The Promise of Crowdsourced Design is Broken. So Let’s Fix It.

This is a stream-of-consciousness post. Given my history with stuff like this I’m probably about to upset a whole lot of people. So, apologies in advance.

And with that… here goes nothing…

I’ve long been on record as supporting the concept of crowdsourced design. The good folks at crowdSPRING interviewed me about it for their newsletter a few years back. And even after being called everything from immoral to a “slavemaster,” to this day I’m still a strong supporter of the crowdsourcing concept.

It’s just becoming a lot harder to support it in practice.

I’ve worked with hundreds of designers over about a dozen crowdsourced projects, spending many thousands of dollars, and in most cases ended up with highly effective work. My current project with crowdSPRING is likely to be a success as well. After only a few days and about 25 entries (many of which are strong conceptually or technically) I know the project and ultimately one of my clients will end up getting a design that helps them measurably improve their business. We’ll get there, however, despite the system that has been set up to support crowdsourcing rather than because of it.

I’ve never really struggled with the moral issues that many design professionals seem to have with the concept of crowdsourcing. In an ideal world the process of crowdsourcing should provide real value in both directions. In the case of design, the ‘client’ receives creative work – a tangible thing. The ‘winning’ designer usually receives some sort of monetary compensation, the actual amount of which is immaterial since the winning designer knows the best-case outcome so they are deeming it worthwhile.

The moral challenge for me doesn’t come from the concept at all. It comes from the way commercial crowdsourcing providers execute the concept in the real world. Those who do not receive the big payout at the end of the project aren’t given any compensation at all, even if their efforts were critical in helping the winner get the idea that ultimately resulted in payment. And that to me is a travesty.

Everyone who participates and adds value deserves compensation of some sort. To say that they all must be paid in cash, though, is short-sighted. Some clients can offer visibility (though admittedly most that offer this have no visibility to offer,) others bring advice, self-esteem, skills development, or other less tangible assets that are no less valuable than cash in the right situation.

My current thinking is that those who participate and don’t add value should still have the opportunity for compensation – but that compensation should be in the form of the opportunity for skills development or candid critique. If someone takes the time to submit concepts that are way off base then it is the responsibility of the client to tell them what’s wrong and (if known) how it might be fixed. It’s also the client’s responsibility to let a designer know when any future effort on their part is likely to be wasted effort. Unfortunately, outside of my own projects I haven’t heard a single designer say that this was something they’d encountered.

The reason I’m writing this post is because some of the value I’d always assumed I was providing was in the form of the very detailed critiques I give to every designer – be they astoundingly talented or misguided neophyte. The promise of crowdsourcing is that I (as the surrogate client) have the ability to share information with the crowd, and that the crowd can learn from my original request and from all of the follow-on advice that I give to each designer.

But crowdSPRING’s customer service informed me yesterday that critiques should only be accessible to each individual designer and denied my request to enable all designers to see all critiques, citing fairness to creatives that come up with good ideas and the likelihood of copycat work. (There IS an option to allow some people to see all comments, but those granted access are forbidden from participating in the design part.)

Here’s the problem with this policy. It turns the power of the crowd into the weakness of a long line of individuals being served, bakery-like, one-by-one and without knowledge or understanding of what’s happening before, after, or around them. The five to twenty-five minutes I spend on each critique is read once and only once rather than helping dozens or hundreds of designers understand how to make their own designs stronger and more likely to result in compensation. It also means that I, as the client, will get designs that better fit my specifications. It’s as though we’re throwing out all the benefits of working with a crowd.

I’m doing what I can to work within and without the existing crowdsourcing provider structure. Putting aside money (however insignificant) to reward those that add value but don’t get the big payday, taking time to provider serious reviews that help designers develop their skills, and publicly praising those designers who show tremendous insight or execution… It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but the last time I suggested we actually rebuild crowdsourcing the way it should actually be built all I heard was crickets.

So… I’m listening again. Are you ready to build a crowdsourcing solution that actually adds value for everyone involved instead of just the provider? Because if you are then I’m ready to lead the effort. And if you aren’t? Maybe take a moment and ask yourself what it is that you’re resisting. And if you’re willing to share your reasons for resisting I’d love to hear them.

That’s it; ramble over. Will your response be be crickets or pitchforks? (Because I’m not holding my breath for a parade.)

3 Responses to “The Promise of Crowdsourced Design is Broken. So Let’s Fix It.”

  1. well, I sort of agree and disagree at the same time. Let me expalin how I see crowsourcing.

    THE GOOD

    A client gets tons of designs from a lot of designers and has many options available for the same cost (if he would chose only one designer).

    THE BAD

    A lot of times the client gets quantity, not quality. Designers with a hunger for cash will just wip up a quick design according to the brief, without analyzing it. This should not be a problem buuut:

    THE PROBLEM

    Most clients (not all) have little understanding regarding branding. They are way to emotionaly attached and they chose something that they personaly like, without taking into consideration what their logo should communicate. Ex: ” I own a horse farm and i want a crown for a logo”

    Now for what you said:

    Yes, it’s awful to work hard for 3 days, burn a couple thousand neurons and have the client not pick your design. It’s spec work and it happens. I think this is why most creatives and CrowdSpring itself will not agree to the open doors policy you requested. I must say I understand this while still seeing your point. Having creatives rewarded for moving the project foward might be a solution but there should be some really clear guidelines for this:

    The solution (my creative approach)

    Say you have a crowdsourcing project, open door policy – the creatives being able to see all the comments on all entries. For each design that moves the concept/strategy in a new direction the designer gets a small assured reward (maybe taken from the whole award?). So if you, as a designer, had 3 designs that moved the project closer to the final award wining design (and it’s not your’s) then you get “small reward” x 3. I don’t know how to explain this better. Not talking in my native language, but I hope I was almost clear and I made some sense.

    thanks again and please check “entry 67 – you were not expecting this” as I responded to your feedback.

    Have a good one!
    Claudiu P.

  2. Crowdsourcing companies get the best from crowdsourcing. Clients may get a fair, decent project done… Only for small projects… And designers should not waste time with it :)

  3. “I agree with you in theory. In theory Communism works… in theory.”

    - Homer Simpson

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