If nothing else, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s recent foray into design crowdsourcing illustrates its inherent arrogance as well as the power imbalance between designers and those that hope to exploit them.
Back in the day, I wasn’t terribly opposed to fan-based design contests for posters, logos and what have you. Used to be a nice way for bands and sports teams to develop a sense of community among their fans and to give those fans a chance to support their favorite causes. Hell, my first paying gig – a princely sum of $100 – was designing a logo for my high school radio station as part of a school-wide contest. I get it.
Of course, that was before the rise of exploitative design contest websites, when companies like Crowdspring and 99designs began to cash in and commercialize a previously organic concept, offering design contests for every purpose imaginable – from logos to websites, T-shirt designs to posters. All for a percent of the winning designers’ wages and a contest listing fee. After that, all design contests became taboo – a sort of ‘zero tolerance’ – at least among a good chunk of the design community, and now every contest – regardless of its intent or participant – runs the risk of being scorned and protested via social media, blogs and websites. It was into that landscape that Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban wandered, announcing a contest to design the Mavs’ new uniforms on Twitter (above) and via his blog here (fair warning: there are hundreds and hundreds of comments so the page takes forever to load.) The criticism was swift, in the comments section of the blog announcement, on Twitter, design blogs, and even articles in the mainstream sports media.
A fan contest hits some sour notes.
The contest had nasty overtones from the get-go, with Cuban seemingly aware of the inevitable backlash his contest would stir up:
“Who will own your design ? The minute you post it, the Mavs will. If you think its horrible that the Mavs own your design. Do not post. If you think its cool that the Mavs could possibly use your design and you will have eternal bragging rights, then post away.”
(Not to be a nitpicker, but Cuban is flat out wrong. Just by saying that the Mavericks own the design doesn’t supersede US and international copyright law, regardless of how rich and famous Cuban might be.) The grand prize for designing an NBA basketball team’s kit? Ahm, nothing. Okay, maybe a couple of tickets. And that’s only if Cuban “really” likes you:
“If we really like your design and you, I may even throw in some tickets.”
If someone else steals your design, presents it as their own and they win? Tough titty:
“If your design is close, if not identical to other designs and we pick one of the other designs, for whatever reason, then thats just the way it goes.”
What if Cuban doesn’t get a design he likes? No prize. No glory. No recognition. Life in the big city and all that…
“If we don’t choose any of the designs,including yours.then we don’t choose any of the designs. That is life in the big city. Move on”
Pretty nasty stuff, no? Sadly, it gets worse. Shortly after Cuban announced the contest via Twitter, Ross Kimbarovsky of Crowdspring – a design contest platform – made this offer:
An offer that Cuban apparently took up, announcing the new ‘partnership’ to his almost two million followers:
Let’s break that down. Crowdspring, a company that requires designers to work for free to exist, is ‘volunteering’ (donating) $1000 to a very rich, very famous businessman for the ‘glory’ of hosting his design contest on their site. Where Crowdspring’s self-described ‘community’ of designers would submit uniform ideas and concepts on spec. For all intents and purposes, the whole thing had become a glorified design charity case. For a fucking NBA franchise. And a billionaire. That’s a ‘B’ in case you missed it.
Even worse, Crowdspring hosting Cuban’s contest opened up an entire can of worms regarding who owned what in terms of design proposals. According to Cuban’s blog, anyone who posted a design to his blog instantly gave up their rights (he’s wrong, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend he’s right.) As part of their TOS, Crowdspring make a big deal about how designers own their rights until a contest holder picks it as a winner. It’s part of their supposedly superior set of protections for designers who use their crowdsourcing site. They also set up the contest as ‘assured’ – that’s ‘Crowdspring speak’ for an almost guaranteed payout (with loads of caveats) and a sorta promise that a winning design would be selected. That’s at odds with Cuban telling participants that he might not pick a design at all – “life in the big city” doncha know.
And what if Cuban selected a winner from the comments section of his blog rather than Crowdspring? At time of writing, there are hundreds of links to various submission images all over the interwebs, with hundreds of participants seemingly unaware that the contest was being held simultaneously on Crowdspring (as far as I’m aware, Cuban never directed people to the Crowdspring hosted contest other than one Twitter comment.) And then there’s the time frame. Cuban tells us that the “opportunity” would go “till the last day in May.” Similarly, the Crowdspring contest closed on May 31 with Kimbarovsky reminding would-be participants on the last day.
However, as of this writing date (June 4) there are still people entering submissions via comment links on Cuban’s blog. And even Crowdspring, despite closing the contest on their site to their members, are still directing latecomer designers Cuban’s way:
The logistics, rules, terms, conditions and promises are all over the map and almost indecipherable to anyone who wanted, in good faith, to enter. And then let’s take a look at the now-closed contest on Crowdspring:
Read the title very carefully – “Help The Dallas Mavs Design Their Next NBA Uniform!” Nothing about the laissez-faire nature of the contest as announced on Cuban’s blog. On the creative brief, the business name holding the contest is announced as “Dallas Mavericks” and only on the bottom line is there a hint, but only a hint, of the true nature of the ‘project':
“This project is posted by crowdSPRING with permission from Mavs owner Mark Cuban. Mark Cuban will be looking at submitted designs – so show us your absolute best work and who knows…maybe the whole world will see your new design on the Mavs!”
Catch the “who knows?” Very cagey CYA verbiage. However, members of Crowdspring’s ‘community’ (who hadn’t read the original blog post or Twitter comment) would be forgiven if they came to believe that this ‘assured’ contest was being held by Mark Cuban. With a winner guaranteed to be selected for the Dallas Maverick’s new uniforms. No doubt that’s why the contest garnered a grand total of 772 entries from 211 designers. Combine that with the submissions via Cuban’s blog and we’re talking an awful lot of free work to “impress” a high-profile billionaire. Let’s take a look at the Crowdspring contest stats:
At time of writing there are no comments. No star ratings (a cynical method of trying to coax some sort of feedback from contest holders when they’re disinclined to leave comments proper.) Nada. In fact, there’s nothing to illustrate that Cuban, or anyone from his organization, has even looked at the 700+ submissions, let alone picked a winner. And isn’t that a principle raison d’etre of the entire crowdsourcing scene? In lieu of payment, eager designers are supposed to ‘thrive’ on feedback for their work, in order to hone in on what the contest holder actually wants. Well, design contests like this blow that concept all to hell. To their credit (though it’s probably done automatically,) Crowdspring rates the participation of DallasMav as “Low.” In terms of protection for designers’ intellectual property, there is none – what’s to stop someone from taking a design off Cuban’s blog and entering it on Crowdspring as their own? Nothing. Sames goes for vice versa. And if it does happen, Cuban tells us that this is just “how it goes.”
Update: (September 15, 2014) We now know how it went. Fifteen-and-a-half months later, the “assured” prize money pay-out is still “pending” on Crowdspring and Cuban has yet to announce a winner.
Power imbalances & the rise of pretend design contests.
It’s pretty obvious that the dog-and-pony show aspect of design contests, regardless of how sites like 99designs and Crowdspring like to market them, removes any semblance of professionalism, especially from a designer’s POV. When contest holders can name whatever terms and conditions they feel like, without the adherence to even basic levels of fairness, professional standards and/or ethics, we’re witnessing an almost 100 > 0 imbalance of power between ‘client’ and designer. That equates to no protection for designers whatsoever. And that ain’t good business.
As if the basic concept of crowdsourcing wasn’t sketchy enough, we’re also starting to see the rise of pretend design contests – ‘designfare’ if you will – a nasty trend where crowdsourcing and design contest sites ‘donate’ their services in the hopes of snagging a high-profile customer. They offer their services free of charge, even on a completely speculative basis (basically designing things without being asked), to high profile businesses, products, sports teams and/or personalities. They then hope to make enough noise via social media for the ‘contest’ to be noticed by the would-be subject. Trouble is, many designers take these spec contests as ‘official’ and sanctioned, even if the subject has never heard of it. And enter their work accordingly.
For example, anyone seeing this contest might believe that progressive electronic band Daft Punk had commissioned 99designs to design their new Random Access Memories tour poster in a contest. Picked one even:
Only by understanding that the project is cynically described as a ‘community contest’ and reading the fine print, would any participating designer (or prospective customer) realize that Daft Punk had absolutely nothing to do with it:
“The contest is UNOFFICIAL – meaning 99designs is hosting it for fun. That said, we plan to print the winning design and do whatever we can to get that poster into Daft Punk’s hands!”
See, it’s a pretend design contest. Same goes for this ‘unofficial’ Sony Playstation contest. 1,167 designers submitted 4,728 designs in the hope of designing the new PS4 logo. Even though there was probably a snowball’s chance in hell that higher-ups at Sony would even notice the contest, let alone pick one of the unsanctioned logos for their new product launch. Likewise this completely bogus contest to design rap star Kanye West‘s new CD cover.
Design Crowd, an Australian 99designs knock-off, breathlessly announced that they had launched “a competition to design a new Manchester United logo.” What designer wouldn’t want to have that feather in their cap? Trouble is, digging deeper into the press release, we learn that while Design Crowd is…
“…currently reaching out to Manchester United Football Club, this contest is not officially endorsed by the organization.”
In other words, submit your design to our pretend Manchester United design contest and we’ll pretend to other prospective clients that Manchester United hired us. And who wouldn’t want to hire the outfit that designed Manchester United’s new logo? Or Daft Punk’s tour poster? Or the Sony PS4 logo? Or Kanye West’s CD cover? Or, coming full circle, the Dallas Mavericks’ new uniform? It throws the concept of legitimate portfolio work right out the window.
A cynical race to the bottom.
It’s a sad state of affairs, an unfortunate, race-to-the-bottom phenomenon as the competition heats up in the crowdsourcing arena. All the design contest sites are doing it in attempts to outflank their counterparts. Of course, they have nothing to lose – they’re donating the unpaid labor of others, sometimes a whole lot of unpaid labor, and a whole bunch of others, in vain attempts to snag ‘A’ list clients. And, one supposes, the publicity (and pretend bragging rights) that go along with it. Trouble is, it’s a copyright and trademark quagmire. And as is always the case, it’s the designers that are out the time, talent and creative energy, without one iota of protection for their efforts. All of this to benefit rich – and growing richer – businesses that seek to exploit their unpaid efforts. In any other industry or profession, the arrogance of such a premise would be unthinkable, and if implemented, unforgivable.
In the design industry, it’s supposed to represent “opportunity.”
Apparently, these pretend contests have been going on for some time now:
According to this page, “EBay picked a winning design in their logo design contest” narrowing down 1,698 designs from 522 designers. Nope. Ebay didn’t have anything to do with the contest. In fact they had already announced their new logo last September.
According to this page, MySpace “picked a winning design in their logo design contest ” sifting through 367 designs from 77 designers. Uh-uh. MySpace developed their own logo and didn’t sanction this puppy.
When it came to their new emblem, the Miami Dolphins, at least according to this page, “picked a winning design in their logo design contest” raking in 1,236 designs from 270 designers. Actually, no, the Miami Dolphins didn’t do anything of the sort. 99designs would like us to believe they did.
And when it came time to create his business cards, where did His Majesty King Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands go? According to this page, he held a contest on 99designs and “picked a winning design in their stationery contest,” reviewing 939 designs from 190 designers. Turns out the new king didn’t have anything to do with the gig, or selection of the winner. It’s just another pretend contest. Bogus bragging rights. And another day at 99designs.
Design Crowd have announced the winner of their pretend Manchester United logo design contest. Here it is: