Karen Kratzer on spec work

A letter from the 1990s by Karen Kratzer to the editor of Communication Arts on design spec work:

“I’ve been comfortably surviving as a free-lance graphic designer for fifteen-plus years. I never fear competition, except in one situation.

Recently, I was invited to bid on, along with six other professional designers, a sizeable project for a university. The assignment was to include a 40-page brochure, a course listings booklet, a direct mail piece and a poster.

I spent two days assembling a competitive, honorable bid on time, with an explanation of my style of problem solving through the creative process, (without turning an art too badly into a science).

I was complimented on my bid, and then asked by the prospective university client, to submit a ‘quick draft’ of my ideas for the direct mail piece (remember, all of the pieces will relate). I flatly refused, but to my astonishment all six of the other designers agreed to do it. I was outraged, and I let my feelings be known.

There are two major questions I’d like to ask both guilty parties.

1. How can these designers ‘give away’ their ideas for free without loosing any self respect? What they are doing is giving away the best commodity we, as designers, have to sell. This is not being competitive, I call it cheating yourselves and all the designers around you.

2. As a school of higher education, will the teaching of business ethics only be preached and not practiced? In a way this university tried to bribe me. Give us this ‘free gift’ or you’ll lose the opportunity to be the chosen one for the job. No thanks pal, I still have my self respect.”