Graphic Design Marketing ‘Woeful’, and Fuelling Spec Work, Reveals Report

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Marketing for designers has never been more crucial in the battle against free pitching and spec work, but a new report concludes that creatives are ‘generally woeful’ at finding quality website design clients and graphic design clients.

There’s a catastrophic lack of differentiation in design, and because everything’s vanilla, client prospects want to taste before buying

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DESIGNERS have to shoulder much of the blame for the widespread practice of spec work and the profession’s plummeting prestige, a new report concludes.

Spec work (or free pitching) is the practice of providing design expertise free of charge, and it is fast becoming the de facto way worldwide of winning new design clients. A report from UK design marketing consultancy, Zyzzyva, says that ineffectual marketing by designers is the key driver of the spec work culture.

“Free pitching and spec creative across English speaking territories is being fuelled by an over-supply of identikit designers,” says Sean Ashcroft, managing director of Zyzzyva ( “Online, there’s a catastrophic lack of differentiation in design, and it is because everything’s vanilla that client prospects are compelled to taste before buying.”

Ashcroft adds: “The rest of the business world lives by the diktat, ‘Differentiate or die’, but design – especially graphic – largely ignores it, so it’s scant surprise design is such a poorly patient."

Having one or more unique design selling points has become critically important for designers, the report says, because the global design market is profoundly overcrowded.

To show just how crowded, the report cites figures from UK government-funded design body the Design Council, which in 2010 revealed there was 67,280 more UK designers than in 2005 (a 12% rise), with freelance designers accounting for all but 2,000 of this number. Design redundancies, reduced hours at design agencies and record design student numbers explain the increase -- and it’s a similar story across Europe and North America, Ashcroft says.

The report, entitled ‘Why Design Stopped Being Special, And How This Feeds Free Pitching’ (, explores how profitable, non-pitching designers use niche expertise to find new design clients.

It addresses, too, the issue of design ‘crowdsourcing’ -- whereby sites like 99designs and designcrowd invite designers to submit creative work in response to customer briefs; the favoured design wins the work, with everything else going mostly unrewarded.

“Crowdsourcing is far more insidious than spec work,” says Ashcroft. “Sometimes there are 300-400 designers going after one commission. It’s an insane way of finding new design clients. Young freelance designers need to wake up to the fact that their desperation for work is being pitilessly exploited.”

The paper advises freelance designers to shun crowdsourcing, and instead build a commercial portfolio of niche design projects sourced through networking -- both online, through social media, and offline, through local business communities.

Zyzzyva’s paper concludes with in-depth research into how designers in North America, UK, Australasia and South Africa are using SEO to target niche markets.

Ashcroft says that designers in their thousands are targeting generic keyword phrases such as ‘world class design’ and ‘passion for design’, even though design customers are not searching on them. “The reason they’re not searching on them is because design customers have specific needs, not generic needs,” he says.

The report highlights potentially profitable niche design markets that are being virtually ignored by graphic design practitioners.

It reveals, for example, that a total of just 46 graphic design providers globally are positioning themselves online using the keyword phrase ‘corporate brochure design’ -- even though every month 2,900 client prospects globally search on the term.

“The reality is that graphic designers in their tens of thousands are guessing what design clients want,” says Ashcroft. It’s really bad business -- a bit like guessing what airport a design client is landing at, turning up and finding they’re some place else. Graphic designers are in desperate need of marketing help (

If graphic design’s self-marketing prowess leaves much to be desired, the report shows that web designers are better at identifying niche markets – but that it is art workers who prove most adept.

“Art workers not only target niche markets, such as ‘restaurant menu design’ but niche-within-niche markets, like ‘chinese restaurant menu design’,” says Ashcroft. “Which of course is exactly as it should be.”


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seo-for-designersThis screengrab shows how designers neglect SEO and online marketing positoning as ways to attract new design clients. The top screengrab shows that just 2 UK design providers are optimizing on the keyword phrase 'corporate brochure design', even though Google Adwords Keyword tool shows that there are 880 UK monthly searches on the term.How designers are neglecting SEO as way to find new design clients.seo-guide-for-designersThese screengrabs show how graphic designers are targeting useless, generic search phrases, in this case 'world class graphic design'. The top grab is from Google Adwords Keyword Tool, which shows that globally, just 22 searches are made on this term each month. The bottom grab shows that, despite this, 1,690 pages are seriously optimized on the term 'world class graphic design'. "Designers are optimizing on what they think people are searching for,” says Zyzzyva MD Sean Ashcroft. “It’s nuts.”Example of poor online marketing by graphic designersdesign crowdsourcingThis screengrab from design crowdsourcing site 99designs shows just how desperate young freelance designers are to find work. On the left of the screen is an outline of the customer’s brief. At the time, 337 designers had submitted a logo in the hope of ‘winning’ $495 -- a one in 337 chance of new business. “Even if you pressed a semi-automatic pistol to my temple and demanded I come up with a more insane way of finding new design clients, I couldn’t,” says Zyzzyva MD Sean Ashcroft.Why young freelance designers must shun Ashcroft, Managing Director, Zyzzyva