From frustration to action: The fight to end free pitching in design

Can speculative work be eradicated? We asked Porto Rocha and other designers who have previously spoken out against this practice.

readymag blog: The fight to end free pitching in design

In January 2024, New York-based agency Porto Rocha published a manifesto titled “No Free Pitches” and launched a corresponding online petition. Since then, more than 6,000 designers and other creative professionals from over 100 countries have signed it. This highlights the urgency and painfulness of the issue of spec work and the exploitation by companies in a highly competitive design market.

Historic, yet very current

Porto Rocha isn’t the first to address this issue. The problem has been discussed since at least the 1990s, with figures like Debbie Millman and Erik Spiekermann speaking out against it. Many design organizations, such as AIGA, have official positions on speculative work. The paradox is that the long history of the issue shows that speculative work has never been eradicated. Moreover, according to Felipe Rocha, co-founder of Porto Rocha, the issue has become even more relevant. In 2023, the agency participated in several unpaid or low-paying pitches that it would have previously turned down, citing reasons such as a “slower” year for business, the potential impact of the projects, and prior “chemistry” with the client.

“We put a lot of work and resources into these presentations, but it didn’t pay off,” Rocha said. When the agency shared its frustration on Twitter, it received a strong response from industry colleagues. This led to the idea of a petition, which, unlike previous initiatives often expressed in articles and blog columns, serves as a more collective and active expression of the professional community’s opinion.

The initiative’s success was mainly expressed through its massiveness and quantifiability—6,000 voices are certainly louder than one, even if that voice is very influential. However, Porto Rocha noted another level of feedback they received: personal messages from creative professionals. These messages shared how the petition sparked discussions at their workplaces and made them feel less alone in their frustration. “We even had one person reach out asking if they could use the No Free Pitches website design as the base for their own petition,” Rocha said.


This is just a small fraction of creatives who signed the Porto Rocha petition

Voices of advocacy

David Airey, author of the logo for No!Spec, has been vocal about the problem of speculative work since the mid-2000s. His interest in the issue also stemmed from personal practice. When he switched to freelancing, he discovered that in design, more than in other professions, potential clients often ask for ideas to understand how he’ll approach a task, or will promise to pay for further work after a one-time free collaboration. In 2009, he even interviewed members of SpecWatch, an anonymous organization that tracks design contest sites and catalogs the most exploitative ones. However, SpecWatch is no longer active: the organization’s most recent Twitter activity dates back to 2014.

Now, according to Airey, such requests have become less common, though it’s unclear whether this is a general trend or the result of his activism.

“What I do know from sharing my take across various websites is that a lot of designers think similarly, and the more of us that do, the fewer clients will expect free pitches.”—David Airey

Dav Tabeshfar, Partner and Creative Director at &Partners, supports ditching unpaid pitches and has written about this topic. He believes that the unequal position between clients and creative professionals, and the practice of giving away creativity for free, devalues the design profession. “I know we’ve been left off pitch lists by clients who want free creative, and that’s fine,” Dav admits. He explains his calmness by noting that it is generally harder to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with such clients, as they tend to be “less principled and more parasitic in nature”. Additionally, there is a positive effect from publicizing this stance—clients who accept it do not come asking for free work.

Another champion of fair pay for creative work is Sarah Boris, whose column “The Design Industry Needs to Take a Stand Against Free Pitching” was published by AIGA in 2019. In it, she writes that in about one out of four cases, she was being asked to pitch her ideas for free, and she suggests that the entire industry should join forces to eliminate unpaid pitching. Interestingly, not all of these requests stem from client greed: for example, one came from a “lovely arts organization” preparing an exhibition on women’s rights. The irony was that they sent this request to several women-led studios, asking them to work for free.

However, the story has a happy ending. After Sarah suggested alternative approaches for selecting a studio, or the option of multiple studios working together, the organization canceled the free pitch and admitted that an outside consultant had suggested it. “Sometimes, through lack of resources and experience, clients won’t know any better and will think it’s okay to ask for ‘free work/free ideas.’ It seems bewildering, but by speaking with a few clients, I realized that it’s a genuine gap,” she said.

Sarah’s case is inspiring because she hasn’t received an offer to work for free since the column was published. She’s spoken on the topic at several conferences, and her text has been picked up by design universities and used by other designers as educational material for potential clients. Her articulate stance has helped strengthen her personal situation and spread knowledge to others—a win-win. However, as the thousands of signatures on the Porto Rocha petition make clear, the problem hasn’t been eradicated entirely.

So…what can be done?

Porto Rocha recognizes that not everyone can afford to give up all free pitches at once; a lot depends on reputation and the market you’re working in. An employee at Edenspiekermann discussed this in 2016, noting that when the agency opened an office in Los Angeles—a new US market—they had to loosen their strict no-pitch policy despite their fame and status in Europe​​. Felipe Rocha believes that the most meaningful action to disrupt this practice is for individuals to refuse to work for free, or by spreading the word about the petition and bringing it up at work.

Sarah Boris shares a similar opinion. “If we all unite and adhere to not pitching for free, clients will stop asking for free pitches,” she says. She also emphasizes the importance of constant and consistent education on the subject, both academically (in design universities and courses) and more broadly (through articles and columns in media and blogs). Raising the topic with clients demanding free pitches can also be effective. Sarah’s experience shows that simply explaining and offering alternatives can often change the client’s position. She remains optimistic.

“We have a long way to go to make the industry a healthier place to work in, but I’m hopeful that through collective action we can make it a lot better.”—Sarah Boris

David Airey supports the education thesis as well, emphasizing that ideas shouldn't be given away for free if a design business is to succeed. He also notes that pro bono work is acceptable if it helps build a portfolio: the designer gives up the fee, and the client gives up the right to request changes. It's good for both sides.

Dav Tabeshfar has a mixed opinion on this—he thinks the vicious cycle can be broken, but only with smarter and more principled customers. Dav notes that good marketers know long-term relationships built on mutual respect are more fruitful. Interestingly, these same clients often tend to trust creative professionals more and choose more interesting work from a design perspective. “The people who are consistently looking for free design or creative concepts tend to be the kind of clients who massively overestimate their own aesthetic or creative capabilities,” Dev explains, attributing this to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Such clients are almost impossible to change their minds.

Porto Rochas playbook

Design organizations such as AIGA, the International Council of Design (ico-D), the Design Institute of Australia, and many others have clear positions on spec work, including free pitching. They consistently state that designers shouldn’t engage in speculative work that devalues their profession, and should negotiate fair prices for their work in advance, with possible exceptions for pro bono cases. These professional organizations set standards that their members must follow, but they don’t encompass all designers and creative professionals worldwide.

In light of this, Porto Rocha offers a set of recommendations for both clients and designers when it comes to pitching:

  • More transparency. Clients should be open about their budget, how many agencies are part of the process, and the specific evaluation criteria that will be applied to everyone.
  • More engagement from clients. Clients should ask questions, share all relevant information to guide a successful outcome, and be willing to provide feedback if an agency isn’t selected. Feedback after a pitch is the bare minimum when agencies put so much work and energy into a prospective project. Even if the pitch isn’t successful, knowing why is important.
  • Fairer compensation. Designers’ work and time are valuable and should be well compensated, especially when pitching to large global companies.