In website design, speculative work stems from the idea of the designer as an artist. The idea that each designer has an identifiable style. The idea that the designer approaches each project with the main aim of creating something new, as opposed to building on what has worked well in the past. Also the belief that a designer makes things pleasing to the eye and is not concerned with how they work, how they feel or what behaviour they inspire.
Some designers may like the idea of being an artist, of creating art, because the idea of art is somehow grander than the idea of being a craftsman. But when I need a chair, I need something that keeps my arse off the floor, I don’t want your re-interpretation of what it means to be elevated by four legs. Granted some people may make a better chair, a better-looking chair even, but you can easily distinguish those people by looking at the chairs they’ve made before. I don’t want an exploration of the idea of a chair, I want a solution to the problem of sitting at my desk.
A designer solves problems. And the problem is not “what’s the cutest shade of pink?” or “how big should I make my logo?”. For the average designer, these problems are practical and straightforward. How do I sell more widgets? How do I get more blog subscribers? But for the really great designers, the problems are deeper and more emotional. How do I make someone laugh? How do I create trust? How do I make a screen full of words and colours and shapes feel intimate?
Spec work doesn’t answer problems. It can’t. It doesn’t know you or your customers. It’s an explosion of colours and funky typefaces and drop shadows and gradients. It says: look at how many Photoshop tutorials I’ve read!
The convenience of spec work to the client is twofold. First of all, they know that the designer can produce work of a certain standard. But that’s what portfolios are for. Secondly, it gives them the illusion that they are choosing the best designer. They are deathly afraid of making a mistake, of being lumbered with work that doesn’t fit their needs and that makes them look out of touch, or dated, or boring.
And yet, that is exactly what they will avoid if they engage a designer in an ongoing process of collaboration. The design becomes an iterative, evolving masterwork and not a one-off afternoon’s doodling.
The benefit to the designer is that there is a chance that they will get paid. After all, someone has to get the job don’t they? This is the same thinking that gets people to play the lottery twice a week. Even if the odds of winning are higher than spontaneously bursting into flames, there is always a winner so why not me? And the more often I take part, the greater my chances right? Except none of these assumptions is true. And the only definite outcome is that the idea of design will be cheapened and misconstrued, not only to clients but to up and coming designers.