Sarah Boris is an award winning graphic designer and art director based in London, where since 2015 she has run her eponymous design studio. Some of her past and current clients include the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), The Photographers’ Gallery, the Barbican Centre, as well as numerous established and emerging artists. Before opening her own studio, she worked as the associate art director at Phaidon Press. She’s an outspoken proponent of fair pay for designers, a topic she also incorporates into her teaching at various institutions. We asked her to talk about why her studio refuses to participate in free pitching for client projects, how she responds to those requests, and what she advises others to do when they are put in a similar position.
I’ve had several experiences in the last four years, since setting up my own studio, where I have been asked to pitch ideas for a project before being commissioned. I would say that for about one in four projects, I get asked to pitch for free. If we as an industry allow this, people will exploit these loopholes and ask for free work at every opportunity.
Most clients that ask for free visual output, ideas, and a response to a brief have actually been told by another organization that it’s okay to do this, which is part of the problem. I feel we need to educate these clients and guide them through the best practices in appointing a studio or designer. If clients are unsure about how to commission us, we need to supply them with guidance and open up the conversation around this.
“For about one in four projects, I get asked to pitch for free.”
When I used to work as an art director for a publisher, we commissioned design studios all the time, and we never asked them to pitch. Rather, we would get together a shortlist of studios we liked and felt were good for the project. We would hold a meeting where we all sat down and looked at their work, discussed the options and the task at hand, and picked one. Then we would go out to them, have an initial conversation about the project, and talk through the brief.
When clients come to me asking for a pitch, I first have a discussion with them and try to talk them out of running a pitch. Pitching can be a costly and lengthy process for them. Often clients have neither budgeted to pay any of the studios for a pitch nor accounted for the time it will take them to look after several proposals, and will quickly realize that:
- They should pay everyone for their time.
- They don’t actually have the budget to pay more than one agency to do a proposal.
- They should consider appointing the studio without running a pitch, based on past work.
Occasionally, I compare the design industry with other industries when explaining why a client should pay for pitches. I usually favor plumbers as an example. I have had to call one several times in the last year, and every single time, regardless of whether or not they find and fix the problem, I have to pay them for their time.
“It’s important we unite as an industry and stop doing unpaid work.”
Recently, I talked to a prospective client who I had met with twice already and who expected a free pitch after shortlisting my studio among six others. I explained it this way: It’s as if I asked six contractors to each build the foundations for a house (for free) and chose which one to work with after they had all done the foundations/ground work. If you still wish to run a pitch, I would recommend you look at paying each selected agency a fair fee for their time.
Here is another good comparison, tweeted by Michael C Place: “When was the last time you went into a restaurant and said ‘I’d like to try your starter for free, and if I like it I’ll possibly have the main and desert?’”
Just as clients need to be better informed, students also need to be taught how to respond to an unpaid pitch request in order to defend the value of their work. I recently gave a talk on saying no to free pitches at a London university. I didn’t have any courses on this when I was at university and mostly learned how to deal with it through speaking with other designers and studio directors. People don’t tend to talk so openly about these things, yet designers are starting to speak out about it. I feel it’s really important we unite as an industry and stop doing unpaid work.
When I speak to students or designers just starting out, I advise them to bill for their time and any visual output commissioned by the client and be clear on costs at the outset. In a talk I gave on this topic at the end of last year, I gave tips to students on how to identify a request for free work and how to respond to it. I told them that everything is negotiable and up for discussion, so if it’s not a straight-forward brief and commission, we can transform it into one by educating, informing, and talking with the client.
For designers who may feel uncomfortable responding to potential clients, Boris also recommends referring to resources by authoritative bodies. Here are some resources to get you started: