What’s the harm in crowdsourcing?

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s use of crowdsourcing to design a wearable logo, reflecting the organization’s range of activities, is simply the most recent highly visible example of a practice that we can expect to see more and more often. While those against crowdsourcing believe it undermines the value designers can provide a client through a thoughtful engagement, those who embrace it consider it an effective new marketplace.

To sway the crowdsourcing supporters is, to some extent, a communications challenge. Given the dynamics of the internet's impact on markets, designers should articulate their concern with crowdsourcing design, not crowdsourcing in general; they must help potential clients understand that purchasing a design for the lowest possible price is not the same as retaining design services; and they must be able to convey the value of design services as a process and consulting relationship.

Reacting strongly with righteous indignation only allows the firms or agencies using crowdsourcing to dismiss them as a reactionary force, with little understanding of innovative ways for harnessing creativity.

The big picture

The crowdsourcing phenomenon, as we all know, stems from a movement toward collective innovation and creation of content—the easy and successful use of the internet to tap into the public for all kinds of goods and services, such as online auctions, citizen news reporting and royalty-free imagery—and the desire from both corporations and government agencies to interact with their audiences as well as to cut costs.

All crowdsourcing is not inherently bad. But it compromises the value designers can provide their clients through a problem solving relationship. Our position on it is similar to our position on spec work, but neither is doctrinaire, as both practices will evolve and so will our stances, accordingly. The most critical issue for AIGA is to educate potential clients on the value of designing, designers and design.

AIGA wrote to the Secretary of the Interior in response to the government’s solicitation, articulating that developing an identity and a brand is an activity that benefits from expert advice and consultation between a designer and a client, drawing on skills, expertise, experience, knowledge and creative talent.

Going forward designers—individually and as a community—must continue to communicate the worth of investing in design services, always offering a sense of the value created for the client from hiring a qualified professional designer, and by explaining that the client is the one who loses out with crowdsourcing or spec competitions. The argument must be based on the contribution of a designer working with the client to solve the client’s problem, and not on the solicitation process the client uses. Of course, there will always be cases when the client wants nothing more than a decorative mark, and then our arguments will ring hollow.

Still, it’s useful to be aware of the different perspectives.

Varying viewpoints

Those who purchase “design” through crowdsourcing probably treat design as a commodity because they see it that way, as little more than original clip art that responds to their immediate need. Some of these consumers (for they are consumers and not clients of design) may even view crowdsourcing as an inclusive approach that gives everyone an opportunity to provide ideas with a reward for just the ones they like best (and possibly to obtain clear ownership of the creative property without having to deal with thorny rights issues negotiated by professional designers). They believe crowdsourcing is supporting the creative community and involving its customers—a seemingly generous, supportive and progressive approach, from their perspective. 

For the designer, crowdsourcing demonstrates a lack of respect for the value of design’s full potential and places the lowest, rather than the highest, value on design services. However, it is important for designers to understand that it is not the practice of design that is being treated as a commodity but the design artifact, because most of those utilizing crowdsourcing have no idea about the process of design or its potential contribution to positioning and strategy. It is the outcome of design that they view as a commodity. This conundrum of designers feeling that what they do is being demeaned and the consumer saying “...but this is all I want!” is what makes getting beyond the designer's outrage and the customer's determination so difficult.

Another challenge is that many young designers and students feel that crowdsourcing is an opportunity to break into a field dominated by established and “name” designers. But being one of hundreds or thousands doing work for possibly no recognition or pay might not be the best use of their talents. (See this post by a designer who entered the NEA’s logo competition last year, and describes the experience as “frustrating, highly impersonal, and ultimately disappointing.”)

What comes next

The only way to reinforce that a successful brand or an identity is not merely the most interesting or appealing graphic out of a number of options is through continuous advocacy and persuasive demonstrations of the value of professional designers.

Doing that requires that we find a consistent voice and then provide examples to support our case.

We welcome and encourage designers to join AIGA in developing case studies on the value of design through our annual “Making the Case” competition and through contributing as members to this site’s Why Design? section, chronicling the role of the professional designer in creating value for business; improving society; respecting the environment; making information clear; fostering cultural understanding; and delivering quality work to clients.

AIGA.org should become a compendium of our best arguments for design, and we hope to hear from you.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.