Recently, I talked to a couple of designers that I have worked with previously about an upcoming potential job. They told me that they wouldn’t do it “on spec” which, I have to admit, took me back a bit because I didn’t expect them to do the work for free.
In theatre, designers, in my experience, are hired based on their reputation, portfolio, and so forth. It is common for certain directors to request a certain designer based on the show and a previously existing relationship. Designers, at least professionally, are not expected to work for free. Once hired, they are expected to make the design work for the director.
Working in a commercial scene shop, some clients think of design the same way that I do – that they hire us based on reputation, relationship and portfolio, and we work together to make a design that everyone is happy about. Technically, we could do a design and not do the fabrication, though that doesn’t happen often. Also, I suppose that if a design wasn’t going well, they could pay for services to date and move on, though that doesn’t really happen either. However, there are a variety of customers, who work in other industries where they do expect us to design and/or sample and develop ideas for free. There is really quite a debate about this practice & about how it can be bad for the industry in general. It reminds me of the debate I heard when I was younger about how the theatre industry underpays in general, but especially for interns because it’s a learning experience and besides – you are doing what you love. I have to admit that my early days in theatre were in small places that economically took advantage of me, but I did gain a lot of experience. On the other hand, I have seen others take a much different career trajectory.
The other challenge with design and prototype / sample proposals is quantifying what they entail. If it is unlimited, a client could take advantage wanting endless samples, drawings, revisions, and so forth. If you price based on the assumption that something like that will happen and try to allow for time and materials, your cost will be too high. If you assume the best case scenario, but don’t put any limits into the contract then you may lose money on the work. I have some people do a time/materials proposal, but generally people want to have a final price in mind for the budget. If you do a proposal that specifies a particular process and amount of revisions etc, and allows for additional charges – it allows everything to be very clear to both parties, and minimizes risk to the artist, but I have seen clients shy away-to a certain degree once they pay for design they want it to be finalized without additional charges and have a hard time recognizing how their actions and request increase costs.
While I don’t really have answers, I think that ultimately it is about a relationship.
David Airey has a blog that talks about spec work. He also has many good resources for designers.