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Does Crowdsourcing Work In Design?

Does Crowdsourcing Work In Design?

Whether you call it crowdsourcing, spec work, community-based design, or participatory creation, it’s fundamentally the same animal. Crowdsourcing is the act of oursourcing tasks (in our case, design) to a large group of people as part of an open call for solutions or deliverables. This might take the form of a contests, RFPs, or clients who want a “test drive” before committing to a creative firm.

In the design world, some examples are crowdsourced logos, tshirts, and a variety of other marketing and design initiatives. While the crowdsourcing concept has worked its way into the business practices of some organizations, the execution is still controversial. AIGA, the professional association for design, has taken a stand against it specifically and also contributes to the ongoing dialogue against its use. Heated comments and criticism always fly in this debate, but most of the questions boil down to one for practicing designers: Is this practice “the way of the future” or is it a deeply-flawed model of working in design and branding?

At the risk of oversimplification, we think it’s the latter. In a nutshell, crowdsourcing strategic design work hurts both designers and their prospective clients. While crowdsourcing as a technique takes many forms, design firms and their clients are usually attached to the process in work like logo design, print, tshirts, name generation, etc. But the road to crowdsourced design success looks to be a mirage. We’re approaching this discussion specifically from a design industry perspective, so most of our thoughts are focused along those lines. However, it’s definitely worth noting some honest and practical ideas about business scenarios where the strengths of crowdsourcing are better utilized.

Briefly, Where Is The Design Brief?
Nothing will shipwreck your efforts more quickly than setting off on a journey without the destination firmly in mind. This happens all the time when design projects begin while still lacking a set of strategic objectives. Sometimes a project’s goals are varied and multi-faceted. While we do what’s needed to help clients focus their efforts, the process of landing on a set of objectives is like dance. It requires back and forth, initiation and response. Good designers play interviewer and really dig into the needs of the client, and this part of the discovery process is time-intensive, requiring a level of trust. It can’t be communicated easily in a single sentence or a quick website writeup. In general, the broad crowdsourced call to a large group of designers isn’t going to be specific or concrete enough for the process to work well. Not all clients know which questions to ask for a project to head in the right direction, even if they know the eventual answers. That’s some of what experienced designers bring to the table, an important part of the relationship-building process that’s the foundation of solid end results. Crowdsourcing doesn’t lend itself well to this important first step in the process.

The Client “Leap of Faith”
Another client rationale for requesting spec work or crowdsourced design is a form of the “first date” butterflies. We sometimes hear from new and potential clients (especially those who haven’t hired design firms before) about the trepidation they feel in beginning a project. What should they expect? How do they know if they will like the results? How do they be sure the design firm will do a good job without seeing the final work? These are hurdles first-time clients have to overcome, and it may go beyond their normal comfort zones. But it’s helpful to lay out how this process works best. A design firm’s portfolio is a good indicator of the scope and quality of their work. Obviously, we all put our best foot (work) forward, but the projects a firm shows should be the level of quality you can expect if you end up hiring them. There are a few things prospective clients should look for but the specific needs are up to the project itself. At some point, after the necessary conversations, reference checking, and scrutiny of a firm’s work, clients need to take a leap and make the decision. But it’s the same kind of choice we all make when choosing which dentist or mechanic to hire – there’s no such thing as a “trial root canal” or “practice break repair.” Just like the designer-client relationship, those decisions are built on reputation, trust, and perception of quality. The sticking point is that in those instances, most of us ignore process itself, just focusing on the end result, whether it’s clean teeth or a new muffler. A good design relationship requires a little bit more involvement.

But all that said, once you’ve worked through a project with a new client, that initial nervousness can evolve into a strong relationship that rewards mutual trust and communication, making subsequent projects simpler, easier, and even better.

Why It Hurts Designers
As crass as it might sound, money is at the core of this debate. It’s all about the Benjamins. We like to think that all great designers do the work “for the love of the game,” but few of us are able to survive on that passion alone. Design love doesn’t pay the office rent or keep the lights on. This is a problem, because most crowdsourcing arrangements are weighted to heavily favor the “client,” and designers absorb most or all of the risk. A designer creates a finished deliverable, spending time, energy, and resources (all of which have value) without any guarantee of compensation. Unlike a conventional client-firm agreement, in this scenario, the client isn’t bound to pay for the work. That crowdsourcing client has no incentive to build a working relationship or to utilize the designer’s time as they would when making a financial commitment – and the designer has no leverage in drafting a fair agreement.

This arrangement might work for hobbyist designers, but for those of us who make a living charging for design expertise and services, it’s a very poor business model. The fine print in some crowdsourcing agreements is also frightening – the devil’s in the details when companies gain unlimited rights to the “winning” crowdsourced artwork, allowing them to profit from it ad infinitum, without due licensing compensation stipulated at the outset.

Now, it’s been reasonably stated that participation is voluntary and no one is forcing designers to enter into these agreements. Rightly so. But the overall effect and perception built by crowdsourcing degrades and devalues design as a valuable business asset, which hurts all designers in the long run.

Even putting aside those concerns, crowdsourcing just isn’t built to solve strategic design problems well. Sure, clients might occasionally be able to get a nice-looking logo or a solid tagline from these efforts, but crowdsourcing falls flat in instances where strategy, partnership, and other crucial intangible elements are needed. Here are some of the scenarios where crowdsourcing doesn’t work:

Crowdsourcing doesn’t work…

When a one-on-one partnership is crucial

A good design relationship requires trust, time, commitment (and the safety net that paid contracts create) to dig deeply with a client. A prospective client who invests no time or money into a design solution (like in a typical crowdsourced scenario) will value it in the same way: zero. It’s low on the priority list, little time will be invested, and the end product will suffer. But clients who are willing to pay four, five and six figures for commissioned work quickly learn that having a trusted design ally to partner with leads to the best, valuable solutions. In those situations, both parties are invested heavily (time, money and reputation for each), capturing the focus of everyone involved.

If quantity is the driving factor

Some companies jump onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon because they see it as a way to get huge pools of concepts to choose from at minimal cost (that in-house teams can later implement). After all, aren’t more options always better? Not in these scenarios. Too many weak options can confuse the project’s main objectives, and a variety of opposing voices can muddy the decision-making process. There is much to be said for seasoned professionals helping to curate and filter concepts in concert with a client. This fast-food menu scenario of crowdsourcing doesn’t typically offer that.

When the problem is open-ended or nebulous

Designers are trained to expand on challenges like the client who asks that a new brand identity “makes our company seem trustworthy.” That statement is not a creative brief, but just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the beginning of the process that will eventually tease out what that exactly means. Are there relevant historical issues in the client organization’s past? What does “trustworthy” mean to this particular group of decision-makers? Usually, the crowdsourcing apparatus functions like a radio broadcast – a one-way street  – and further clarification is rare. Open-ended briefs or vague opening agendas can be a gold-mine filled with excellent nuggets for the right design team. But 5,000 independent designers working from the same fuzzy notions will never be able to dig as deeply as a team who has priority access to narrow the focus alongside the client.

Crowdsourcing Is Useful…

When you’re trying to solve a discrete problem

In times where there is seemingly one way to do something, the crowd can be extremely efficient in solving binary problems. Advice sites sites make use of this strategy, drawing on the expertise of qualified people who are already filtered or self-selected for competence. The ideal situation is to find or build a qualified community, and leverage their knowledge to solve a specific problem or issue. If you want to know the best way to install a hard drive or the correct ingredients for a Chicago-style hot dog, crowdsourced wisdom might be the way to go.

When you want simple actions or opinions from a larger sample size

Mountain Dew’s Dewmocracy initiative that allows fans to select their favorite flavors are a great use of crowd opinion. In a scenario like this, vast numbers do really matter. Quantity is going to be the most helpful feedback for marketers and food scientists, and the Internet has a strong, built-in filter of interest for people to find a product or service like soda. But clients still need to filter these results, unless the voting criteria are very clear and specific.

When you need financing or other non-creative assets

Kickstarter has built a loyal following and practical business model around the use of like-minded crowds to rally around a singular purpose. The interest and excitement of helping a product come to life (and deriving a benefit of discounts, preorder status or creative credits) is a potent combination. It works well because the benefits are stated clearly, and both parties are guaranteed to get something in return. It’s also a venue for entrepreneurs and designers to fund their own production outside of the typical corporate structure. This set of operating principles are scalable because the “client” is still financing design, production or some other creative activity, albeit in much smaller amounts.

The idea of tapping creative communities for overall group efforts (like MakerBot and Behance) open up some exciting possibilities, but crowdsourcing will have to evolve in order for it to be fair, powerful, and equitable for all parties.

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17 Responses to “Does Crowdsourcing Work In Design?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wb reaves, Hexanine. Hexanine said: Honestly, does #Crowdsourcing work in design? We discuss. #nospec #branding #design [...]

  2. Great insights! You truly expressed your opinions based on a creative perspective. But the good side though is, you never failed to express the positive side of crowdsourcing as well. This way, you don’t appear to be biased on the concept of crowdsourcing.

    Here’s another interesting read on the “risks of creative crowdsourcing”,

  3. Steve Zelle says:

    Great post Tim.

    I agree and think where crowdsourcing often fails is by its inability to foster an intimate relationship. Without the client providing more background information than they are usually willing to share publicly, it can be a very difficult task to create something strategic and beyond a pretty symbol. Crowdsourcing seems to put aside the fact that all good design is essentially about good communication and communication requires discussion.

    Unfortunately, some clients have a tendency to feel more secure with a designer that is willing to provide more options and unlimited changes. This buffet approach to design—like the typical restaurant buffet—results in luke warm concepts created to temporarily please the masses. What these client’s miss is that one well crafted dish is far more memorable than a meal at an all you can eat buffet. Quantity does not result in quality.

    In the recent post “The grim realities of spec work and crowdsourcing” by Steve Douglas, he exposes how 90.5% of the graphic designers that do work through crowdsourcing are paid nothing! Doesn’t quite seem ethical to me.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gert van Duinen and Gert van Duinen, Processed Identity. Processed Identity said: "The road to #crowdsourced #design success looks to be a mirage" by @hexanine #branding #design #crowdsourcing [...]

  5. Tim Lapetino says:

    Hi, Luis. Glad you felt our thoughts were balanced. We were trying hard to see the value of crowdsourcing outside of our sphere. It makes no sense to demonize the tools if the issue is their particular use.

    And Steve, thanks for the feedback. You hit on a good point in saying that few clients are willing to be as open in public as they would be in a “private” client-firm relationship, and often the successful design process hinges on that sharing. It’s also frightening to thank that more than 90% of designers don’t get paid for crowdsourced projects. With odds like that, it might be better to play the lottery!

  6. Orlando says:

    Personally, I am quite on the fence regarding the use of a crowdsourcing site for a logo design. It is still a touchy issue for most designers who said that crowdsourcing is a no-no for obtaining a logo design. I have tried crowdsourcing before and I know the risks involved but it comes within the territory. But there are other no-frills logo design websites online such as,,, etc. which are actually great in getting a professional logo design at a fraction of the price and minus the risks of crowdsourcing (plagiarism is one of them). Seeing that there are no consultation services, the price is significantly lower than that of conventional design firms. For instance, I have tried and the experience was indeed a positive one. I managed to get my business logo design at an affordable price and the turnaround time was great as well. Highly recommended. Although crowdsourcing for logo designs could be a bane for some, many find it to be a viable alternative to get a fast logo on the cheap. It all depends on the individual actually.

  7. Jason Adam says:

    Thanks for replying, Orlando.

    The companies you’ve mentioned, though not crowdsourcing sites, are assembly-line design factories, pumping out as many off-the-cuff designs and “logos” as they can each and every day.

    Directly on their homepage, LogoDesignStation proudly states:

    “We ensure HIGH-QUALITY GRAPHIC DESIGN LOGOS within 24 hours.”

    It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where one would need (or want) an identity created for their business, from start to finish, in a single day. And that kind of assembly line production style will never result in anything resembling “high-quality.”

    With sites like, once you’ve paid their fee up-front, a junior-level designer begins creating a number of “logos” off the top of their head, with little supervision. Often times, they’ll directly reuse concepts that were rejected by previous customers. This means that some of the logos being presented to you were created and rejected for companies with different clients, with different target audiences, different competitive landscapes, and sometimes operating in completely different markets altogether. It’s graphic design sloppy seconds.

    But let’s just say that you’re one of the lucky ones that receives a professional-looking logo through one of these services. There’s more to an identity than just how it looks — it’s about how it works; and works for your business specifically. Not every good-looking graphic is going to function the same way from company to company. Logos aren’t hood ornaments.

    Check out the “Process” page here: Step 1 concerns payment, and Step 2 involves you receiving your logo concepts. But when is the project brief created? When does the face-to-face conversation and communication happen? Where is the competitive analysis or research phase? These “consultation services” aren’t listed because, when working with these sites, they don’t occur. And that’s a disservice to everyone involved. You can’t create a successful logo without them.

    It’s our position that neither crowdsourcing or overseas logo sweatshops are good for businesses. Sure, they may be quick and cheap, but the old adage comes to mind: “Fast, good or cheap. Pick two.” These sites shamelessly leave “good” on the side of the road. And that’s not an option we would ever recommend to a potential client.

  8. Juho Risku says:

    Personally I feel that part of the problem is the fact that design crowdsourcing sites do not really facilitate a collaborative process – i.e. process not just between a client and a single designer warrior, but a process that involves multiple talented designers. In my opinion this is also the single largest lost opportunity of current design crowdsourcing sites.

    In case you, or someone else reading this blog is interested, I’ve written a blog article about the issues, including a case description of our design crowd sourcing trial. The article can be found at:

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