Minding the Gap

Lately we’ve been finding prospective customers adding a “bake-off” scenario into the RFP / Sales cycle.  While one might understand the intent in adding spec work to the vetting process – we need to clearly state our opposition to participating…  but to do so, we want to draw on some, not so distant design events, that can help paint the appropriate background.

Who here remembers what happened to the Gap in 2010?

This happened amidst an already swelling movement towards “spec work” design models and platforms like 99 Designs to support this mindset.  So, appropriately, the 99 Designs team spawned this action: Design a better GAP Logo (Community Project).  To which, albeit briefly, the Gap brand leadership took a shining to, but then revoked their stance under a twitter-storm, and awesome blog posts – our all-time favorite from MuleDesign: Dear Gap, I have your new logo. (available on web archive only – a MUST READ)

Shortly after Gap scrapped the Logo revision for their old standby.

Official Spec Work Guidelines

Without belaboring the point too much…  The American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) has a fairly firm stance on Spec Design to which any and all self-respecting designers have turned to for working through the challenges that come with facing clients asking for or placing you in “bake-off” mode.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel compelled to respond to spec work, whether due to financial circumstances or the opportunity seems like a once-in-a-lifetime shot at something great…  know that you’re not alone and there is an entire field of self-respecting designers that would gladly offer you alternative responses.

Here’s a great example of a designer, Grace Smith, responding to a spec work request chronicled in her blog post: How to say No to Spec Work, where she shares a template response letter to your spec design requests.

Putting a finer point on things

Not to – in any way – compare, undermine or be-little graphic design for logos, branding and collateral work – this work is hugely important for companies, and in many ways instrumental in defining the core identity of any company – but I’d like to talk more specifically about Spec Work requests when it comes to UX design.  Asking for a mock-up of a dashboard, homepage or some other interface where all that’s been put forward is what little definition goes into an RFP is just completely ridiculous.

Without trying to bloat the importance of UX due diligence, every proposal and statement-of-work Limina puts forward very intentionally includes a robust discovery phase to ensure stakeholder alignment, brand analysis, business goals, functional specification and finally user requirements.  All of which are critical pillars and underpinnings to sound UX design direction.  Putting UX designs forward without this foundation, no matter how much “sizzle” you put into it…  will never hit the mark.

There are a certain confidence and pride that come with knowing that the design is has been empirically informed – that any questions that arise would have an answer and not a response akin to “I think that looks good” – you should know it’s right and contextually appropriate for the need.  You can only know that by putting in the right amount of effort in upfront requirements gathering.


This is the exact sentiment we hope all of our clients can reflect as we put them to task from the outset of every engagement down the line.

Here’s what to look for from a UX design firm in a discovery phase:

Stakeholder Workshops: Aimed at driving alignment and building consensus both within the client base and across the team.  We use these sessions to validate the functional scope of the project while taking the opportunity to clearly communicate the operational impact the project will have on their organization (any change management, training, and augmentation of roles/responsibilities based on the system).

Brand and Competitive Analysis: Get a handle on the company voice and identity – get a handle on the unique value proposition with respect to targeted competitors and identify opportunities to leverage the advantage. This also builds the foundation for the UI look and feel requirements.

Functional and User Requirements: This is just a no brainer for systems design.  Who’s using it, what do they need and what should the system do? Often the focus is on the end users and the product but invariably overlooked are the administrative workflows, licensing models, and back-office views on the system.  Our process leaves no stones left unturned an aims to prioritize the functional scope to the minimum viable product while producing a product backlog for continual design and enhancement releases.

This is how ridiculous spec work sounds to designers… but in terms, you might understand:


In short, what you don’t know, or the gaps in your understanding, are what you’re paying a designer to understand and translate to a next-gen representation of your future.  Tell your product management team and senior leadership, to just say no spec work – because you’ll end up paying for it in the long run – often more than whatever your initial sticker shock might have been in a comprehensive proposal.