Are concerns over the demise of graphic design legitimate, or premature worrying about designers working for free? Turns out (and so far) it’s only about the logos..
Remember how graphic designers were told that spec work is the “new reality” and that in order to continue working in the graphic design industry, they’d have to “evolve or die“? That translated
loosely exactly to
“Be prepared to work for free, cause other people are.”
True, most of this hyperbole came from web-based platforms that marketed themselves as “crowdsourcing” and logo design contest sites that had jumped on the “crowdsourcing” bandwagon, eager to ditch the vibe of tawdry design contests. Still, pretty ominous words for the would-be graphic designer just entering the field, or the graphic design student currently working their ass off in art school.While many in the design community freaked out about the upcoming demise of their field, no-one (including yours truly) ever tried to figure out if the predictions were actually true. Or to analyze if the facts on the ground squared with the bold assumptions being made. Maybe it’s time we did.
Exaggerated size of design ‘communities’
A few months ago, we took look at the ‘community’ numbers of crowdsourcing and design contest sites and found, to be charitable, that they were wildly inflated. Bottom line, most design crowdsourcing sites are supported by a fraction of the designers claimed on the home page. Most decent designers that have a go at crowdsourcing either don’t enter anything, or bail shortly after they do, having discovered that entering design contests is a woefully inefficient way to earn a living. While the aggregate appearance is that of monstrous sized design communities (designers who are no longer active are still counted in the numbers), the reality for the individual is something different entirely. After winning one contest in twenty (about the average of designers who know what they’re doing, the win-ratio is much lower if they don’t) most people move on to greener pastures. That’s not anti-spec rhetoric. It’s economic common sense. It could be argued that a great deal of the people left on these sites are bad at one of two things, design or business. Or they’re teenagers earning a few bucks on the side.
All about the logos?
I think we can all agree that logo design is a niche discipline, albeit an important one, of the entire graphic design field. Accordingly, here’s another dirty little secret (though to be fair, it’s not really dirty, and as it’s publicly available info, not terribly secret). Most crowdsourcing sites are supported by logo design projects. Not brochure design. Not stationery design. Not website design. Not presentation folders. Not the recent addition of writing on spec. Other than logo contests (or “projects”), and despite being marketed as “creative marketplaces” that offer the full range of graphic design services, not much else is going on. Let’s take a look at current contests running on 99designs:
Let’s take a look at the current offerings on 99designs:Some outfit called Design Tourney:Chicago based Crowspring:The weirdly named Mycroburst (now Zillion Designs):Logos, logos and more logos. Takeaway here? Other than some high-profile exceptions, logo contests make up of the bulk of so-called design crowdsourcing. You don’t accept my word for this little pearl of info either. You’re welcome to check for yourself (or see the screen shots throughout this post).
“A quick trot through most of the high-profile ‘crowdsourcing’ sites reveals that anywhere from 60% to a whopping 92% of the current contests involve logo design.”
A quick trot through most of the high-profile ‘crowdsourcing’ sites reveals that anywhere from 60% to a whopping 92% of the current contests involve logo design. It could be argued that if it weren’t for logo design contests, most so-called crowdsourcing sites would have shuttered long time ago. Some, Logo My Way and Logo Tournament for example, don’t even attempt the pretense. As these kind of offerings have been with us since time immemorial, it kinda puts paid to the “innovative” vibe that’s been tossed around too. I guess the innovation bit was meant to describe the expansion of web-based logo design contests into other areas of the graphic design profession. How successfully is the question. Not very is the answer. Alas, it would appear that despite having a few years to build up the concept to mainstream acceptance in all the graphic design disciplines, only logo development has gained any real traction in the crowdsourcing arena. Trouble is, with the “more for less” appeal of logo contests, they’ve always been accepted by many in the medium, small and micro business market. Crowdsourcing and contest sites just make it easier.
Why all the logos?
Why, on the surface anyway, does it appear that curated spec work sites (cause that’s what they are) appear to have failed to gain traction with anything but logo design? I’m willing to go out on a limb and hoist a couple or theories. The first might concern small business owners’ view towards their logo itself, with many seeing it as a pretty picture that’s only real function is to be slapped on a business card or website header. With a very basic understanding of the digital tools involved, some buyers probably view the logo design process as something that takes a couple of minutes and in the long run, isn’t terribly taxing, time consuming or even important to the overall health of their business. Designers probably share part of the burden too, with some treating it as a ‘quick and dirty’ process, resorting to some pretty predictable and overdone approaches to designing a logo. The buyer thinks it takes ten minutes. Many people entering design contests only take ten minutes (explains some of the rampant copycatting that goes on.) The contest holder thinks they’re being magnanimous, shelling out a couple of hundred bucks for ten minutes of someone’s time. Would be designers see it as an acceptable risk – ten minutes time for the chance of winning that couple of hundred bucks.
An “it’s all good” kind of equation.
“The contest holder thinks they’re being magnanimous, shelling out a couple of hundred bucks for ten minutes of someone’s time. Would be designers see it as an acceptable risk – ten minutes time for the chance of winning that couple of hundred bucks.”
Risk vs. Return.
While some buyers, and some “designers” (bunny quotes mine), might think of logo design as a quick and dirty process (erroneously I would argue) it’s a little different with other artwork. When it comes to designing collateral material, brochures and websites let’s say, everybody shares a common attitude, the accuracy of that attitude notwithstanding. It looks like there’s more work involved. Buyers and contest holders still accept this premise, and are willing to spend more time, money and effort. Spec work designers, knowing how much time might be involved in the production end of things, are less likely to participate in a website or brochure contest that’s going to take a huge time investment with only the “hope” of getting a return. A minimal one at that (crowdsourcing design contests featuring large prizes are another matter entirely but we’ll cover that in an upcoming post).
“Amazingly, what is actually a weakness of the curated spec work model, has paradoxically become one of the primary appeals for people that own them, people that purchase services on them, and designers who participate.”
As a brochure, website or vehicle wrap requires a certain level of expertise to pull off, technically speaking, it’s a lot easier to fake what looks like a logo in Illustrator or Freehand than it is to fake what looks like a brochure using In Design or Quark. Or fake a website using Fireworks, Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Amazingly, what is actually a weakness of the curated spec work model, has paradoxically become one of the primary appeals for people that own them, people that purchase services on them, and designers who participate. Bottom line, logo design contests, or “projects” depending on the site, will continue to flourish. The rest of the graphic design disciplines are relatively protected from spec work decimation. For the time being anyway, as I may have to eat some of these words at a future date.
Chicken Little or reason for concern?
While it might be relatively safe to crib Mark Twain and say this – “the rumors of the demise of the graphic design industry have been greatly exaggerated” – if you’re a designer specializing in logos, or want to specialize in logos, you may want to roll up your sleeves a bit. Because the growing number of websites offering logo design contests isn’t going to die down anytime soon. When there’s a ton of people looking to create a clone of Crowdspring and getting quotes back for $750, it’s a safe bet that it’s gonna get a lot more crowded in the upcoming months and years (while others are already suggesting that crowdsourcing is broken). In terms of graphic designers as a whole, does all of this mean a lot of the hand-wringing about crowdsourcing has been a reactionary chicken-little freakout? Maybe, but there’s still lots of reasons for designers to be concerned. The main issue is that design buyers are beginning to accept the basic premise of curated spec work sites – that designers are willing to work for free. That doesn’t necessarily translate into more business for “crowdsourcing” sites, but more requests at the buyer level, straight to the service provider themselves. And paradoxically (liking that word), this is also a very real risk to curated spec work sites themselves. Why pay a $39 service fee, or 15% off the top to some site on the internet, when it’s a matter of sending a few e-mails to designers on the local level, or found through a Google search.
And those requests aren’t going to be limited to logo design.