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.

# #

May 28, 2013


Interesting post.
I’m not really in favour of the concept as I think it undermines the importance of design and a true designer / client relationship.

​Really interesting, David, thanks!
​Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across that theorizes about crowds and such similar phenomena.​
It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here:
In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. Enjoy!

Thanks for posting this. I recently got sent a call for submissions for a logo competition being run by a community organisation. I didn’t enter, but your post has prompted me to write to them, explaining (in as friendly a manner as I can!) why what they’re doing isn’t great and what their alternatives are.

Thanks, David.

I was recently contacted by a large outdoor show to produce designs, against 4 other agencies, for pitch. On the outset I was very happy that they chose me to put work forward but then I discovered that they expected spec work. When I questioned this and gracefully backed out of the process (not an easy thing to do) their response was that the winning agency would reap way more if they were successful in the pitch. That’s all good and well for the winning agency but not for the other 4. I’m surprised, that in today’s climate, that anyone is still able and willing to offer spec work.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David. I was recently asked to submit an exclusive bid to re-design the logo for a non-profit association. A week later I learned that the board of directors had decided to crowd source the design… to get more ideas to look at and to save money. Unfortunately, I cannot address the board directly, but can share my concerns with the executive director. I’m waiting to hear of the outcome.

Money and choice trump effectiveness and function for many enterprises, and they’ll take the immediate and cheap route.

I wonder sometimes about the constant need for payment for investment of time. While I do demand payment from a client who benefits from my work; I think that during slow times, when I don’t have a current project, keeping busy at my craft is important. There are sometimes weeks or even a month when I am without a project. Submitting work on a crowd source website keeps my creative juices flowing.

There are many things I do as a volunteer and they all take time, valuable time. While money is great and one can seldom have too much of it, there are benefits to continually working, doing something creative on a daily basis that cannot be valued simply by a $. I often have found that design crowd work that was done but not paid for often lead to a design concept that I used later.

Marketing is one of the biggest problems I have seen with freelance designers (which is funny considering that marketing IS their business) Design crowd websites remind me of just how many companies are in need of design help on a daily basis and inspires me to renew my marketing efforts.

In a perfect world we would see our craft as a joyful experience rather than a job …but we all have to pay bills and I understand that, but when design becomes solely a means of income I’m gunna look for another job and spend the time in my studio having fun.

P S this quote was in the article on Paul Jarvis….“Pay your dues and if you want something, earn it by doing everything you can while expecting nothing. Acting like you’ve put in your time and now deserve more than someone else will get you nowhere but thought of as an ass pretty fast.”.

P SS Nike’s swoosh was the result of a contest she was paid pennies for it but I’m sure she has benefitted from that contest in the long run.

To me it seems like the only people who dislike crowdsourcing are the ones who are threatened by it. The fact is that crowdsourcing is the future. No longer do a few people have a monopoly on designing. The internet levels the playing field. Because of crowdsourcing, now true talent and hard work can rise to the top. Anyone who dislikes crowdsourcing just dislikes the competition.

Cheers jm, I’ll have a read.

You’re very welcome, Rachel. I hope all’s well in Melbourne.

It’s probably easier for large studios or agencies to submit RFPs, Steve. Easier than if you work in a company of one. There’s much less risk if you’re putting 5, 10, maybe 20 percent of the workforce onto a pitch that mightn’t work out.

Alvalyn, I’m wondering if there’s a resource for non-profits where they can find designers that offer pro bono. Something tells me there is one, but I can’t find it.

Meredith, I agree about the money, and you reminded me of a post from last year, what if money was no object?

“Forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time.”

In the post above I recommend pro bono design. It doesn’t earn me money, yet it’s a lot more valuable to the designer and client when compared with crowdsourcing.

I don’t think the Nike logo had anything to do with a contest. This article said Carolyn Davidson was hired as the only designer. She was a student at the time (1971), and was paid $2 per hour (higher than the average wage) for 17.5 hours of work.

“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.”

To add on to this:

You don’t see hundreds of Architects building buildings and presenting the finished building to a client and hoping they will get picked. That’d be incredibly wasteful. What architects do is similar to a proposal or pitch, they outline what they are going to do and how then they tell companies how much it’s going to cost them in hopes of a yes or no. Sure there’s a lot of work in that but they make sure to pad the bill to compensate (Exactly like designers should do to make sure they get paid for their pitches).

The problem with these “crowd sourcing” platforms is they are pushing the “Yes or No” back until the final is created so all the risk is on the designer and none on the client. While this may seem initially appealing to clients it will force designers to cut corners and processes to get the work to a “final” state while not costing themselves too much time. As we know this usually ends in bad design.

Hi David, good observation. What is your opinion or suggestion if somebody starting or would like to become a good brand identity designer creates “fictional” brand names and just blogs about it. From your point of view, could it be some kind of solution?

Hello Mr. Airey. I greatly respect your work, appreciate your opinions and I value what you have to say about logo design contests.

However, I also know that I personally utilize contests in a very real way that I feel has been beneficial to me and to the clients that I have had the pleasure of meeting and working for through a particular contest site that I use.

My situation may be unique as a logo designer, because I am not at all trying to develop it into a full time paying career. I work full-full-FULL time as a promo designer and illustrator for a nonprofit organization, which is my passion in life and pays for my basic expenses (food, apartment, clothing) adequately, but does not allow me to catch up on credit card bills that my wife and I ran up some years ago.

So I enter design contests in my few spare hours a week. Because I am better than the average contest entrant, I win between four to eight contests a month, which keeps my credit card debts steadily going down and allows me to purchase a few perks here and there for my wife and I.

I stay in touch with the clients from those contests that I have won, providing any additional tweaks they ever need on my design, and I have cultivated several repeat clients. But again, I am absolutely not trying to make a career out of it.

Using contests instead of cultivating clients continuously means that I don’t have all the time and hassle of promoting my own services or being obligated to clients—if I can’t work on their job because my full-full-full time nonprofit job is demanding more of my time that week, then I just don’t enter contests. And if a particular contest holder turns out to have totally wack/lame ideas about what his/her logo should look like, or if it looks like winning a particular contest will simply take more hours of design work than I can spare that week, then I just withdraw from the contest and I’m not locked into some kind of contractual agreement with them to finish the work. Yes, I lose some time on contests that I don’t win, but I am pretty sure that all in all the time lost is less than the amount of time I would spend on cultivating clients, promoting my services and forming a real business model. And since the time I spend on it is my few spare hours in which I would likely be doodling around and fiddling with designing things anyway, and each design brief is like a little puzzle that is kind of fun to work on solving, the time spent is no great loss to me.

As Mr. Grefe stated, and you agreed, crowd sourcing design isn’t going away. I believe that is probably because there is a real demand for it in the marketplace which isn’t going to go away. Clearly it is not appropriate for big, serious companies, for the many reasons you have listed above. Clearly, some of the designs submitted and some of the winners chosen are unprofessional and won’t stand the test of time. But in most cases that logo design they get from a contest will probably serve the small startup company at least long enough to see if their business model has any hope of success in the marketplace—and if that business is still around in a few years, they can upgrade their logo when they are bigger and better able to afford it.

Apart from that, being in such contests, “swimming with the sharks” as it were, has been a learning experience that has also allowed me to sharpen my design skills, in my humble opinion. The competitive atmosphere and guidelines that require each designer to not copy any other artwork from anyone or anywhere else have helped me to hone skills, which have benefited my work on my regular job as a promo designer. I am better and faster at coming up with logo concepts than I was four years ago when I started. I have been called on several times since then to design logos for my nonprofit organization’s various activities, and I have been far more able to produce those rapidly and to a good product than I would have been before I started doing logo design contests.

Am I taking work out of the hands of serious designers and food out of their mouths? Wow, I hope not. I hope that in all truth there is more than enough work out there in the world for serious designers, working for serious/smart companies who want fully professional, tailored, custom designs. I could be wrong about that.

I also notice that several of my hottest competitors in these contests are people from other countries, particularly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Possibly I should be very concerned about work that should have gone to American designers ending up enriching some artist in a foreign country. But some of those guys are really good, so maybe they deserve the work if they can get it, and maybe it will start them off on great careers that will eventually bring them to international prominence as designers. I don’t know.

So anyway, I will totally understand if you and all the other posters in this thread have bad feelings towards me because of my involvement in and support of such logo design contests. But I still thought this thread would benefit from hearing a little bit of the other side of the story.

Best regards,
Matthew Veenker

Hi Matthew, differences in opinion are always welcome here, and I doubt anyone has bad feelings toward you. I certainly don’t. Thanks for dropping in.

I had a quick look at your Hatchwise profile. 89 wins from 4210 entered. You’re getting paid once every 47 times you do the work. Of course it’s your choice what you do in your spare time, but personally, I don’t fancy those odds.

Point taken. There are very many contests that I simply enter a few quick concepts for, basically a shot in the dark, then I see that the contest holder is going in a direction I’m not interested in so I just let it go. I guess that is part of the freedom that I like about it. And as you say, it is my spare time, not my dedicated work time. If I was serious about it, those would be horrible odds, as you point out.

As a serious designer in Germany I would never work in crowdsourcing. The only people earning money are the smart guys holding the business. There is no serious pitch, it’s only a parody.

Share a thought