The Ugly side of crowdsourcing


Crowdsourcing seems to the buzz these days, with LG crowdsourcing a cellphone design off crowdsourcing website crowdspring and starbucks receiving more than 17,000 coffee ideas of the web from their crowdsourcing platform However, as with all new trends there are detractors and with crowdsourcing the number of detractors seems to be growing each day.

Previously I blogged about the wide spectrum of crowdsourcing , from the low end and mundane on Amazons Mechanical Turk, to the high end and niche Crowdspring. However, when a detractor to the term includes wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, then it’s time to study this a bit more in depth. So what is the ugly side of crowdsourcing and what does it strike a nerve with Jimmy Wales…and just about every designer I know.

I think to really tackle this issue we need to break down crowdsourcing from it’s very (and I mean VERY) generic term to more specific nature and then tackle those areas one at the time. The first ‘flavor’ of crowdsourcing that springs to mind when we talk about this, is the flavor popularized by Crowdspring and 99Designs. I call this flavor the ‘design contest’ flavor, this is the flavor where you post up a job, watch the designers come pouring in with their work, and you choose the best design, and this is the type designers hate the most.

Designers call this type of work spec work, and it’s short for speculative work. Basically the designer is working on the speculation that he get paid if you’re happy with the work, and it’s being going on in their industry for ages. A lot of designers get ‘conned’ into  delivering work for a company pamphlet or a company logo with the promise that ‘if they like the job’ further jobs will come or they’ll get hired. This is tantamount to going to a doctor and only paying him if you like the diagnosis, something no doctor would be willing to do…(for free). Think about it, if you go for a second opinion from the doctor, that’s 2 times you’re paying 2 different doctors. The first opinion cost you money and the 2nd opinion cost you money, nothing was free. However with Crowdsourcing, it’s like you’re getting hundreds of opinions for the price of one, sounds good for you, but it’s anathema for designers.

Designers don’t like this particularly since it’s so prevalent in theitr industry. A lot of people wouldn’t think about asking doctors, lawyers or even mechanics to give them free work, or give them free advice, yet they seem to have no problems asking designers to draw them a logo for free, or design a website for ‘the promise of work to come’ or the ‘promise of a future job’. If you walk into a mechanic and he spends an entire hour diagnosing a difficult issue with your car, you can ‘legally’ walk away without paying anything but it does leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The fact that someone worked 1 hour on your car, and you just walked away without paying (in fact you went to a cheaper workshop and paid them to do it) may not be illegal but it surely borders somewhere near uncomfortably unethical and downright nasty. Unfortunately, people only seem to mind when the product is tangible, when there is a cost in terms of material , when it comes to abstract work like design a lot of people seem to think it’s OK.

In a way I symphatize with designers, and understand their points. Their seeing a lot of their colleagues being exploited for spec work, and how a lot of unethical designers are using crowdsourcing sites to further poison their industry.

One of those ‘poisons’ comes in the form of designers ripping each other off, so when a company post up a brief online the initial outlay of 10-15 designers begin to submit their drafts. Now the instant the company feeds back that a certain design is favorable but ‘needs some work’. Some rather shady dealing designers, will actually take the original design (that wasn’t theirs) and then modify it according to the feedback and try to pass it on as their own, this practice is extremely prevalent and further dilutes the professionalism within the design industry.

Of course even without these poisons, the exploitation is quite rampant. For a logo design on crowdspring  a $500 cash payout could result in nearly 50-100 designs, of which only 1 designer would be paid (if at all). That means anywhere from 50-99% of designers are not going to be paid for their work, and for most designers the success rate is usually 0%, with some rather successful ones succeeding to reach probably 10-15%. That’s a pretty low margin, and lot of designers draw an analogy to any profession…”Would you want to be paid for just 15% of your work?”. This ‘democratization’ isn’t at all a democracy, as designers from poorer countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan have a distinct advantage of being able to work even at 10-15% success rates and survive in their country as oppose to a designer from the UK trying to make ends meet.

Now designers can talk all they want, but the same phenomena is happening for a lot of jobs, particularly call centers and IT programmers, the price pressure is hurting a lot of jobs in the OECD countries and designers shouldn’t be exempt, and that’s a valid statement. However, to call it democratization of design isn’t exactly true, when it isn’t. However, the fact remains that this is a market, and with supply and demand to these crowdsourcing websites, the only truly fair outcome is to let the market play out. As long as designers are willing to participate and customers willing to buy, the market will be there and trying to justify it or making it ‘fair’ isn’t the point.

The last point, is to truly differentiate the designers point of view from the customers point of view. Does crowdsourcing a design really get you what you want? Will it result in a better quality product or a lower cost? The answer to that question is a definite maybe.

Just like any other agreement you get into, these have it’s pros and cons. A reputable design company is a far less riskier option, however that lower risk translates to higher cost. A less reputable design company is riskier and that increased risk translates to a lower cost. In terms of crowdsourcing, the answer is similar, if you’re looking to lower your cost you have to be willing to tolerate the risk, a lot of crowdsourcing websites are full of designers to steal the works of others, this is copyrighted material that you’re turning into a company logo (imagine how embarrassing that could be?). Remember, just because it’s crowdsourced doesn’t mean it’s risk free, possession of stolen property is against the law even the guy who sold you the item promised you it wasn’t stolen.

However, it’s unfair to say that you’ll always get copyrighted material from crowdsourcing sites, there are a lot of success stories, and if you’re willing to tolerate the risk crowdsourcing websites are the only place you can get logos for that price…or is it?

To create a logo on Crowdspring and 99Designs cost a minimal $200, that’s a lot of money. However I manage to post up a job on and manage to get about 15-20 bids, and while some of the bids were just plain ridiculous some of the designers on the site had real experience and really good portfolios. There are some clear frontrunners in the running and I’m going to pick one next week. Hopefully I should have a logo for the Rogue Blogger by the end of the year, and that’s without crowdsourcing……cause after doing the research I’ve done, I’m not a fan of it anymore.

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