Surviving in a Crowdsourced, Do-it-Yourself Web Designing World

John Tabita

In my last few articles, I’ve talked about how low-cost DIY solutions and crowdsourced design have contributed to the commoditization of web design. Crowdsourcing, according to the man who first coined the term, is:

… any time a company makes a choice to employ the crowd to perform labor that could alternatively be performed by an assigned group of employees or contractors …

Cowdsourced design is outsourcing your project to a group in the form of a contest, in which participants submit designs in hopes of being selected as the winner. The graphic arts industry opposes crowdsourced design competitions because they require the designer to do “spec work”—that is, produce a design for which there’s no guarantee of being chosen or receiving payment.

The AIGA takes the position that it’s the individual designer’s choice to engage in spec work and they take steps to educate members on the risks involved. Other organizations claim that spec-based design contests are evil. Clearly, many designers feel threatened by it.

The way I see it, there are three ways to deal with this:

  1. Fight it
  2. Ignore it
  3. Embrace it

Fight It

In an outgoing, three-year-old discussion on spec-based design contests, one disgruntled designer suggested everyone petition their congressmen to write legislation “to stop this crap.” All I’m going to say is the Catholic Church tried banning the printing press, and you can see how well that worked out.

I gave the reasons last week why I think fighting the crowdsourcing trend is a fruitless waste of your time and effort. It’s been called “an unfair practice,” but, hey, since when was life fair? Let’s get over it and move on.

A more constructive, proactive approach is to embrace it or ignore it altogether—depending on who you are, that is.

Ignore It

If you’re a high-end, well-established designer with clients standing in line to hire you, then you can probably afford to ignore crowdsourcing.

By “ignore,” I don’t mean bury your head in the sand and hope the angel of death passes you by. In case you’re feeling a bit smug, thinking your clients wouldn’t dream of resorting to it, keep in mind that big brands have been known to crowdsource their design needs—brands like Google and Toyota. With this is mind, you ought to have a strong value proposition as to why you offer a superior alternative to crowdsourced design.

The biggest objection to crowdsourcing is that it “devaluates graphic design,” which is often code for, “I won’t be able to make enough money to pay off my $100,000 student loan.”

But in order to make a lot of money, you need to provide a greater amount of value. The crowdsourcing phenomenon spotlights the disconnect between what we think is valuable about the work we perform and what our clients actually value. As one author writes, crowdsourcing makes it “impossible to continue living in denial about how little clients honestly value design.” Or programming. Or standards-compliant websites.

For many products—especially those becoming a commodity—“value” lies not in the product itself, but in how the product is acquired. Web design, web development, and SEO isn’t so much a product as a process. Managing that process to a successful completion is a skill that most inexperienced designers lack.

It’s the left-brain technical work—designing, coding, link-building—that’s become the commodity. But for the business person, strategic partnerships with suppliers who understand your needs and can solve your problems can be … well, priceless.

Embrace It

If you’re a student or inexperienced designer with no portfolio, then crowdsourcing can help you become established and gain access to work you’d otherwise have no chance of being considered.

Guy Kawasaki received a lot of criticism by running a design contest for the cover of his book, The Art of the Start. Yet, in addition to being paid, the winner got the opportunity to be the book cover designer of a Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Stuck in the Middle

If you’re somewhere in-between the two, you may have the most to worry about. Your client base is not so high-end as not to consider crowdsourcing as a viable alternative to your services. Yet, you’re well-established enough that resorting to design contests to win projects seems a step backwards.

It’s the typical business conundrum, often referred to as No Man’s Land: you’re too big to be small, yet too small to be big.

If that’s where you find yourself, you have two choices: push forward or go back.

Pushing Forward: How to Pull Yourself out of the Middle

Most web designers seem to gravitate towards the lower end of the market, the mom-and-pop shops. But it’s precisely these types of businesses who undervalue marketing the most and have the least amount of money to spend.

The trick to pulling yourself out of the middle is to target companies who are exactly where you are—too big to be small, and too small to be big.

Consider a company in the $5 million annual revenue range with 20 employees. Would such a company hire a freelancer to take care of their web design and marketing needs? The answers is “yes,” because I had some of them as clients.

Many of these companies are large enough to have someone who oversees marketing, such as the general manager or even a dedicated marketing manager, yet are too small to have an in-house marketing team.

Before they resort to a DIY or crowdsourced solution, maybe you should think about prospecting some of them.

Going Back: Using Design Contests as a Marketing Activity

If going after larger companies isn’t something you can see yourself doing, and you’re still struggling to land clients, then entering design competitions may be an option worth considering.

As I mentioned above, the controversy over crowdsourced graphic design stems from the fact that you’re creating a design for which you might never get paid. By the same token, there’s no guarantee your marketing efforts will result in being hired, yet no one refuses to market themselves on that basis. So instead of defining your contest design creation as “work,” define it as “marketing.”

As with any marketing, you have to take into account the return on investment—in this case, the investment of your time. Perhaps when you consider the ROI of cold-calling, you’ll decide that’s the better option. Determine how a spec-based design competition compares with the effort and effectiveness of other marketing activities before deciding whether or not it’s for you.

The Market Has Spoken

Ultimately, it’s the market, not the web industry, that will determine if crowdsourcing and DIY solutions succeed as a business model.

This isn’t a judgment of worth; it’s purely an economic one. Yet, it seems as though many designers feel entitled to their high fees because of the cost of their education or their hardware and software investment. But clients buy for their own reasons, not yours or mine.

What reason will you give them to hire you?

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