Monday, November 11, 2013

Crowd Sourcing: The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Innovative

Crowdsourcing. We all do it to some extent. Blasting your friends asking them en masse which plumber in town is trustworthy, whether the new blockbuster is worth seeing in 3D, or what outfit to wear. But what is crowd sourcing as a trend doing to the art business as a whole?

Better, much more prolific and respected artists than me have written on this. Stephen Silver has launched a crusade against what he defines as exploitative burglary of artists' ideas. But I recently had cause to try and see it from the other side. A friend from college announced he was crowdsourcing the design of his upcoming book on the site This friend is going to remain nameless, as I don't want to bad mouth him here but rather use him as a bellwether for the way a non-artist views (or justifies) this type of hiring model. This fellow is a very bright, articulate, well-educated man who was elected president of my graduating class at a fairly prestigious college and has since risen to prominence in politics. He served as Secretary of Technology for his state and was tapped by President Obama for his knowledge of technology as it pertains to business and public policy . . . and he saw crowdsourcing as an innovative way to get the freshest ideas from a more diverse group of designers for his book cover. He told me so when I cautioned him on a Facebook thread that crowdsourcing sites were seen as a scourge in the industry and clients who used them were sometimes hit with bad publicity and seen as exploiters. I was not a lone voice, there was one other commenter who took umbrage at our friend's decision. I'm going to quote him anonymously too: "Rather than find a more 'diverse' group of designers, you'll more likely be drawing on a more homogenous group of designers who are willing to do this type of work, and produce work that reflects putting the minimal amount of time cranking out entries into these contests rather than giving your creative brief the time, attention and process that more often yields innovative and unique design . . .  I'd respectfully ask that you reconsider the message you're sending by endorsing the platform."

Spoken like someone experienced in dealing with politicians, right? Now, I like this former classmate and respect him greatly. I do not see him as purposely being exploitative or gullible or cheap. So it provided a moment for me to really examine this type of model. Is it really so bad? If he views it as the future of design and art transaction, is he right? What would that future look like, exactly, for the typical working freelance artist? What about for the client? Maybe I should troll about the site and see if it's really so bad.

Here's a rundown of how that the project unfolded on 99Designs: For $799, he received 193 designs from 61 designers. The winning designer had submitted 10 designs. A few others had submitted as many as 15 or 16. If each design takes around one hour (and that would be incredibly fast to read over the project brief, come up with an idea, put it together on photoshop, and make it presentable as an entry), that means the client received 193 hours of work for his $799. That breaks down to $4.14 per man-hour . . . if, hypothetically, all the designers were splitting the pot. Surely the winner spent more time on his/her designs, though, after all, the quality was good enough to win payment. If the winning designer spent, say, two hours on each design, that means he/she earned $39.95 per hour. Not terrible. One might argue that $40 an hour is certainly a fair wage for an in-house designer . . . but to earn that consistently the artist would have to win EVERY contest they enter. And freelancers often charge more per hour than in-house designers, as they must pay for their own benefits and insurance and whatnot.

From the client's POV that breakdown looks fantastic. Professionals and not-so-well-known artists, anxious to please and willing to devote time and brainpower in hopes of "winning" a payment. Your own virtual art factory where artists pump out work for around half minimum wage! Well, put that way it doesn't sound great. It does sound exploitative. But clients won't see it that way unless something changes. Designs can be viewed and discarded with a click, anonymously. Artists are choosing to submit work, no one is forced. Why should anyone feel guilty? The average fair-trade-coffee-buying, anti-sweatshop, living-wage proponent would still see this model as perfectly fine--indeed, there's a sneaking tendency to see it as egalitarian, a way to "level the playing field," and find some yet undiscovered young talent who needs their big break. By golly, this is fair market! And fair markets always produce the best product. Competition makes the cream rise to the top!

Again, it's not so cut and dry. Let's now look at the designer's/artist's POV. First off, what kind of designers and artists are we looking at here? A cheerful young photo of a designer on the website states "With no real qualifications or previous clients, I had no way of gaining any income through design work previously. With 99designs, you don’t need a CV!" Wow, awesome, dude! No real qualifications needed! Rock on! The website touts several of its most prolific designers as grassroots success stories, but I am, as ever, skeptical. The numbers game here means that even the most successful participants would be spending a huge amount of time blasting off ten, or fifteen, or twenty designs for each payment they "win." (Not earn, it's not seen as earning, it's winning! Yay, you won your paycheck! How much more fun would an office job be if you didn't earn your money but instead WON it? Am I right?)

If I were to make my living (or try to win it) on crowdsourced art sites, I would want to--no, I would HAVE TO--streamline my process and go scattershot. Hit as many possible jobs with as many entries as I could crank out. And better to crank them out fast, as no one is paying per idea and the smart tactic would just be to flood the site with entries. The site itself serves as a firewall, keeping clients safe from those pesky illustrator and designer wannabes. You have limited contact with the client. Keywords and a short description serve as the fuel for the brainstorming process, though you appear to be able to send messages at some stages if you have questions. 

Also, there'd be no real impetus to come up with something innovative. My ally on the facebook thread put it well, "Most of the designs you'll receive tend to be of very poor quality and lack originality, often produced by designers who take a shotgun approach to pumping out repetitive, formulaic designs that don't match the creativity and originality you'll more likely find with a professional designer." The goal of participants is not to win a design award from peers or come up with something groundbreaking. The goal is to win payment. And that prize is awarded by someone who is themselves an amateur and not necessarily educated enough to have an eye for it. Nor can you take the time to build a client-artist relationship over the phone or in person and explain why design A is a great way to stand out but design B is hackneyed already and will look similar to every other book in the discount section. I worked at a book publisher for about a decade, and I heard stories of authors hating their book cover at first--yet the design went on to win awards, take top billing on catalogs, sell a boatload of books, and be emulated by other book designs a year later. The marketing and design departments were firmly in charge of book covers, that was stated in the contract. And the reason was pretty obvious: the author would fuck it up. Some authors preemptively sent in sketches or suggestions, and while some were okay many were laughable. A couple were passed around and, indeed, laughed at. But in the end, a good design team would save the book from bad ideas and make the author look good. In a crowdsourced model, that wouldn't happen. There's no talking a client out of a lousy idea; just make that lousy idea happen and hope you get picked. Again, I'm just extrapolating how I would go about making money on these types of sites . . . I would feel pressure to cater my entries to what an amateur eye would see as "professional." Make entries look like typical book designs on the market right now. Do not take risks. Go with templates and copycat work. Pretty much the opposite of innovation.

Okay, to add some neat visuals to this blog post, I took a look at another 99Designs project, and I SWEAR I didn't spend time looking up the worst one there. This was random--the first one I clicked on in their completed projects section. For a prize/payment of $399, a film company was asking designers to create an original movie poster for a completed feature film titled "God of Thunder." They provided links to stills of this highly original piece of cinema for reference. Twenty-five designers took the bait and came up with a total of 76 designs to choose from. Here's a handful (the winner is at the top).

That's right. In case you missed it, or just can't take your eyes off that last submission, someone just up and submitted a poorly photoshopped version of the Thor movie poster. It was among the "eliminated" entries, and it wasn't the only copied & pasted Thor poster sitting in that section. But gotta give props to the winning artist--it's not a bad job, and though clearly derivative of one of the Thor posters, to be fair the movie itself is clearly derivative of the Thor movie. I'm guessing this is an overseas copycat film, produced on a shoestring budget with B-actors and just skirting copyright enough to slide by. I've heard of those . . . and it doesn't exactly speak well of the client list that 99Designs caters to. 

What about my old classmate's book? Sorry, no pics because I'm trying to keep the author incognito--but I will say that, to my eye, the winning book cover looked pretty good. Standard, and in line with other books on the market now. However, I am not a book designer.
As part of the obligatory showing-off that must take place on
a blog, I present to you the book covers Rob & I did for
the Johns Hopkins University Press a few years ago.
A few years back, Robert and I produced two illustrations that were used as book covers, but these drawings were placed in the deft hands of skilled, experienced designers who incorporated their knowledge of book design trends, composition, materials, textures, and available inks to really knock it out of the park. I doubt any of the jpgs submitted to 99Designs came with specs for the printer to use a particular paper, metallic ink, or spot-gloss.

How can we bridge the gap here and "fix" the crowd source model? Can it be fixed? Should it be? Technology isn't going away. People aren't going to magically start wanting what they perceive as "less bang for the buck." If an online way to get free ideas exists, people will use it. And there will never be a shortage of folks willing to work for free. Tom Sawyer today would find plenty of suckers to paint his fence for him--for exposure! But if a few tweaks can be made, and if other models can be popularized, maybe in time the landscape will in fact be ripe for innovation, fair trade practices, and good client-artist relations. What can we do?

Kill the Contest Model

This is the model most reviled (and rightly so) by art activists like Steve Silver. A huge company or successful band puts out a call for entries and offers a chance to design the new T-shirt/album/commercial print ad, etc, and win some sort of prize or a chance at that elusive holy grail: "exposure." A few lines of legalese explain that all entries, even the ones that don't win, become the sole property of the sponsor of the contest, and they immediately own the rights to all the ideas, even if they decide not to award the prize. That's about it, basically they ask the world to give them ideas and art for free, and the world does. Mr. Silver has shamed a few companies putting on these types of campaigns, and he has used his popular blog and Facebook page to rally other professionals to flood these contests with bogus (laughably awful) entries or skew voting if the contest is based on popularity. It must have been embarrassing for contest site Talenthouse when one of the most popular designs in the contest they ran for Linkin Park ended up being a scribbly caricature of the band with the words "Linkin Park: Give us your ideas and we'll give you shit!" Indeed, Mr. Silver did receive a response and got to air his grievances with a representative of the company. Whether such guerilla tactics will work in the long run has yet to be seen, but when applied surgically I think they can make a difference. There is a place for such contests: who doesn't enjoy seeing a band's "biggest fan" being crowned based on a quirky video they made showcasing their collection? Contests like that are fun, and they are clearly aimed at an amateur crowd. If a large, successful company simply wants to avoid paying a professional designer for a job that requires one? Well, that's just shitty. And why stop there? Hold a contest to see who will landscape the record company's offices the best, and give the winning landscaper "exposure" or some free swag. Don't pay an accounting department, just open it up to math students as a contest and hope they get your company's taxes done right in exchange for some free T-shirts. Sound ridiculously cheap and even dangerous to a company's reputation? Hopefully design contests like this will indeed be seen as tarnishing a company's reputation. Follow Steve Silver's lead and do what you can to help kill them off.

Support Models You Want to Survive
There are other art-farming sites out there, in fact there are a truckload of them. The ones that become popular will survive, the ones that get ignored will disappear. I have only spent a short time browsing and discovered a few. Likely there will be others popping up next week. looks very similar to, but in addition to the contest model it looks like they try to also offer a service to connect clients with professionals who hire out at set hourly rates. Freelancer also includes professions such as writing, editing, translating, and marketing. The very similarly-named offers itself up as a social networking hybrid site, where you can follow other freelancers, post your portfolio and bio, and choose different projects to bid on. The projects there seem to vary wildly, from clients that sound like 13-year-olds ("Design my fantasy book cover, featuring a knight killing a dragon, for $25") to clients that sound rather professional, offering a few thousand dollars for graphic novel work. But at least none of the projects are set up as a crowdsourced contest asking for free spec work. Check out all the sites out there offering professional-to-client service models. Sign up for ones you like, and weed out the ones that are exploitative. In fact, complain to the ones who are exploitative and give them suggestions on how they must change before professionals like you will take them seriously. If you get snarky "we-care-nothing-about-you-unless-you-work-for-free" replies from their management, spread that message far and wide on social media.   

Demand Client-Artist Relationships over Anonymity

Sites that do not list their artists by name and portfolio are no place to build a reputation. The age of meeting every client over coffee and shaking hands before accepting a project are long gone--but if a third-party website wants to reduce you to a short nickname or a number, that's a good hint on how you'll be treated. You know that homeless cleaning off windshields downtown? . . . Well that guy has a business advantage over you if you put your trust in anonymous design-farming sites. That homeless guy looks every one of his potential clients in the eye. It's human contact that reminds someone that another person is providing a service. Call it guilt-tripping if you want, but the guy gets paid in large part because of eye contact. There is no human contact in down-voting dozens of anonymous numbered entries. Look for personal touches in any artist-to-client model: a place to put a photo of yourself, a short bio, a list of prior satisfied clients and the work you have done. It makes you a real human being, one that is doing real work. We are actually at a disadvantage in that our work can be done silently, away from the client. I doubt anyone would be comfortable with a crowdsourced chef service: can you imagine having a chef come to your home, spend an hour cooking a meal, then, after one bite, telling that professional "This is nice but I think I'll pass--there are a dozen other cooks I've called and the next one will be here shortly. One of them will get paid." No, that would be unthinkable, right?! But if it's an anonymous click of a mouse, who cares? 

Educate Colleagues and Clients 

Really, I guess I'm trying to do that now, with this blog post. Just like I and that other Facebook commenter were trying to do that by commenting on a politician's Facebook page. These sites rely on getting business from those seeking "innovative" art AND on a steady stream of young artists and designers willing to do work they likely won't get paid for. It seems a zero-sum game that might resolve itself over time: any artists who get proficient, develop a strong portfolio, and start to value their time will naturally fall away from crowdsourced models. This will take a toll on the quality of work clients can expect from such sites (which already seems rife with some lackluster material--e.g., some of those God of Thunder images above). I believe that helping this process along is worth doing. Warn students and hobbyists you know that such sites might seem fun to try out, but participants are simply giving away time, skill, and ideas. Redirect them to sites that better approximate a fair client-professional relationship. Clients will feel justified that they get to choose the "best" work available on such a model, but they, too, should be warned that they will be skimming the cream off a vat that has already been thoroughly skimmed.

If You Still Want to Work for Free, Do It Selectively

If you really want to do some free work and feel like you're at a point where you could use the practice and experience, do it! BUT . . . there isn't any need for you to offer your services to clients on freelance models that are exploitative in their nature. Even if you are fine being exploited, by contributing to these sites you help them survive and exploit others. Instead, why not produce some fine fan art honoring your favorite show or movie, then post it on DeviantArt and get some geek love from other fans. Or offer your time and talents to help design something for a local charity. Get connected via Facebook or other social media with causes that you believe in, and tell them you are willing to donate your services. Not only will you get real exposure and appreciation this way, but you will be doing real, meaningful work that helps people who really need it. That feels way better than trying to "win" payment from a client that sought out crowdsourced art.

Want to read more on spec work and why artists should be paid for it? The American Institute of Graphic Arts has a great position letter about that topic here. Also, it's a great place to send clients who are insisting that you work for free. 

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