CFC: How are you responding to crowdsourcing?

Last week, at the Creative Freelancer Conference (save the dates for next year: June 21-22 in Boston), David Oldham, a professor of graphic design at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, led a Breakfast Roundtable on crowdsourcing, a topic that has gotten a lot of attention here on this blog.

David was kind enough to send me a recap of what was discussed. (If anyone else attended a Breakfast Roundtable and wants to send a recap, please send it to and we’ll post it.)

Who was there
I had 6 people at my Crowd Sourcing round table. One was a student about to graduate. Two were experienced business owners with 5 to 10 years working at their own businesses. One was a young designer/production artist who is considering going out on his own, and me, long time graphics educator.

We started by defining what we considered Crowd Sourcing to be. We decided it can be one or more of these things:

  • design projects offered as a competition where almost anyone can be involved.
  • a Do It Yourself approach to solving design problems.
  • businesses hiring a relative or a friend instead of a design professional to do their design projects.
  • businesses that promote crowd sourcing and connect clients with designers via the web.

We wondered why businesses and individuals turn to crowd sourcing and here’s the list:

  • it’s cheap. Sometimes free.
  • they get a lot of options and a wide variety to choose from.
  • it’s good public relations. Often businesses get a lot of attention for the contests they initiate.

We talked about the reasons it has become so popular in recent years.:

  • everyone likes to think they’re creative, everyone likes contests, and since these competitions cost nothing to enter, they do.
  • the Internet has made it possible to find a wide range of opportunities to compete with the added incentive of pay for the winners.
  • professional level graphics software is cheap enough and has become popular with a broad segment of society.

We considered the negative effects that crowd sourcing has on freelancing and the design industry in general. The group offered this:

  • prices are low and means working harder for less pay.
  • submitted works at the web sites are usually published for all to see during the process of selecting a winner. This opens the opportunity for misappropriation of designs.
  • quality of the work is generally low. Often crowd sourced projects, especially logos, have to be repaired by a graphic designer to make them function.
  • crowd sourcing gives the impression that design work pays low and requires no special training. It diminishes our industry’s reputation.
  • chances of establishing a long term relationship with a client from a crowd source experience are lower since the experience has a one-shot connotation.

We discussed what, if any, positives come to designers who are tempted into the crowd. We mentioned:

  • there is the chance that your design will get chosen.
  • one gets the opportunity to see the work of lots of others competing on the same project.
  • students and newly minted designers like the opportunity to compete and build a portfolio.
  • it’s an opportunity to meet someone that you’d otherwise never know about.

I then asked each at the table if they had participated in a crowd sourcing design event. I offered an experience I had early in my career. I entered a contest to design a logo/illustration for a city about to celebrate it’s centennial year. I entered because I needed work for my portfolio and it sounded like something I could enjoy. I didn’t mind that I might not win because I’d have what I wanted even if I didn’t get paid. That was in 1975.

Only one other person at the table had done a crowd sourced project. He’d entered a contest at one of the web sites. He said it was unsatisfying and that he’d probably not do it again.

Another at the table said that he was there because he and his partners were considering starting a new crowd sourcing site! (He later confided that after this round-table he would not recommend it to his partners.)

Another round tabler wondered out loud if a crowd sourcing web site that only allowed high paying customers and established designers might not be a good idea.


Next we discussed the fact that crowd sourcing is something that is not going to go away. CrowdSpring, 99Design, HatchWise, DesignCrowd to name a few are in the business of promoting these competitions and doing very well. For example, 99Design recently raised $35 million in first round funding from Accel Parners, an international investment partnership. Hatchwise claims to have 9,274 members from 90 countries and to have received 377,925 entries in their competitions and to have 90 projects accepting entries at any given time.

Since indications are that crowd sourcing will only get bigger. The question to the table then was; How does it fit into the design freelancing business environment?

We talked a lot about this question with no clear answer but in general I think we decided that it will probably have a net effect of little. The clients that get their work done this way are either not going to succeed and thrive or are not going to be doing much work other than the few assignments they settle this way. Quality clients and long term relationships will probably still be discovered through more traditional, tried and true business methods.

Another question for the table was how will each of us personally respond to crowd sourcing? The answers were mostly that we don’t have time for spec work unless it is something that we really like and could use our expertise. In a crowd sourcing environment it might be satisfying for example to submit designs or to volunteer to fix the chosen design so it works better and looks better in final production.

I gave a recent example from near me. Joplin, Missouri is having a crowd sourcing competition to design a t-shirt to stir support and show solidarity with the tornado recovery effort. That’s a project that a professional designer could  work on, if not his/her own original ideas, after the finalists from the crowd have been chosen.

I also mentioned that as a teacher I also try to counter any negative effects of crowd sourcing in the eyes of the public by reminding my students often that they are involved in a highly specialized, intensive learning experience that does require special talents and skills – that it is not something that untrained individuals can do well. I show them that being a graphic designer is a service that the world needs. It is not just cosmetic addition. It is necessary for convenience, efficiency and in lots of cases survival. The world can ill afford to leave it to amateurs.

Hopefully they’ll spread the word.

What about you? How do you think crowd sourcing fit into the design freelancing business environment? How will you (or are you) personally respond to crowd sourcing?

14 thoughts on “CFC: How are you responding to crowdsourcing?

  1. Matt

    Does is strike anyone as a bit irresponsible to design a logo for a company when you haven’t at least done face-to-face interviews and basic marketing analyses of the client?

  2. Jon

    Matt – Excellent point, and it’s one I use to combat crowd sourcing and low-cost logo shops all the time. Unfortunately, there are lots of other designers out there that wouldn’t do that research even if given the opportunity (and time and budget), and that makes it really hard for clients to understand the difference between providers.

    Another thing I tell people all the time is that the sales copy on low-cost providers and crowd sourcing websites belay how little they really understand what they’re selling. A big chunk of what a really good designer does is eliminate ideas by developing a clear strategy. The result of that process should be FEWER choices, not more, and FEWER revisions over MORE time, not hundreds of concepts and unlimited revisions in 24 hours.

    They use the reason it’s terrible as the sales pitch. Frightening.

  3. Aaron Montoya

    David Oldham was my design instructor at New Mexico Highlands University where I recieved my BFA in Visual Communication Design. Not only is he an excellent design instructor but he’s also very much aware of social and technical changes that will have far reaching ramifications in the design field. Bravo for keeping abreast.

  4. Rosa Fierro

    Great article David! It summarizes thoughts from designers at different levels and expertise. I agree that crowdsoucing is a reality and it will not go away. It is important to keep all those points from your recap in mind. I recently have the experience of a prospect who decided to try one of those sites because it was cheaper. He came back to me disappointed of what he got and I finally re designed his original logo. I posted on my blog a point of view about crowdsourcing and I think it is a good idea for designers who blog or have newsletters to talk about why it’s better to hire a dedicated designer or design company. You can read my post here:

  5. Mark Scott

    Persoinally, I think crowdsourcing is a good when its done correctly, like the X Prize project/s. Tight deadlines, dependability, proven skillsets, team work and whole bunch of other factors, mean that crowdsourcing will remain a niche source of creative with little to no affect on freelance ADs and graphic designers, or copywriters, like myself.

  6. Em

    I spent the last 4 years in a corporate environment designing for one set of brands exclusively. When I was ready to start thinking about developing my portfolio for freelancing, it was looking very one-note. So i tried out a few crowd sourcing projects as a means to help develop a few new things. I got a few new pieces out of it and got to work on a diverse set of projects that I chose based on my own interests.

    However, I did give myself parameters/limits as to what I would work on. I worked on a few logos for small/local businesses and made sure the hours I spent on a possible win didn’t shrink my rate. I steered clear of any big companies or well-known brands, because I know better how they really work and what their creative budgets are. For instance, if your crowd sourcing site boasts that it works with Fortune 500 companies…then that’s just not right. There should be some sort of restriction on company size. I also quickly abandoned projects and removed my work from clients that clearly had no clue what they wanted and gave mixed direction.

    I agree that it does devalue graphic design to a certain extent if you don’t have common sense and know your value. However I don’t buy the argument that it is this BIG EVIL THING that is killing graphic design. It’s more just a nuisance and speaks a lot more to our dependency on the internet and social media to tout ourselves and our work.

    A strong freelance career is based on more than just the work, no matter how talented you are. It’s based on relationships, how easy it is to work with you, and your history of work with the client as well. If you think you’ll never have to do work on spec, compete for work, or entertain clients you’re kidding yourself. (Or you are already a sought-after design celebrity.)

    In short, proceed with caution, infrequently, and get off your ass every now and then and work on client relationships and quit depending on your brilliant design skills alone.

  7. Jay

    Spec work in general degrades the industry by devaluing design as a valuable, professional service (what can it really be worth if you dash it off for free?). Contests (like the sites listed) add insult to injury by attempting to whip up a feeding frenzy and get “designers” (since nearly everyone thinks they are a designer nowadays) to abase themselves en masse and churn out work for a clueless client who thinks they’re getting a deal. It creates a sort of free-market plantation where the slaves foolishly choose to make themselves slaves. Even if they only do it “a few times”, they contribute to the erosion of their own livelihood by helping to increase bad expectations in the overall marketplace.

    Professional solidarity, and the understanding of how we can destroy our own industry should drive real designers to utterly shun these practices, and leave the “talent” pool to consist of the folks who aren’t really designers. A clear demarcation of quality helps to make the argument for getting a real engagement with a real professional.

    As for those who are starting out, or anyone else who just wants to add to their portfolio – do some pro-bono work. This is also free, but works in a totally different way and does not set the negative expectations that chisel away at the perceived value of professional design. You can contribute to the greater good in the process, as well.

    If people who make a living doing design don’t stand up against all of this nonsense, they will one day find that they have sawn off the branch they were sitting on.

  8. JAlex

    Great article! Obviously there is a “creative” focus on this site, but I wanted to point out that there are a lot of examples of crowdsourcing that have nothing to do with Design. A few examples utilizing crowds for technology and innovation include uTest, Innocentive, and Article One Partners. They’re definitely worth looking at as successful areas for Crowdsourcing! Thanks again!

  9. Christen (Dee) Cutrona

    Thank you so much for posting this article. This subject has been on my mind a lot lately as our world spins faster and faster and design “pimps” (I know it’s a harsh word, but think about the similarities…) like CrowdSpring, 99Design, HatchWise, DesignCrowd are benefiting from graphic designers who are passionate, skilled service providers, who should be compensated well. Here’s a question: I wonder how much these companies spend on their corporate identities and graphics? Probably a lot because they have a lot at stake, right?

    If we work for a price that we’re not comfortable with, we are training prospective clients to think that they can have great design for less–at our cost, and why would we just give it away to someone we don’t even know? For a great portfolio piece? Make a great self-promotional portfolio piece instead.

    Here’s the only good thing I can say about crowd sourcing: it has advertised to
    everyone how much they really need us–how important it is to have a logo, a brand. Now it is our responsibility, no matter where we lie on the spectrum from graduating student to veteran graphic designer to bid higher and educate prospective clients why we are so valuable, and charge them accordingly. Eventually the divide between the “$100 logo people” and “those who consider their logo an investment well worth the cost” will happen naturally, and hopefully after the “$100 logo people” have gotten what they’ve paid for, we’ll be able to assist them down the road too…for a cost.

    Strength in numbers. This is a trend we have the ability to stop.

  10. Anthony

    Great article. In my experience as a business owner of a design firm we have been told by potential clients that our prices were too high based off of what they could get in return from crowdsourcing sites. Most people that come to us with those complaints are usually small business owners or new startups that really have a hard time understanding what a design firm provides is more than just a logo design. We spend time in our meetings addressing the issues right up front by letting them know most of what you will get off of crowdsourcing sites is really a large amount of brainstorming spec work that can at times be really well thought out but mostly is just artwork created without much consideration of what the company is about and how that visual identity can be effectively used from ad campaigns to website and environmental design.

    Even seasoned freelancers understand that the costs of creating is not all about the artwork and that it involves researching the clients market, developing guidelines for print and web usage and consulting the client on just about everything throughout the process.

    Ultimately the old saying of “You Get What You Pay For” still rings true simply because most work from croudsourcing sites when brought into an agency will have to reworked which means in the end clients pay the prices they were trying to avoid in the first place.

    Our company ended up creating a package that caters specifically to small businesses and startups that are also interested in establishing a relationship with a design firm but don’t have to break the bank to get going. And on the flip side for us the invested design time makes sense for the firm. This has helped us establish real client relationships with new businesses and we have helped educate them in the process of what they can expect to get from croudsourcing vs. experienced freelancers or design firms.

    The fact that croudsourcing exists is not the downfall of our industry but really the crucial role is back on us to get out there and let people know why the design industry is actually very important and what experience can bring to the table. The design industry has always had to fight for its respected place in the business world and eventhough croudsourcing does degrade the standard by which we industry pros hang our hat on it actually I think in time can help the established designers and agencies thrive simply because the line between doing it cheap and doing it right will be even more defined.

  11. Tori

    I would like to add to points to the discussion.
    Established designers usually claim that crowdsourced designs are usually done by hobbyists or students; that may be true for the US where a professional can just not afford working on spec for long. However I have seen sites where in low income countries whole studios specialize in Crowdsourced work. If your cost of living is just 10% of what you’d have to pay in the US, winning a contest among many entered, may still pay the bills, especially as they won’t pay the income taxes either. So often you see work from India, Eastern Europe and Argentina…

    Crowdsourcing sites usually brag with how many millions they already paid out. If you calculate that a contest prize is just 10% of what a regular studio would have to charge, you can multiply the numbers to see the loss in revenue (and taxes) through those contest sites.

    It is about time to make crowdsourced contests ‘uncool’. I have seen contests run by huge companies such as ‘Barilla’ but also music VIP’s such as ‘Moby’. Et tu Mobi? I am dissappointed.

  12. LeAnn Barker

    I am curious to know how any of you may have handled a situation where a non-profit organization picked out a template for their website and logo (possibly for free) with horrible results. How did you approach this organization to convince them to take graphic design seriously and not cut corners in order to save a buck? Did you notice anything about the leadership skills (or lack thereof)? Any success stories?