Crowdsourcing Design and the Bargain Basement

crowdsourcing design

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When I first stumbled on the “crowdsource” brand of design sites years ago I was a little put off to say the least. Now I notice that even stock photos houses are offering logos for sale. Most design or business oriented blogs I visit I get bombed with ads from DIY web design “products”. And last but not least, the existence of template sites that boast, “2,000+ Site Templates and Themes from $1” add to my dismay of what is happening in within the design industry.

While I’m fully aware that it’s now open season for “services” and websites such as these and also the fact that they’re not going away any time soon, I would still like to point out some of the inherent problems, both from a client perspective and from a designer perspective.

Competition – for Designers

Competition is the key to an open market and design studios as well as freelancers have been participating in competition since the beginning. However, turning design itself into the competition is what I have a problem with. I remember the first time I became aware of a very large and well-known company running a contest to produce a brand identity. This really got me thinking and initially, I was thinking, how could people fall for that? Perhaps it was aimed towards students or art/design colleges? It wasn’t like I’d never heard of the concept before, but it just seemed so odd that a corporation as large as that would run a contest of this nature. I took to the web to search out more information about it. It didn’t take long to find the professional design community up in arms about that particular contest. The “prize” they were offering was essentially a very low sum for what an actual project of that nature for that level of company would cost. I didn’t follow what the end results were but there you had a multi-million dollar company who crowdsourced their next big brand instead of hiring a professional designer.

Some of the sites I go to seem like a desperate free-for-all where “designers” are trying to low-ball bid each other out of the competition for a full ecommerce website for under $200.

Another key point, is that designers basically have no rights (except for the simple fact they get to keep what they made – for free – if someone doesn’t pick them). Customers who choose your design can back out on a whim with no repercussions. Often times, they can also leave you negative feedback, hindering your chances of remaining competitive.

Competition – for Clients

For clients, the availability of cheap, pre-made templates or to be able to post a job and have people submit, for free, concepts until they like one might seem like a dream come true. Let me just point out quickly why it’s not:

  1. You have very little to no interaction with the designer. This is a large part of the design process and it’s worth paying for a professional to guide you and listen to your input during the process (by the way, design is a process that requires skill and talent, it’s not a commodity). With these bargain basement services, you may never actually see what you truly want, and end up just settling. Would you, “just settle” in other areas of your business?
  2. Buying a cheap, ready-made template does not differentiate your business in the marketplace. Unique IS valuable. If 500 other businesses are using the same template (especially if they’re in your industry – and note that most template sites are categorized by industry) imagine what a potential web-surfing customer might do after seeing 10 very similar, if not exact, websites? Remember the old saying about first impressions? You have about 3 seconds to make one on the web.
  3. Contracts. What type of contracts, or lack thereof, are happening out in this free-for-all marketplace? I recently ran across a site where people will do just about anything for $5. And yes, design was on there. You could be “purchasing” a rights-managed image or vector art and be totally unaware of it. Or you may simply be getting clip art, or a stolen or knock off design. When you hire a professional, they will have you sign an agreement before starting work and this agreement should actually protect both parties. I noted one of the top crowdsource design sites has a “100% money back guarantee” – which basically means that if a customer doesn’t like what they see after posting a project, they don’t pay for anything and therefore any “designer” doesn’t get paid either. Sounds like a great deal for the customer, right?! This would be like driving your car into several auto repair shops, where you state, “I need a new engine parts – install those for me … show me what you got!” Each mechanic then works on the car and installs various parts under the pretense that you MIGHT choose to pay them. Do you see how ridiculous a notion that is? Just like a mechanic is trained to work on an engine, a programmer is trained to write code and a designer is trained to take a vague concept and turn it into a visual representation of your company, service, or product in order to give YOU the competitive edge.

Going Rates – Here vs. There

Someone recently pointed out that a designer operating outside of North America, or any other country where rates for deisgn can be higher, can make more money doing one logo for $50 than everyone else in their community does for a whole month. While that’s great that someone can make a living to support themselves in their country for $50, that really doesn’t fly here in North America. $50 barely buys us a couple bags of groceries. Freelancers and small design firms are stuck paying for their own health insurance (anywhere from $150 a month on up), rent or mortgage, fees for the latest software … the list of expenses just goes on and on. With that and the actual talent, knowledge and many other qualities it takes to be a designer, the rates in our industry have steadily risen over the years to become somewhat standardized hourly wages.

I understand all about global economy and as I said, I think that’s great that someone could make an exceptional wage in their country for doing this type of work but it doesn’t seem to be a two-way street. With more clients choosing to pay the lowest fee possible for their projects those of us in countries that have higher cost of living and therefore a higher rate for services are getting the short end of the stick. Even if, like myself, you choose to not participate on crowdsourcing or bidding websites, a vast number of what would be potential clients are being influenced to think that design should be cheap.

Here is a true example of the effects of this. A number of years ago my company was contacted by a potential client who explained to me that they paid to have a site developed by a company located in India. They had trouble contacting them (vast time difference, response delays), trouble understanding them (language barrier), and at the end of it all had a half built site they were not happy with. They explained that they paid a large sum of money and have no legal recourse (overseas – good luck enforcing any agreement) and they needed to get their site functional as soon as possible. While I sympathized with their story and current situation I was shocked by what they did next – they asked us for a drastically discounted rate because they had, “paid all this money out already and didn’t get anything!” Since when did the responsibility to fix a project for next to nothing, simply because the potential client got ripped off, fall to the next design company or freelancer they called?

After hearing this same story for about the 10th time it got pretty old and I knew things were changing. Only a couple of these types of contacts ended up becoming good paying clients. The rest disappeared after being presented with a realistic quote to fix their issues. I actually considered that a GOOD THING! If people want something at a vast discount (or for free) then they are not worth the time of a professional because they do not value that professional’s knowledge, skills, talent, education, real life work experience or problem solving.

A Designer’s Job

Besides all of what I’ve mentioned already, what is happening in the industry kind of exemplifies to me how so many people have forgotten (or simply don’t care anymore) that design shouldn’t be a commodity and that part of the job of a designer is to use design to help a client differentiate their business, meet their goals, connect with their market, and gain a competitive edge. Most importantly, part of a designer’s job is to educate the client as to why good, quality, unique design is important to them and why it’s valuable to them. Crowdsource, contest, bidding, and commodity websites go against all of that and although plenty of people are now justifying their very existence, it is still not the designer’s making going rates. It’s the site owners that are cleaning up. The designers are being used as cheap, expendable labor.

So what’s a pro to do?

The best we can do, as professionals, is to keep doing our jobs and producing the best work we can for a reasonable wage (and by reasonable I mean industry standard). We must continue to elevate the design industry once again while educating both clients and potential clients on the value of our services. We must learn to be savvy in our industry and learn to avoid those who would want us to do free or speculative work if we have chosen not to take the route that leads to the “bargain basement”.

A final couple of notes …

I felt it was important to add that “free” is a choice open to designers, not a requirement. Over the course of a year, my company typically does two pro-bono projects of our choosing (usually for worthy non-profit organizations, a local farm, or a green start-up business). Limiting such projects, making them “special”, and choosing the organization/company puts a different spin on the term, free. These types of projects can create good press, good referrals, give you a sense of giving back to your community, and a sense of doing something positive. To me, they have nothing to do with anything I’ve mentioned above and perfectly illustrate an acceptable way to do free.

Finally, I didn’t write this article to particularly bash the websites and practices mentioned, but more to just point out observations and illustrate some examples. I hope that, at the very least, it shows the other side of these issues enough to spur additional thought for anyone who reads it.

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