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Open Letter to CDOT: Steer Away From Crowdsourcing

An Open Letter to CDOT Chicago Department of Transportation

UPDATE: We received a Twitter reply from @CDOTNews. See the end of the post for details.

Gabe Klein, Commissioner of CDOT
Chicago Department of Transportation
30 N. LaSalle Street
Suite 1100
Chicago, IL 60602
cc: Rahm Emmanuel

Dear Commissioner Klein and Mayor Emmanuel,

It’s no secret that the city of Chicago currently finds itself in a challenging financial state. The economy and the previous administration’s decisions and poor budget planning have left our city with the desperate need to do more with less. Many organizations and businesses face similar challenges — and there are a lot of ways to cut costs, trim expenditures, and stretch the city’s money. But crowdsourcing the new CDOT logo is a terrible idea.

On the surface, it might appear that holding an “open call” for logos would yield many more options, and thus, a better chance to get what the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) needs out of a new identity. And of course, in these challenging economic times, “free” might seem like the obvious choice, but as part of a graphic design firm that focuses on identity design, I have to tell you that this is a dangerous path to tread. I can almost guarantee that this logo project will go off the rails if kept on its current course, because fundamentally, a disconnected logo design process is a lose-lose situation for both the clients, the audience of CDOT, and any graphic designers involved. Here are some alternative strategies that we’d suggest, rather than resorting to crowdsourcing. Building some or all of these thoughts into a revamped logo design process will help ensure that CDOT gets a logo that accurately and powerfully communicates its essence, without breaking budgets or wasting the precious time of our city government employees. So, here they are:

Hire someone with a track record.
Instead of giving everyone a shot at this large-scale project, it seems much wiser to find some experts. Just as you wouldn’t want to have a “dentist-in-training” or a “dental hobbyist” work on your teeth, it makes sense to work alongside a team who has been down these paths before. Hiring a proven and experienced design team will help you to get the project right the first time. They will save you time and money, since they are aware of regular pitfalls, important requirements, and next steps that your internal CDOT team might not be aware of. Even though each logo or identity project is unique, there are underlying principles and overarching methodologies that come with experience, and an experienced identity design firm will employ those to make sure the project will run smoothly from initial brief, to concepting, through execution and production.

Realize that more is not always better.
It might seem like common sense to say that the strengths of crowdsourcing design are that you get more bang for your buck. Lots more designs and design options should automatically lead to more quality logo options to choose from, right? Well, not really. The money you might have initially saved by not paying a strategic design firm will be wasted in countless hours spent sifting through a deluge of weak, poor, unprofessional and inappropriate design submissions. It takes a lot of time to curate the logo entries that have no filter of quality, thought, or craft.

By disconnecting from the process, you sacrifice rapport and strategy.
One of the foundational, essential elements of any good design project involve building relationships and understanding the needs of each client — whether they be budgetary, political (not in Chicago, of course…), or strategic. What have the previous CDOT marketing and design efforts been? How were they received internally and by the general public? What internal efficiency issues need to be kept in mind? Who will be evaluating the success and quality of the designs? What specific criterion do these decision-makers bring to the table that are separate from (or at odds with) the actual project goals? These kinds of points sometimes are less tangible and difficult to communicate, but they often mean the difference between success and failure in a design project. To ignore this aspect of the process is tantamount to asking hundreds of strangers to submit their “best guesses” as logos.

In brief, create a brief.
It’s rather difficult to reach your destination successfully if you don’t know where you’re supposed to wind up. The posted “project description” consisted of the following: “CDOT’s looking for a new logo. Help us! Send your designs/ideas to” The page that this tweet pointed to is no longer available, but regardless, good graphic design requires a stated set of goals and needs. This project will not achieve its potential without a solid design brief. Creating one would be one step that can’t be skipped.

Show Chicago voters that you’re repairing the economy by hiring a local design firm.
Mayor Emmanuel, you’ve talked in public about how strongly you support business development in Chicago, and medium and small business are part of the beating heart of this city. Well, this is a great opportunity to show that you meant it, by hiring one of the many great design firms in the city. Of course, feel free to contact us first, if you like.

This course of action won’t win you any friends within design.
Undoubtedly, the concept of crowdsourcing the CDOT logo was meant innocently, as a way to drum up excitement and press for the CDOT, to get people involved in city government, and to stretch the shrinking budgets you have. But working design firms and professional design associations will see this in a completely different light. Unpaid contests and spec efforts actually belittle the work of solid, practicing designers by suggesting that their work can and should be given away for free. Despite your good intentions, contests such as this “open call” aren’t helpful or respectful towards trained professionals who feed their families by doing this kind of work, and doing it well.

There’s a sweet spot in the relationship between clients and designers that yields a final product everyone can be proud of, and we offer all of the above thoughts in the hope that CDOT can get to that place with this logo redesign — without the pitfalls and challenges of crowdsourcing.

Tim Lapetino and Jason Adam
Partners at Hexanine

We received the following response from CDOT via Twitter: “We addressed this 6/23 in Tweet to @aigachicago, others. We respect and appreciate the design community’s feeedback.”

That response linked to a page on the CDOT website which stated:

“Our intent with this process was to get feedback from our customers—the residents of Chicago. CDOT does a lot of things—from paving streets and building transit stations to installing bike lanes and neighborhood streetscapes—and we are looking for ideas that reflect that. We were hoping for feedback from all Chicagoans, not just designers.”

However, this seems very much at odds with their original concept, which read this way:

“CDOT would love to see your ideas for a new logo. Send us your ideas—as a .jpeg, a .tiff, a .gif, a .pdf, even a sketch on paper. We’re certain that your creativity will result in a new look that will represent CDOT as we move into a new era.”

Seems like a little bit of backpedalling, because of the uproar created by the design community. And as we said on Twitter, this still seems like a poor choice. After all, if CDOT were building a new L line, they wouldn’t be soliciting engineering feedback from customers. They’d hire professionals. Which brings us back to our original thought: Logo designs are at their best when created by designers with a foundation that’s firmly rooted in a strategic client brief and experience, not the suggestions of random Chicagoans.

Jul 11 2011

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2 Responses to “Open Letter to CDOT: Steer Away From Crowdsourcing”

  1. This sums up your point-of-view very well:
    “There’s a sweet spot in the relationship between clients and designers that yields a final product everyone can be proud” Thanks

  2. This sums up your point-of-view very well:
    “There’s a sweet spot in the relationship between clients and designers that yields a final product everyone can be proud of….” Thanks (sorry for repost edit)

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