Friday Rant: Zero Sum Supplier Games — Is Crowdsourcing Creative a Failed Sourcing Strategy?

A close friend of mine is the creative director for an outdoor clothing company in Seattle. Barraged as she is with managing catalogs, photo shoots, layouts, conferences, and the like, she hasn't had time to sit down and give her full attention to the rebranding/new logo that her boss has suggested they consider for the past few months. His solution? "Why don't we crowdsource it?"

From the buyer side, you can go to a site like 99 designs, provide specs, wait as designers design to your specs, and then only pay for the design you actually like. The payout works in a tiered system; the more money you pay, the more designs you get to wade through. In an economy where everybody wants to get the best results at the cheapest rates, this seems like a viable option. Voila! Sounds great, right?

Not exactly, according to many on the supplier side. Kevin Jones is a Chicago-based graphic designer with over ten years of experience (and several awards and accolades under his belt to boot) struggling to keep his firm, Totally French! Design Club, out of the ditch in this economy. "Potential clients today often turn to crowdsourcing sites or posting 'unpaid intern' positions, instead of hiring the most skilled and experienced candidates for their projects." He goes on, "The problem is that when clients consider these options, designers are being forced to take them on, hoping that they can at least remain working and 'get by' financially, and then are often left competing with hacks who have downloaded an illegal copy of Photoshop and suddenly feel that they are designers."

For newly unemployed yet truly skilled designers who have invested in a university education to learn their craft, not to mention years of on-the-job experience and maintaining knowledge about the current software/technology landscape and the upkeep of quality portfolios, Kevin feels that this trend towards "hiring the hacks" is one that will sadly continue. "Design is no longer about finding the best solution based on skill and experience, but essentially clients just taking what they can get at the lowest possible price." He goes on, "if it is okay to expect someone in the creative field to work for free and beg to be paid for it, then why isn't it okay for me to eat free hamburgers around town, and only pay for the one that I REALLY like?"

An article that appeared in Wired on this topic maintains poignancy today: Is Crowdsourcing Evil? The Design Community Weighs In. In explaining the process, "The winner receives a nominal fee (as little as $200), and the client receives a logo or website design at a fraction of what a professional agency might charge. The losers get zip, which goes a long way to explaining why working on spec ("on speculation," or without guarantee of payment) has always been considered the work of last resort for writers, designers and other creative professionals."

Designer preference aside, it seems that this is the direction crowdsourcing will take in the future. According to the Wired article, "Spec work has become a major force in devaluing the perception of graphic design in the business world," writes eyeCinq. And: "The folks that run these outfits have managed to figure out a way to get thousands of people -- some skilled enough to earn a decent living -- to work for them gratis. It's an amazing sleight-of-hand," writes The Logo Factor."

My question is: is this "innovation" on the business side worth the huge loss of quality in a nuanced graphic milieu? In the advertising agency I used to work at, Creative and Account where on separate floors. But today, as we mix art and business in the same cubicles, we're getting different -- and some might argue -- expected results. The fundamental question should be this: are we leaving all the best talent in a bygone print era by accepting on-the-fly design on the cheap?

When I asked my creative director friend about the results she was getting from 99 Designs, here was her opinion. "It's an option for people who are in a hurry and have low (to no) standards. It's really not a valid option for people who have any design aesthetic whatsoever or knowledge of what does and doesn't work from a marketing standpoint. We're going another route." On some levels, this is a zero-sum game, albeit one in which everyone loses except the one winning supplier. The buyer gets an inferior result (yet still pays someone) and all but one of the designers loses -- and loses big, having done all the work for nothing in return.

Sheena Moore

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