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Graphic design is not a commodity - e.g., crowdsourcing design

Crowd sourcing design seems like an economical solution in hard times. There are plenty of “design commodity” sites where you can purchase canned designs or present projects as “contests” - but design is not a widget. One size does not fit all.

It’s undeniable that in today’s world all professions are under assault as entrepreneurs attempt to reduce them to a commodity - something that can be canned and sold for a “competitive price.”  You’ve got medical advice sites, legal advice sites… hell, you can even leave life-altering decisions up to algorithms and the internet masses. But the old adage once again rings true….you get what you pay for, with very few exceptions.

Design is no different. First it was logos. Google logo design and you’ll find plenty of sites that will either sell you existing logos (exclusively or non-exclusive) or sites that will generate logos for a nominal fee with endless revisions. Then came web templates…cast your business online with only a few easy clicks. Next came stock layouts….sure you can get brochure templates, with matching web template, etc. And now…following the crowd sourcing of stock photography (i.e., istockphoto.com) we have crowd sourced design.

Yup, sites like 99designs.com permit “clients” to create competitions that pit eager, hungry designers against one another…basically for free…with nothing but the potential of having your design selected and winning the contest. If your design is selected you’re paid the “bid” amount that the contest stipulated. Usually far below market value. And the other “99” participants…well, they receive nothing.

Sure, sites like this, (I refer to them as “design commodity sites”) make me angry - but not because I see them as competition. It’s because I see them as exploitative and more so, because they do a tremendous disservice to an already misunderstood industry - design.

But first, some history…design’s dark ages.

For too long, design was an afterthought. Whether it was product design, graphic design, or any design…the suits and engineers somehow took control in the late eighties and early nineties - function and budgets were all that mattered - it was the design dark ages. Add the adoption of computer technology throughout a corporation, and suddenly everyone was a designer - and for a long time…it didn’t matter that it wasn’t “good design.” All that  mattered was that it got done.

Then finally, during the late nineties, design’s relevance started to reemerge. Savvy business people started to realize that design really does make a difference. Well-designed products sold better. Car manufacturers started to introduce “retro designs” that hearkened back to early models. Supermarket “store brands” started to redesign their “generic looking products” taking them more upscale, and were rewarded with store brands that often outsold leading brands. And of course there’s Target - the department store that lives and breathes branding and design. They started to partner with renowned architects and designers - creating both functional and beautiful products - and suddenly you couldn’t venture into a Target without spending $80 or more.

And finally, after the design dark ages, the design profession started to gain respect again. Designers became part of the process from the start. They participated in solving business problems. And the companies that combined aesthetics and function began to see a resurgence. Apple Inc. started its meteoric rise after Steve Jobs’ return, partly because he’s passionate about design. iMacs, iPods, and the iPhone demonstrated again and again that design can infuse products (and companies) with new life and excite consumers. 

Alas, the design dark ages loom once more

Unfortunately, we’ve started to come full circle. Tough times have rekindled “bean counter think.” And just as computers liberated the masses and gave them PowerPoint and Microsoft Publisher so they could wreak their havoc upon the newsletters of the world, today the internet beckons with its intoxicating song of “commodity design” - cheap, attractive designs a la carte. In tough times, what could be better? Business owners are naturally drawn to this siren’s call - design at rock bottom pricing. But when we forget the lessons of the past, we’re doomed to repeat them.

Again companies are beginning to forget that including designers at the earliest levels of problem-solving creates better, more appealing solutions that resonate with customers. They ignore the fact that “commodity designs” purchased from multiple sources won’t work together. Abandoned is the client/designer relationship - replaced by the faceless, uninformed, masses and the allure of cheap design.

We’re not doomed. It’s a natural process… trends occur in cycles, and ignorance seems to follow the same pattern. I’m confident that the designers participating in crowd sourcing will eventually realize it’s a losing process (even if they’ll simply be replaced by new, younger designers). But more importantly, I’m also positive that smart companies will continue to recognize the importance of good design and realize that during this emerging design dark ages II, they can stand apart from the crowd and the designs they’ve produced.


Update: 4/15/2009

Panel discussion from SXSW 2009 regarding “spec work” and crowdsourcing design.

Apr 02, 2009
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