By John Tabita

“Why should I hire you when I can crowdsource it?”

By John Tabita

In my previous article, Why Should I Hire You when I Can Do it Myself?, I talked about how low-cost DIY solutions have contributed to the commoditization of web design. But there’s another barbarian at the gates. If there’s anything more controversial than the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, it’s crowdsourced graphic and web design.

Crowdsourcing is simply outsourcing to a group of people or community (a crowd). This is done through an open call for contributions, typically in the form of an American Idol-esque contest where the client posts a project brief and participants compete by submitting a design in hopes of being selected as a “finalist.” Each finalist is asked to tweak his design until a final winner is chosen. The other finalists and participants retain the rights to their design but are not paid.

While the term “crowdsourcing” is a relatively new one, the concept has been around for centuries. The Acropolis and several medieval cathedrals were the result of architectural design competitions, a common practice to this day.

The modern-day controversy surrounding crowdsourced graphic design revolves around the fact that participants must produce work for a potential client with no guarantee their piece will be chosen and/or paid for. In the graphic arts industry, this is known as speculative (i.e., spec) work—and it’s highly frowned-upon.

Make no mistake; crowdsourced design is disrupting the industry and, ironically, it’s the very technology we all know and love that’s elevated it to mega-trend status. But that’s what technology does best—it disrupts existing business models. Just ask the ice harvesters of the late 1800’s, or the film industry of the late 1990’s.

Admittedly, crowdsourcing may not be the first option that comes to mind for most people in need of graphic or web design. Yet, judging from the number of projects on 99Designs and CrowdSpring, and the amount of venture capital being invested in these sites, I’d say crowdsourced design is here to stay.

There are a number of ways you can deal with this. Here’s your first option:

Grab Your Torches and Pick Forks

You can join the spec work is evil crowd, who are trying to “educate the public” about the “growing concern” over spec-based design contests. (Assuming you think the “public” even cares, that is.)

Because of their strong stance against spec work, industry associations like the AIGA contend that crowdsourcing is detrimental for both designer and client. Yet, for every designer or client who’s had a bad crowdsourcing experience, there’s another who had a great one.

You may have strong opinions on the merits of crowdsourcing. Yet, ultimately, it’s the market that will decide if crowdsourcing succeeds or fails. The more you complain and fight against it, the more likely you’ll find yourself sitting on the sidelines along with the travel agent and bookstore owner, while the market happily embraces a new business model.

Assuming you’ve decided that boycotting companies who crowdsource their design needs isn’t going to change anything, let me offer some constructive ways to survive in a crowdsourcing, do-it-yourself web designing world. But first, I have a favor to ask.

I’d love to discuss the wonders or evils of crowdsourced design in the comments below, but I’ve noticed that whenever I write a two-part article, the comments on Part One “The Problem” far exceed the comments in Part 2 “The Solution.”

I’d like to think it’s because everyone is off busily applying my solution (and not secretly laughing at it behind my back). But I suspect the real reason is that it’s somehow more gratifying to wallow and complain about a problem than actually solving it. So prove me wrong by generating at least as many comments in Part 2: Surviving in a Crowdsourced, Do-it-Yourself Web Designing World.

Let the comments begin!

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  • Crowdsourcing is great! It’s a clientside filter of the type of clients I don’t want. So any @$$hole that uses lil indian kids to have their logo designed: good luck with that, see you next year.

    • One the one hand, I agree that it does filter out the low-end clients. However, keep in mind that many top brands, like Google and Toyota, have crowdsourced their logo designs.

      Regarding those “lil indian kids,” the generation of up-and-coming artists and animators in India learned their skill from their fathers, who were temple painters and passed their craft on to their children. So you could make the case that many of them have more artist talent and training, due to working with their fathers as children, than Western designers with only four years of formal schooling.

  • For me what is important is that people get paid from their work. If they get paid then it’s okay. Crowd sourcing in it’s rawest form is wrong, unless you’re able to get some money from the time spend. Having said this I have participated in many crowd-sourcing competitions and also paid many to compete.

    There is a difference between hiring somebody and crowd sourcing. When you hire you need them continuously and also need the support that comes with that person. This is not to say people who compete don’t provide support, but in the end they aren’t your employees, so it’s completely different in that respect.

    My experience from crowd-sourcing as a client was very positive indeed! It did work and I made good friends from there, so yep, for me it worked!

  • I would assume that top notch designers would not bother with this competition either once they are established. Doesn’t that mean the designers working on a project aren’t the top tier? If you are chosen as a winner is the money worth the risk usually? I don’t know everything about crowdsourcing so are there any pros for a designer like myself to compete for maybe getting paid? Is there recognition? Do big projects from big companies get listed on these sites-ones that you can brag about?

    • I know of at least two best-selling authors who crowdsourced their book cover design. So the chance for recognition does exist.

      One comment I came across during my research was from someone who got his start on 99Designs and once he built up a clientele, was able to stop entering contests.

      It’s like cold-calling—you might need to do it when you first start out, but once you get established and generate some word-of-mouth, you may be able to stop it altogether.

  • I would say the evils and the wonders have already been stated though. I’m looking forward to your part two. Like you, I’m more into solutions than complaining about problems and frankly I don’t know of any solution for this problem. I certainly don’t want to join one of these sites.

  • I completely agree with you that the market decides the success or failure of any business model. Crowdsourcing will succeed because there are many designers who need work or want to earn some extra bucks and happily work on these sites. And there is a growing number of people who like the idea of getting so many design options to choose from for a relatively cheap price. And contrary to popular perception it’s not that the designs are bad. Due to tough competition , the designers give their best to win. So whether we like it or not, crowdsourcing is here to stay.

    • “…contrary to popular perception it’s not that the designs are bad.”

      I think it’s arrogant when graphic designers act like only someone with an art degree can produce quality work. In my first semester of design school, I sat across from a guy who made the rest of us look like kindergartners with crayons. Even the instructor was blown away. He had so much natural talent that I wondered why he even bothered with school. He could have quit right then and still produced better work than those of us who went on to graduate.

  • I embrace the change to crowdsourcing in my business and have used 99Designs successfully with several clients. I also use a custom graphic designer for clients that are willing to pay for something more personal and meaningful. It really gets down to what the client is looking for and how much they want to spend. Small businesses, don’t always have the big budgets for custom work so a crowdsourced logo or web design gets the job done and within budget.

    • “Small businesses, don’t always have the big budgets for custom work so a crowdsourced logo or web design gets the job done and within budget.”

      Years ago, a friend of mine opened soup and salad bar in a local mall and paid $2,500+ for a logo design. I’m sure a crowdsourced-designed logo for $350 would have been just as effective and not hurt his restaurant’s non-existent “brand.”

      The design industry’s argument against crowdsourcing is that it “devalues” design and “hurts the industry.” But those arguments are self-serving. What about the local plumber who needs a logo but can’t justify paying $3,000 for one, and ends up using Microsoft clip art? Isn’t he better off having crowdsourcing as an option?

  • Wow, mostly positive comments on the subject. Not what I expected, based on the negativity I found during my research. Great input, everyone.

  • I don’t see crowdsourcing as a problem, but more a comfirmation that specializing in other things is necessary.

  • EastCoast

    The google logo wasn’t crowdsourced, it was developed by Ruth Kedar from an initial design by one of the founders.

    • Google’s favicon logo was crowdsourced. The winner was a design student from Brazil.

  • EastCoast

    Great design can be justified and explained – the reasons behind what the design is trying to communicate, to whom, what emotions it’s trying to invoke, what the contemporary state of play in design is.

    When you present a brand redesign in a board room, and the suits start offering (normally pretty uninformed) opinions, being able to explain what you have done, why it is an improvement, how it fits in relative to your competitors and other successful brands of the moment, how it can be reproduced on letterheads, vehicles, signage.. saying that “I like circles” or “got a cheap kid that draws good comics” ain’t gonna cut it.

    There’s more to good design than being able to draw pretty shapes. You’re unlikely to get somebody with a rich and in-depth knowledge of the craft on crowdsource sites.

    • While I do believe you ought to be able to explain (and defend) your work, I’m of the opinion that if I find myself justifying the reasons behind what the design is trying to communicate, perhaps my design didn’t do such a good job communicating it. It’s easy to claim others don’t get it. But maybe there’s a good reason they’re not getting it.

      And, yes, perhaps you’re unlikely to get designers with a rich and in-depth knowledge of the craft on crowdsource sites. But how much emotion does a plumber’s logo need to invoke? Crowdsourced design may not have a place in the board room, but it does have its place.

  • kohoutek

    That’s how I started out in 2004. I did it to “test the waters”, so to speak. I wanted to see if my design work was “good enough”. I did not do it for the money but to find out whether or not this was something I could pursue as a new career and whether I was good enough to leave my previous career behind. It wasn’t a great risk to take because I had qualifications in other fields, a profession, and a solid educational background that would have allowed me to go do something else, if the quality of my design work didn’t warrant pursuing a career in this field.

    Anyway, I did it for almost a year and had a very good success rate. During that time, I educated myself and learned the traits and attended Uni simultaneously.

    After that year, things were looking good for me, so I left Uni, ditched contests and went to pursue a proper design career. I’ve never looked back since.

    With that said, even though I have only done contests for a year, I do understand the “No-spec” crowd and agree with them and the ethics behind that movement. However, I also understand and respect anyone who wants to participate in those contests.

    In my mind, there is no wrong or right in this controversy.

    • I’m of the same mind. I believe that crowdsourced design contests can be beneficial to some people, and I also understand why many designers refuse to participate in them. I realize there are risks involved in spec work and I think you ought to be aware of them. I just have a hard time when people label it “evil.”

  • pippo

    >Regarding those “lil indian kids,” the generation of up-and-coming artists and animators in India learned their skill from their fathers, who were temple painters and passed their craft on to their children

    To be honest actual trends in webdesign seem to be on the opposite side of anything vaguely resembling indian temple art.
    To be honest I cannot tell a webdesign made by an indian guy or by someone else.
    To be honest temple painters existed all over the world and I would not say that Michelangelo, Giotto, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci et others (the list is immense) were any worse than those anonymous indian temple painters.
    While it is impossible to tell which art was finer, what is not debatable is the fact that all the guys I mentioned made it to immortal glory all over the world, on the opposite the anonymous indian painters remained well….anonymous.
    To me it seems, lack of personality and commoditization of art and labor in general is somewhat deeply rooted in the indian society.
    I also have the impression that commoditization of webdesign has more to do with commoditization of labor, especially young people labor, than with anything else.
    Once again I tend to disagree on everything you say but I agree that as you seem to be suggesting all the time, customer handling is possibly the most important skill to master.

    Out of curiosity, how much per hour does an operator gain in the call-center you manage?

    • “To be honest actual trends in webdesign seem to be on the opposite side of anything vaguely resembling indian temple art.”

      My point behind that story is that the perception that crowdsouced contests are completely populated by third-world people with no talent is an unfair and inaccurate stereotype.

    • “Out of curiosity, how much per hour does an operator gain in the call-center you manage?”

      It’s not something I can discuss in detail on a public forum. But here’s what I can say.

      First off, we’re an advertising and marketing company and, among other things, I manage a group of five people who set appointments for our sales team. So it’s not a call center. (If you’ve ever worked in one, you’d realize the difference.)

      Appointment-setting is not a highly-paid job, but it is commission-based, so the better you are, the more you can earn. But not all telemarketing jobs are created equal. One person I knew made $80K a year selling lawn care over the phone. Another made $70K working only part-time. A decent rep can make $40K selling Yellow Pages over the telephone. I hope that (sort of) answers your question.

  • Jim Arthur

    Many people who bid on these projects use pirated software which hurts the software industry. It is a trend to exploit labor just like Chinese factory workers are exploited. But as long as millions in more desperate economic conditions are willing to be exploited it will continue to trend. Will it all even out in 30 or 40 years or will all the software and design companies be out of business?

    • “Many people who bid on these projects use pirated software which hurts the software industry.”

      The problem with such a statement is you have no proof. And by making it, you help perpetuate a stereotype.

      A big design firm could discourage its clients against using freelancers by making the same type of claims that are leveled against crowdsourced designers. How would the freelance community react if these firms said things like:

      “Most freelancers are low-talent designers that couldn’t get a job with a big firm like ours. That’s why they freelance.”

      “Most freelancers use pirated software, which basically makes them criminals. You wouldn’t want to hire a criminal, would you?”

      “Most freelancers plagiarize their designs from other, more talented designers, and you have no way of knowing until you get hit with a copyright infringement lawsuit.”

      Now I’m sure all of the above is true for a small percentage of freelancers. But claiming that it applies to most or all freelancers is a mis-representation of the freelance community, wouldn’t you say?

  • I’m just embarking on a crowdsourced competition for the second time. There’s the chance to win a motivating prize, and to get experience and exposure. If I was overwhelmed with work, I wouldn’t have the time to bother. But as it turns out, I’m between projects. Also, I like and trust the company that’s sponsoring it. There is always the other aim to add a new portfolio piece.

  • Just following the contend by AIDA that “crowdsourcing is detrimental for both designer and client” you have got valid argument. It disrupts the natural flow of design process and lowers the price value. Since you have asked for the solution here it is, John:

    I think that the message should come from authorities like AIDA, Behance and other similar organizations. AIDA and any professional associations, professionals, design firms etc. should make a note on their websites about the issue. Educate. People should be educated by a logical and a valid reasoning why crowdsourcing sucks. Perhaps some national sats showing percentage of happy vs unhappy crowdsource customer, will help. It can be very affective if designers join the movement. We are well netwroked. After all it is in our own interest. We have power of technology just as 99Designs and CrowdSpring do. When during Bush administration people complained, it make a huge effect on Google’s searches – you were directed to White House website just by typing “failure” if I remember correctly. Similarly you cannot learn about the types of hummer (tool) just type “hummer”.

    So, creating awareness. Technology is power. It is not a “pick forks”. We are already writing so much every day, blogging, twiitting… keep doing that with this in mind “Honestly help people to make a right chose”. Be advisors to a crowd. After all why we are learning so much to improve our skills? For the users benefit, for better design future.

    OK shoot me.

    • A. Curtis

      Great answer Walter!

    • Walter,

      When I wrote that “tourches and pitch forks” headline, I couldn’t help but think of the first Shrek movie, when he tells Donkey that all anyone ever sees is the fact that he’s an ogre. To the villagers, being an ogre made him a detriment—there was no “upside.” But to Fiona, Shrek had his pros and cons. Sure, he was an ugly ogre who lived in a swamp and struggled with inter-personal relationships, but he also had a good heart.

      By claiming that crowdsourcing is detrimental to the client, you are “ogre-izing” it. Or, to use a more common term, you’re demonizing the opposition. That’s a lot like RIM claiming that using Android and iOS devices are “detrimental” to consumers when, in reality, it’s detrimental to RIM. For the consumer, it’s a matter of the pros and cons of each device, and the individual user’s personal choice about each.

      As I said in the article, crowdsourcing is disruptive. That’s detrimental to the industry. But for the consumer, it comes down to pros and cons. To say it’s detrimental (i.e., harmful, damaging), when in reality, there are advantages and disadvantages to crowdsourcing, is being intellectually dishonest.

      If you truly want to be an advisor and “honestly help people to make a right choice,” then instead of educating clients about “why crowdsourcing sucks,” try honestly educating them on the pros and cons of both crowdsourcing and using your solution. I’m convinced clients will respond much better to that approach, especially when you do so on a one-on-one basis rather in a “anti-crowdsourcing” movement.

      (And incidentally, whenever an industry comes out so forcefully against something, it makes me curious about what they’re not telling me, and gets me investigating the matter. And sometimes I end up in favor of that which they were so very opposed. I suspect I’m not unique in this.)

      Steve Jobs used to say that marketing is about values. In part two, I’m going to talk about how, if you’re against crowdsourcing, you ought to have a strong value proposition to support why you believe the pros of your solution outweighs the advantages of crowdsourcing. People who value those advantages will get it. Those who don’t will fail to be convinced, and you can quickly move on. In my mind, that’s much more effective and less time-consuming than joining a movement to “educate the public.”

  • In an open market you can always find somebody to get you something cheaper. Frankly, many website owners are wasting their time because they didn’t spend the time and money to do a good job. But that’s not my problem. I’ve heard, “I can get this done by a Serbian for almost nothing.” My response, “Then why are you still talking to me?” The hardest part of the bidding process is letting people know that I cant invest my time and energy in a project that will fail because if they aren’t willing to invest their resources in it. Red flags that tell me to stay away: rush jobs, demands to use open source software instead of the pro stuff I paid big bucks for, people who want you to change existing material or reinvent the internet. ~Brooke

    • Everything you said was true before crowdsourcing ever existed. I constantly ran into people who thought a website should cost $300, and my response was a slightly more polite variation of yours.

      Recognizing and avoiding “red flags” is part of being a smart business person. Like you, those with no budget or who are unwilling to invest their time and energy into cooperating with me to insure that the job gets done right are both huge red flags.

      But don’t assume every client who crowdsources his project does so because he’s a cheapskate. I’ve read many comments from such clients that say they did so because of having to pay a previous designer who didn’t deliver what they wanted. For these people, crowdsourcing was a way to “test drive” a designer and once they find one, they continue to do business with them in the normal client/designer fashion.

      In one comment on another of my articles, a client wrote that the reason he used a DIY web solution is because of an arrogant designer who wouldn’t listen to what he wanted. I think that if we angrily assume that all crowdsourcing clients are scumbag, exploiting cheapskakes, we’ll fail to learn some valuable lessons as to some of the real reasons people resort to these solutions rather than hiring us.

  • A. Curtis

    Wow! Interesting comments, to say the least. John T., I love ALL of your articles. Fortunately I have to ability to see the pros and cons of every situation without judgement. I have participated in “contests” and while it does have it’s place (i.e., designers can strengthen their skills to some degree), it does lack the ability to really “connect with clients”. The “creative briefs” that are placed on the contest boards are so vague. While those of us who appreciate and understand the importance of the “brief” care to inquire to get more information to create solid designs, like me, it is always a race against the clock/deadline for the prize. It definitely should not be all about pretty images especially at the expense of not being able to communicate the client’s brand properly the first time.

    • I hope I’m not giving the impression that I think crowdsourced design is wonderful and that everyone ought to be drinking the Kool-Aid. I see both the pros and cons of the issue, and I believe that everyone needs to face the issue rationally instead of emotionally so they can make wise business choices regarding how to respond to it.

      Personally, I avoided places like Guru.com and elance like the plague, and I’d do the same with crowdsourced design contests. But, like you I also recognize they have their place.

      Glad to hear you love ALL of my articles. Another person here disagrees with everything I say. Now I know how it feels to run for office …

    • Jason

      “Fortunately I have to ability to see the pros and cons of every situation without judgement.”

      Impossible. Sorry. That’s just not humanly possible, unless you aren’t human? then okay, maybe.

  • Jason

    ” Yet, for every designer or client who’s had a bad crowdsourcing experience, there’s another who had a great one.”

    Not true at all. I’ve only ever heard bad stories from real people I’ve met. Sure there are random people on the net like yourself that say otherwise every now and then but it’s not 50/50 mate.

  • Christopher Bergin

    I see the crowdsourcing trend as I see the whole outsourcing trend. Yes, a company can improve the bottom line by delegating areas of the business to third parties that know nothing about the company let alone embracing it’s spirit, if there IS any. But successful companies, to me, adopt a philosophy and establish a synergy with it’s partners. A campaign that all parties are invested in. I suppose there will be plenty of businesses that will need to create a presence to get it or keep it relevant but I’d like to focus on the companies that are serious about there identity. This can be achieved by establishing a relationship with it’s design partner.

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