Crowdsourcing: The Debate Roars On

By: Amanda Ray

December 4, 2012

pantone color app

Crowdsourcing has sparked a heated debate within the design community.
Critics argue that crowdsourcing devalues the designer and their process and ultimately encourages people to treat design as a mere commodity. Meanwhile, supporters say involving large, undefined groups of people can actually boost creativity and productivity.

Tom Smalling, creative director of design and photography firm Smalling Studios, is a critic of crowdsourcing.

“[Crowdsourcing] is devaluing the whole process of design as an exercise in visual problem-solving, and turning it into a collection of stock art utilizing the latest design fads,” says Smalling, a Photography alumnus of The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

But, proponents defend crowdsourcing as a way to tap into a wide creative pool and spend less money. Mike Samson, co-founder of crowdSPRING – a major player in the crowdsourcing arena, said in a May 2010 Ai InSite article that crowdsourcing actually encourages creativity: “This diversity of talent and creativity – enabled by internet technology –  elevates creativity and the creative industries in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago.”

While some marketers and crowdsourcing companies like crowdSPRING are quick to defend their business, many designers have not shied away from sharing their opinions. With all the conversations going on, it is sometimes hard to keep up.

Crowdsourcing concept is not new

Although the term crowdsourcing was coined in 2006, the concept is certainly not new. Crowdsourcing has been traced back to 1714, when the British government offered 20,000 pounds to the person who could solve “The Longitude Problem.” The first corporate example of crowdsourcing is said to be the Toyota Logo Contest in 1936 in which the Japanese car company sought a new logo for their brand.

Author Jeff Howe – who was one of the first to use the term crowdsourcing in a June 2006 Wired magazine article – on his blog defines crowdsourcing as “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call.”

In recent years, big companies including Starbucks and the Gap have touted crowdsourcing as a way to connect with the creative community.

Beyond design, crowdsourcing exists in a broad range of activities. Wikipedia and YouTube, for instance, are considered forms of crowdsourced information and crowdsourced entertainment, respectively.

Speculative work and crowdsourcing: one in the same? 

In addition to being considered contests, crowdsourcing is also considered a form of freelancing, outsourcing, and speculative (spec) work – the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project. The relationship between spec work and crowdsourcing is at the center of the contention among some designers.

Some of these designers have organized a campaign against speculation work called “No!Spec.”

Graphic designer and marketing consultant Neil Tortorella is a supporter of the No!Spec campaign. He says the concept of requesting free work is at the core of both spec work and crowdsourcing. “Frankly, I don’t see any difference between spec work and crowdsourcing,” says Tortorella, an alumnus of The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Lisa Winand, a graphic artist and alumna of The Art Institute of Tampa, agrees that spec work and crowdsourcing are based on the same idea, adding that she thinks crowdsourcing sends a message that design is not a profession worth the respect given to other fields. “No one holds ‘contests’ to hire the best doctor, attorney, auto mechanic, plumber, etc.,” she says. “Designers should be selected on the basis of their portfolios, experience, and work ethic just as any professional.”

Professional design organization AIGA has weighed in on the crowdsourcing issue. AIGA discourages spec work and calls out what the organization believes are critical issues designers may face with crowdsourcing.

Ric Grefé, executive director of the AIGA, says designers should consider the ethical and intellectual property issues involved in crowdsourcing.

“When we talk about ethical and intellectual property rights issues, we must realize there are two vulnerabilities: the client’s demands, which will usually be in their self-interest, and the designer’s willingness to enter into a process in which they do not retain their ownership rights,” he says.

Business perspective on crowdsourcing

Graham Gibson, president of internet and direct marketing firm Graham Gibson Consulting, has used graphic design crowdsourcing website 99designs to run dozens of contests to create everything from websites to packaging design. He has paid out more than $6,000 in prize money for crowdsourced creative.

“From a business owner perspective, there is no way you can deny harnessing the world’s creative energy to bring products to life,” he says of crowdsourcing. “As a business, I can get something at 10% of the cost that I would pay a design firm for.”

Before using crowdsourcing, Gibson hired designers and firms to meet his creative needs. He says that in many of these cases, he was unsatisfied with the designs he received. Crowdsourcing, however, has provided him with designs that are exactly what he was looking for.

“I will look at submissions, see a particular design, and say ‘that is the winner,’” he says.

He suggests designers consider the potential for future work that a crowdsourcing contest can offer.

“I have access to designers who will understand what I want,” he says. “I have chosen some of the designers I’ve met from crowdsourcing for other work.”

Crowdsourcing can also give businesses a chance to test out possible designs. For example, 99designs has a voting feature that allows contest holders to create a poll for friends, colleagues, and those on social networks to help them choose the best design.

“There may be a design I think is great, but others don’t like it,” Gibson says. “With things like voting, you can be one step ahead of your competition because you have already tested out a design with the public.”

Designers who participate in crowdsourcing

Although crowdsourcing sites are filled with the portfolios of new designers trying to break into the industry, many experienced designers participate, too.

Kris Taft Miller, designer and founder of KT Design LLC, has participated in design contests on the 99designs site since 2009, after returning to freelance work from maternity leave.

“I found myself immediately enjoying the challenge of the projects,” says Miller, who started freelancing six years ago after working in a number of creative positions for Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios for eight years. “Being a naturally competitive person, the competition aspect was appealing to me as well.”

Miller has won 20% of the nearly 70 design contests she’s participated in so far. She says designers definitely need to enter contests with a certain mindset. “I came at it with a feeling of experimenting and learning through a project, both from trying out design choices as well as checking out how other designers interpreted the directions for the project,” she explains. “Obviously, it’s always nice to win [a contest], but I don’t think that can be the entire motivation for participating because you are setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment.”

The ability to choose projects she feels inspired by and wants to participate in, and move on if a project proves to be a poor match is one advantage of crowdsourcing, according to Miller. “The cons from a designer’s perspective are limited feedback, or sometimes no feedback,” she says. “There is also the challenge of working with a limited amount of information and interaction with a client.”

How Crowdsourcing affects design process

Most designers agree that client interaction is extremely important to the design process. Crowdsourcing, critics say, diminishes this interaction and therefore hurts the quality of design.

“Being there for the client and walking them through the design process is the best way to inform your client of why a solution works and how it can be integrated throughout their entire brand,” Smalling says. “I think this is most certainly lost on the crowdsourcing sites.”

Tortorella says designers working on crowdsourced projects are left to take their best guess at a design solution. “There is no relationship and usually little, if any, understanding of the problem,” he explains. “When that happens, the ‘solution’ isn’t strategic design at all; it’s merely graphic decoration – a pretty picture with little or no substance.”

AIGA’s Grefé says businesses and designers should explore alternatives to crowdsourcing that satisfy both parties’ needs. “Businesses can tap into more creativity by inviting proposals from designers who can show other work on similar projects and describe how they would approach a project,” he suggests. “Select a designer, enter into a contract, and work together. More creativity and less cost may be an aspiration of the business, but more features and less cost is similarly a frustrated interest of most of the business’ consumers.”

“If the business describes its budget when it requests proposals, it will attract the designers who will work for those fees rather than having designers bid down the price, as many crowdsourcing marketplaces do,” he continues.

Ultimately, it’s the designer’s choice on whether to participate in crowdsourcing. But one thing is for sure; crowdsourcing is here and the debate will likely continue for a long time to come.

Author: Darice Britt

Learn more about our programs.

Get Brochure