Open Letter To Companies Considering Crowdsourcing

Heather ParlatoSo, you find yourself in the position of needing design services, with the little problem of not having a budget for the designers you want to hire. And maybe you’re thinking “Hey, let’s have one of those contests where people will design stuff for us as part of a competition, and we’ll award some kind of prize for the winner!”

Why not? You’re seeing all kinds of larger brands hold crowdsourced design contests, and it seems like a good deal for everyone, right?

Well, I can understand the eagerness to want to jump to this conclusion, but there are a few problems here, not least of which is that there’s actually no real benefit to your winning designer.

Big brands don’t hold design contests for the purpose of supplementing what their creative teams can provide, and this is where smaller businesses stand to make mistakes when they emulate big companies. We’re all in this together, and we all have valuable services that can add to each other’s businesses greatly — if we trade them strategically. There are smarter ways to get the things we can’t yet afford by searching for equitable trades and creating volunteer opportunities, and I’m here to set you on the path that’s better for everyone.

So, what are crowdsourced design contests?

By definition, crowdsourcing is the act of sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to an undefined large group of people or community (crowd) through an open call. When applied to a design project, the contest seeks to replace paid work with spec work, which is essentially work that is only paid for conditionally after completion if accepted, leaving the designer to put out effort on good faith of payment. [clue: professional designers usually work on a payment system, where a deposit and payments are made at project milestones along the way, not after.] The general feeling of the design industry is that spec work, including crowdsourced contests, are frowned upon.

When a company decides to replace paid work with a contest, we talk about it and tend to agree it’s not worth our participation. Believe me, designers are asked to work for free all the time, and unless you’re saving kittens for the greater good, or you’re my mom, we’d prefer it if you factor the cost of business into your budgets.

So, what’s the problem with them?

Here’s what they look like: a company announces a contest to design them a poster or a logo or an ad, and after reviewing all entries, the company will select a winner who will get a prize of somewhere around 500 bucks. [clue: this prize is usually far below market value for the design work solicited] On the surface of it, it seems harmless, maybe even fun to the amateur on a lark, but let’s take a closer look.

Statistically speaking, the likelihood of winning is extremely slim. Contests like these usually have legal provisions allowing them to take exclusive rights to ALL work submitted. If you were thinking of showing it in a portfolio as the winner or even as a contributor, think again—the company can demand you make no public reference to the work you did.

So let’s get this straight: hundreds of people do the same job, one person gets paid below market value, and all of them get stripped of the ability to promote what they did. Is this how we want to treat people who do free work for us?

So, why do big brands have design contests?

I’m of the firm belief that big brands have crowdsourced design contests for entirely different reasons than smaller companies, and that they’re not at all used for actually sourcing design. Big brands all have budgets for the design they need done, and they know the value of having it done professionally. If they don’t already have a big in-house team, they have an agency they trust implicitly and use regularly. I promise you there are no creative meetings that result in the design team running in a panic to marketing, saying “We’re fresh out of ideas! quick—call in the public to help!!”

So, if they don’t need design, what are the contests for?

Here’s where I’ll tell you a branding secret. Creating a strong brand is about creating a lot of positive thinking around your company or product. Designers start this by designing your brand for you, and you continue it by delivering good service and growing the brand in line with your core commitments. The reason good branding works is because allows the customer to project their strongest personal narratives when they interact with it.

When I think about buying the running shoes I’ve been coveting, I think of myself as a healthy person who likes running more than I do while promising myself I will go running more than I will. When a big brand launches a design contest, they get hundreds of thousands of people to think about advertising for them. Even if they only get 5000 submissions, they may have gotten 50,000 people or more to imagine creating something for them—thinking positively about their brand—which is infinitely more valuable than getting free design. [clue: when they cast you in the role of their designer, they’re getting you to make positive statements to yourself about them—sneaky!] Moreover, they can test the reach of their advertising and brand loyalty by seeing how many people participate. It’s actually a way to take the market’s temperature, get people rallied around them, appeal to our sense of narcissism [maybe I could win!], and get participants to take action in the name of brand loyalty. That’s the power of positive thinking, only they’re using your brains to do it!

The thing is, while we may write these contests off as publicity stunts, most people see them as legitimate, and they do a lot to create the perception that design is a simple thing that can be done equally well by anyone for about 500 bucks. with Obama’s recent art works campaign [design of a poster in exchange for 1 signed copy of the limited edition print], common reactions to designer criticisms said “But this is volunteer work—just like the folks going door-to-door!” I’m sorry to say, but just because entry is voluntary doesn’t make it volunteer work. Volunteers should have a connection to the effects of the work they do—that’s the rewarding feeling they’re working for. Contests like this ask thousands of people to do work that no one will ever see, rewarding only 3 finalists—and not by using their art in the campaign, but merely selling prints in their store. They’re missing a bigger opportunity to show more of the work and celebrate being inclusive rather that just getting people thinking and talking.

I could go on, but instead i’ll leave it at this: the design community respectfully asks bigger businesses to find more creative ways to increase brand loyalty than contests that cheapen the value of the design profession.

So, where does that leave smaller businesses?

Here’s the big disconnect I see. while I’ve almost never seen the winning work from a big brand’s design contest [clue: big brands don’t break brand continuity for contest winners], there are lots of smaller companies and non-profits running similar contests for major parts of their branding. sometimes their logo, sometimes a major promotion poster—money-making promotional items they should budget in as the cost of doing business, but for whatever reason, they don’t. It might seem like a great benefit to the contest-holders to have hundreds of samples to choose from for the price of a prize, but you’re asking hundreds of people to all go through the same effort, rewarding only one.

Considering most professional designers abstain from participating, ask yourself who is even doing this work? Unlike a big brand contest designed to excite people about a familiar brand, the participants of a smaller, lesser-known contest don’t have much to connect to. And anyway, do you really have time to review hundreds of mediocre samples, retrofitting a final choice into an appropriate brand for you? When small businesses do it, it looks a lot more like what it is: someone asking for something for nothing. There’s a much better way to get what you want without wasting the time and effort of everyone involved.

Scrap the contest idea and get real.

As I said before, we’re all in this together. We could be building lasting partnerships instead of trying to get stuff from each other for free while slapping the word “contest” on it. Treat this work like what it is: a job. Prepare a full creative brief and advertise for it with honest compensation. If you don’t have the budget to pay for it and you’re looking for an outright volunteer, say so, or start asking yourself what you can offer in trade and quantify these things in an offering. Not empty promises of future work, unqualified referrals or portfolio building, because we’ve all heard that before, and they sound just like the lies they are.

Consider things you might normally charge for that have little overhead for you, that would be as valuable to your designer as their design work is to you.

Dig deep and mine the value you can offer.

  1. For starters, you will want to take ownership of the work, but always allow your designer a credit in print on the piece, a link online [preferably in a “thanks to our sponsors” or similar credit], the right to display the work in a portfolio, and to enter contests for the purpose of garnering awards. [clue: this is what paid designers ask for, so it should be a given for in-kind trade work.]
  2. Taking it further, write them a testimonial they can use on their site and on social media networks.
  3. If your site has a page of trusted partners or online advertising, link them up.
  4. If you’re in the business of putting on events where there is some form of collateral, offer them sponsorship placement on signage, an ad in the program book, and let them leave print matter for attendees to take.
  5. If you’re in a particularly related industry an there are speaking opportunities [say you put on a conference and have a panel your designer would be a good fit for, or if you run a trade show and can offer them a booth] see how you can work them in.
  6. If you deal in products or services the designer might be interested in, be open to offering an equitable amount of products or services in trade.

Make sure the things you’re listing have real value, and if you can ballpark what their monetary equivalent is, you can come up with a suite of offerings, perhaps a combination of promotion, service and product that comes in right around where the project fee would be. If you find a designer who is interested in these things, and whom you feel is a good fit for your design project, you’re in business! Draw up a trade agreement of exactly what each party will do for each other, with a timeline for milestones and deliveries. Lo and behold, we have reinvented the barter system!

What if I don’t think I have anything of value to trade?

Hang in there kitty! If you’re in business in any capacity, you will have something to offer and probably just have to think harder, but if you’re not finding a designer who wants to take you up on your trade, start smaller. Many new businesses think they have to come roaring out the gate with all the fancy collateral that larger, more established businesses already have in order to compete.

Here’s another secret: you don’t, because you’re not competing with those businesses yet. Start with what’s free and work your way up. Can’t afford a web site? Get all your social networks set up, add business pages and start communicating with people there. Can’t afford a logo and identity? Set your company name in a nice, clean, appropriate typeface, and make yourself a simple business card [clue: ask me for referrals on affordable printers]. Llook into networking events for small businesses, and for your industry, and get out there and talk to everyone you meet about what you do. Tell them you’re just getting started, and you’re really excited about it. You can get much farther on good service and a good attitude with a simple identity than flashy design that attempts to cover unfocused service and untimely delivery.

…and save your money as you grow, because if you’re doing it right, you’ll have the beginnings of a brand promise people are eager to associate with visually, and for that you’ll need the budget for an awesome designer.

What do you think? Have you tried any of these techniques with your own clients? Comment here and/or on Heather’s blog, where this was originally posted. (Thanks, Heather!)

And check out our other much-commented posts and podcasts on crowdsourcing, with less whining and more strategies for how to handle it.

15 thoughts on “Open Letter To Companies Considering Crowdsourcing

  1. Sarah

    Lucid and candid take on this issue. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Hopefully the sought-after audience will catch on after reading your statement: “Believe me, designers are asked to work for free all the time, and unless you’re saving kittens for the greater good, or you’re my mom, we’d prefer it if you factor the cost of business into your budgets.”

    It’s insulting how often our work is taken for granted or undervalued, and crowdsourcing just feeds that. I was on the phone with a colleague (not a client) who was telling me how she had crowdsourced some illustration work and couldn’t get over how “all these designers just did this stuff for free and I can just pick what I want to pay for!” I almost reached through the phone and slugged her. And she is well aware of the fact that I’m a designer myself.

    Glad to know that there are well-spoken and outspoken people out there willing to fight the good fight!

  2. gerry suchy

    Nice work Heather! It would be interesting to hear from a small business that opted to crowd source their design work and is willing to talk about the less than optimal results. The businesses that I know (mostly my former clients) only point to the cost savings as main driving factor. As many other creatives have already said, the problem lies in getting beyond the single focus of cost so as to have a dialogue about the big picture. I think that’s easier sid than done.

    1. heather parlato

      thanks to everyone for the feedback!

      gerry, the discussion on cost is always going to be a limitation for some people, and i think it’s fine if cost is an issue, because it’s important to be honest about that. and admittedly, this piece is about contests and not so much about crowdsourcing houses, so i haven’t really addressed how they shortchange clients. i think it would be really hard to find a situation where a business would admit their crowdsourcing went bad–only because i think a business who thinks they only need a logo in order to have a visual presence are entirely overlooking the brand and marketing strategy a professional would provide. logos don’t stand on their own no matter how well they’re designed, but there are all kinds of businesses who think it’s the only thing they need to buy into having market presence. i’m not in disagreement with you here, but i’m trying to change the conversation away from cost in terms of paying for empty artifacts as evidence of professionalism, which is the only thing crowdsourcing houses can provide. work on your brand strategy, and the logo will come when you can afford it.

      also, rather than shop for the cheapest design your dollars can buy, i’d really like to challenge people to shop for what the value of traded services can buy. in both down economies i’ve worked through, i got really tired of people saying “in these tough times, we just don’t have the budget”–the assumption being that people they needed to work with just needed to make the price lower. i worked at a non-profit for years, and the marketing director used to work up all kinds of trade deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars where no money was exchanged. of course, we all had valuable services to trade, but we leveraged the power of cross-promotion, exposure–essentially we leveraged each other instead of simply buying services with money. i know it’s a tall order, but i’d really love to see people who have equitable services to offer partner and elevate each other in the process.

    1. heather parlato

      well, we probably can’t get clients to read it [though i’m trying to put it out there wherever i can], but we can advise them on how to go about it when they come to us. i don’t know about you, but i’ve had people say they know that a place like 99 designs is “an alternative” and i figure that’s the time to brush aside whatever reason they might be bringing it up and let them know what they’re getting with that.

      or, if you’re part of a design group that sends each other links to smaller contests, and everyone gets annoyed that they’re still a problem, send the contest holders a link to this or any of the other great articles on why crowdsourcing actually gives them a bad deal, or why it’s just not a great move professionally. we can start the conversation wherever we see it happening.

  3. Laurel Black

    Great points all, Heather. I especially liked the one about how big companies use “design contests” to build awareness and emotional buy-in (as you say, sneaky!). However, the bulk of your essay was more about the downside to designers, and less about the downside to clients. If you want to gain any traction for this issue among the non-designing public, this ratio needs to be flipped around.

    “. . . not least of which is that there’s actually no real benefit to your winning designer.” Clients are not likely to give this any weight because they buy design as a benefit to themselves, not to the designer. As I read, I could picture a clueless business owner saying, “So what? How is it my problem that some poor little designer feels exploited? If I can get something for free, yay for me.” Designers need to describe the pitfalls of CS and logo contests to clients in ways that zero in on clients’ self-interest. That being said, you amply demonstrated your value in the advice at the end about how to promote one’s business on a shoestring and how to work with a designer via bartering. All that knowledge is priceless and something a client would never get from a crowdsourced design site or a logo contest. Offering that kind of value is one of the best ways to combat CS and logo contests.

  4. Yvon Lantaigne

    Heather, great article, as mentioned above, thanks very much for spelling out the concept of contra vs contest.
    I’m definitely keeping a reference link to your article to pass along to potential future clients who feel they have no budget for design or branding work.

  5. julia reich

    These requests are usually phrased in language akin to, “Come on, designers, doesn’t this sound like FUN? This will be SO MUCH FUN for you!”.

    I usually get the sense that “x company” or “x nonprofit” just came up with this *amazing* idea that no one has ever thought of before they did.

    So uninformed.

  6. Jane Pellicciotto

    Great article. Given the debacle that Moleskin faced with a public flogging on Facebook, companies have a lot to lose, more so than the positive buzz around a contest. In that case, they alienated their core audience and word spread like wildfire. I wrote about crowdsourcing here, covering the hidden costs to clients.

    I definitely agree with the devaluing of a designer’s contribution but I think for crowdsourcing to be considered a last resort for a client, it helps to educate them on the costs to them. And collectively, designers just opting out and speaking out.

  7. Pingback: Carta abierta a empresas considerando el crowdsourcing. | Just In Cinema

  8. Brian

    Money savings for crowd sourcing.?


    But in the 4 times I have had contests for our business logos (plural) and some other small graphics (icons, etc), it was for cost savings. Savings from getting the same regurgitated design from the same designer(s) over and over and over again. No offense to you designers out there but you have a style. Yep. Its true. You tend to be drawn to do very similar designs. Its not a bad thing, but it is a thing.

    FYI: We paid more than $500. Paid a bonus on top of that, and then offered those designers more work for tasks at their normal billable rate that we did outside the contest.

    To use a contest to get designs of wide variations really helps us business owners find a great design with appeal, and lets us get back to do what we do best.

    Now this does not mean I do not have regular graphics designer(s), that I use for day to day graphics but in there is the consistency and style I rely on for certain tasks. No different than those same persons would probably not be hired to do hand drawn caricatures or other abstract graphics or perhaps a photographer to do some high end photography.

    You don’t hire a butcher to make your Birthday cake do you?

    Yes we small businesses do try to emulate the bigger brands and it is for a savings reason, we do not have the credit that GE does, and do not have the time or resources to try to get a logo or stationary or flier or collage or ……. designed a dozen times and billed for 120 hours.

    Sorry to pop some of those egos but I think some of the benefits of this service are being missed and beat up. They help to get a variety of designs and helps to narrow the scope and style that is being sought.

    I have more horror stories to share about the horrid communication abilities of “artists”. Not really their focus or strength, I get it. But don’t lecture us business owners as needing to be “educated” or I will open the case of $h!7 communication stories that is rampant in the graphics arena.