Is crowdsourcing the future of design?
WHAT IS CROWDSOURCING?
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.
HOW CROWDSOURCING WORKS
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 designcrowd.com 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).
WHY SUCH A VISCERAL REACTION TO CROWDSOURCING?
If you Google “Crowdsourcing design” or click this link (http://www.no-spec.com/articles/) 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 iStockphoto.com or dafont.com.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
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.”
MY RESPONSE TO A BRIEF
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: www.peeranalytics.com.au
POSTING MY OWN BRIEF
I chose the Australia based site DesignCrowd.com 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 (https://designcareer.wordpress.com/) 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: http://byrnecommunications.com/
Here’s a SWF I did a few year’s ago which shows the thinking behind the current logo: http://cbsiideagroup.com/blog_header/1321910668.html
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.
RESPONSES TO THE BRIEF
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:
AND THE WINNER IS…
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 ByrneCommunication.com 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.
Ethically against Crowdsourcing: