I’m writing this on behalf of the hard-pressed Irish creative industry. It takes the form of an appeal to our friends in the extended public sector, and can be summarised as follows:

Can you stop expecting us to work for free?

OK, a little more detail. A few weeks ago a tender document arrived on my desk from an institution I will not name. As part of any response to this tender, this institution expected to receive not one, not even two or three, but four (yes, four) concept designs for their homepage, course page and course listing.

There is so much wrong with this it is hard to know where to start. I’ll talk about the issue of quality of work later, but first let's get the big one out of the way.

The idea that a publicly-funded body is asking Irish creative agencies to do a sizable amount of work for free, just to be considered for a job, is absolutely wrong. Potential customers at home are denying us the opportunity to secure work due to the huge hurdles put in our way.

Take a moment to watch the video at the beginning of this blog - would you feel it’s okay to ask for any of these things for free? Certainly not. So why should this mindset be expected to work for an agency?

Punishing the small

We’re lucky in Kooba. We are a fast-growing Irish-owned agency. Things are good. But it is challenging at the moment and we know full well that others are struggling. For small agencies in particular, a request like this simply takes them out of the equation.

In fact, if you wanted to design a tender process guaranteed to hand the business to an overcharging international organisation like (we all know who I am talking about), you could hardly do better. So the net result is that Irish agencies who need the work are excluded, and inferior work is delivered at a vastly inflated cost to the taxpayer.

It’s worth being aware here of just how much work an agency responding to this tender is expected to put in. To create concepts properly (more below) takes at least 4-5 days. So we’re talking 15 days of work here. 15 days of work just to be considered for a contract. No small agency can submit to a process like that, and no agency should be expected to.

The fact that taxpayer-funded institutions, in Ireland, are making this request, only makes it worse.

A good way to get bad work

With that off my chest, let’s talk more about the idea of asking for concepts before any form of goals analysis or usability work has been done. As you might expect, I think this is a very bad idea indeed. It really shouldn’t need to be explained, but for the benefit of procurement departments:

Web design isn’t about making something that looks pretty. It is about creating visual and interactive design that does a particular job.

When you ask an agency to create a concept without having done the initial work around needs analysis, UX design, workflows and so on, you are literally asking for them to design in the dark.

Worse again, when you turn that process into a beauty contest, you are almost bound to get a lot of visually impressive work that has been created in order to win that contest, rather than to solve the actual problem at hand.

And even worse again, you can guarantee someone is going to see one of these concepts, utter the dreaded words “I like that”, and hey presto: you have just chosen your new homepage design.

You are going to end up with a site that doesn’t do the job you need it to do, and you designed a process that almost inevitably gives you that result. Congratulations.

Here’s what to do instead:

  • Ask an agency how they would do job, not what the finished product will look like
  • If the quality of their design work is important, look at their previous work. Web design has the wonderful advantage of being accessible to all at the click of a button.
  • If you want to know what an agency is like to work with, ask to speak to their clients (or find out who they are and approach them directly)

There’s absolutely nothing hard about it. In fact choosing an agency with confidence has never been easier.

Just don’t ask them to work for free.

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