How do businesses balance crowd participation and design?

Gap, a corporation that has been a strong player and force in a business that relies on design and trends, recently found itself caught between a commitment to effective design processes and the dynamics of a powerful trend, social media and participatory design. This was a highly visible dilemma that Gap management ultimately navigated well, yet it offers simply an early example of challenges that many will face in the years ahead.

On October 4, Gap quietly introduced a redesigned identity; in this era of instant communication and social media, there was a quick and broad reaction, much of it critical, based on design perspective, nostalgia and/or loyalty. Gap sought to engage its public with a call on Facebook for customers to share their own designs, with a commitment to crowdsource a solution; on October 8, Gap North America president Marka Hansen annouced her support for these crowdsourcing measures in an op-ed on The Huffington Post. (For more background on this story you will find articles on sites such as Fast Company, Advertising Age, Forbes and NPR.)

Immediately after the Facebook announcement, AIGA sent an email (reprinted here) to several management representatives at Gap whom we urged to consider our counsel. Beginning on October 8, AIGA was in touch with the team at Gap that was seeking ways to resolve what had become a tempest, explaining the issue from the perspective of both the professional design community and in terms of gaining effective design.

AIGA sought to point out that design of an identity or brand should be informed by public perceptions of a brand's strength and qualities; yet the design itself requires a deeper relationship with a client to understand context, vision, values and strategy of the client. Asking the public to design a mark eliminates the process of designing that is most likely to serve the client.

On October 11, Hansen announced that the company would stick with its earlier logo due to the considerable feedback received from customers and the public. This also allows Gap to step back from a process of crowdsourcing a new design that could have put at risk Gap's long-time commitment to strong, effective and consistent communication design.

The decision by Gap was made for many reasons, undoubtedly, yet we hope that AIGA helped to inform the deliberations in a manner that will leave a lasting, positive impact.

We recognize that the dynamics of co-creation, participatory design and audience participation are powerful social changes that corporations cannot ignore. AIGA's role, and the profession's, must be to provide a constructive voice that illuminates the value of professional, experienced designers, particularly in developing design solutions that respect client goals, customer interests and social context. We cannot simply say that the current social dynamics are wrong. We believe AIGA's voice is best used by saying what we as designers can do, and not simply what others should not do.

As always, we welcome your thoughts on this matter.

October 7, 2010 letter to Gap:

As the executive director of the largest professional association of designers in the United States, and the organization frequently most concerned with professional ethical standards, I would urge you to pause in moving ahead with crowdsourcing design of your logo, a course you announced on Facebook.

The online reaction to your new logo was initially disappointment in the design of the logo. If you seek to crowdsource a new solution, you will encounter a second storm that you are already seeing appear in the blogosphere about the disrespect that crowdsourcing or “spec work” demonstrates toward the professional design community. And you will not gain the thoughtful, purposeful response to your logo challenge that you deserve.

When you ask designers, or anyone else, to submit designs without compensation and without a relationship that allows you the advantage of engaging the designer in your vision, strategy and positioning, it is considered within the design profession as speculative work or “spec work.” AIGA has a clear position on spec work, on behalf of its membership, and this position mirrors global professional standards within the design community:

Clients and designers who knowingly engage in spec work share an equal responsibility to understand the potential risks and rewards:

Clients risk compromised quality as little time, energy and thought can go into speculative work, which precludes the most important element of most design projects—the research, thoughtful consideration of alternatives, and development and testing of prototype designs

Designers are taken advantage of as clients see this as a way to get free work; it diminishes the true economic value of the contribution designers make toward client's objectives.

There are legal risks for both parties should aspects of intellectual property, trademark and trade-dress infringements become a factor.

If you crowdsource your logo design, you would demonstrate a disrespect for the professional design community and the value of creative property; compromise your likelihood of an effective outcome that meets all of your needs; and undoubtedly perpetuate a cacophony of critical voices in the blogosphere. Designers are influentials in the social community, including on style; it seems this is a community that you should listen to and respect, not demean. If your proposal to crowdsource a redesign was an effort to be more open to commentary, then we would recommend that you define it more narrowly as an effort to obtain perspective, but not design.

The web offers a valuable source of feedback from the public. You ought to take full advantage of that feedback and work with a professional designer to solve the communications challenge of your evolving identity. We would be happy to talk with you about the ways this can be accomplished that would address your needs.

Richard Grefé
Executive director
AIGA | the professional association for design

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.