Forbes throws down the gauntlet and suggests that designers who won’t work for free are somehow elitist prats that just won’t get with the program. Let’s discuss..

Wow. Guess Forbes ain’t looking to rustle up too many subscribers among the designer set, at least if their The Creativity of Crowds article is any indication. Subtitled “CrowdSpring aims to slash the cost of graphic design work–and democratize a snooty business,” the article (Feb 16 issue) is a glorified puff-piece on one of the dozens of design contest sites popping up all over the intertubes – Chicago based Crowdspring. Not sure if the ‘snooty’ comment is attributed to design-snooty-business-forbesCrowdspring, or it’s a creative flourish added by author Christopher Steiner, but I gotta feeling that the crack is not going to endear Crowdspring to the creative set (and just when they were getting all cozy and stuff).

The “democratization of design?”

Crowdspring, usually through blog comments and press releases by co-founder Ross Kimbarovsky – like to portray themselves as a ‘crowdsourcing‘ platform, which they’re not, unique to the industry, which they’re not, and some form of revolutionary plan to ‘democratize design’ which they’re not either.

Alas, despite their lofty claims, Crowdspring is just another design contest site which asks designers to submit their artwork to contests, for free, in the hope of getting paid, while Crowdspring charges the contest holders their prize money (and claws back 15% of the prize paid to ‘winning’ designers). Nothing terribly original and follows the same MO as other contest sites – 99designs at al. Interestingly, Crowdspring utilized a contest on 99designs to have their logo developed – whether to see how design contests operate, or because they believe in the model is anyone’s guess – so to hear them now claim they’re forging new ground takes an admirable bit of chutzpah. Which considering their business model, ain’t terribly surprising.

More for less.

But back to the Forbes article. Nothing terribly earth-shattering, though must admit I loved this quote from Crowdspring co-founder Michael Samson;

“The beauty of our site is that it doesn’t matter if you have a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design or if you’re a grandma in Tennessee with a bunch of free time and Adobe Illustrator,” says Samson. “If the client likes the grandma’s work better, then she’s going to get the job.”

Kinda cute concept that. Grandmothers wielding copies of Illustrator and Photoshop – cranking out design after design to win a few bucks (my poor old Gran only had Bingo to fall back on.) All fair enough I suppose, if Crowspring was marketed as a forum featuring designer Nannies.

But it isn’t.

And there’s a perfectly logical reason for that. Outfits like Crowdspring know that their ‘clients’ are looking for professional designers. They’re just looking for MORE from professional designers. For LESS MONEY than professional designers usually charge. Not nannies. Not teenagers. Not janitors (there’s another cute story in the article.)

“Crowdspring know that their ‘clients’ are looking for professional designers. They’re just looking for MORE from professional designers. For LESS MONEY than professional designers usually charge. Not nannies. Not teenagers. Not janitors.”

Cause here’s the rub – clients still expect for $400 (or $200) that they’re going to be working with experienced designers. There’s no tacit understanding that because they’re using outfits like Crowdspring, their project is going to be handled by hobbyists. So the designing Nannies (and teenagers, and janitors), while cute when mentioned in a Forbes magazine piece, remain unheralded on the public face of ALL design contest sites, including Crowdspring. Maybe I’m being ‘snooty’ and perhaps this is the ‘democratization’ that Kimbarovsky and his crew bleat about in the Forbes piece, but I’m relatively sure that..

“Place your design project on our website, pay $400 and some designers, nannies, janitors and teenage students will see what they can come up with”

..while truthful, isn’t compelling sales copy to prospective buyers. So that’s not how these design contest sites are marketed. Course, Kimbarovsky expected me to say that, as he tells us in the Forbes piece –

“Now if you live in India or Peoria you can buy a computer and sophisticated software for a little bit of money and compete with big agencies–and they don’t like that.”

Once again, a fair enough opinion, if graphic design was all about firing up a copy of Illustrator and/or Photoshop, which as far as I’ve been able to figure out about this design thing, it ain’t. Also, if Mr. Kimbarovsky can direct me to where I can find design software for ‘a little bit of money’ I’d be forever in his debt. And for what it’s worth, it’s not the big agencies that have been vocal against Crowdspring and their ilk – it’s been freelance designers at the grass roots level, sensing a danger to the design profession that these outfits pose.

Championing the underdog or exploiting naive designers?

That ‘pushback’ isn’t terribly surprising. While the Crowdspring ‘community’ does all the work, creates all the Crowdspring ‘product’ and only have a small chance of getting paid. Mr. Kimbarovsky and Company get paid regardless (unless there’s less than 25 entries for a contest, which almost never happens thanks to the ‘need a few more designs’ please’ contest holder invites that go out through the site’s forums and blog.)
crowdspring-home-page-artAs I’ve said many times, I understand why outfits like Crowdspring and 99designs exist. The folks that run these outfits have managed to figure out a way to get thousands of people – some skilled enough to earn a decent living – to work for them for free (the vast majority of people submitting work to these sites NEVER get paid a dime.) It’s an amazing sleight-of-hand that from a business perspective at least, works very well on the bottom line (no real wonder that Forbes would run this advertorial for Crowdspring.)

“The folks that run these outfits have managed to figure out a way to get thousands of people – some skilled enough to earn a decent living – to work for them for free.”

Most design agencies, regardless of their size (Kimbarovsky refers to them ominously as ‘gatekeepers’) are hobbled with the inconvenience and expense of PAYING their designers – hopefully a living wage. Outfits like Crowdspring are not likewise encumbered. Nice for them. Though to read Kimbarovsky describe his company altruistically as the champion of unrecognized designers, apparently the world over, is a bit much. Especially when they also do stuff like this:
hire-crowdspring-instead-designerI never had the balls to ask ANY designer to work for me, or my company, without paying them. I’ve never suggested that ANYONE hire my studio rather than give a designer an actual job. According to the Forbes article, that old-fashioned philosophy earns me the distinction of being ‘snooty’ and standing in the way of the ‘democratization of design’. But maybe they’re right. Perhaps Kimbarovsky and Samson are stalwart champions of the design industry, and are using their vast experience in the profession to see the design world in a different light –

“In 2006 Samson was struggling to outsource postproduction work to India, while Kimbarovsky was running into trouble with a design shop that kept bungling a face-lift of his law firm’s Web site. Initially, the two imagined a matchmaking service for buyers and sellers of everything from wedding planning to landscaping. They settled on graphic design because the product could be rendered and exchanged digitally with minimal overhead..”


Wedding planning? No go.

Landscaping services? Ain’t going to happen.

Graphic design? Now, that’s got possibilities. And whatayaknow. People will provide design product for free. Not exactly the “we love design and designers” shtick I was expecting. If I wanted to be a wag (not I) the company’s history (or lack thereof) may explain why the people behind it seem to have so many basic misunderstandings about the ‘snooty’ industry they’re trying to ‘democratize’.

Judging the result.

To Forbes’ credit, they experimented with Crowdspring and posted their own logo design contest here. Not about to trash anyone’s design work – you can judge for yourself if the work is, ahm, up to snuff – but the number of IStock Photos being submitted took me a little aback. The fact that stock photos are usually not licensed for use in logos is probably news to Grannies in Tennessee, so we can probably overlook that little wrinkle…