The other side of crowdsourcing
Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 10:35PM
Melody in 99 designs, Online Community, crowdsourcing, crowdspring

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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