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December 12, 2011


Is crowdsourcing the future of design?

by Rick Byrne


First named in a 2006 Wired article simply put crowdsourcing is the sourcing of a task usually done by an individual to a community of people through an open competition. Usually only one person gets paid for their chosen design submission and the rest essentially have done the work for free. Due to the speculative (‘spec’) nature of the work the design profession is having a highly visceral reaction to crowdsourcing. As an experiment I decided to look at it in depth by both setting my own brief and responding to someone else’s brief.


You post a brief for a design project with a fee on one of the crowdsourcing sites listed in the appendix. Types of projects include the design of logos, websites, brochures, posters, T-shirts etc. Various designers around the world see the brief, evaluate the effort it would take to respond versus the fee offered (frequently a few hundred dollars) and decide to either decline or start working. By way of an example one logo project for $650 on received 256 submissions.

Crowdsourcing is a two way street. A small business owner or small charity could probably never afford a design house or ad agency. Designers responding to the brief could be design students, unemployed or live in a part of the world where a few hundred dollars could be a week or a month’s salary. The internet being the great leveler, people from the first group (those posting design briefs) have their needs met by people from the second group (those submitting designs).


If you Google “Crowdsourcing design” or click this link ( you will turn up many entries from the design profession that have a negative view of the process. The emphasis in these discussions is the devaluing of design by spec work/working for free. Various analogies are used along the lines of eating in 5 restaurants but only paying for the meal you like the most.

By contrast in the current marketplace publishers and agencies are constantly asked to submit RFPs (Request For Proposals) for large corporate clients. On average 14 companies will put their responses in for every RFP. Only one or two will get the business. The money involved can be anywhere from $100k to a few million dollars so everyone focuses on winning and not on the loss of time it takes to answer every RFP.

Yet when the same concept is applied to the lower end of the market the design community is up in arms with a very visceral reaction which seems to be rooted in the undermining of the value of one’s own career, education and/or self worth. It’s understandable and it must be how doctors feel when patients say “it must be X, I know this because I read about it online”. Yet at the same time we as designers are happy to use work from other creatives for free such as or


Often these emotional reactions to crowdsourcing obscure three factors that form the real substance of the process. Firstly small business owners like the guys above (from a diner near where I live) need logos, a micro site and other promotional material. What they can actually afford is far smaller than what a design agency would charge. As it is agencies work on long term relationships and would never touch these kinds of micro-projects. Thanks to crowdsourcing the small business owners will get something better than a logo created by themselves in Word.

Secondly the designers responding to crowdsourced briefs need the money otherwise they wouldn’t bother: the higher the fee the better the responses as more people take the time-vs-payoff gamble. While crowdsourcing is unlikely to pay the bills if a designer is out of work it is also a great way to keep designing.

Thirdly these competitions best suit logos or similar small design projects as they are more finite. Long term projects that make up the bulk of agency work and may not work out so well for crowdsourcing e.g. maintaining a website can be more difficult than building one in the first place. In fact Emily Howman from DesignCrowd had this to say about longer term projects: “The percentage has dropped dramatically since we started only running contests for web design and not web coding. Web design/development projects tend to be the longest running and the most involved. The building of a website can take many months.”


I thought that the best way to objectively look at crowdsourcing was to reply to somebody else’s brief. The project I chose was to create a logo for Peer Analytics, a company that sifts through cell phone data to find the right time to upgrade or send offers to cell phone users rather than have them go to another network provider. The full brief can be found by clicking here. I chose this project as it intellectually challenged me more than many of the other briefs available at the time which were mostly for hotels, cafés or pubs. Their brief also asked for something modern and up market.

I noticed the last line of the brief asked for “Nice to Have: – Clever user of Negative Space. But not critical.” so I figured they know a bit about design and I had a chance to do something different. Since the bounty on this project was $900 I thought that there would be a lot of submissions, many portraying cell phones, people talking on phones and key pads. If I was going to spend the time I wanted to submit something different and clever to even have a chance of being picked.

I spent 45 minutes with pen in hand toying with the idea of hidden meanings in the data and without realizing it was influenced by the TV show Fringe (which I was watching at the time). I hit upon the idea of using numbers to make up the letters in the logo. Tossing it around for another 45 minutes I hit upon using ‘7999’ reflected to make the name ‘Peer’.  A further hour in illustrator produced the final polished logo below. I did two more logos, neither of which were chosen, bringing the total time spent on this project to about 5 hours.

The first design was eliminated soon after with the following feedback:
“Thanks for your submission but this is not what I’m after. Please try again. Clever use of 733t speak! But our audience has too much to think about in a glance and most won’t understand.” I had to look up ‘733t’ and found this on Urban dictionary: “Common form of writing used by online gamers in which letters are replaced with numbers – such as ‘3’ for ‘e’, and ‘4’ for ‘a’. Pronounced ‘leet’, the name is short for ‘elite’ – a highly sought-after status in the gaming world.” I had no idea.

The second logo (P33R) wasn’t eliminated for a week so must have been closer to what they were looking for. In theory I got nothing for my efforts but I liked what I did so I might just put it in my portfolio. Peers Analytics must have a hard time deciding from the submissions as the deadline was extended. When the competition was closed there were 307 submissions. I didn’t get to see the logo that was finally chosen but here is their website, which might  up on their site soon:


I chose the Australia based site as I found their site was well laid out and nicely designed so as a designer my hopes were high. As a private individual I only had a budget of $350 ($300 prize, $50 to Design Crowd) and somewhere in the world there were people who would be willing to gamble the time needed to respond to a brief for that amount. I just needed to find them. I thought I would really put things to the test and have the competition’s focus on my own logo. What if the crowdsourced designers could do a much better job than I did? Here’s how DesignCrowd break down their packages and below that I’ve added my logo as it currently is:

And here’s my brief to redesign the logo with the Look and Feel slider below (full details can be found by clicking here):
I am a designer writing about crowdsourcing for my blog ( and I’m putting my money where my mouth is in order to write about the whole process.

I’m looking for a logo that best sums up me as an art director. For me the most unique aspect of art direction is the ability to problem solve. I do so either through coming up with clever ideas and/or unique styles that match the solution. My portfolio can be found here:

Here’s a SWF I did a few year’s ago which shows the thinking behind the current logo:
You don’t have to use anything at all from this SWF but it may provide insight into how I think.

I like blue in various shades but I think this is preventing me seeing other better color palettes and so I am open to suggestions.


I guaranteed that there would be a payment on the project even if I was unhappy with the responses which meant waiving the right to a refund. I felt it was the ethical thing to do when someone is responding to my brief for free. Next I clicked the button that would send a link for this project to the top 20 recommended designers who frequently respond to DesignCrowd. I saw that they were located in the UK, Philippines, Australia, France, Brazil, Romania, Bulgaria, India, UAE, Venezuela, Peru and one in the USA. Mentioning that I was going to write about the whole process on my blog may have helped getting some of these designers to respond. A higher fee would have probably helped get them all to respond.

2 hours and 15 minutes later the first response came in. Another response followed 30 minutes later. In 72 hours I had 21 logos from 8 designers, however I felt the majority of submissions were repurposed from previous logo competitions and had little to do with me. In the end there were 35 logo submissions from 13 designers. Here’s a selection:


Henno is an art director living in South Africa who was new to DesignCrowd. His design resonated with me straight away. It was clear he had read the brief and understood what I was looking for. Here’s his creative rationale: “The logo I designed for you gives you a sense of order in chaos but comes together at the end, Much like art direction with 2 sides and you having to accommodate both and come to a mutual agreement, I used 2 strong colors not one more intimidating than the other to balance the message behind the logo.”

I would never have chosen black and red as colors for me but it looks sexy. I asked him to do a version in blue for better continuity with my existing logo. Henno gave me four color options and two entirely new designs. Here are some of his options:

This was the logo I chose as the new logo (watch out for a future rebranding of my website, blog, résumé, business cards etc.):

And for his $300 here’s what it is worth in South Africa where he lives: “Well lets see for $300/R2500 you could go to dinner with your girlfriend, nothing expensive that would be R1000 and petrol would be R500.  To go to a fun park with rides, roller coasters and that would be another R1000 but no food 2 drinks and parking that is it,”


The internet is already crowdsourcing on a vast scale: somebody with a need can find someone able to fulfill that need no matter where they are in the world. The only difference is doing free/spec work. As for design projects, the whole process works best if the person posting the brief lives in a first world economy and the designer is in a country where the competitions prize is comparatively a lot of money. It’s simple economics.

Looking at the types of people/organizations posting these briefs I can say the design industry is not under threat from crowdsourcing. Most briefers included hotels, cafés, construction contractors, a sorority, a mom, a cabinetmaker, a beauty salon, a watch shop, a summer school etc. These are not the types of organizations that would be taking work away from the average agency or design firm. These are the types of small jobs that designers usually get asked to do for friends or friends-of-friends. The project usually ends badly and either they don’t pay anything or pay very little but the expectations are are extremely high. Now I can send these friends or friends-of-friends to crowdsourcing sites and point out that they will get many more designs than I could ever provide.

The crowdsourcing process works best for projects with limited needs like logos. DesignCrowd clearly recognized this and since I first published this post they launched their own logo only site: BrandCrowd. However I wouldn’t want to respond to a crowdsourced brief to create a brochure or website which can be a long and drawn out process even in a agency. As for the future I can foresee clients thinking crowdsourcing is a great idea. The proof will be getting a large, ongoing and continually changing project from start to finish through crowdsourcing. This is the area where having a dynamic and ongoing relationship with a designer or agency is critical to the whole process, something that crowdsourcing cannot provide.


Crowdsourcing sites:

Ethically against Crowdsourcing:



8 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Poore
    Dec 13 2011

    Really well done post Rick. I think the bigger issue with the designers I know comes down to who owns and what happens to spec work that is not chosen. Many designers feel that their creative ideas will be taken and executed by a less expensive or in house resource.

    I agree that crowdsourcing is not a major threat to designers.

    Again, great post!

  2. Dec 13 2011

    Interesting article Rick. I love that you both responded to and created a brief – what a great idea. As an agency owner, we were initially a little concerned that crowdsourcing would eventually run us out of business. So, pretty early on, we crowdsourced a logo that we were working on for a client. We ran our own test, where our internal team was essentially competing with the crowd. I’m happy to say that our internal team triumphed by a considerable margin. The crowdsourced logos were at best extremely derivative and at worst unusable. Nevertheless, I can see a use for companies or organizations that either don’t have the budget for an agency, or their business doesn’t rely on a strong visual identity (your local diner owners for example). The iStockphoto example you cite is also an interesting case in point. We are happy to use these very cheap resources as the building blocks for some of our projects. But for a leading brand, intent on creating and owning a strong visual language, there will always be the need for bespoke image and graphic treatments.

  3. Dec 13 2011

    I took on your brief to see how effective my design would be in one of the most advanced countries in the world. It being a logo for your blog discussing crowdsourcing, made it a really interesting project. This was the first logo I’ve done that was not based in Africa and it was an interesting learning curve. When I saw the other logo’s being submitted only one or two made sense to me because I am so used to designing in my country where the majority of the population are African (with such a high percentage of them having little to no education because of our apartheid era). As a result you have to bring the message through visually above all other design aspects and make it as simplistic as possible for it to succeed. Crowd sourcing in Africa is not very successful if the designer don’t completely understand how to go about conceptualizing.

    So now I am trying to learn a lot through clients like Rick and to make my designs more target orientated through DesignCrowd and it wasn’t to see if I can make a living out of designing for different countries. Overall I think crowdsourcing is a good thing, the only problem I have noticed is that so many logo’s are so similar in style and haven’t really seen a lot that is 100% different from the current trend: for me those are the ones that should be considered more by the First World countries.

  4. Gary Finn
    Dec 14 2011

    Awesome read, a few additional thoughts.

    I agree that crowdsourcing is not a threat to agencies — and probably not even freelancers — for several reasons:

    First, with a limited number of exceptions (like the logos you experimented with), clients hire agencies for more than pure design chops. They are looking for responsiveness, reliability, and (ideally) partnership. I don’t see how you can get any of these from crowdsourcing. Even with 2+ decades of doom-saying to the contrary, business is still about relationships.

    Second, and you touched on this with your website example, when you look at all of the myriad challenges agencies are asked to solve, very few of them are actually pure design challenges or have simple solutions. (I use simple not to describe the design itself, but rather the amount of resources that need to be amassed to solve it.) Clients need designers, but they need writers, coders, strategists, and yes, even account people. Freelance designers would do well to align themselves with other disciplines to avoid becoming the commodity that sites like DesignCrowd sell.

    As to your analogy on stock photos & type, I’m not sure it’s apples-to-apples. Stock photos and type aren’t usually commissioned by someone but are posted by the creator to encourage as many people to use them as possible — for a small fee (iStockphoto and dafont are not free for professional use as far as I know). It is a volume game, where my ability to use an image does not preclude 10 other companies from using the same one (we often see this in stock photos, lol). You must admit that the number of companies who can use a Byrne Communications or Peer Analytics logo is much more limited.

    All of which is my long-winded way of advising designers not to sell their designs, but to sell themselves.

    • Dec 16 2011

      I agree with your post and was interesting reading it the only thing is, after having a look at some of the designs chosen on Design Crowd I realized there is a bad part to it and that is visual pollution, Although I use the system and all for Crowd sourcing, I think in the long run it is not worth it. Or is it ?. We had a similar problem in South Africa where you could study Graphic Design in 3 months through the post, The market got bombarded with a lot of so called designers that delivered bad quality work at half the price of the properly qualified designers. The chance at that time for getting a design position with a decent salary was really hard, but eventually clients saw there products weren’t selling and luckily for designers like me all went back to normal and those other designers are now what it seems like going onto sites like E-lance and design crowd, so for now There is no threat to Agencies and Freelance Designers.

  5. Aaron Schneider
    Jan 3 2012

    What a well constructed test, and argument. You have successfully convinced me—in particular with this statement:
    “By contrast in the current marketplace publishers and agencies are constantly asked to submit RFPs (Request For Proposals) for large corporate clients. On average 14 companies will put their responses in for every RFP. Only one or two will get the business. The money involved can be anywhere from $100k to a few million dollars so everyone focuses on winning and not on the loss of time it takes to answer every RFP.”

    I have worked on more than my fair share of RFP’s at more than one agency. It’s a do or die mentality for winning VERY large clients… UNFORTUNATELY, I might add, because of the extreme cost. The last couple RFP’s, in particular, I’ve spent cumulative months of my intellectual and emotional energy to put the best work forward with a team of people. Treating it as equal, if not more, to a paying client. Yes I’ve won a few (I still have a job) but the last couple were lost at the #2 position, after multiple cut-off rounds. This hurts on so many levels, especially financially for an agency. At the day-to-day level, paying work means longer hours, shifting work to other Art Directors, or eating the additional cost of freelance. These #2 losses were won by incumbent agencies with a working relationship on a different aspect of the client’s business. This speaks not to the quality of work, but to the relationships and partnerships that grow between client and agency. It’s our job to know, understand and then sell our client’s product/service in ways our client never imagined. We are partners in connecting the unseen paths between the consumer and our client. Successful designers live and breath this… no matter what size the client. Unless a client is unhappy with an agency, and truly looking to replace them, it’s often very hard to compete with the business relationship that grows between client and agency in a RFP. Often times these RFP’s are “refresh” territory, and new relationship/cost realization strikes the client at the last second; leaving the incumbent in securely in place.

    The point… As a designer, position yourself as a business partner with your client.

    The result of this… in regards to crowdsourcing design-only executions—Rick sums it up with these three statements:

    “As it is agencies work on long term relationships and would never touch these kinds of micro-projects.”
    “Long term projects that make up the bulk of agency work and may not work out so well for crowdsourcing.”
    “Most briefers included hotels, cafés, construction contractors, a sorority, a mom, a cabinetmaker, a beauty salon, a watch shop, a summer school etc. These are not the types of organizations that would be taking work away from the average agency or design firm. These are the types of small jobs that designers usually get asked to do for friends or friends-of-friends.”

    I too have a new outlet for those friends and family requests I choose not to have time for…. crowdsourcing sites!

    “The proof will be getting a large, ongoing and continually changing project from start to finish through crowdsourcing. This is the area where having a dynamic and ongoing relationship with a designer or agency is critical to the whole process, something that crowdsourcing cannot provide.”

    Agree! How the heck would you crowdsource a long term project with multiple meetings, multiple back-and-forth decisions, an ever-changing ‘finish line’, change of scope. In other words, that would be a tremendous amount of work exponentially duplicated on the client side for a small/medium business owner already strapped for time wearing multiple hats. Good luck with that.

    Aaron Schneider
    Associate Creative Director at a large agency & a small business partner with my wife

  6. Jan 9 2012

    Very well written piece Rick- I love when an Art Director goes ambidextrous. As a copywriter I’m not sure how much this would apply to me, but it’s a much more intimate way for client and creative to see if they have synergy, rather than solely reviewing past work in portfolios. For juniors this sounds like a great way to build your base of experience and build relationships.

    I do wonder if the issues of intellectual and creative proprietary rights will be an issue. It can be scary to put forth your work and not know what people will do with what they see, i.e. prospectors who could look, gather and use this as a source of refined raw material they take elsewhere. In a system with checks and balances I think this could really thrive and open many doors and builds valuable relationships.

  7. Jan 18 2012

    No industry specific knowledge to share, but wanted to send kudos to Rick for an excellent article – well written and well researched with a very interesting experimental forage into the crowdsourcing world. I’m also inspired to try it myself. Thank you for sharing.


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