Crowdsourcing design

Do you believe that crowdsourcing (spec work) can ever be good? For example, what if it was used to benefit a noble cause for the common good?

Donating time and ideas on a pro bono basis is commendable. I recommend it. But I take issue with companies who profit from the efforts of designers who work in the mere hope of getting paid. How highly do these companies value the time of designers when they expect hundreds of us to compete against each other with only one person getting paid? With pro bono design, both the designer and client get immeasurably more value from the project. That's different from spec work.

Ric Grefe, executive director of AIGA, is quoted as saying "crowdsourcing isn’t going away." Do you agree with this statement?


He also suggested ways in which the model can be modified, becoming "good" as a result. Do you think that crowdsourcing should be transformed?

It's important to differentiate "crowdsourcing" from "spec work." Some websites sell design contest listings, defining that as crowdsourcing, but they essentially make their profit off people who work for free. Crowdsourcing, as originally defined by Jeff Howe, can work well when used for simple tasks, in a similar way to how focus groups might be useful. For example, a designer creates a number of options around a specific brief. He or she (or the company hiring the designer) then asks the "crowd" to choose a favourite. But an entire design project from start to finish isn't so simple, and although there are always exceptions, crowdsourcing the outcome generates poor quality.

There were some recent high-profile examples, such as the Gap logo debacle, where during crisis management they almost decided to crowdsource a new logo, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), where crowdsourcing was averted with AIGA’s intervention. Do you think that companies are learning their lesson? Have they learned anything about design? Or have these strong reactions only reinforced the power of the crowd?

The fact that some companies see crowdsourcing as a cheap way to harvest ideas is understandable. It costs them very little to buy a contest listing. The bigger cost is time — sifting through hundreds of uploads in the hope of a gem. Additionally, too much choice can greatly hinder the decision-maker because it's easier to choose one from two than one from hundreds. But it's one thing reading about downsides, and another learning from our own mistakes. We rightly don't just believe everything we read.

I spoke to one of the finalists of the Obama for Jobs poster campaign. It was a student, and she was happy to do the work, it was a good conversation piece for interviews, and good for her portfolio. Given those reasons, do you think that she is naïve? Why or why not?

Design courses don't have enough teaching about spec work. I remember when I was in formal education and my class had to work on a project for an outside client. The prize was to have your design used. This seems to be a common scenario, although it's slightly different from the Obama gig, because all of my classmates' designs were critiqued by the tutor and by our peers (alas, not the client, which would've also been useful). In any case, we learned something. Not as much as we could've if the project was handled differently, but it was something. I find it tough gauging what value lies behind hundreds, perhaps thousands of poster ideas submitted without feedback, compensation, or acknowledgement.

Why do you suppose competition work is frowned upon in graphic design, and yet for other creative industries — architecture, for example — it is generally accepted and encouraged?

For graphic design, the value of the time necessary to "compete" in contests outweighs the potential reward [sometimes the reward isn't given]. From what I understand, architects will add the cost of the pitches they don't win into the invoices of those they do, so their clients compensate them for the time spent trying to win new clients. And when an architectural pitch is won, it could be hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars. There's no comparison against the typical rewards offered in graphic design contests.