The Trouble with Crowdsourcing and “Speculative Design”

Over at Carsonified last week there was a bit of an uproar about a competition to design a holding slide for one of their forthcoming events. Almost immediately after the competition was announced, there was a comment made which suggested that the competition was an example of “Spec work”, and pretty soon afterwards the comments on the post descended into chaos and name-calling.  Speculative work is a phrase that is synonymous with exploitation and opportunism in the average designer’s mind, where solid design effort is traded for a lottery ticket. The announcement that something is “spec work” is the designer’s call to arms.

There are several crowdsourced design sites such as 99designs and crowdspring, where a design specification is provided for designers to submit designs for. From the specification owner’s point of view, this must seem like a gold mine – a real-life version of the experiment where a million monkeys on a million typewriters try to produce Shakespeare. The designer’s perspective on things might not be as rosy – instead of winning a tender to develop a good design at a happy price for a specific client they’re now competing against any designer at any skill level with spare time on their hands.

But is that really accurate? From the client’s perspective it might seem like a free buffet lunch, but there can be legal downsides to the process such as receiving plagiarised designs or designs that use copyrighted images, to just generally being inundated with poor results. Perhaps lowering the barrier to entry to such an extent allows students or people who can’t get a paying gig to compete, but in a normal situation would you ever be likely to pick their designs? Design is normally a two-way conversation where you gradually hone your idea to match the client’s vision until the result is perfect. Crowdsourced design skips this step in favour of the “harder, faster, more” approach. The benefits are based on the “diamond in the rough” gamble that perhaps your competition will somehow attract that elusive “Good Will Hunting” character out of hibernation to produce genius. I believe that the bell curve statistic in combination with the fact that the odds are overwhelmingly against any individual designer winning (thus preventing their entry) proves this to be a fallacy. Renderedred has a tale of one designer’s experiment in the area.

Crowdsourcing has also been applied to the market of “ideas” whereby contestants submit creative ideas to solve problems. Where design has a limited barrier to entry in that you at least have to have access to graphics software, idea-sourcing has no barrier – and therein lies the problem. Having to wade through the effluent of a hundred monkeys to find your next “great idea” is time that could be spent actually brainstorming a creative solution. Where twitter provides a level of credibility in that at least your respondents have some sort of connection to you (or at the very least you can determine to a certain extent whether they are mentally unhinged by skimming through their previous messages), idea-sourcing opens the floodgates to anyone regardless of qualification, experience, or competency. Lowering the barrier to entry is the main benefit and the main drawback, trading an initial vetting process based on credibility for a post-mortem where you can’t tell the qualified from the insane.

I think there will be a continuation of crowdsourcing, mainly along the “me too” category of design competitions as it seems to have struck a chord with a segment of design customers who have had bad experiences in the past. Overwhelmingly, designers are opposed to speculative work (see, but I’m wondering how many may be driven to entering these sorts of competitions in the current economic climate. One hypothesis is that twitter’s revenue stream could come from harnessing the power of their network to incorporate crowdsourced design, idea sourcing or similar competitions.

6 thoughts on “The Trouble with Crowdsourcing and “Speculative Design”

  1. that Renderedred story is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read.. *smiley emoticon* …though also hauntingly familiar, it’s no surprise to me that two of the responses are about the colour and one says “I don’t know what I want, but…”

    the analogy about the plumber is an excellent one, you wouldn’t ask him to use a different bolt because you’re not sure if you like that one, you’d let him use the bolt he knows will do the job

    in my experience the clients who faff around like this are invariably the ones who are paying bargain basement prices and who will run over on their alloted time in a massive way, they’re not convinced they even need “design” and just want to see a lot of e-mails, fussy changes and watch you sweat a bit, to feel they have their moneys worth. IMHO these sorts of people are rarely worth the Time v’s $$$

    chap once told me to do the design, then send the client a smaller version in a different colour, that way when they invariably asked for it ‘bigger’ and ‘aren’t sure about the colour’ you get the design you wanted

    tragically his ruse works more then I care to admit..

  2. Nasty. I think a lot of the design competition is like randomly shooting into the dark – a hundred submissions with no feedback except that “That’s not it… that’s not it… oh, this one is about as close as anyone’s gotten… winner!”

    I’m thinking of how I can adapt the “Bigger / different color” thing to software features. Hrmm…

  3. it’s like the montage scene in any good 80’s teen flick where the heroine puts on a lot of prom dresses till her old her sassy friend or slightly camp boy chum, gives a big smile and cheesey thumbs up and we cut to the night of the prom with Andrew McCarthy ringing the doorbell….

    um, just like that

    Adobe Logo Maker Bigger CS4?

    I’d buy that!

  4. I’m going to try this concept with prostitutes. Each one can have a go, and the one that does the best job I’ll pay. Sounds reasonable.

  5. I am interested in the image of the monkey with the typewriter. Who owns the copyright to this image?

    DC – I’ve no idea actually… It looks like an old daguerreotype, but that could be just photoshop magic.

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