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We were invited to pitch on (compete for) a new project earlier this year. Over the years of running the studio, we have participated in a couple of pitches, always feeling slightly awkward with this method of working. This time the conditions were rather unreasonable; no less than seven other designers/studios had been invited, the pitch was unpaid, it came without guarantee of any of us eight would actually win the commission, and the copyright of everything presented would belong to the commissioner.
We felt that the situation was a result of an insecure relationship between commissioner and designer, rather than a result of a well thought through way of working. That the pitch-approach came from it being the expected way to work, rather than the right way to work. Instead of turning the pitch-offer down, we decided to reply with an explanation of why we can’t work under these conditions, and suggest other solutions.
We didn’t win that pitch (for obvious reason), but we believe that what we wrote could work as a foundation for discussions on the working conditions of freelancers and small studios (graphic designers and others); a conversation we think should happen more frequently and publicly. We have therefor decided to publish a (slightly modified) version of our reply here below.
If you have opinions on pitches, experiences (good or bad) or just think we are right or wrong, don’t hesitate to write a comment on Facebook or Twitter or send us an e-mail. You definitely don’t have to be a graphic designer as we are interested in hearing all kinds of voices, regardless of profession and context. We have also started a linklist with a few articles on the subject for further reading on the topic.
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[…] We guess the culture of pitching is something that has reached us via the worlds of advertising and architecture. There it is often considered a natural part of the working process; in many cases an agency has to pitch on several projects every year and even though they probably will loose most of them, once a pitch is won it comes with great margins and easily compensates the time put into previous pitches. The difference is huge compared to the kind of commissions we as graphic designers get, as our budgets and margins often are quite small. Advertising agencies often work with accounts rather than projects, and a won pitch could mean a secured income for a long time. With graphic design, our experience is that these kind of accounts are less easy to come by — with a lot of insecurity as result.
When we try and picture why one would decide to initiate a design pitch, we can see the following reasons:
- It seems difficult to commission a designer before having an idea of what the final result will be — the commissioner wants to see different directions before deciding on who to proceed with.
- The commissioner wants to make sure the commissions are divided democratically. The projects should be shared equally and many designers should have a chance to show and compete for a commission (this option is probably mainly applied on Swedish state-run institutions).
With the first reason, we find it difficult to reply with an idea of a relevant direction before we’ve had the time to completely research and engage in the project. The discussion and collaboration with the commissioner is a very important part of the process for us, and we don’t think we can do a proper and great job until we’ve completely dug into everything together. When asked to reply to a pitch, it feels like working in the dark, and the likelihood for nailing bulls eye is rather slim. The working process becomes somewhat randomized — something we have a hard time relating to. The chance of our knowledge becoming reduced to only form and taste is also bigger. We would never claim to not having certain aesthetic preferences and guidelines, but we aim to challenge and adjust our way or working to each project. The risk of us making the wrong decisions due to not knowing our commissioner and project properly is so big that we doubt it’s worth the time and energy we need to put into it.
We also believe that it is problematic giving away the part of our work we have invested most (time and money) into; the actual ideas. We would claim that what differs us as professional designers from the self-taught ones many times is critical relationship to ones work and ideas. Graphic design otherwise easily becomes just eye-candy. Our working method is built on research, analysis and development of ideas and in many projects this is where the most time is put. By giving away this work for free, we actually devalue the work we think we can contribute with, which goes against what we stand for.
When it comes to the democratic selection processes and the idea of sharing the projects, we completely support this idea — but it has to be done under the right circumstances.
As we see it, there are two possible ways of working that should result in interesting, long-term exchanges and collaborations, where neither designer nor commissioner feel exposed or mistreated.
A. Ask one designer
If a commissioner asks one design studio and initiates a collaboration from the start, the risk of misunderstanding and speculation becomes smaller and the chance of a giving, long-term exchange many times bigger. If one feels insecure on how to ask the right designer/studio, a suggestion is to add an expert to the working group. It could be a designer who previously worked on a related project, or a design teacher who based on his/her knowledge and network more easily can make a decision on who to commission.
B. Payed pitch to a small amount of designers
If one necessarily wants a few different proposals, we’d like to suggest a few guidelines:
- Ask a maximum of three designers. The chance of one winning the commission is bigger, and the chance of engagement becomes greater.
- Play with open cards. Let everyone invited know who the others are and for what reasons they have been asked to pitch.
- Pay everyone who is pitching. Better symbolic then not at all, as it is incredibly important to feel that ones work is valued, regardless of outcome.
- Guarantee that one of the invited designers wins the commission.
- Make sure the rights to the ideas belong to the designer, not the commissioner, especially in the cases of symbolic compensation.
- Invite the designers to come and talk about the pitch after it’s done, even the ones who didn’t win. We believe that many designers would then feel that they at least got something out of the situation, as we do like to talk about our work and hear about how it is perceived.
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