I recently made the mistake of including a link to a design contest site in a business article. Of all the suggestions for small businesses to improve their web presence, I had a sentence on using crowdsourcing for small budgets but included small expectations. Needless to say, despite the attention given to hiring a professional designer, the mere mention of crowdsourcing made for some boiling blood among designers. But why were they so mad and was it warranted?



The article, “The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make With Your Web Site,” was based on a startup business that asked for my feedback on their new site. It had almost every mistake a business site could possibly contain from bad design to badly written sell copy. Oddly enough, the site was for a creative company that was modeling it’s business on a sort of crowdsourcing/agent representation basis.


As the article was aimed at small startups and not creatives, I had to give all site design options. Two options were listed for web design. This is how the first paragraph of suggestions for web design appeared:


Look up some local web designers and talk with them about your needs. A professional designer has your best interest in mind because they want to continue servicing your web needs as the internet evolves and so does your business. They can also handle your domain registration and many can host your site on their server for one set price package deal.


This was the second paragraph:


There are sites that have design contests where you write a design brief of your needs and a dozen or more designers will design your site and you can choose the solution you like best and only pay for the design you choose. Further tweaks, if needed, are paid to the designer on an hourly basis.


As usual, I placed links to the article on several social media channels but it was a group on LinkedIn that exploded with… passionate comments, most of which wanted me lynched just for mentioning crowdsourcing. The comments are presented here verbatim (changing only the names to protect the anonymity of responders). Read what people wrote and consider all points of view:


Mark S. — “There are sites that have design contests where you write a design brief of your needs and a dozen or more designers will design your site and you can choose the solution you like best and only pay for the design you choose.”


Proves that the site that published the article doesn’t know much about design. Anyone who promotes crowdsourcing is an enemy of the design profession.


Mark S. — I should also say, crowdsourcing isn’t in the best interest of the client. Even with a well written brief, I could not have done any of the work I have done without having in depth discussions with the client, doing research and creating iterations that eventually become the final product.


Crowdsourcing is a trap for clients. A potentially easy and cheaper alternative. But it’s only a way to noodle around at the edges of a fully developed communications strategy that only a professional designer can deliver.


Of course there are clients like Joe’s Pluming and Nancy’s Maid Service that will find crowdsourcing or plug-in templates for their website just fine to start. But those aren’t the client we’re looking for anyway.


Philip F. — “Crowdsourcing is a trap for clients.”
…to say nothing of the abuse it delivers to desperate, unskilled, and aspiring designers.


Consider for a moment that you are paying less than you would for a hand-selected designer, and that any entrant to a competition has — I dunno — let’s say a 5% odds of “winning” that less-than-it’s-worth “prize” for their efforts…


You will get what you pay for. And what you are paying for is a cynical profiting from the desperation of others who cannot really know what they are aspiring to create, as Mark so accurately pointed out.


John S. — And so we’ve got a link-bait that takes me to a site that itself doesn’t respect design. Waste of time.


My reply — Ah, yes… crowdsourcing does hit the hot button with designers. As a board member of many artist organizations, there was always rabid hatred of the practice… until I noticed certain hypocrisy among these organizations.


First, perhaps you’ll notice the proliferation of ads for 99designs on designer’s sites, online (and print) design magazines and even on the organization’s sites as well? And what of ads for cheap WP templates and free fonts? Who do you think supplies those?


In many discussions about crowdsourcing, most designers agree that those businesses that use the service, as Mark points out, are ones that cannot afford a site done through, shall we say, professional means. Their needs are basic, almost a landing page, yet the descriptor of “professional” demeans those in countries that supply the spec entries. There is no reason to think they are any less qualified designers than designers in New York, London, Paris, etc. and the fee, if they win, means enough income for them to live upon for a month or more. They do not take away any client from designers who service companies and businesses that have greater needs for their design projects. In the end, while one might argue that no designer is having his/her arm twisted to participate, it gives an entry into globalization to those with limited clients on a local basis.


In a way, crowdsourcing is much like the small business owner who decides he/she will hire a student to create a logo or web site for a fee of $50. With crowdsourcing, that person will receive a higher quality of work (albeit not of the level of personal attention).


But what is the difference between crowdsourcing and a professional project done on a one-to-one basis these days?


  • Ad agencies do free spec work presentations to gain clients.
  • Most designers will show three to ten design directions to a client, only to be directed to do more or combine two to four (or more) of the designs.
  • With crowdsourcing sites, the designer is guaranteed payment. How often does a one-to-one client argue the final bill and change fees?


Naturally there are more examples, but that’s another article for down the road.


Philip F. — “With crowdsourcing sites, the designer is guaranteed payment.” Excuse me?


I think you mean “one designer” gets paid. The other 90+% get screwed, at least if they have taken any pride in their work and invested any time and effort into it.


So who do you think is really attracted to that type of competition? Not skilled designers with a lot of knowledge or experience, that’s for sure. You can’t even know what the client is really after, so even for a skilled designer, it is a crap shoot with very poor odds.


While I don’t believe that folks in other countries are exclusively the ones entering such competitions (I’ve seen local ads for entries, and known folks who have entered) your saying that criticism of such “demeans those in countries that supply the spec entries” is akin to stating that “sweat shops provide opportunities to the less fortunate.” The competition itself is demeaning.


I don’t deny that it can work out well for the person setting up the competition in some cases. It doesn’t work out for the vast majority of “designers”.


“But what is the difference between crowdsourcing and a professional project done on a one-to-one basis these days?”


There are numerous, enormous differences between crowd sourcing and professional projects, and I’m surprised you don’t recognize that. Perhaps you’ve never worked with a good designer. Crowd sourcing does not merely hit a button with designers. Crowd-sourcing is just a cheap way to attempt to take advantage of desperate creatives, or wanna-be creatives.


As for the “hypocrisy” of designers, if you knew much about web-sites, you would realize that the site owner frequently has no control over the ads on their page. And of course the crowd-sourcing businesses know where to target their business.


It’s business, pure and simple, cynical and selfish. Something you probably are familiar with.


My reply — I’m familiar with cynical and selfish? If (I) knew much about web sites? Perhaps I’ve never worked with a good designer? Oh, Philip, do you really want to turn this into a battle of personal attacks? I’ll let the passive-aggressive insults go for the good of this thread and group, not having a discussion turn into a flame war.


If the only participants in these contests are ‘wanna-be creatives’ and ‘not skilled designers’ then how come sites like 99designs are growing so quickly, opening offices around the world in different languages and have a growing number of registered participants? Are there that many “wanna-be” designers? Where are they coming from?


Do you know the average wage of a sweatshop worker? Pennies a day — a very long day in horrid conditions. If someone in China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia or parts of India (just to name a few countries with heavy export of cheap manufacturing) can make $200-$800 from winning one contest, don’t you think they’re better off than in a sweat shop? (BTW… where do your shoes and clothes come from? Do you shop at Walmart?).


I work with many web sites and ads are not, in most cases, booked through secondary sources. They are purchased from the company themselves.


I could go on but, as I wrote, crowdsourcing is a hot button for most designers but I didn’t start the practice, I don’t participate in it and I spent years fighting it. I do, however, understand it and understand it will not destroy our industry (which is why it was mentioned in an article meant for small businesses).


There will always be the budget conscious client who doesn’t see the value of design and others who do. The one’s that don’t see the value will always look for the cheapest way out. The clients who do see value in design will also be able to spot a quality designer.


If the practice of crowdsourcing is the weakest link in design, then it will die off. If not, then the industry will have to evolve around it.


Jessica L. — I’d like to respectfully disagree – I do think that crowdsourcing hurts our industry. At least for me, those sites strike a nerve because they enforce the ever-growing culture and belief that graphic design work is fast, cheap and easy.


I’ve struggled for a long time in my freelance work to distinguish those who are looking for fast, cheap and easy from those who want something that is unique to their brand, communicates their message/services/brand in a cohesive manner, and looks nice in the process. One of the greatest problems the rapid growth of technology has created for the design industry is that anyone has access to design programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, and anyone with a design program can make a logo or design elements, but that doesn’t make them a designer. Designs should be created with composition in mind, as well as a handful of other intentional practices. Speaking in generalities, these kinds of sites promote the end product as a fast, cheap and easy element without consideration for the intentionality behind the design. Does that make sense?


This mentality (and cultural shift toward it) continues to hurt me as a professional designer in a number of ways. I’m only 33 but I’m quickly becoming a thing of the past as the world responds to this new mentality toward the graphic design industry.


When I receive a design brief I often have a few more questions, but never ask the client to do my job for me. My job is to translate the brief into a final product that meets their needs, not to give them multiple options. I work with my creative director and communications director when working on a project, and we only present the very best, cohesive final product to the client for review. There may be some exceptions, when you would present a couple of options to client but those are few and far between. They came to me to create what they couldn’t, what they didn’t know how to create, and if I give them 3-4 options it’s wasting all of our time.


Does that make sense?


I’m not being elitist — I’m excited that people want to design things and make the world a better-looking place. But I also need to defend the “behind the curtain” work that I’ve put into this industry for the past 15 years, defend the knowledge that helps me create cohesive works, defend the love that I have for this profession and defend the blood, sweat and tears that go in to creating everything that I produce.


In closing, those sites contribute to the mindset that I shouldn’t be paid for my work, and/or that my time isn’t valuable; to the idea that it’s nothing to throw together a logo or graphic element; and to the concept that a designer isn’t sure if it’s right, doesn’t have confidence in his/her work, or desperately needs work to pad his/her portfolio. That’s why those sites bother me and how they hurt my position as a professional designer.


My reply — Your concerns do make sense but I’m confused about your concerns as your profile lists you as the Graphics Coordinator, Office of the Vice Chancellor Student Affairs. I have to assume you also freelance alongside your day job?


Let me reiterate that most designers agree that design contests are used by small businesses that can’t afford “professional” design work, and that’s a confusing term as many participants are professional but live in countries with a lower cost of living and can undercut prices/bids from designers in places like the U.S. Is it right or wrong? Does it damage the industry? Without design contest sites, and I’ve been in this field for several decades, these businesses sought out art students to create their graphic needs or used, “nephew/niece art” (hiring that talented relative to do it for free or $25). Wanting design cheap and not caring about the outcome of branding, etc. is nothing new.


It sounds like you feel your customer base is in jeopardy of switching to design contests, rather than using your services. I’ll restate yet another feeling most designers have and that’s the fact that there will always be those who want a cheap solution that may indeed be no solution but just a space filler and those who see the value of design as a solution and brand builder (why would American Airlines pay over a million dollars to a design firm when some large corporations have tried crowdsourcing, only to see the outcome as a failure? Why would ebay pay over $150,000 for their new logo that most designers think is awful and simplistic?).


I have serviced very large and visible corporate clients for a long time and even they have turned into asking for work on spec. My choice? Do it or walk away. If enough people walk away, then a fair days work for a fair days pay will return.


You are correct that anyone with a computer and design software feels they can design but it also doesn’t mean they do more than a project or two in a year and more often than not, walk away from the client when they can’t handle the demands we professionals learn to deal with every day. There is no regulation in our industry and although design organizations have discussed unions and certification (see my upcoming article on this on webdesignerdepot.com) there remains our struggle for respect as professionals. Well, the only way to do that is police ourselves.


So, where does it start? In art schools! When teachers stop telling students to do free work to build a portfolio, not to use crowdsourcing or accept $25 for a project because they need to build a portfolio, then clients won’t say, “but I got my logo for $25. Why should a web site cost more?”


It’s not the entire cure but it’s a start. Only the designer can decide if a fee or terms aren’t right and accept them and perpetuate the problem or walk away and force a shift in thinking. The depressing truth is that art schools (especially the for-profit schools such as the Art Institutes and online schools) keep cranking out students with little to no talent and they will continue to erode the industry. Designer organizations, too, hold some responsibility for allowing those without professional talent to join as members because they need the income from dues. As with art schools, there is no filter for those who wear the title of “designer.” We are, in a great sense, our own worst enemy and not the businesses like crowdsourcing sites that take advantage of the very crowd that’s out there.


Mark S. — Required reading on the subject of design certification:


Jessica L. — @Mark, excellent link! I just downloaded the book & can’t wait to read it. I would love to go through a certification process.


@Speider, apologies for the confusion as I intermingled experiences from both my day job and my previous freelance work in my initial post. My day job is a catch-all: I design specific pieces for the VC and for the division, but I also work with many of our 1,200 employees within the division to produce content. A few departments have in-house designers but most of them do not, so those are my clients that I refer to in my post. I have also done a significant amount of freelance work over the years, though in the past few years it has been at a steady decline because I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to, and I tire of being asked to “audition” for a client when my portfolio should speak for itself. (Before you ask — no, my portfolio’s not up right now as it’s in the middle of a healthy refresh.)


I’m not worried about losing my customer base as I’m the only designer they have and they’re not paying for my services, plus they have to submit external publications to our office for approval/review anyhow so it’s a specific process with a healthy level of job security for me. In terms of freelance clients, it’s always been via word of mouth and I’ve preferred it that way, though that method does tend to attract some who equate freelance with free. I seem to have found my niche in the music industry, however, and have focused a lot of time and energy on developing relationships with artists and management companies over the past few years, so I’m not really worried about losing their business either. What bugs me is the attitude that the world (speaking in generalities) seems to have toward design, and/or the value of design.


I agree with many of the points you make in your reply, but think that addressing the issue in art schools will only attack one part of the problem. I know far more individuals self-taught in the design software than those in art or design education programs, and I think those individuals contribute greatly to the problem if not more than the art educators and for-profit institutions.


I wonder what the specifications are for submitting a project to those design sites? Do the businesses pay a fee? If so, how great? Do the businesses sign a contract? Do they have the ability to walk away without awarding the prize, should the entries fail to produce what they were looking for? And how many of those businesses continue to use the selected design 1, 3, 5 years after the contest ends? I’m not making judgments, just wondering. It’s an interesting topic of discussion that has more layers than an onion.


I noticed that the site you linked in your article (designcontest.com) claims some fame from being featured on Fox News, NBC, Mashable, ABC News and CBS News. That speaks to a higher problem, as well, because many of the major influencers (Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS) are promoting this system of “work first, (maybe) pay later” in design and that also contributes to the overall culture shift and devaluing of graphic design. Again, not a judgment — they have every right to brag about being mentioned — just a note that it’s not just designers who need to take responsibility for halting this change in mindset.


Perhaps the larger problem at hand is that the divide between those who are looking for the cheap solution and those that value intentional design is virtually nonexistent. Add in the fact that so many people are self-taught and fail to see a difference between using a design program and being a designer and we have a much larger problem. This field is so far diluted by those without a design education that the world can no longer distinguish between any of us. The term “graphic design” has come to mean something so broad and far-reaching that it’s no surprise the world is confused.


Jessica L. — It’s just disheartening to know that the vast majority of the public doesn’t understand what I do that makes me different from someone who learned how to use Photoshop via the internet.


It also bums me out that a lot of people either think my job is a cakewalk or don’t understand how I can get paid for “playing on the computer” instead of respecting me as an artist and visual communicator.


How do we solve the problem? I wish I knew…


My reply — I’ve seen excerpts from the certification book. It’s an interesting idea but has no base of support for many of the reasons Jessica outlines in her posts — too many non-professional designers won’t comply and there’s nothing that can require them to do so.


As for your reply, Jessica, we are in an unregulated business and if people in general think we’re the strange kids who drew in our notebooks during class in school (while the “upright” members of society were the kids who raised their hands to tell the teacher we weren’t working), then there is little we can do except learn to act as professionals, run projects as professionals and contract our services as professionals and walk away from clients who refuse to see us as such. Remind clients who want it for free that it’s artWORK and not artPLAY! (http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2012/06/requests-for-free-work-surprising-revelations/).


As for your dilemma in dealing with departmental design assignments, it’s up to YOU to get a proper creative brief upfront, explain how it works to THEM and be ready to assert control and professionalism in your role. (http://www.instantshift.com/2012/05/14/writing-a-creative-brief-dragging-the-right-information-out-of-a-client/).


I can give you many, many instances where I deflected design-by-committee simply by stating, “I don’t know why you believe I am less than competent in the job role for which I was hired. In my extensive experience with audience reaction to both layout and color theory, this is the best solution to your needs.” (http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/06/29/why-design-by-commitee-should-die/).


It is a way of defending your decisions, exerting your business role as a coworker and professional and claiming your rights as a coworker and not a doormat.


Mark S. — “…non-professional designers won’t comply…”


The fact that non-pro designers won’t “comply” is the whole point of certification.


My reply — As a designer friend of mine in Canada says, they’ve had certification for many, many years and it hasn’t made a difference. Cheap will remain cheap.


It’s like Google certification for SEO “experts.” People haven’t stopped hiring non-Google certified experts. I have to wonder if someone listing “Certified Professional Designer” on their business card or web site will do any better. The question, it seems from the certification web site, all centers on the requirement for formal art school training. Does this mean self-taught designers are not professional? If you look at the history of many great designers, you will see many of them are either self-taught, or left school before gaining a degree.


John S. — Attention moderator: I’ve tried repeatedly to get off this BS train to nowhere and still have comments coming to my inbox. I’ve deselected the discussion update notification several times so the rest is in your hands.


Mark S. — School gives you points but does not disqualify if there’s no degree. The point system has several other factors.


Perhaps you should read the entire book.


Mark S. — John – try clicking on “Unfollow” at the top of the discussion thread.


I think I’m doing the same…


My reply — I read enough to know that it was a waste of time, as I had been part of the discussion for many years with creative organizations that blathered on about how to implement it. As for art school points, although I am a huge supporter of attending art school (a GOOD art school), I left school after a couple of years and worked for several large corporations without a degree. I did go back for the “piece of paper” after more than ten years in the field. The “points” didn’t seem to matter, nor did they for people I knew who graduated after four years but didn’t have either the talent or drive to make it in the field. (http://www.onextrapixel.com/2011/04/01/are-art-schools-worth-the-money/)


Certification will come down to individual choice and not an industry mandate. If it happens, time will tell if it works or not.


My reply — I do want to thank everyone for their input. This will make a great follow-up article on how designers feel about crowdsourcing.


There were no further replies after that. So, there you have it. Some very passionate feelings and opinions, some of which bubbled over from debate to name-calling and insults. That’s expected with such a controversial subject and one that has a firm foothold in the design industry.


Other comments I have heard over the course of time when crowdsourcing comes up is that it doesn’t affect design firms that have clients that know the value of design on a one-to-one basis. Unfortunately, those who responded in this thread were mid to lower level freelancers who depend on small businesses for their next paycheck and crowdsourcing sites did indeed cut into their business. Such a practice can be a danger to those individuals but there are no guarantees in our industry.