Steve Douglas on February 3rd, 2009

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 Crowdspring, 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).

Democratization of design?

Crowdspring, usually through blog comments and press releases by co-founder Ross Kimbarovsky – like to portray themselves as a ‘crowd-sourcing’ 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 (nasdaq: ADBE – news – people ) 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). 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’ pleas that go out through the site’s forums and blog). As 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 gratis (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). 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. I never had the balls to ask ANY designer to work for me, or my company, without paying them. 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..”

Jezzus. 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…




Related Posts

  1. Forbes: Why designers hate crowdsourcing
  2. SXSW ’09: Is spec work evil?
  3. Again with the design contests
  4. SXSW “Is Spec Work Evil?” panel transcript
  5. Twitter graphic $6 proof that design crowdsourcing works? Not quite.

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20 Comments to “Design is a ‘snooty’ business: Forbes”

  1. [...] those fingers crossed when working with a “designer nanny“, and be sure to read the 40+ comments on the Forbes article. I hope you realize that without [...]

  2. Josh says:

    The Microsoft Clipart found in a couple of the logos is amusing too. Anyone using CrowdSpring is just waiting for a lawsuit to happen (at the very least among a sea of concerns clients SHOULD have…)

    Josh’s last blog post..Really Forbes? Spec Work?

  3. “Venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, who recently put up $500 for a T-shirt design to sell on his Web site, received 230 entrants and garnered a lot of traffic for CrowdSpring from Kawasaki’s huge global reader base.”

    What kind of backlash do you think he’ll see from his followers?

  4. AdnElric says:

    “The bottom line in this issue makes us deeply think about our brand and how we as designers project it outside us, along with the approach design has given to small and medium sized bussineses (still, low budget branding needs). Steiner, with his definition call designers snooty. It is important how something is, but it is also very important how it is perceived by others.”

    AdnElric’s last blog post..El diseño gráfico NO es snooty!

  5. David Airey says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thought I’d highlight your insightful comment over on my blog, for those visiting yours:

    Excellently put.

  6. [...] Un reciente artículo, publicado en Forbes y titulado The Creativity of Crowds, volvía a crispar al mundo del diseño gráfico, al considerarlo un negocio que necesita ser democratizado para no ser tan snooty (pijo, orgulloso, [...]

  7. Kate says:

    Don’t you just love it. Noone would call a doctor or a plumber snooty for not working for free but creative professionals seem to have a different image. Like its just a hobby or something that is done in spare time.

    Kate’s last blog post..Survival in the Bad Lands

  8. [...] work of others as ethically challenged. And it’s going take a lot more than a few articles in Forbes to change that [...]

  9. Billie says:

    What crowdSPRING employees (er, “contest” “entrants”) have to bet on — and stop me if I’m wrong — is the off-chance that the kind of “client” who wants a last-second brand identity done in a week for $500 (sometimes based on a 200-word brief made up on the spot), STILL nevertheless has the skill, experience, time, awareness and understanding to recognize which random entry is not only the most superbly-crafted, not only entirely original and copyrightable, not only befitting the industry and right on target for the market & the business’s culture and personality — but ALSO the best-fitting for realizing the long-term needs, goals and plans that will best position that individual company to survive and thrive in the future.

    Oh, and they’d better be darn sure they’re not utilizing a ripped-off design concept already owned by another company, or are distributing something created illegally using stolen fonts and pirated software.

  10. Focus says:

    I think this is horrible. It is a shame they do such things and one day they will burn in design hell for it. Someone is going to eventually hold them responsible the day they accept a logo with copyright content in it.

  11. [...] Here is a great post on the Logo Factory’s blog [...]

  12. [...] the use of their illustrations as logos. How am I familiar with this contest? When Crowdspring very loudly hit the scene in February, it was one of a few contests that I decided to follow, selecting it from a random link [...]

  13. [...] “Oh look” people who are all for spec work and “crowdsourcing” sites exclaimed breathlessly, “Even Twitter crowdsourced their logo, and paid six bucks for it. Take that you snooty designers!”. [...]

  14. Thanks for sharing your nice informative post….nice work.

  15. [...] based in Chicago, who recently caused a stir after being featured in a Forbes article that opined designers were “snooty”) set up a debate at the recent South by South West Festival, held in Texas back in March. The [...]

  16. Prospective Client says:

    FYI, As a prospective client i’m very confused. I looked at the different options for a logo for our new Company. After going thru your site i was impress with the info and phoned the logo factory yesterday. I thought i would get a little help or push as to what i’m looking for (some sort of consultation to make me feel comfortable that the LOGO Factory was the way to go.) I really got nothing, i was ready to buy but the lady i spoke to did not impress me. Impressive site, but not impressed when push comes to shove. This might not be the comment area to place these remarks but i’m leaning towards crowdsourcing. Hope we make the right move…. You had me too…..

  17. Steve Douglas says:

    @ Prospective – Yeah, probably not the place for these kind of comments, but I’ll let it stand for the time being. Sorry to hear about your experience – most client comments about Tasha (that would be our admin, and the person you talked to) are that she’s stellar, but alas, everyone can’t be ‘on’ all the time. We’re also not in the habit of ‘pushing’ or ‘shoving’ anyone towards hiring us and if, after reading my blog, you’re still interested in crowdsourcing, I probably haven’t done my job well enough either. In any case, good luck with it. If you want to discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me at my personal e-mail addy (my email is first initial, last name at thelogofactory dot com).

  18. [...] The controversy shifted into high gear last month after Forbes published an airy, one-sided look at crowdSpring. In more than 100 comments to the article one could read persuasive, articulate variations on a single theme: "Fuck you and crowdSpring too." Several prominent design blogs posted their own jeremiads lambasting crowdSpring. "Spec work has become a major force in devaluing the perception of graphic design in the business world," writes eyeCinq. And: "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 gratis. It’s an amazing sleight-of-hand," writes The Logo Factor. [...]