Why Crowdsourcing is Bad For Design

By: Dennis Salvatier | May 8th, 2012 | 19 comments

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When you think of mortal enemies you think of legendary foes like the Hatfields and the McCoys, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Batman and the Joker. Design also has a mortal enemy that’s come to power in the last few years and it is called crowdsourcing. Many well known companies are participating in this method of receiving design services and it’s becoming more and more popular. The worst part is the design community is eagerly participating.

What is Crowdsourcing?

Imagine a company or organization looking for a new logo and devising a way to cut costs by creating a “contest” (through a third party rep) where they offer a cash prize to the winning design. Imagine the amount of spec hours spent by the design collective, all hoping to win recognition and fame. Imagine that, and you’ll see what crowdsourcing is all about. A real contest is where people submit their work to compete against one another with the result of a single winner. Crowdsourcing uses this formula and perverts it by adding one more element to it; they keep the work, even the work that didn’t win, and use it for their branding and marketing benefit in any way they see fit.

Why It’s Bad For The Company

The company is obviously looking for a way to get thousands of options for very little out-of-pocket-costs. They think they’re going to get a product that will serve their branding endeavors, because they believe that design is about how you want to look and in reality it’s all about how you want to be perceived. There is no design brief so you can’t do any research or do a background search on the company’s competitors. Also, the designer’s careless involvement with the project lacks a proper engagement with the client. Plus, the designer’s know they’re working for free, so they turn out a quick piece of work in hopes of gaining instant fame. The company is oblivious to the fact that their new logo lacks effectiveness and value. By skipping the design brief and the client/designer relationship, you are essentially writing a biography without knowing anything about the subject. The result is an ineffective and mediocre piece of work.

Why It’s Bad For The Creative

You just won the contest and the cash prize. Awesome! You should be congratulated, but instead you’ve made your life much worse without knowing. By taking this shortcut called crowdsourcing, you’ve participated in telling the whole world that what you and the rest of your design brethren do is push buttons. You’ve helped reinforce to the ignorant that what we do has no value and that this is the way design services should be commissioned. And the worst part is that you’ve made it harder for all the other designers who aren’t participating in crowdsourcing.

You can’t skip the starving-artist phase of your creative growth process. You have to go through the hurdles of finding your clients, designing for them, dealing with them, sometimes getting into it with them and making them happy. If you don’t value what you do as a designer, no one will. It’s your responsibility, as part of the design community to help educate people on the benefits of design and the creative process.  Taking part in these phony contests cheapens what we all do.

Final Thoughts

Butterflies and moths are pretty similar, with the butterfly being the prettier and most popular of the two, but did you know that when a moth emerges from its cocoon it can spin silk? A butterfly can’t do that. Moth’s are faster, stronger, but struggle twice as much when breaking through their cocoons. That struggle is necessary for their survival. Without it they would be too weak and die. The struggle is nature’s way of strengthening the moth and as designers, we’ll definitely struggle and go through some hard times. We’ll even take on less-than-exciting projects at the beginning of our careers, but I encourage you to embrace the struggle and become exceptional.
I promise that every tough step you take is incrementally moving you closer to the designer you want to be. Give yourself that chance and never participate in crowdsourcing. And most importantly, spread the word!

Happy Designing,

Dennis Salvatier

dennis salvatierDennis Salvatier is the principal and lead designer of Salvatier Studios. When he isn’t providing graphic design and illustration services at Salvatier Studios, he’s creating fun illustrations as Tanoshiboy. He is a fan of comic books, movies, doodling on napkins, his lovely wife and connecting with other creatives, so say hello! Read Dennis’ blog


19 Responses to Why Crowdsourcing is Bad For Design

  1. Elias Jones says:


    That was a compelling and well-articulated case against crowdsourcing design.

    I can’t seem to drum up as much passion against the phenomenon. I do agree with your assertion that crowdsourcing design can have a vastly negative impact on the perceived value of professional designers & our work. But should we lament the loss of clients who place such low value on our profession?

    Designers who are just starting out deserve fair warning that association with a crowdsourcing project will have more negative impact on their eventual reputation than postitive.

    I’m just not sure that crowdsourcing represents a threat to established, professional designers who are unlikely to either participate in such a project or pursue a client who leaves their brand’s fate in the hands of hobbyists.

    I propose a litmus test for those who are considering crowdsourcing:

    99designs (the self-proclaimed largest online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design services) is crowdsourcing their own homepage redesign [ http://bit.ly/ISnUai ] .

    Here’s a snippet from the brief:
    “99designs will choose up to three winning homepage designs, and will award a $1,000 cash prize to each winning designer. Following the contest, 99designs will test the homepage designs using its internal testing methodologies, and will incorporate winning elements into the next version of its homepage”

    If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, then by all means go get that money.

  2. Thanks, Elias. It definitely doesn’t threaten established designers in a traditional sense, but I think it can begin to lower the price and standards of design in general. That can lead to questions being asked of established designers by their clients as to why they’re being charged so much for something they can get for a fraction of the price. A good designer will be able to demonstrate their value, but there is no doubt the client will question whether they should go a cheaper route. And that’s where I see the danger.

    99designs.com is the galactic empire and Mark Hardbottle is the emperor. They’re the sole reason why designers are being low-balled these days. That’s why it’s important for us to educate our clients and our young designers. I’m aware that the current generation is obsessed with instant fame, but people shouldn’t forget that the tortoise beat the hare.

  3. Saya says:

    i agree with you Dennis. The problem of crowdsourcing is not that is a threat to established designer , It is because they promote wrong concept of design as a commodity, however the core of a good design is solving a problem and adding more value rather than a pretty picture you can bid and buy.

  4. Exactly! I often tell my clients, and even other designers, that what we do has little to do with making things pretty. We have to communicate a message and do it effectively. If it just looks pretty, then were focusing too much on the superficial.

  5. Elias Jones says:

    Point taken! The real threat is to strategy based on research (the other job of a designer). When the value scale tips toward “which looks better” from “which is best for my brand” then we all lose.

  6. Most definitely. It’s something I wrestle with some clients. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around something being designed strategically as opposed to purely aesthetic.

  7. Hi Dennis,

    Your post gathered some attention from us (the “crowdsourcers”), and we would like to open a discussion about this. My name is Jaime, I am an employee at Chaordix, and we have posted this reply:


    I look forward to your feedback!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m a student, and I only discovered crowd-sourcing recently thanks to a marketing class I’m taking. I’m glad I finally have the proper term for it! A few months ago I was invited into the office of some stranger looking for my input as a graphic designer. What did they want my input for? Well, they were attempting to launch a crowd-sourcing design website. At the time I had no idea what that even meant, and they didn’t refer to the website that way, they had some other colorful trendy term for it to make it more “friendly”. Their goal was to launch the site and make it specific to our community, which already has a very weak design industry to begin with. Red flags were going off all through the interview, and most of the time I hesitated to answer their questions. As a young artist, the most off-putting aspect of this crowd-sourcing site was that it devalued the services that graphic designers offer. I realized they were capitalizing on our desperation for employment. As I said, the industry is weak here, where I live is certainly not known for what it offers in graphic design or art, and job opportunities are few and far between (more often non-existent). At first I thought perhaps this could bode well for us, putting us in direct contact with employers who require our services. I then realized how horribly wrong I was. It’s more like a joke. They offered up competitions, not real jobs, and you’d compete with people who aren’t even qualified for whatever minimal amount a company is willing to pay out for each task. It’s disturbing on so many levels, but the most alarming thing for me was that it offers companies the opportunity to get rid of graphic design positions in their entirety. Why hire a full time graphic designer, having to give them benefits and such, when you can crowd-source your design for next to nothing? No real commitments, super cheap, what could go wrong? Well, you’ve certainly cited some examples of why companies should not use crowd-sourcing for design, however, I don’t believe many companies will actually care and opt to take the easy route. Thanks to crowd-sourcing, I feel very uneasy about my future in this field.

  9. The problem I have with crowd sourcing, as the author already stated, is the lack of communication between the host and the crowd. They can afford to be vague about the details because they know they will receive a pile of work and in there somewhere will be the design they are looking for. Or, on some sites such as Talenthouse I feel that they don’t really care so much about the design, it’s more to do with gaining free advertising and publicity through the spam orientated voting mechanisms via social media. Too many times I’ve found myself half way through a design and I’m trying to get it just the way I think they will want it, and then they update the information or finally get round to responding to a question thus rendering my work obsolete within the parameters of the invite. I find this highly disrespectful of all the people who spend time trying to create something and seize these opportunities, and they are just wasting people’s time. Often the judging panels don’t really care who wins either, and sometimes pick winners who’s design is not within the rules of the original creative invite. Crowd sourcing is all fine and well for those who are lucky enough to get picked, and most of the time it just comes down to that, but for the majority it’s a complete waste of time. In principle it can be a good way to collaborate on stuff, but all too often we are at the mercy of someone’s inability to distinguish good art from mediocrity.

  10. A real eye opener for designers all around. Respect for the writer if this article. As a designer myself I know how important it is to go through the whole rejection AND acceptance phase in order to come up with the best of your work. A very good read for wannabe designers and those who already are in the industry. Thanks!

  11. Danielle says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. As a designer fairly new to the industry and newly starting my open company, this aspect is very daunting. My biggest challenge so far is finding the right clients and showing them the value of investing in good quality design to back up their brand/cause/message. It’s tough! Designers need to be be fantastic at designing these days, but they now also need to be sales people.

  12. Conrad says:

    By now crowdsourcing design in Germany is getting a huge competitor to small design companys. Especially customers with low budget can´t deny the temptation getting a logo for peanuts. Only monkeys are working for peanuts.


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