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Is Crowdsourcing Disrupting the Design Industry?


This is an issue that I simply cannot wrap my head around. Spec work appears in the design field infinitely more times than any other industry. It absolutely floors me that people think that it is even remotely ethical to build their businesses by tearing down ours.

Mark Hemmis’s comment on AIGA policy statement on spec work

The past couple years have seen an increase in the use of crowdsourcing by companies to procure design assets. It works like this:

  • Requesting organization posts a request for submissions to a design crowdsourcing site (e.g. 99designs, crowdSPRING, MycroBurst, etc.)
  • Interested designers review the request, and create their entry
  • They submit their entry to the site
  • Requesting organization selects its favorite, pays the winning designer the announced fee

These design requests are often for logos, but for a number of other types of initiatives as well. For example, 99designs’ list of requests (to the right) gives some sense of the types of projects.

So far, so good, right? Well, a lot of designers think not. As Mark Hemmis’s comment above shows, these open spec work contests have been raising the ire of the designer community.

Is crowdsourcing ripping their industry asunder?

Designers’ Beefs with Crowdsourcing

Three aspects of crowdsourcing design raise concern for many in the design industry:

  1. Lack of compensation for designers whose entries are not selected
  2. Diminishes the design profession
  3. Not sustainable in the long term

Compensation: To be competitive, individuals will need to invest some time in designing a submission for a company. With a good number of entries, this equates to a decent number of hours invested. As Pamela Pfiffner writes:

The problem is, spec and crowdsourcing can lower your value and hourly rates so far that minimum wage looks like a fat paycheck.

Her statement takes things to a logical extreme – someone would have to do nothing but spend their time entering contests. But she does a good job framing the issue.

Diminishing the profession: The issue with crowdsourcing is that it says, “this stuff is easy!” A commenter on this post, How NOT to Design a Logo, baldly gives this concern legitimacy:

Logo design contests are great, its the only way I go. I get my pick of 5-10 designs for less then $20. Designers these days are a dime a dozen, be happy you get the work.

The design industry has characteristics of being craftsman, as well as strategists. At least the higher end firms do. Sentiments like that are grating.

Not sustainable: The concern here is that over the long term, the economics of crowdsourcing will cause existing designers to exit the industry, and potential designers will opt for different careers. Here’s how Jacob Cass thinks about it:

Design contest sites are not the future of graphic design… nor do I see a time when it ever will be, however, in the long term I believe spec work is going to be detrimental to the design industry… both devaluing design and designers as a whole.

The argument here is that rather than expand the pool of talent for design, crowdsourcing will ultimately reduce the industry.

So designers themselves are lining up against these types of crowdsourcing design contests. Which begs the question…

Why Are Crowdsourcing Design Contests Growing?

I saw this comment from Jason Aiken of 99designs (March 1, 2010):

Truth is – 99designs is growing by leaps and bounds. We have record numbers of projects being launched and have needed to hire new staff to help us keep up with the growth.

The motivation of organizations seeking design work seem clear enough – tap a large network of creativity, manage expenses within budget. But what are those designers doing there?

It seems that not all designers are of the same mind about these crowdsourcing design contests. Some actually embrace them. Why?

Build your portfolio: Not all designers in the world have 10 years experience and a roster of paying clients. For those starting out in the business, the competitions provide great fuel for creating designs. If you want prospective clients to see what you’re capable of, the design competitions seem to offer a chance to create that portfolio. Benefits:
  • You need to think not abstractly about design principles, but concretely about how a design project relates to a business
  • Competitions are great for elevating one’s focus and creativity
  • You can benchmark yourself against other submissions, including those selected if yours is not

Personal interest: Some projects just pique the interest of a person. Maybe there’s a day job with a paying company, and then a chance at night to do things “your way” on a project of interest. The project taps some areas you want to pursue, or maybe allows you to try something out without concern as to whether the client will ultimately want the design.

Extra business: Everyone is hustling in a weak economy. If your design business has some slack in demand, why not apply the available creative resources toward an occasional crowdsourcing project? If you’re a professional shop, presumably your odds are better than most.

Access to high-end ad agencies: This was the case when Porter Crispin + Bogusky solicited logo designs for their start-up client Brammo, maker of electric motorcycles. They ran the contest through crowdSPRING. The contest sparked plenty of debate, but also saw 700 entries. One reason was that young up-n-coming designers wanted the chance to impress a firm of the caliber of PC+B, who can send many paying clients their way.

That’s the designer participation set of motivations. I guess the best way to think about companies’ motivation is this:

Do they get results?

Since the number of requests from companies is growing, design crowdsourcing sites are working at some level. If they weren’t, word would spread pretty quickly and companies would stop using them. This comment from designer  Morgan Stone on Alex Bogusky’s blog post about PC+B’s use of crowdSPRING is illuminating:

As a designer… crowdsourcing scares me. I think it has to do with the harsh reality that sometimes it doesn’t take experience or a big title to design something truly amazing.

What’s the staying power of the crowdsourced design contest approach? And will it disrupt the industry, in the Clayton Christensen sense?

Sustainability and Reach of Crowdsourcing Design Contests

Altimeter Group’s Jeremiah Owyang wrote last year, “Without a doubt, Specwork (like crowdspring or 99 designers) is here to stay – economics will drive this forward.” For the buyers, yes. But the supply side of the equation – the designers – is that here to stay?

I believe it is. The numbers say it is. Here’s what I mean:

In a 2009 article, Forbes noted that there are 80,000 free lance designers in the U.S. alone. Add in the talent from around the world, and you can see that there is a large of pool of creativity. Maybe 200,000 designers globally? 99designs claims roughly 54,000 designers on its site.

Designers have some motivation to participate in crowdsourcing design contests, as noted for the reasons above. It’s not like every designer will submit regularly. But every project reaches some new set of designers, and occasionally gets a repeat one as well.

All it takes is for a business seeking design work is maybe 30, 40, 50 submissions? As a percent of the global number of designers, that’s not much.

40 / 200,000 = 0.02%

Here’s what one designer said about getting clients from crowdsourcing sites:

I’ve had direct clients and also have been one of those in the crowd. Surprisingly, some of my best clients are the ones that followed me from these crowd sourcing sites. That’s probably because they’ve already been through a working process with me, and they like what they’ve experienced, so there’s no mismatch of expectations like a new client.

I do see the sustainability of the business. It’s complex, but there are enough people who do see advantages to participating. Even if only for certain periods of their lives or only on occasion. I don’t see entering crowdsourcing design contests as a full-time pursuit for someone.

Next question: how much can crowdsourcing chip away at the traditional areas of the design industry? There’s a gap that crowdsourcing addresses (Erica’s post, Bokardo’s post):

Many designers in the debate note the importance of establishing a rapport with clients, and understanding their clients more deeply than a set of colors and fonts. A firm such as Nocturnal Graphic Design Studio appears to deliver value through deeper relationships and more strategic approaches with its clients.

But Erica’s point above is well-taken. Sometimes, you’re not in the market for that level of involvement. Small and mid-sized businesses do not need the full horsepower of high-end design firms. As one designer (snootily) commented on the PC+B blog post about using crowdSPRING:

99 designs and their nefarious brethren have a client roster whose market recognition for the most part is similar to that of “joe’s morgue & jerky outlet.”

Of course, this may not be contained to SMBs.

The Disruptive Potential

Have you checked out what Mountain Dew is doing with crowdsourcing (aka “DEWmocracy”)? As Wired notes in a January article:

Mountain Dew is asking consumers to choose three new sodas, from selecting the flavors to naming them, designing the cans and choosing the ad agency to promoting the product.

Not all of this is crowdsourcing design, but it is an edgy experiment in leaving the professional firms behind.

Right now, as Steve Douglas of the Logo Factory notes, the biggest chunk of business is for logos. Which you can see at the start of this post in the 99designs project list.

The U.S. Census Bureau had the graphic design industry generating $2.8 billion in revenue in 2002. It is a large, diverse, complex industry. My expectation is that design contest crowdsourcing will encroach more into large enterprises for tactical projects, as the smaller businesses continue to use them and get good results. Large companies’ efforts, such Mountain Dew’s DEWmocracy, Unilever’s crowdsourcing contest for a TV campaign for its Peperami snack food, and Doritos’ crowdsourced Super Bowl ads, add fuel to this.

Two things are needed for the crowdsourcing model to encroach further into the design industry:

  • Leaderboards/reputation
  • Smartsourcing

Leaderboards let prospective buyers know who the best are. We see them on Topcoder for programming contests. It’s a way to establish visibility and credibility far beyond the recommendations you maintain on your own site. It will take some changes by the crowdsourcing sites, enabling recognition for designers who do well in contests, even if they are not picked. It also would need to have different bases for identifying top designers.

The other wrinkle is to allow a form of smartsourcing. Once the top designers are identified, they are invited for larger companies’ design projects. This is pretty similar to the current state of things, except the basis for access changes somewhat. It’s not just business relationships a designer/firm has established with the big ad/marketing.brand agencies. It’s based on performance.

With these two elements, I can see how crowdsourcing becomes more important, more disruptive, in the world of business design.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

13 Responses to Is Crowdsourcing Disrupting the Design Industry?

  1. spirospiliadis says:

    I think the most important thing to realize here is user experience, this type of work is fairly new on both ends, for clients it’s holding the reins in their own hands, and sometimes that can be a scary thing if you have no experience with going through the logo selection process, which in turn can lead to alot of designs that in the end don’t accomplish the outcome.

    HOwever there’s also the side of the designer’s user experience, where it’s perhaps more important then the client’s side at first establisihing a strong presence with design crowdsourcing.

    One site not mentioned is Logo Tournament that has done a great job at identifying needs of the designers, such as logo court systems that prevent copying and fraudulent copying of already existing work (ex. clipart)

    Also this site spends extensive time in listening to designers through the forums and making changes accordingly on a daily basis to improve the experience for the designer which in turn when improving on happy designers you get better and maore creative work.

    Finally, new designers are not automatically enrolled upon signing up you have to go through a screenign process which is then picked and voted by the designers themselves…

    So as you can see Logo Tournament for me as a part time designer is the site of choice because they are making an effort to help designers get their jobs done which is design great work,

    it’s easy to throw up a site and call it a crowdsourced site for designs but sites like Logo Tournamen that make everyday tweaks are going to be poweful to beat because they ar specifically dong what you mention on leaderboard which is maintain and keep the best possible designers which in turn helps to produce the best possible logos.

  2. Hey there,

    Thanks for the article.

    In my opinion Crowd-sourcing is great for professional designers!

    Because it takes all the mediocre designers and bad clients out of the way.

    It keeps the mediocre designers busy from finding good clients and promoting themselves in places that will actually give them good reputation and who wants to work with clients that don’t care or know what their target market needs are or don’t make any research? Also this clients think they know about design and those are the worse!

    Thank you crow-sourcing and keep all these people busy for as much as you can so professional and great designers don’t have to look as hard for good great clients or jobs!

  3. Pingback: Is Crowdsourcing Disrupting the Design Industry? | CloudAve

  4. Mark Trapp says:

    Great overview, Hutch. The devaluation of the design industry is something that affects my line of, and the past few years have been a journey in ways to adapt to the changing reality of graphic design.

    Moncho Vieira is onto it: what I’ve learned in the past few years is that crowd-sourcing and spec work segments the industry between those who are not all that great and those who are looking for something special and unique. A good client looking for some outstanding work can identify a good designer any day of the week.

    Designers have to learn to adapt: the veil of mysteriousness behind graphic design has been lifted. If they don’t want to be considered a commodity, they need to offer more than just a logo or a design: they need to be able to sell prospective clients on what makes them unique. It’s really no different than other mature industries.

  5. Pingback: Crwodsourcing for a Billion Dollar Business – Cisco I-Prize « I'm Not Actually a Geek

  6. Pingback: Crowdsourcing for a Billion Dollar Business – Cisco I-Prize « I'm Not Actually a Geek

  7. Pingback: Crowdsourcing for a Billion Dollar Business – Cisco I-Prize | CloudAve

  8. John says:

    thanks for for the write up Hutch.

    models like 99 designs are making it harder for a growing number of designers to sustain their project pipeline. The relatively “cheap” work that is available in their community is diluting the design profession, as you mentioned under the beefs section. This is effecting legitimate artists as well as the chump who thinks they can design cause they downloaded Adobe Creative suite.

    INCUMEDIA.com is coming online in a few days. Its a business network for creative professionals and we believe we have a more sustainable model. You can check out our fan site here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/INCUMEDIA/107461872607618

    Would appreciate your insight, you can contact me directly here: john@incumedia.com

  9. Pingback: Crowdsourcing Is Outsourcing Web 2.0 Style | Regular Geek

  10. This is debatable. If crowdsourcing is destroying the design industry then, it is also opening up new doors for newbies. Let us not forget that pros were once newbies and many pros are hidden inside newbies of today. Today’s newbies can get a chance to show their talents through the platform of graphic design websites.

    Also companies who can’t hire pro designers to get their logo designed due to shortage of funds can go to crowdsourcing websites and get at least some kind of professional design if not fully. So crowdsourcing is also creating new markets that would not otherwise have existed.

    There are good things and bad things about everything in life. So the debate continues….

  11. I understand doing work on spec. It can be a powerful sales tool when used appropriately. “Appropriately,” however, is the operative word here. Some may say this issue is one of supply and demand. I think it is more exploitive, though, given that these sites are making money from the very process that is driving the demand and forcing down the prices. I have mixed feelings about those that allow themselves to be exploited in this way. Perhaps educating aspiring designers better about the value of their work and how to promote that value to prospective clients will help them see the error of these ways. On the other hand, if a business and/or a designer is willing to exploit/be exploited, then that is their choice.

  12. Maxine Horn says:

    I am late to this debate as it has just been brought to my attention. However, firstly thank you for the excellent article, very well articulated and posing both sides of the arguement. The debate is raging here in the UK as well – and the upsides and downside supporters have identical views as those quoted in the article and in these comments.
    A UK response that seeks to at least make an attempt at addressing the issue without spoiling the fun for everyone is the launch of Creative Barcode (www.creativebarcode.com).

    It enables designers and other creatives as well as strategists to create data encoded barcodes to protect their work whether those works are their own creations to be negotiated for license to industry, co-creation partners or investors or whether those works are in response to traditional fees for services pitches; crowd-sourcing, and other open innovation activities.

    It at least establishes ownership and an inherent value in such work which may not be utilised by any other party without the persmission of the Originator. The use of Creative Barcode established ‘an agreement’ between the two parties.

    Creative Barcode is only for use by professional creative industries to support fair and ethical trading between them and those who seek to engage with them.

    Crwod sourcing has some merits, I personally do not feel it is appropriate in business to business problem solving activities, where they are akin to ‘free-pitching’ and where submissions are vulnerable to misappropriation. Neither do I feel it is appropriate to negative impact on the productivity of an entire business sector so blatantly in a free for all.

    New models emerging that are managed professionally, fairly and equitably would be far more welcomed.

    Those that simply drive down the price to a zero commodity lumping all designers regardless of experience, abilities, investment in talents and education into a exploitable crowd for the commercial benefit of those earning significant profit off of the back of the creative industries – are not at all welcome.

    There needs to be new rules of engagement. I buy the opportunity for new talent to cut their teeth, or employees moonlighting after hours or simply enjoying the freedom of creative muscle flex without client pleasing. However, unless rules of engagement are transparent and reasons for participation and using crowd sourcing established, it will lead to the design profession being entirely de-valued.

    And I am sure that even the moonlighters and newbies would welcome crowd sourcing usage guidelines, recognistion and more equitable remuneration terms.

    Personally, the current status quo is more exploitative than it is rewarding. It does not have to remain that way but until it is, those using crowd sourcing don’t actually know what they are missing.

  13. Spike says:

    Personally, I am quite on the fence regarding the use of a crowdsourcing site for a logo design. It is still a touchy issue for most designers who said that crowdsourcing is a no-no for obtaining a logo design. I have tried crowdsourcing before and I know the risks involved but it comes within the territory. But there are other no-frills logo design websites online such as http://www.logobee.com, http://www.logodesignstation.com, logoyes.com, etc. which are actually great in getting a professional logo design at a fraction of the price and minus the risks of crowdsourcing (plagiarism is one of them). Seeing that there are no consultation services, the price is significantly lower than that of conventional design firms. For instance, I have tried http://www.logodesignstation.com and the experience was indeed a positive one. I managed to get my business logo design at an affordable price and the turnaround time was great as well. Highly recommended. Although crowdsourcing for logo designs could be a bane for some, many find it to be a viable alternative to get a fast logo on the cheap. It all depends on the individual actually.

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