Isn’t there a better way to buy design?

Growing numbers of designers are refusing to pitch for work. Not just unpaid pitches, any pitch at all. Pitching, they say, is bad for designers, bad for clients and produces bad work. They have a point

Growing numbers of designers are refusing to pitch for work. Not just unpaid pitches, any pitch at all. Pitching, they say, is bad for designers, bad for clients and produces bad work. They have a point

On Saturday I chaired a Q&A session with Stefan Sagmeister at the Cheltenham Design Festival. During our discussion, he revealed that his studio never pitches for work. ‘That’s all very well for a big name like Stefan Sagmeister’, you might think, ‘what about the rest of us?’ But Sagmeister revealed that refusing to pitch for work is becoming more and more common in the US. And there are sound reasons for doing so.

Sagmeister’s argument, and one that is shared by many, is that the pitch process is bad for designers, clients and the work. The work that usually ends up winning, he says, is not necessarily the best solution for the client but the best response to the brief in the pitch. Such briefs typically ask work to respond to a list of criteria: an identity must be ‘dynamic’, say, or reference ‘diversity’. So the respondents engage in a box-ticking exercise to address these criteria and the winner is the one that does it best.

Sagmeister cited the example of his studio’s Casa da Musica identity (above), which was the result of a direct commission. If it had come through a pitch, he said, he would never have been able to spend time with the client and fully understand the project and the resultant work would have been very different.

And then there is the problem of the pitch team versus the team that actually does the work. Larger design consultancies often put their best people on pitch teams, but when the actual work gets done, it’s not the A team but the B team that the client finds themselves dealing with. The A team are off pitching for more work. All this pitching is very expensive, meaning that a consultancy’s existing clients end up subsidising its search for new ones.

Given the choice, no doubt all designers would happily give up the tiresome and dispiriting business of pitching, even when they get paid for it, but what’s the alternative? An article by Blair Enns (who also wrote The Win Without Pitching Manifesto) for the AIGA website suggests a combination of ‘phased engagements’, opt-out clauses, money-back guarantees and case studies.

Clients can be re-assured, it says by offering them an alternative to total commitment in the first stage of a project. Instead, agree to carry out an initial phase (say, research) for a proportion of the total budget: after this, the client can opt out of any further engagement. You might even offer a money-back guarantee, it suggests somewhat optimistically.

Finally, the piece argues, you need to show how you work and how that process has delivered for clients in the past. “Take your defined process (that four or five step model on your website with the interlocking circles and the steps that all start with the same letter – usually ‘D’) and frame your case studies around it. When you show three different case studies that all use the same approach to problem solving the client will infer that little variability in process equals little variability in outcomes.”

But this article was written in 2005: designers complaining about and seeking relief from pitching, especially free pitching, is probably as old as design itself. And of course not all work comes in this way. But what is new is that buying design via competitions has become much more of an issue thanks to sites such as In order for designers to prove their worth in the face of this potentially hugely disruptive new model, perhaps the only way is to avoid contest-based mechanisms of acquiring work altogether.

Could there ever be a future where designers can ditch the pitch for good or is that just hopelessly wishful thinking?

Have any readers employed methods similar to those proposed in the AIGA piece? Or other alternative ways of working?

And does anyone think that pitches are actually the best way for design work to be commissioned?

What are the conditions needed for a good pitch process? After all, in our Top 20 Logos issue last year, the vast majority of the great marks featured came about through some form of competition.



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