Crowdsourcing in My Face

A blast from the past – I wrote this over ten years ago on my old blog. I think it’s still relevant.

CrowdsourcingI recently had an experience that brought home the crowdsourcing nightmare currently infecting the design world. For those unfamiliar with this plague, crowdsourcing design is where you go to a site advertising logos or web sites for ridiculously low prices by setting up a “bidding” or “contest” situation. It’s the latest form of working on spec, something no self-respecting designer does. A client who had hired me to create a logo stumbled on a crowdsourcing site and sent a very unhappy email. I have been asked to share the experience on my blog. It’s going to be long – sorry. Here’s a shortened version of the initial email, abridged to protect the client’s privacy:

“Sorry that I haven’t gotten back to you sooner. I’m in quite the conundrum over this and have been trying to settle on a solution . . . Within a few weeks after we began the logo process, I stumbled upon (crowdsourcing site) and thought it a great opportunity to give (another) logo a whirl to see what they came up with. I guaranteed the contest, wrote the creative brief and within one week received 47 logo designs based upon my brief, ten of which were so great that it made it nearly impossible to pick the best! For $200, I received a package of 17 different variations on the design I selected in every conceivable format. During the contest, they contacted me to talk about my product and I asked them how they were making a living at these prices, given what I was paying for the [original that LBD did) logo. The exec told me that for $2500 in this economy, I should have received both companies’ logos, all their marketing materials, plus two fully designed separate websites which included blogs, a shopping cart and SEO optimization. In fact, in the end they did end up doing all of this but the [original LBD] logo for $1800 and I am thrilled with their work and attention to my needs and damn it, why didn’t I know this before?

“So I am going to sit down and sort this out over the weekend . . . Once I do, I will send you the remaining balance of what I owe you. I made a commitment to you and intend to follow it through, but had this been my business, damn, I clearly would want to know this was happening.”

– The client

Here is my response:

I am very sorry about your dissatisfaction with our work on your (original) logo. Because of your experience with (crowdsourcing site), you sound as though you feel that you paid too much for it. (Crowdsourcing site) is a design crowdsourcing site, of which there are many. They broker hundreds of design projects and theirprocess is fairly typical. Customers post projects and designers bid on them. Usually (but not always) the lowest price wins.

They make money by treating the profession of design as a commodity. It’s a volume game – if they post enough jobs, the little they make from each one adds up. This is possible because the designers who created your other 46 designs and whose work wasn’t chosen received nothing for their efforts. That happens far more often than getting an award . . . and is why crowdsourcing is considered by many to be exploitative.

A consequence of crowdsourcing is that quality suffers, not only in the final logo but in the thought that goes into it. If a designer’s odds of making any money is fairly low, there is little incentive to put much craft and originality into the entries. It becomes a numbers game for the designer, too – many keep folders of different kinds of logos and use them repeatedly, changing small aspects to refresh the work. Some users will even scrape design content from the web, change a color or a font, and put it up as an entry. There have been an increasing number of copyright infringements due to logos from crowdsourcing sites that were knock-offs of other people’s logos. (Crowdsourcing site), in their Terms and Conditions, makes it very clear that they have no responsibility for that occurrence: (3. ORIGINAL DESIGNS AND INFRINGEMENT ON INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS. (Crowdsourcing site) is not responsible for the Content of any Design and hasno obligation to screen, edit or review Designs for patent, trademark, service or copyright infringement.

So if someone claims that your design work infringes on theirs, you are on your own, even though (crowdsourcing site) makes a big point of saying that they require their designers to guarantee that their work is original. They have no means of ensuring compliance other than to ban an offending designer from their site.

It also happens that many of the designer participants are from poorer countries. In those economies, $100 is big money, if they are lucky enough to win, and therefore have more of an incentive to take the chance of ending up with nothing. There are good designers in those countries just as anywhere, but their cost of living is a lot lower than here. The reality is that globalization has come to the professions. This isn’t just happening to designers – it is also happening to attorneys, psychologists, and various healthcare providers.

For example: suppose I consulted with you on a medical issue, got some good advice, and then stumbled onto the same advice at I might feel as frustrated as you are now – why did I pay all that money? Here’s why: you spent many years acquiring your degree and decades of experience in delivering quality professional services (as did I). When I get counseling from you, I am working with a known quantity focused solely on me, who brings all her education and experience to bear on my problem. I am dealing with a person who is completely accountable for her work, and the fact that I could have dug up the information on the web is irrelevant. I could just as easily have dug up wrong information, but how would I know?

The other reality is, when any service becomes commoditized, standards inevitably diminish. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the top professional organization for designers, has a very clear stance on crowdsourcing on their web site.

(Client:) “The exec told me that for $2500 in this economy, I should have received both companies’ logos, all their marketing materials, plus two fully designed separate websites which included blogs, a shopping cart and SEO optimization.”

That sounds a bit self-serving. You would not get those prices from an experienced independent professional, but you would from another crowdsourcing site. And here are some other crowdsourcing sites so you can compare your price from (crowdsourcing site): 99designs, designcrowd, the logo factory.

(Client:) “In fact, in the end they did end up dong all of this… for $1800 and I am thrilled with their work and attention to my needs and damn it, why didn’t I know this before?”

Apparently up to now you were unaware of crowdsourcing. If you are thrilled with their work, then it was a good experience for you.

You will need to be the final arbiter of what logo you use, based on your own criteria, preferences and business goals. It is not possible to create a logo that everyone likes, so the most important judge of your logo is you. The one I designed for you is very good and completely unique to the business. We both put alot of effort and thought into it. You own all rights, you have a complete set of files and you have no copyright fears. The only way you might see it elsewhere is if someone steals the image off the web. It was created using a thorough and professional process, and I believe it will add considerable value to your business.

I appreciate your frankness and I am sorry that you are not happy. I hope I have given you some useful information.

I appreciate your integrity in keeping your commitment. Please let me know what you decide to do over the weekend.

Regards, Laurel

Whew! I sent it off with little hope of a happy outcome. Her response, however, was excellent – she got it! An excerpt:

“. . . What I find interesting in reading these articles you were so kind to take the time to send is EXACTLY what we are fighting against in (her) profession, similar to what you pointed out. In this economy, many customers are looking for “value” and (practitioners) are constantly operating from a somewhat losing framework in that information is abundant, and a dime a dozen . . . There are good designers crowd sourcing, I’m sure, and then similar to (her) profession, there are A LOT of bad ones.

“It is vital that you know that I love your work and this had nothing to do with your quality or the time we’ve had together on this project. I really needed a further explanation, as you were gracious enough to give me, for what this crap was all about.

“Let’s get this project done and out of your hair! Can you invoice me this week? Thanks for taking the time to offer me a short course!”

Clearly she is a great client. I am grateful that she gave me the opportunity to tell my side of the story. This has taught me that a good way to push back when crowdsourcing rears its ugly head is to make an analogy with the client’s business. No one likes to have their work devalued and their ability to make a reasonable living degraded. It is also clear that this will continue and that it will affect all the professions. I encourage you to craft your own response for the inevitable time when you, too, will find crowdsourcing in your face.

Scroll to Top