bit). Now, some of you will be thinking ‘but that’s intellectual property theft, you should be able to sue’. Well, in theory, yes we can. If we can spare the time and legal fees, that is. So we, like so many, let it drop. He won. He got his designs for free – although by not listening to our advice, he also wasted lots of money by leafleting a predominantly non-alcohol drinking area.

So, we don’t do spec work. Oh, we’ve been asked a lot, usually along the lines of ‘how will I know if I like what you’ve done until I see it?’

Our answer to that is that we kind of expect you to have done your due diligence in choosing a designer. You wouldn’t choose a builder by randomly picking a name out of a telephone directory, and choosing a designer should have at least as much care and attention paid to it. Look at the work on our website, talk to people who know us and our work, and give us a call and chat to us. If you decide to proceed in using us, then you can be confident that we will do our utmost to provide you with the best solution to your particular design problem. We’re not selling high print run postcards that you can choose on impulse; we’re presenting your business brand. You have to pay an architect to draw up plans for you and that is a cost people accept up front. It’s no different with a designer. When you employ a designer, you’re not only paying for their time in working on your project, you’re also paying for their expertise and years of experience. It’s only partly about what we actually do or the time it takes, it’s much more about what we know. After all, that’s what allows us to ‘just design’ a solution that works for our clients in a much shorter time than they could manage themselves.

Besides, if you’ve seen a variety of our work and like it, or someone has recommended us, why wouldn’t we equally be able to produce something that you love for you? By negotiating a contract (clients are entitled to query contracts/ask for amendments if they so wish), signing it off and agreeing to pay us for our ideas, you’re valuing what we do and entering into a viable and hopefully long-term working relationship with us. The people who work with us most happily are the ones who appreciate the value of ideas. With a good brief and clear communication, everyone should be able to reach a happy conclusion in sensible timescales.

Of course, some people don’t like to engage a designer this way, but that is their choice. And ours.

There’s a very good talk to a group of designers by Mike Monteiro that you can watch here if you don’t mind some strong language and a bit of talk about legal stuff.

Why we work the way we do, Part 3: Sign off

What do we mean by ‘sign off’?

Well, when we work on something, we need to know that our clients are completely happy, or preferably delighted, with everything we’ve done. Their signature means we have their confirmation that they are ok for the world to see the work we’ve done; without it, the job’s just not finished. That includes the content as well as the design. We also need to know that a job bag and the final admin and invoicing associated with a project can be tidied up and closed down.

More importantly, it’s part of handing title of the artwork or website from us to our clients. This is the more serious reason too: Imagine we were working on a job for you that involved the printing of £10,000 worth of glossy brochures. And there was a typo inside – or worse, on the cover. It’s often the titles and headings that are most mistake-laden because everyone concentrates on the body text.

At this point, the question of who owns the title on a project becomes critical because the printer will expect to be paid regardless. He’s done nothing wrong, so there’s no reason not to pay him. If we have sent those brochures to print without your permission to do so (sign off), we’re responsible, so we have to pay him. If you’ve agreed that the job is good to go and signed it off, unfortunately, because it’s part of our terms and conditions, you’re still liable. That is why we ask everyone to check everything ever so carefully and only sign off when they are completely happy. If proofreading isn’t your bag, then please, please, please ask us or someone you know to proofread it. You’ll still be responsible at sign off, but you’ll be more comfortable with your signature on the paperwork.

We posted on our Facebook page an extreme example of nobody checking anything on an advert a couple of weeks ago and would like to state for the record, that we would NEVER allow such a poor piece to leave our desks. BUT, if the client had been ours and we had had sign off, we could have done so without any comeback (apart from a huge dent in our professional reputation and pride).

You may think it doesn’t happen, but we’ve seen many sets of Annual Reports and Accounts with an Erratum page. It’s pretty common to see spelling and grammar mistakes in websites, emails and documents these days. One of our favourites was a well known stationery company that appeared to be selling inanimate (stationary) objects. We’ve even picked up on a typo on a product label from one of the country’s most well-known consumer brands. That was probably in a batch of 30,000 or more and the consumer helpline was unaware of how long their proofreading fail had been on their bottles…

Our last blog post on deadlines relates to this. Often, mistakes are missed because there just isn’t time for another round of proofreading. Fresh eyes are necessary and the more time between the last two final checks, the better. If you are able to get a proof from the printer, then that’s even better…

So, when scheduling a job, please do make sure there’s enough time for enough people to look at the artwork properly and only sign it off when you are certain you are all happy there are no mistakes. We hate our clients to be unhappy and losing that sort of money is a surefire way of heading that way…

Why we work the way we do. Part 2: Deadlines

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. Douglas Adams
English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

Ah, the deadline… love it, or loathe it, we all need deadlines from time to time. Unless you’re a designer of course, in which case you need them ALL the time…

Some of the more laid back might say that they’re a little bit arbitrary anyway – but where would we be without them? Let’s be honest, would anyone actually finish anything if they didn’t have someone waiting for it? Think Sagrada Familia – 133 years and counting… Ok, that’s a bit of an extreme example, but you get the picture (with scaffolding)…

So, why do we have them?

Well, everyone likes to know where they stand and deadlines are a good measure of progress. A client quite rightly is paying for a service and they want to know they will get what they’ve paid for. For bigger jobs like websites, deadlines are equally as helpful to a designer though, because they help with scheduling. Reflection, review and sign off times make it possible to quickly turn around other clients’ small urgent jobs during the natural pauses in a larger project – but only if everyone knows what to expect and when.

How can a client be truly delighted with their website, book or branding if it wasn’t even ready for the launch party?

Now, there aren’t many environments that are immune to slippage, so scheduling ‘wiggle room’ is crucial. Before a contract is even drafted, it’s good to look at when the finished article needs to be ready by – and work backwards. If this timescale just isn’t going to be possible, the client has three main choices: revise spec, push back launch date or find another designer. Where possible, compromise is a good friend here.

What are the main causes of slipped deadlines?

In our experience, there are a few main reasons why things don’t always go to plan:

  • delays in starting due to late signing off of previous projects
  • lack of clarity/communication around brief
  • delays in signing of contract/deposit payments
  • non receipt of content
  • Scope creep
  • misinterpretation of brief
  • unexpected absence (client or designer)
  • major change of specification or additional/new client project team members
  • unavailability of clients to review progress at key stages or sign them off (see first bullet above)

Usually, the quickest way to keep a project on target is to speak openly at the start. It’s no use a client being so in awe* (*scared) of the ‘creative’ that they don’t ask for clarification of a concept they are struggling to grasp. We’ve said many times before that a design job is only as great as the confusion it doesn’t cause – to the end user or to the integrity of their brand. Other things that can help:

  • designers: cut the jargon and observe clients’ non-verbal communication signs
  • clients: say what you think (nicely please!)
  • if you say you’re going to do something by Friday, do it – clients too! (there we go with deadlines again!)
  • spend plenty of time working out the remit of a job at the beginning; it saves time in the long run
  • clients: make sure all your colleagues who need a say are included as early on as possible, especially if they have the right to veto your project. Saying ‘but we’re too far along the line’ does not always work…
  • restrict who has admin rights to websites and keep backups (oh yes…)
  • designers: prepare a comprehensive questionnaire covering every possible aspect of a job – it’s easier to skip a question than to remember something important when in discussion
  • sharing of likes, dislikes and snippets of a desired look and feel, however trivial it may seem, speeds things up – as will notifications of holidays and business trips
  • scheduling regular review meetings/chats/calls to keep everyone on the same page means any difference of perspective can be rectified quickly

If everyone knows what is wanted/expected from the outset, key dates can be factored into a realistic schedule. When that happens and everyone sticks to it (barring any unforeseeable circumstances), it should be possible to deliver an end result that exceeds a client’s expectations: more jam for tea!

Why we work the way we do. Part 1: Contracts

Some of our clients are still surprised when we follow a few ‘formalities’ around projects. By formalities, we mean things like estimates, contracts, agreed timescales and sign off sheets.

We’re a relatively informal and flexible team and we like to make sure that our clients are delighted with everything we do, which is why we have these processes in place. It means we all know where we stand and we can all relax within the agreed remit of a job. In this post, we focus on contracts and why we always work with them.

Why do I need a contract?

Well, if you were to ask us to create a small leaflet for you, it’s reasonably simple: you ask us to quote; you agree our price and give us your brief and deadline; we work on it; you approve it; we send the artwork to you or to a printer and then we send an invoice for the work completed. This seems reasonably fair and straightforward.

But you’d be surprised at the number of times we’ve been asked to create 3 designs (often in several colour schemes or formats) on the basis of “if I like one of them, I’ll go with it”. This is called ‘spec work’. Helpful as we like to be, we do have to say no for a few reasons: the biggest reason is that back in the early days when we wanted to build goodwill, we came up with some new branding designs for a potential client, only to find he went to another agency with ‘his’ ideas and just asked them to artwork them. We had spent a long time researching and coming up with those ideas, and then artworking them for presentation to the client. In order for us not to be caught out like that again, our ideas have to remain our intellectual property until paid for in full or licensed for a fixed term. That’s part of the terms and conditions of most designers’ contracts and we’re no different.

We know some people might think it sounds a bit off, but would you expect to ask a solicitor for advice and not pay (even if you didn’t like the advice)? We like to work in partnership with clients so that we come up with an end result that they’re over the moon with. They are able to specify timescales and add in other clauses that matter to them too.

Likewise, when it comes to building a website, where our time involved can be much greater (1-2 months typically), we can’t really be expected to develop a site on spec. That’s why we never start work until we have a contract signed by both parties. We also ask for additional commitment from our clients in the form of a first installment towards the final invoice on signing of contract and an interim payment when the design and structure is agreed.

Again, some might think that it shows we’re not very trusting, but in actual fact, if we turn down other work for 2 months while we complete a massive project, not only does it affect our immediate cashflow, but if our client were to decide for whatever reason not to pay that single invoice, we are in a bit of a deep rut. And we get a bit grumpy when we’re hungry!

What our contract tends to mean is that everyone knows where they stand, costs are spread and we work with people who value our expertise and commitment. We feel valued, our clients feel listened to and there’s jam for tea.

What was that paper size again?

An illustration of the A series of paper sizes
The most common sizes of paper in Europe

Most of the time, when we do a print job, we work out the specifications based on the size of the finished job (A4, A3, A6 etc.). The reason for this is that paper is measured in standard sizes so everyone in the production process will know what they are working towards. When using, say an A5 reference, the printer knows to order the exact amount of paper to run a job without creating too much waste. Of course, you can have any sized job you like, but you may end up paying more for it.

How does this affect me?

Well, the vast majority of all printed materials are produced in one of the sizes above. The sheets of paper that run through the presses are in these proportions, so using a standard size minimises waste and makes it easier for a printer to plan the jobs on the press. This keeps the cost down and is much better for the environment too.

What can I do in future?

If you ask us to work on a print job for you, we can chat through your options and help you plan the job most effectively. We’ll also take into account things you may not have thought of, such as whether you want to keep your materials smaller than the ‘large letter’ format to save on postage, and best types of paper stock for the particular project you want to do.

An illustration of common envelope sizes
Common envelope sizes

What’s the difference between vector and raster images?

There are two ways of creating images on a computer, vector and raster, and there’s a knack to knowing the difference.

A Raster image of a butterfly
A raster image of the butterfly. In the zoom circle, you can see that the image is made up of square ‘dots’ called pixels

Continuous tone images like photographs are usually raster. Images with large areas of ‘flat’ colour or those created using mathematical equations to define the image are more likely to be vector. Fonts on a computer are also made from vectors.

A vector image of a butterfly
This is a vector image of a butterfly. You can see how the image is made in the zoom circle underneath. The red line is called the path, and the control handles—which control the curve of the path—are also visible.

How does this affect me?

Most of the time, you won’t need to know if an image is vector or raster, but occasionally it can be helpful to know. If you have an image like a logo that needs to be used at a range of different sizes, from say small on a business card, to enormous on a building’s signage, vector formats are best. This is because they can be scaled up or down without losing any definition. Photographic images really don’t look great as vector images though.

What can I do in future?

If we’re creating or sourcing the images for you, you shouldn’t need to worry. If however, you need to supply us with an image, say your logo or a photo for an ad, you will need to know what to send us. We’re always happy to help, so if you’re unsure, please feel free to give us a call and chat it through.

Why do I need a Brand/Corporate Identity?

What is a Corporate Identity?

Branding and Corporate Identity (CI) are terms you hear bandied about a lot, but what exactly do they mean? Basically, they refer to the image or persona that an organisation wants to portray to the world. Your brand or logo is a very important component of how you are perceived, but CI is really the face and reputation that you want to present to the world. Whilst they need to blend together, CI covers more than just the logo. It does not mean though that everything you have on show in your office or workshop needs to have your logo on it. You may choose a different colour scheme for your lobby next time you redecorate, perhaps though: a pale blue identity probably wouldn’t sit well with a bright red reception desk, for instance.

How does this affect me?

Corporate Identity/branding is something every business needs to think about, whether large or small. Making sure that you have a consistent and memorable brand is increasingly important in today’s business culture – your identity is the first point of contact between you and your customers and it defines your integrity. Just think how many times a day you use your phone to surf the net – and how frustrated you get when the site doesn’t work or takes an age to load? Or how you feel when a customer complains about bad customer service they have received from your staff? Or when someone hands you a screwed up leaflet to promote their business that is in a different style to the business card they gave you at the same time? These are all examples of reputation damage; potential customers might think “if they aren’t worried about that, what else aren’t they worried about?”

Where do I go from here?

If you’re finding the thought of this all a bit overwhelming, don’t worry you’re not alone! Most businesses need at least a mobile phone friendly website, letterhead/email template and business cards, so if you haven’t got them, it probably is something you should at least start thinking about. Although you will need to invest a little, with careful planning and the right design partner and printer, you can make your budget go further than you might think – and should bring you a return on your investment.

Thinking out loud with someone you trust is a good first step. Most agencies are happy to meet for a chat to see where you’re at and if they can help. Not all agencies suit all clients, so this is a good way to see if you think you can work together. It helps everyone if you have a bit of an idea of the image you want to portray, what you think you need, what you don’t like and when you want it all by. Of course, you also need to have an idea of how much you are willing to spend; remember, digital print makes smaller print runs economically viable and not everyone needs a content management system (CMS) website. We’ll be blogging about budgets and the different types of website soon, so come back for some more pointers.

An extreme example of managers not keeping an eye on how their identity was represented: Facebook

About a month ago, we posted this Ben Barry blogpost on our Facebook page. We thought you might like to read it here because it’s a good example:

“Facebook’s own internal (salaried) team didn’t keep an eye on how their logo, branding and other icons were being used and doctored during a time of furious exponential growth.”

This article shows a fantastic (and quite extreme) example of how much work is involved to bring everything back into line if you don’t keep those checks as you go along. Brand guidelines are issued for a reason! Thankfully, few companies would have such a large net to reel in…

Be warned, this is a long methodical case study, but it does have lots of illustrations and is well worth a read if you run a company of any size.

http://officeofbenbarry.com/see/facebook-visual-identity

Seeing this selfie toaster just reminded me of a conversation at 10 am this morning…

selfietoaster

“I’m hungry. Were you making breakfast earlier?”

“Yeah [pause] about 7am.”

“Oh…”

The selfie toaster