Thinking about “crowdsourcing” your logo?

crowdsource design

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To many companies and individuals seeking design services the attraction and benefits of crowdsourcing (outsourcing a task to a larger group of people) seem like a win-win situation. On the surface, it appears that you don’t have to worry about researching designers and contacting them on your own. You can get a large variety of designs to choose from for just a fraction of the cost of hiring a single designer or company. And on many crowdsource sites it seems very, “no strings attached” in that if you don’t see something you like, you can simply walk away or keep asking for more designs.

So what’s wrong with that?

While the term might be relatively new, the notion has been around for awhile – think of a contest model, where many people submit an entry but only one person will win. From a professional designer’s perspective there’s nothing wrong with contests, if one wants to participate in them. But where crowdsourcing design crosses over a line is when the requirement is that each designer submit a piece of work first, without any compensation or agreement. This is called “spec work” (or speculative work) and is generally something that is frowned upon by the pros. Pretend for a moment crowdsourcing existed in a lot of other industries – let’s take professional cake decorating for instance. Your wedding is coming up you know you want your cake to be perfect and look fantastic but you can’t decide on a style or type. So you find a company who says they can put your “job” in front of thousands of cake decorators. Some of the decorators might be professionals and some of them might be folks with very little skills or no previous experience with wedding cake decorating. You take the chance and post your job. The next day 50 bakers make and decorate you a cake and you have to choose one of them. That might seem like a silly example but that’s basically what is happening in crowdsourced design, only the work is done on a computer instead of in a kitchen and a digital file is created instead of cake. Many will have put time and effort into creating something and not be compensated at all. Imagine all those cakes going to waste.

Okay, so some people aren’t getting paid, but I still get what I want.

It may seem that way, right?

As I mentioned many of the crowdsource sites do not enforce any type of agreement between client and designer and some allow clients to easily slip away without selecting a design (therefore no one at all gets paid). I don’t doubt that some designs have even slipped away without any compensation paid and no real recourse (for the designer) available since no standardized design contract is signed before engaging in submitting work via some of these sites.

Considering most people have a conscience and would choose a design and pay for it, what other pitfalls could there possibly be?

Copyright and trademark infringement.

I’d consider this the number one risk when posting a design project on a crowdsource website. Remember the bit about no contractual agreements? Well, that works both ways. Normally, a professional designer or company will have you sign a legal document that details all specifications of the project, payment and a lot of other legalese. This is a binding legal agreement meant to protect both parties in the event of any unpleasantness. A professional will also guarantee that the work created is unique and original and free of any copyright or trademark infringement. You get no such agreement when you crowdsource (unless you were to take matters into your own hands and have the selected designer sign an agreement you generate before payment – but this would have to be done outside of the crowdsource site).

I must also point out that doing work for free, with only a small possibility of being chosen to be paid, is a very different scenario then getting hired by and paid by a client for custom work. While these sites tout that you receive custom work there have already been enough examples floating around the web of recycled work as well. A designer may come up with something that doesn’t work out for one client, so they keep using it (or parts of it) for others, with doing little to no new work (and really, why should they … it’s a crap shoot they’ll be paid for it anyway).

Strategic design goes out the window.

Strategic design is exactly what it sounds like – design created with a strategy in mind. Usually this involves getting to know a client’s goals, their target market, their overall brand image, any marketing messages, etc. All of these things are considered when working with a professional who does strategic design. It’s a process that ensures the most successful outcome. It’s also an interaction between client and designer to achieve the goals of the project. Crowdsourcing circumvents this process. You have a short description of your project that you fill out and then it’s basically off to the races and in a short amount of time you can be shown a hundred or more options. The only interaction comes when you choose one and are allowed to have the designer make some revisions for you. It’s a scattershot process at best. Consider this, are you really putting your best foot forward by side stepping the process in which excellent design and strong brands are normally created?

But I don’t have a lot of money …

I hate to even bother with such a tired old phrase but you really do, “get what you pay for”, with certain things. If you’re trying to start a business on a shoestring budget it’s even more imperative that you come out of the gate looking like a champion. Save the money and invest it in building your image, your brand, and your marketing into something not only professional but highly effective (because it was created through a strategic process).

Are there any positives to crowdsourcing?

Proponents of crowdsourcing claim that competition can lead to sharpening skills as a designer (and often cite that many design students are participating). To this I have to respond that, isn’t there competition in the field as is? The normal process of a company contacting several designers, explaining what they need, and having the designers submit a written proposal is competition. Portfolios and working examples are what a professional designer uses to showcase talent and expertise and to help win a project – not freebie work, done quickly without really knowing anything about a potential client and under no working agreement.

There’s an inherent danger in this business model as well. It’s the fact that people do not equate worth with free – whether it’s physical products or services. Many clients never even consider that designers are actually doing free work – that hours did go into all the designs that they’re seeing and will not choose. It cheapens the expertise and skill actually required of a designer. And on the designer’s end, when they give away those skills, the value plummets and that is exactly why you can obtain a logo for $100 through crowdsourcing.

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