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Democratizing Design?

Questions over quality become the issue on where professional design is crowdsourced daily.

Since it launched last May, the crowd-sourcing design website has been causing a stir in the design community. Advocates praise the site’s ability to put businesses looking for creative help in touch with talent they might not otherwise find. It is, they argue, a great leap forward in the democratization of design, a big trend in the creative community these days.

The site’s critics, mostly professional designers, generally seize on one major issue: They argue that designers shouldn't "work in advance of getting paid" with an ironically irrelevant metaphor: "You can't go to the new  restaurant at the top of Trump Tower, ask for a taste and then decide if you're going to pay."

The design industry should take a hint from the music industry: When new technology comes along that enables a wider audience to access your product (in this case,  the tools and software needed to design) the one thing that you should not do is back-pedal. Plus, many large and well-respected studios already work in advance of payment; it's called trying to win a pitch and it is exactly what CrowdSpring is doing, just with a larger crowd.

The biggest problem with the site is one that neither group has yet to mention: Design is not just about making the best possible product. The hardest part about being a designer is convincing your client to pick the best solution. The best graphic designers also happen to be the best salesmen. The best design firms got to the top of the heap by being profitable and garnering respect from the design community for achieving and then maintaining a level of excellence. The "cloud" design world has yet to form a cohesive community that spans more than one site like this, but that's what it needs to ensure a high level of quality (the crowd must become a community).  just reduced the designer-client relationship to a few mouse clicks.

To really work, Crowdspring, and similar sites, really need to explore the ways that they connect people. A system that connects creative people and the folks who want their work should be at least as inventive and imaginative as the folks who use it.

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  • J. Jeffryes

    The primary issue here is that design is NOT making graphics, any more than engineering a car is painting flames on the side. Design is a process that solves client problems, and it may or may not involve making pretty graphics. Clients that think design is just getting a bunch of desperate hobbyists to generate random images are doing their business a disservice, and CrowdSpring is right there taking their money.

  • Eric Hillerns

    I've commented at a few sites on this issue and I do so because, like Ross, I believe it's a healthy debate and it needs to occur. The problem (at least as I see it) is the oversimplification of the issue and the apparent one-sided reporting by supposedly objective sources. Frankly, much of what initially rankled "the established design industry" with the Forbes article was subpar journalism, coupled with a company figurehead talking out of both sides of his mouth. The spec issue is certainly a hot button, but the concept of devaluing design is what people who are not in the business simply can't understand. Designing a t-shirt is one thing, but a communications designer worth his salt is working for the client and for the client's client. That process requires time, experience, communication, training, and skill. As with an accountant or an attorney, design is a professional service. Let's not confuse design with manufacturing or say, art.

    In your article, Aaron, I'm not certain that the "ironically irrelevant metaphor" illustration is particularly representative or relevant. Is it the product or the service that a "client" wants to sample? In terms of the example regarding the music industry, is it the technology or the product that the design industry should "take a hint from"? I don't know about you, but I can't remember when my favorite band made a record specifically for me. No, the product was already completed by the artist and as a consumer, I had to determine whether it was valuable enough for me to purchase before it was mine to use and enjoy. I didn't hire the artist (musician) to work by the hour for me to address my long list of goals and objectives in order to represent my growing business. Nope. Like the manufacturer, the artist completed the product before any interaction occurred with the customer. As the customer, I just need to determine whether I "like" it.

    We choose to visit a hot new restaurant because of the buzz created by the chef, or the service, or the experience. And likely, it's all three and more. Again, it's the restaurant's product and other than selecting the temperature of my steak, I have little or no direct communication with the chef. Unless the product is inedible, I'm paying for it. In both cases, I'd argue that your comparison is again more indicative of purchasing art rather than engaging in the process of design. The illustration is grossly oversimplified and in my opinion, is way off mark.

    Clients choose a design firm because of the quality of the designer and his work, how the designer approached a problem, and how effective they have been for their clients. Not the designer's tools or technologies, or their boilerplate approach to making one size fit all. As a partner in a design firm, I can't tell you how many times a client has wanted to see a solution for another client in that client's same industry. I'll gladly provide that. But there are then many who also want to see a solution which is exactly comparable to solving their own problem. My response is generally that I don't have an apples-to-apples solution because I haven't yet provided a solution specifically for that potential client's needs. We can draw from what we've learned in working with that other, similar client, but their issues—how to position or sell, how they approach building their brand—are likely very different from the new client's issues. And therein lies the difference. We are paid to do custom work for very different types of clients even if, on the surface, their business looks to be the same as another. You could say that Apple and Microsoft are software companies and you'd be right. You could say that Nike and UGG are shoe companies and you'd be right. You could say that Ferrari and Hyundai are car companies and again, you'd be right. The difference is in design. And the difference in design is how well each company works to define their attributes and how they are perceived in the market.

    What we do as designers is different and we look for the differentiators on behalf of our clients. It's not window dressing. Contrary to the perceptions of the inexperienced client, graphic design is not about picking a color palette and a typeface. It's not about having a Mac and it's not about Adobe illustrator. It's about communication and that's likely why some of the most successful professional designers are up in arms about this issue. A fair amount of our time, what we must be paid for, is educating (consulting, if you will) the inexperienced client through the process. Whether in their role as designer or as salesman, communication is both what we're practicing and what we require to be effective in our efforts. Direct communication between client and designer is vital and "a few mouse clicks" does not communication make. If responsible journalism is in the business of communicating the issues behind the problem, then many of the stories about crowdSPRING are woefully inadequate. It's not apples-to-apples, and like crowdSPRING, is only interested in telling part of the story. I don't tell a journalist how to write his article and most journalists are not qualified to tell a designer, the design industry, or a service such as crowdSPRING, how to run their businesses.

    With that, I should say that I whole-heartedly agree with your proposition that the most successful designers are also the best salesmen. It takes a fair amount of thrust to move a skeptical client (with much invested) to approval. Regardless of the idle talk of "thinking outside the box" or "pushing the envelope" inexperienced clients are often most comfortable approving something similar to what they've seen in the past. They want their friends' or their wife's opinions without any procedural context before signing off on a direction. This me-too approach isn't intentional, but it is safe and ends up doing little to differentiate a company. That's fine when designing a simple t-shirt, but try taking that approach with the consultation from an accountant or attorney. As most of us would likely attest, design by committee waters down the product and usually adds considerable time to the process. To even begin to address the copyright issues or related liabilities is another series of articles altogether. The issue of ethics is equally pesky. Ross (of crowdSPRING) has simply declared that the ethical debate is absurd. So be it. Is he qualified to make that determination? Likely not, but you know what they say about opinions and particularly if you're aiming to reframe the issue to position your company. And let's not forget that Ross is spot-on in one area. crowdSPRING is not the only company doing this. They're simply the most vocal.

  • Ross Kimbarovsky

    Hi Aaron - Thanks for sharing your pragmatic view about crowdSPRING and changes in the design industry. We agree that design isn't "just about making the best possible product". We've never asserted that crowdSPRING is the only solution, or even the best solution for every type of business. Some companies, like startups, small businesses and solo entrepreneurs, are looking for a chance to get custom design services for an affordable cost - as an alternative to DYI or buying a template. Design firms and established designers aren't interested in such customers. Other customers need more sophisticated services (such as identity/branding). And they truly would benefit (if their budgets allowed) to work with established firms.

    We agree that to create a powerful alternative for businesses, we must continue to look for more ways - inventive an imaginative ways, as you've written - to connect people. Sure, we've built public and private comments, project management tools that promote communication, we educate about communication, etc. It's not enough and we'll be the first to admit it. We also are working on powerful collaboration tools (for both buyers and creatives) that will extend collaboration to the next level.

    At the end of the day - will there be natural limitations to what crowdSPRING (or any online-based marketplace) could offer? Of course. But are we close to where we want/need to be? Not at all. That fact, and the strong demand from businesses and creatives around the world for fair access (and yes, democratization of design), motivates us to work harder and smarter.


    Ross Kimbarovsky