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The other side of crowdsourcing

I write about the power of crowdsourcing a lot, from its applications in venture capital to the Netflix prize to funding artistic ventures to micro-volunteerism to patent review. My own blog's header was created at 99 Designs.

Yet...the design community is not so thrilled. Especially with the launch of a campaign by advertising agency juggernaut Crispin Porter + Bugusky to crowdsource the logo of Bramma through the site Crowdspring, designers are railing against what they see as the devaluation of their work.

They may have a point. CP+B will offer a paltry $1,000 prize to the winning design, while the remaining 753 submissions will receive nothing. For Bramma, it's a great deal (although it was certainly a dumb move to hire CP+B as a facilitator): 754 logo choices for a mere $1,000. On the other hand, what quality was lost by having no interaction between client and designer, especially with a short design brief with this gem: " We like the idea of representing a bull...We also like the idea of not representing a bull" ?

Sites like No!Spec argue that language like "crowdsource" hides the basic fact that 99 Designs, Crowdspring and Genius Rocket are essentially design prize sites for speculative work. While I'm not crazy about their tactics, I agree that the term crowdsourcing may be misused. While design sites tout the "community" aspects of their sites, the truth is that they play a winner-take-all game where work is purposefully not collaborative. The power of crowdsourcing comes from when many people working together can achieve something big, like when hundreds of people spend a few minutes each tagging museum photos through the Extraordinaries or when 50 people each contributing $50 can collectively fund an artist's dream project through Kickstarter.

Design sites are fundamentally different. There is no cumulative effort among designers to produce the best result. Rather, each works independently, maybe learning gradually from designs that have been thrown out or voted up, but too much learning and adoption of good ideas is strictly disallowed. These are prize sites, and while I think they still have value for small projects (such as my blog header -- I would have never engaged a professional design firm) and for budding designers (they are a mechanism to build a portfolio), the idea of crowdsourcing design should not be oversold.

Crowdsourcing should be about collaboration to solved problems and make decisions. Even the $1 million Netflix contest saw great sharing and discussions in their forum. Even if a single best idea needs to rise to the top in the end, it should do so because it has been honed by the crowd over time, not because one selector was able to simply take his choice from several hundred disparate submissions.

[Update: Based upon the many comments and conversations that I've had in relation to this post, I should probably clarify my position. The CP+B example is indeed an outlier; most of the entities that choose to use design sites are small (like mine) and simply not in the ad agency market. I would also highlight that designers enter this sites voluntarily of course, so they clearly see some value in participating, making the No!Spec attacks seem a bit sensationalist. The main objectives of this piece were to: 1) discuss some of the reasonable critiques made of the disruptive market power of design sites, since they are often described universally favorably; and 2) question what it really means to crowdsource -- is discovering diverse points of view sufficient or is some greater good of collaboration implied? I would argue for the latter.]

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September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSo Awesome Man

As a professional designer I must state my contempt for the "crowdsourcing" of design work in the form practiced by 99 Designs and Crowdspring.
I congratulate you on your honest and unbiased approach in this article and it is refreshing to see a "non-designer" taking a stand with "us" against the devaluation of our work. I understand that there will always be a client base for design work such as your blog header - as you say this does provide inexperienced designer a chance to hone their skills and build a portfolio. The CP+B issue is a perfect example of how not to crowd-source and is even more alarming because of their position as a "full-service agency". The problem with our (design) industry is that we have no protection in the form that Architects or Lawyers enjoy, anyone can download and crack a copy of the Adobe Suite and call themselves a designer, clients have no means of determining whether they are employing a professionally qualified "expert" to do their work. This leads to a devaluation and subsequent loss of quality which seems to be accelerating in a downwards spiral. The conclusion that spec work is evil is not a protectionist shout from designers, it is a sad fact documented by the dwindling quality of design visible on and off the web.

Sorry to rant but as a dedicated anti-spec activist I need to sound off at every available opportunity.
Thanks once again for your article and balanced objectivity, we as designers appreciate it!

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercountzeero

Hi Melody,

It's been interesting to read the views from a contest holder standpoint.

I'm right there with you that "crowdsourcing" should be all about collaboration. But the dog-eat-dog process of spec work websites simply doesn't facilitate it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Airey

I agree that the terms "crowdsourcing" implies a collaboration aspect that the design sites you mention don't have - and hence the term itself does not really apply to them. That is semantics, though.

The substance of the No!Spec movement is that they are some professionals who have seen an explosion of work thanks to the increased design demands of businesses with an internet presence, yet they are threatened by the disintermediation brought by the internet itself.

I have no problems with professionals getting together and trying to find common solutions to competitive threats to their business. However I have the highest degree of contempt for the No!Spec movement because they resort to
- insulting design clients by unfoundedly accusing them of unethical behavior for using spec design sources
- pretending to "protect" spec designers by negating them access to work.

There is a place for interactive design processes involving highly paid and skilled professional working for corporations that can afford them, and there is a place for cheap, quick design work for individuals and small businesses performed by less skilled designers in far flung places who understand the economics of the spec design process.

What there is no place for is for people resorting to insults and falsehoods to protect their own business interests.

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon DW

Hi Melody. Good, thoughtful post. Here's a snapshot of our experience to add to the discussion.

We started AdHack to connect creative folks to the people who need their work, specifically in the advertising industry.

What we've found is that design contests aren't sustainable to a community of successful, talented creative folks. And we want that kind of community. So we've tweaked our model in 2 ways as we've learned.

First, creators on AdHack retain control over their rights to their work until they sell them. This lets them resell work, modify it and reuse it in different contexts.

(As a sidenote, this not an ideal solution, because designers still have to create the work in the first place, but we believe it's a better model and we're working to keep modifying it from lessons we learn.)

Second, we've moved to focus on getting designers' work sold and getting designers hired, rather than contests.

On AdHack, designers list their work for demonstration or for sale with a price. Buyers see it and make offers to buy it. If buyers need modifications to the work, they make a deposit to start the changes, then pay the agreed-upon balance on completion. They can also hire designers directly on the site to do custom work and we facilitate the workflow, connections and transactions.

We still do contests. They provide a way for designers to build their portfolio and they provide specific direction and design briefs for designers looking to break into the industry. They also provide buyers with a way to test an open creative process.

In my opinion, calling contests 'Spec Work' dismisses the trend, provides a straw man argument and fails to address the opening of the market for design to many participants and many models.

The real challenge for everyone concerned is to create a fair and sustainable way of working that rewards all participants and avoids, as Nick Carr puts it, 'digital sharecropping.' That's our goal and we'd love to get your feedback on how we're doing.

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Really thoughtful comments. I appreciate the feedback.

@countzeero - What would you propose would be the mechanism to create the "protection" that you refer to for designers? I would argue that licensing (as with lawyers, doctors) would be too strong a response. A portfolio should be sufficient to prove how "expert" an individual is. Other ideas?

@Jon DW - I agree that there is place for contest sites for small scale projects. I also agree that an antagonistic approach is not an effective way to build a movement, especially when there are many legitimate arguments available. The professionalism of the LinkedIn group Translators against Crowdsourcing by Commercial Business seems to take the right approach.

@James - My understanding is that 99 Designs also allows designers to maintain copyright of their work until it is sold, but I do like your approach of using the site more as a way to facilitate the discovery of designers rather than simply discovery of designs.

September 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterMelody

Thank you for this great post! I am no expert on these matters, but 99 designs is one of my favorite internet innovations. Our company recently hired "professionals" and paid 10 times what it could have paid for a design on 99 designs. We looked at the designs together in our department and all of them were dissapointing, but our ability to generate something new out of these experts was difficult and we had to settle with the best of the mediocre bunch. (Hey if we knew exactly what design we wanted, we would have asked for it.)

The idea that these design sites are not "crowdsourcing" because they are not collaborative is difficult for me to comprehend or agree with. From a client's persepctive, the value of 99 desings is that there are thousands of different people's brains coming up with completely different ideas to showcase an intangible thing such as the "feel" of a brand. The more diversity in ideas, the better. Its all about solving a problem and making decisions. One group of experts, no matter how good they are at what they do, is just one group with a limit to their own way of creating something out of nothing. And that is what I think of when I think "crowd" sourcing. Yes, it can be about collaboration, but why not also about the diversity in opinions and ideas of individuals in a crowd?

I am not very involved in these matters (and I sense that the issue run much deeper with questions of artistic licensing), but as a regular guy I get very angry to see how expensive "professionals" can be and they have nothing to show for what that extra couple of grand buys you. 99 designs seems to me like a more efficient marketplace. Very interesting discussion!

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Anonymous: yeah, I get really mad too when those so-called "professional" doctors want to do stuff like "get my medical history", or "see if I'm allergic to any medications" before a surgical procedure. It would be so much cheaper if I just selected a surgeon from a group of people who claim they have a great way to fix my insides, without spending all that time going to medical school, getting training with other so-called "professionals", or spending time to learn why I want surgery in the first place.

Just because we get to be creative in our work doesn't mean there isn't a lot of analysis, training, and client-designer interaction that goes into the hard work of creating a brand image that is effective for an organization. A good designer will spend 75 percent of their time on a branding project researching, interviewing, analyzing, and interacting with you, your clients, your competition, all in the service of creating something that fits your firm like a glove.

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Bucknam

Thanks Melody! This article is right on the money. Aside from the very legitimate work for spec issue, there is also a huge quality concern when "artists" are willing to work free with no strategic process to guide their efforts. A client recently brought us the results of a crowdsourced logo effort. We coined a new term for the results we saw: "crapsourcing." Of the several hundred results we reviewed, there was nothing that even represented a promising direction. Really bad, amateur work.

On your design award point, I'll take my rant one step further and admit that in 25 years I have not nominated my firm for one single design award. I am not criticizing those that do spend their time and money chasing awards, but personally I don't feel that winning awards for my agency really yields the best marketing and communications work for my clients. I also feel it is a bit incestuous to nominate your own work for awards, pay a fee for doing so, then serve as a judge or a board member of the body giving the awards. Many of the top awards programs in the DC area have become little more than mutual admiration societies. The agency that received more DC addies than any other, recently closed its doors. Clearly the marketplace values these awards far less than those giving and receiving them.

I want to be awarded repeat work by satisfied by clients. Paying for awards that I can hang on my wall has never been a motivator for me. I prefer to brag that I still have my first client form 1985.

September 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson

@So Awesome Man. An architect does not need a license to design a building. It is only in getting a building permit , that a llicensed architect familiar local regulations, building codes and zoning laws has to be involved, and that licensed architect does not have to be the design architect or even work with him or her.

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRitaSue Siegel
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