Free Pitch thumbnail image

Ditch the Pitch

Money for Nothing and Design for Free

The free pitch – a way of showcasing your creativity or the degradation of an industry? Many advertising agencies will tell you that a free pitch is a way to impress the potential client with what can be achieved. These agencies often throw a great deal of resources; both time and money, into a pitch just to get chosen for the next stage. However, nothing is free. Costs are recovered by billing extra margin into the project once won or building contingencies into standard rates which apply to all clients.

Creativity can be showcased without having to compromise by providing free design work. After all, isn’t it better to demonstrate success from actual portfolios; get a good understanding of the client, the business issues and the specifications required for the new project? According to Jack Magree, Cobalt’s co-founder, “a good designer should add value to the product development process by understanding and then advising the client on the best solution, something that is not practical with a free pitch”.

A client selecting a designer based on a free pitch is misguided as the choice is often based on the visual aspects of how a product may look, not on product development and engineering for the best outcome. Without the normal designer/client interaction, the design solutions are likely to be flawed and lack innovation as they are based on short cuts and guess work. This is not only frustrating for both parties, but could damage relationships with the client, undermining design work prospects with them in the future. It also degrades the industry as it fuels the belief that design work is cheap, fast and easy.

Good design is not just about the way something looks. It is also about the feel, usability and ease of interface with the end user. Basing a decision purely on the way something looks also ignores the additional benefits that good design can bring, such as commercial savings from better use of materials or technology and enhanced marketing value that designers often deliver.

Research undertaken in the UK which surveyed over 200 design agencies concluded that over 25% of projects or tenders pitched for are not awarded. The reasons were generally a change of marketing strategy, reduced budgets, change of mind and no chemistry established with design agencies. If a client was paying for such work, it is more likely to be a strong commitment to the design process.

Another risk to emerge from providing free pitches has been potential legal implications. Jeffrey Zeldman in “Don’t design on spec” described a scenario in the US where a company was being sued for using inspiration from an unsuccessful agency’s design pitch.
The final word: The Design Institute of Australia, like most professional design bodies globally, resolutely opposes free pitching. And so does Cobalt.


1. Zeldman, J “Don’t design on spec”, The Daily Report, 26 January 2004

Under Construction: inside Cobalt's new HQ

Inside Cobalt's new HQ

The inside story of Cobalt’s building

One year on from our official opening, and with our building now close to fully operational, we thought it timely to reflect on the process and outcome.
The catalyst which led to building our own space was borne from frustration with the uniformity of rented offices. In late 2004, having rented four buildings in our first 10 years of business, we were keen to establish a permanent base and bought a double storey, 250sqm building in Dryburgh St, 2km north-west of Melbourne’s CBD (downtown).
Before the fit out, our building was a very functional and very unglamorous warehouse. Apart from some truly horrible toilets the ground floor was derelict whilst tenants on the first floor stored boxes of T-shirts as high as the rafters. It was the classic empty canvas.
In creating a design brief we first defined and prioritised each area in terms of size, access, light level and mood. Requirements were defined in terms of ‘must-haves’ and ‘nice-to-have-if-possible’. For example, we wanted to create a welcoming and impressive entrance, and a casual staff meals/lounge area; both achieved in the final design. However, the wish for a roof-top terrace never made it past the budget stage.

Other stories about the building (and building process) include:

  • Whilst the main street frontage is on a major commercial road, we were so attracted by the intimacy and human-scale of the ‘Little’ Dryburgh St entrance we decided to buck convention and make this our main entrance. The decision did have one unexpected consequence; the long address for such a small street is consistently mistaken by couriers and visitors, with people and parcels left stranded in the southern version of Little Dryburgh St

  • The building had an original and functional electric hoist, positioned approximately above the current staircase. Although there was a strong argument to keep it, given it represented the buildings industrial past, in the end it was decided to have it removed. It’s now happily lifting hulls by a boat builder in Williamstown
  • The architect’s original stair specifications were under-engineered so that the treads twisted alarmingly when stepped upon. The problem was fixed by boxing the central I-beam (‘stringer’) with plates, although the stairs do still have a slight movement if you know it’s there
  • Tenants occupy about 15% of the building floorplan. The largest of these is Axxin; a start-up producing a new electromagnetic device.
  • The design and fit out project was expertly managed by Cobalt directors Jack Magree and Warwick Brown; Warwick a veteran of his own impressive warehouse conversion and Jack also recently renovating his own home
  • Warwick developed the final overall masterplan with assistance from architects Neil and Idle. He also project managed the building works after the architects drawings were complete
  • Operationally the studio area works by positioning desks facing out and their monitors facing in. This was done to encourage teamwork where staff can see each other’s work and contribute suggestions as they moved throughout the office.
  • From the start we wanted to make our ‘designspace’ building suited to efficient creativity, with staff enjoying their surrounds and where clients and visitors felt reassured that this is a place where creativity happens.