In-house Incites: To Join The Crowd…Or Not

This post marks the debut of  “In-house Incites”, a kind of alter ego to its cousin column with a similar sounding moniker, “In-house Insights” that appears on the blog every Monday.

As its name implies, the topics and perspectives of this series will be slightly more controversial and confrontational, providing a bit of a counterpoint to the generally moderate fare that usually populates the blog roster.

The intention is to spark candid dialogue about many of the most important issues facing in-house designers today.

Crowdsourcing is a hot mess of a topic for designers and for good reason. It strikes at the very heart of our struggle for credibility and professional survival in the ever more competitive business landscape.

As in-house designers, faced with budget pressures and clients’ requests to crowdsource their projects, we may find ourselves at the center of the storm, weighing whether or not to utilize this resource.


Below are 2 positions on this seemingly intractable issue.


Ross Kimbarovsky, co-owner of Crowdspring, is either, at best, completely ignorant of the practice of design and it’s potential for providing powerful solutions to a broad range of problems or, at worst, a greedy manipulative capitalist (in the worse sense of the word) who misrepresents design, the design community and the role Crowdspring plays in the devaluation and commoditization of design.

His position is on display for all to read on his blog.

Reducing the design process to mere deliverables along the lines of a Chinese takeout restaurant (with apologies to those proprietors), he makes a case that crowdsourcing opens up wonderful opportunities for designers of all levels of experience to work for big name clients by providing a fair and level playing field through his benevolent site.

In fact Kimbarovsky’s model encourages the exploitation of designers by facilitating the process of engaging them for spec work. He argues, as do other’s who profit from crowdsourcing, that, like the revolution in self-publishing in the music industry, it will open up opportunities for entrepreneurial success for participating designers. This is an intentionally deceptive and flawed analogy. Self-publishing affords artists the choice to market their work with all the associated risks AND rewards. Designers participating in spec work take all the risk, with the reward being so minimal that it couldn’t possibly justify the time, talent and intellectual investment they put into their design. It’s design on the cheap, with Kimbarovsky and his partners in crime, along with the clients, garnering the lion’s share of the profits.

Besides the inaccurate representation of the financial benefit to those participating in crowdsourcing, Kimbarovsky ignores, and actually obscures, the strategic value that design thinking contributes to marketing, cultural and societal challenges. The sourcing mechanism, as it’s incorporated into the Crowdspring model, minimizes any opportunity for this type of contribution by designers, cheating the participating clients of the chance to tap into the talent, creativity and intellect of those they’re looking to buy a design from. There is no opportunity for the designer to help the client reframe the assignment and arrive at a more appropriate solution. It becomes all about ink on paper or pixels on a screen.

Crowdsourcing is a base, cynical attempt to clothe exploitation in the guise of benevolence, fairness and free market dogma.


How long is the design community going to arrogantly and foolishly attempt to defy and derail the crowdsourcing phenomenon? It has arrived and it’s here to stay. Who’s to say that, for lesser talented or experienced designers, it’s not a valid option to practice their craft? In the same way nurse practitioners can handle simpler physical ailments in place of a doctor, the aforementioned designers can engage on the simpler, less strategic or visible projects for their crowdsource clients.

Rather than trying to mobilize designers to boycott Crowdspring and other crowdsourcing sites, our time, as a community, would be better spent on creating and executing campaigns to educate corporations, academia, government and others about our contributions to solving complex problems facing our businesses and society. This tact helps educate clients who will hopefully begin to see the inherent limitations of crowdsourcing and use it for only the most tactical projects.

Taking this approach a step further, designers should embrace the idea of certification by their peers. This long neglected opportunity to raise the stature of our profession and ensure that those practicing design are indeed capable of doing so should be put on the front burner and implemented as quickly as possible.

By placing our emphasis on adopting a positive-minded proactive approach to crowdsourcing rather than a reactive defensive stance, we’ll ensure the long-term success of our profession and avoid short-term unwinnable skirmishes with those who value and benefit from the crowdsourcing model.

Some thoughts

Neither of these views represents my personal opinion of crowdsourcing. To be candid, though, as an in-house design manager who is in the position of soliciting spec work and has worked as a freelancer, I personally use the gut-check method. There are projects where, the thought of soliciting spec work makes me feel physically queasy and dirty – I don’t approach those projects by soliciting spec. There are other circumstances, few to be sure, where using the spec model feels fair and appropriate.

It’s a personal choice, but one that we all should take very seriously.

One thought on “In-house Incites: To Join The Crowd…Or Not

  1. Jen

    I must say that I feel that a website that advocates for and even provides a vehicle for spec work, is in my opinion not a friend to the designer, they are hurting the integrity of the entire industry. Of course businesses would be on board, and it’s also a plus for entry level designers that would be anxious to sink their teeth into new design projects. In this economic condition, you can even see the allure of other designers, who should know better… using a service to make a few extra dollars or feeling like it could be a good professional connection.

    However, I think from my experience ordinary people already have misconceptions about the amount of time and training that goes into design work, that it’s something that deserves value, and I think doing work in hopes of being rewarded (spec work) only cheapens the work designers do in both the industries eyes, and in everyone else’s. I do think it’s the most positive position to teach designers and professionals in search of designers the importance of having integrity for your work and for the design field as a whole. If someone gives away ideas and work, what makes someone else’s work worth money? How can people continue to earn a living being a creative professional if we are selves are taking the food off the table.

    My opinion as to why this is occurring beyond what was mentioned above, is that it’s increasingly difficult to have the opportunity to work for major brand makers, it’s becoming a small pond, and not everyone is feeling like they have the opportunity to swim… I wish it was (I don’t want to say easier) to have young designers exposed to bigger projects and more lofty brands (and still pay the bills), not just a select group of agencies.