As evidenced by features on NPR and in Forbes, spec work, crowdsourcing and design contests remain the darlings of the business media. Sadly, many of the inflated claims made are left unchallenged and become the accepted truth, when often times, they’re not really true at all.

Conversations about spec work and crowdsourcing have turned up in a few media places the last few days, so figured we might as well take a look at what’s what, and offer up our usually dissenting two cents worth. The first was an NPR interview with Crowdspring co-founder Mike Samson, hosted by Bob Garfield as part of his On The Media show. You can listen at the link (also includes a transcript). Nothing terribly earth-shattering, more of a typical puff-piece and glorified press release for Crowdspring. Trouble is, many claims made on the show, some of them quite debatable, are left unchallenged, so thought it might be worthwhile if we took the liberty of, well, challenging them. Fly in the ointment and all that. Don’t want to seem like I’m bagging on Samson, but this sort of stuff happens when the media conflates the issue of crowdsourcing and design contests, with the companies that host them. Having got all that out of the way, let’s begin with the rationale for the show:

BOB GARFIELD: “When I wrote my most recent book about the chaos created by the digital revolution, I, of course, needed a cover. In the spirit of my subject matter, I crowdsourced the project through an online site called More than a hundred designers from around the world took on the project, and the winner got 500 dollars, plus the glory of illustrating The Chaos Scenario.”

Glory of illustrating The Chaos Scenario you say? Some glory. When the author of the book hosts a radio show that extols the virtue of crowdsourcing and Crowdspring, and talks about the book cover project itself, he neglects to mention the designer’s name? For the record, the winner of Garfield’s book cover is a designer who no longer participates in Crowdspring contests, but now works for the company as one supposes, a salaried employee. Make of that what you wish.

GARFIELD: “Now, digital tools have made your business something like an inevitability, just like the steam engine made mass production of, say, shoes an inevitability. But the Industrial Revolution also spelled very [LAUGHS] bad news for cobblers, the shoemakers who were basically priced out of the market.”

MIKE SAMSON: “When shoes could be mass produced, all of a sudden many, many, many more people had access to high-quality footwear, and the quality of their life was improved. CrowdSPRING, and platforms like crowdSPRING, provide the same function in a more modest way for the consumers, the buyers of creative services.”

The comparison between crowdsourcing and design contests as some sort of Industrial Revolution level event is, to be honest, a load of bollocks. The invention of the printing press, the weaving loom, compugraphic typesetting machines (and in the case of this example. shoe manufacturing assembly lines I guess) represented a bellwether change in the technology of the production system. What once took forty people to do, only took a few operators to accomplish. Or what took a skilled artisan to do, could now be completed by loosely trained, unskilled workers. None of that has occurred in crowdsourcing or logo design contests. Designers still use the same tools and technology. They still have to be fairly skilled and/or talented to cobble (pun intended) together a decent logo or website. The only thing that’s changed is that rather than getting paid for their cobbling (yep, intended again) they’re not. All crowdsourcing and design contest sites are merely gussied up CMS forums. The method of production, the design process itself, remains largely unchanged and spec designers still put on their Illustrator one leg at a time.

Crowdsourcing isn’t efficient down-sizing. It’s up-sizing with enormous waste.

Any of the bellwether changes mentioned represented the down-sizing of the work force that was needed to accomplish the exact same task, a ruthless application of capitalist efficiency. Crowdsourcing is actually the complete opposite of that. Hundreds of ‘designers’ now participate, rather than an individual designer or a small sized team. Up-sizing I guess. Crowdsourcing is not like the ‘industrial revolution’ for design but the industrial revolution in reverse. Whereas the industrial revolution increased efficiency, and reduced waste, crowdsourcing and design contests decrease efficiency and increase waste by enormous factors. See, if we insist on using these silly industrial revolution metaphors (I’ve been called a Luddite for opposing unpaid labor from designers), let’s get it right. The ‘steam engine’ event for designers was the advent of desktop publishing software and reasonably priced desktop PCs. That, for anyone keeping score, started happening in the 1990s. The second was the traction of the internet, which allowed designers to market themselves to clients outside their home town, using the same tools and technology as the so-called ‘gatekeepers’ and established majors that we keep hearing about. Those two events ‘leveled the playing field’ long before Crowdspring opened their doors, and are still available for many designers now participating in spec work dog-and-pony shows. They’d be much better if they did, too.

SAMSON: “That buyer who comes to crowdSPRING with a 500-dollar book cover project or a 300-dollar logo project couldn’t afford the fee that a traditional designer charges, so their options before a platform like crowdSPRING were very limited.”

This chestnut, a very close relative of the $5,000 logo’, is simply not true. Before ‘platforms like Crowdspring’ came along, there were loads of choices and options already available. There still are. Outfits like Crowdspring have to convince the market that so-called ‘traditional’ designers charge far more for design work than they actually do. Besides, and if we wanted to be snarky (not I), and take Samson at face value, before Crowdspring came along, there was always 99designs, where Crowdspring cobbled (never gets old) their business model from.

GARFIELD: “But there’s a second question, Mike, and that’s an ethical question concerning the new labor force. When they participate in crowdSPRING, when they bid on my book cover or somebody else’s logo or a webpage design or what have you, 100 or more entries for each project come in. One winner. The winner gets paid poorly, according to the professional scale, and the others get paid not one red cent. Can you explain to me why this isn’t exploitation?”

SAMSON: “All of the work that was created for your project, except for that one winning entry, remained the property of the person who created it. They can resell that, they can use it as a template, they can use it in their marketing materials.”

Whenever a designer uploads an image to the Crowdspring server, they give Crowdspring a default license to use it as they see fit. That’s already giving up rights without remuneration.  And while I may be a Luddite (snooty too), I’ve never understood how hundreds of designers working on someone’s project without pay can’t be considered exploitation. But, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s take Samson’s main argument against designer exploitation, that they maintain property rights to their work, at face value. Swell. A hundred designers with an unused book cover design for ‘The Chaos Scenario.” All peachy I suppose, when someone else publishes another book by that title ’cause I’m sure they’ll be just thrilled to buy one of these ‘custom’ designs, the fact that they’re second-hand and recycled notwithstanding. Having said all that, I’m still not sure how this negates the ‘exploitation’ criticism.

SAMSON: “We give them the opportunity to create.”

More than a little bit of hubris there. Before Crowdspring came along, no-one could ‘create’? Hardly. People could always create. Crowdsourcing sites have only given designers, most of them painfully unaware of the realities of these platforms, the opportunity to submit their creations, to free-for-all contests, while the site charges contest holders a non-refundable listing fee for the privilege of ‘leveraging’ all this lovely free talent. Nothing more. Nothing less. Actually, with the lack of protections in place for participating designers, often a lot less.

GARFIELD: “Okay, schnooks like me have used crowdSPRING, and I guess a lot of mom and pops, but others who are not mom and pops have also used platforms like yours. I’m talking about Random House, Barilla Pasta, Epic Records, the metal band Judas Priest. Doesn’t that kind of confirm the worst fears of the established design community?”

SAMSON: “Well, yes and no. Big companies do come in and post their project with us. Now, the reason they do so isn’t just to get the artwork or the written content. They’re trying to learn how they can leverage this platform and this process to engage audiences. Judas Priest, frankly, they’ve got plenty of designers who could have designed that tour poster for them. Epic Records has lots of designers on staff who do this every day. But what you can’t do with an in-house design department is you can’t engage the fan base in a way that makes them want to buy merchandise and want to be associated with the band. So when Epic Records posted that project for Judas Priest, they put the word out to the fan clubs and the fan sites, and the fans flocked in to participate”.

We touched on this in our Crowdspecking article a while back. This all boils down to intent. When major companies employ design contests, they’re generally of the ‘fire-and-forget’ variety. As Samson correctly points out, large companies have lots of designers on staff, but they use contests to engage their fan base. Getting cheap design stuff isn’t even part of the equation, and participants enter because of their love of the product, service or in this case, rock band. Even then, a major risk of crowdsourcing – plagiarized entries – can raise its ugly head (witness the Cadbury Chocolate label contest, where the winning entry turned out to be knocked off.) See, conflating this kind of ‘social media marketing’ with spec work and crowdsourcing (where designers complete projects through revision steps, and even when selected as winner, and awarded the vaunted prize, aren’t finished complying with contest holder revision requests) is to be charitable, apples and oranges. Crowdsourcing, in its current incarnation, is marketed to small business as getting lots of stuff cheap. And I’m left wondering if those Judas Priest fans are still counted as part of Crowdspring’s ‘community’ numbers, cause I got a nickels to donut bet that sez they ain’t hanging around to design pet food logos on Crowdspring.

GARFIELD: “You know, it’s funny how a person’s reactions can be different based on whose ox is being gored. What were vague ethical qualms I had when doing my book cover suddenly have me in a full-blown panic, because I can see very clearly that the amount of money that I can fetch for the kind of writing I do, just by virtue of the law of supply and demand, has to go down.”

So ethic ‘qualms’ about exploiting the unpaid efforts of others only raises its inconvenient head when it applies to Garfield’s own industry, namely writing? That’s swell, though to be fair, a hat tip to Bob for realizing it. This argument has been used by designers for years now (“As an [insert profession here] would you do work on spec? No? Then why would you expect designers to?”). Trouble is, designers are guilty of the same kind of ethical hypocrisy, largely ignoring the pleas of photographers a few years back, when micro-stock services hammered the professional photography industry. Alas, it’s an easy trap to fall into.

GARFIELD: “Them’s pretty words, Mike Samson. They have not, however, been all that soothing to the people on what is called the “no-spec movement,” a group of design schools and businesses and individuals who themselves refuse to produce work on spec and are trying to rally the rest of the crowd to follow the same ground rules. Are they a threat to you?”

SAMSON: “No, we don’t think so. We have a community of about 64,000 designers and writers. About 50 percent of those are U.S. based. The membership of the AIGA, which is the leading professional organization of graphic designers in the United States, has a membership that’s a fraction of that size. And that’s nothing against the AIGA as a professional organization, but what it says is there is a need and a hunger out there.”

Ah, the numbers game. But hey, if we’re going to throw around stats and percentages, let’s take a look at all the numbers. And all the percentages. See, here’s the thing – as we detailed here, the vast majority of people who sign up for sites like Crowdspring do so without ever entering a single contest.

Not a single one.

See, it’s free. And you have to sign up to view the ‘community’ forums. At present there are 65,000 ‘creatives’ claimed, yet according to their own stats, over 30,000 registrants have never entered a single ‘project’. Nor, judging by their ‘last seen date’ will they ever. The number of ‘creatives’ that have entered 1, 2 or three contests is similarly in the tens of thousands (Judas Priest fans I guess.) The vast majority of designers that do register as participants bail shortly after, so It’s safe to say that most spec and crowdsourcing sites are supported by a fraction of the numbers claimed. The numbers trotted out equal registrants and people who’ve clicked a check box that states they’ll act as ‘creatives’ on the site. For the record (and while I’ve never been a big fan of AIGA or a big believer in trotting out statistics for the reasons I just illustrated) the AIGA claims 22,000 members. Those are paid-up, participating members by the way, so Crowdspring’s ‘our dick is bigger than their dick’ claim is a tad silly. And doesn’t really mean jack.

GARFIELD: “Their claim is that not only does a user of spec material prey on an exploited class of labor, it also generates inferior results. However, the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics. Do you have to be a professional designer to create professional designs?”

SAMSON: “No, you don’t, frankly. The Nike logo was produced by a student who reportedly received about 20 dollars in payment. I understand she did get some Nike stock which paid off over time. But I think that history is rife with examples like those of, quote, unquote, “amateurs” producing phenomenal work.”

You would think that after trotting the Nike logo chestnut out for the umpteenth time, Mike would at least start getting the story right. The Nike Swoosh logo was created in 1971 by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson, who was hired for the job and billed $35.00, based on a rate of $2.00 per hour (around minimum wage at the time – I was making $2.35 an hour for my first job five years later, the result of mandated minimum wage increases.) Using this price tag, from the seventies, to somehow justify design contests in 2010, is an often employed tactic, though ludicrous at first blush. And as Samson points out, Davidson did get more of a payday from the athletic company in 1983 when Nike gave Davidson a gold Swoosh gold ring and an envelope filled with an undisclosed amount of Nike stock to express their gratitude. See Mike, it’s not about ‘amateur’ vs. ‘professional’. It’s not even about whether work designed through crowdsourcing is ‘inferior’ or not (that’s another argument entirely, but directly tied into my next sentence.) It’s about paying people for their work.

Up to now, a fairly basic principle in supposedly civilized societies.