Tragedy of the Commons is an economic theory that describes doing something that initially seems to your own benefit that messes it up for everybody else, before eventually screwing it up for you too.

Wikipedia (itself one of the first examples of crowdsourcing) defines The Tragedy of the Commons thusly:

“The Tragedy of the Commons is a term used to denote a situation where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource.”


The Tragedy of the Commons is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen. The essence of the commons dilemma has been discussed by theorists since ancient times, but not under that name. It has also been studied more recently, such as in game theory.”


Central to Hardin’s article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s view, it is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer.”

The Commons and design.

You’ll have to forgive the cow and fields metaphor – this is a design blog and I’m not writing about farming – and in our case (most cases actually) the ‘commons’ (the design profession) isn’t infinite.

In fact, just the opposite.

I remember reading some study somewhere that indicated that the number of qualified designers was less than other high-skilled, and often licensed, professions. Don’t have the link handy, so that statement will have to be anecdotal.

In any case, many might argue that design skills and wherewithal come from training, education and experience, so it’s quite obvious that if the income dwindles (an effect that crowdsourcing and the myriad of design contest sites are having right now) the justification for spending tens of thousands on education similarly drops. As does the rationale for purchasing professional design software. Hardware. Fonts. Etc. Etc. As the number of people actually making a decent wage on these services is probably about 1 – 3%, they’re obviously not a terribly efficient way for a designer, of ANY level, to make a living. All of which might have a negative impact on the industry, as well as the various businesses and disciplines that are supported by it. That too, is a part of ‘free economics’.

Supply and demand works both ways.

Squawking about crowdsourcing sites (something I’ve been guilty of numerous times) isn’t a matter of establishing an “exclusive club” who’s “responsibility (is) to keep everyone else – young designers, students, aspiring talent – out. That’s actually a pretty offensive notion that’s simply not true. Most people that are opposed to crowdsourcing and design contests are at the grass roots level. In fact, if we take a look at how some sites are now vetting designers, cancelling accounts without notice and demanding they participate in months worth of contests just to get back in, crowdsourcing and contest sites are becoming the very ‘gatekeepers’ they claimed to be challenging years back.

The benefits to designers?

As usual, the big guys get “more for less”. The little guys get “less for more.” Hardly the “democratization of design” we’ve been told this phenomenon is. As I’ve said dozens of times, I understand why design crowdsourcing sites operate (low overhead. Zero labor expense.) I understand why buyers would engage such services (More for less. Zero commitment.) Only when it comes to the participation of designers do the benefits become nebulous. Started off with “earn money, have fun” morphing to “it’s all about the opportunity” once the fallacy of earning a living was actually pointed out and illustrated. Because most of the benefits are bullshit, the reasoning has to change, in order to pitch the service to young designers who haven’t read much beyond the hype on these sites, as well as the business blogs that support them (usually with affiliate links to get their cut.)

This turn of events was always inevitable – it’s impossible to compete with free labor and companies generally push envelopes when they obtain anything resembling a major toehold. I’d go one step further and suggest that crowdsourcing sites have won the spec/anti-spec argument already. I’d also argue that not all change is good. For example, I had to monitor blog posts for comments, the result of another “tragedy of the commons”; comment spammers polluting a great deal of the internet in yet another example of the exercising of ‘free choice’. My e-mail account is similarly burdened and abused by people who think spam is ‘inevitable’ and a ‘way to prosper’.

I lost that argument too.

In terms of embracing ‘change’, I’ve always been pretty pragmatic when it comes to business, so If I honestly believed that a crowdsourcing service was good for designers, good for clients, good for the industry (and profitable to boot) I’d have set up my own logo design contest platform years ago, rather than blathering about it on some blog. I run a small design shop (and have so since 1996), staffed by people who have extensive backgrounds in design and online marketing, so converting my custom shop to a so-called design “crowdsourcing” platform would be a relatively easy transition. Accordingly, “if I were only weighing in on how it affects (ME)” and thought spec sites were a step forward, I’d have launched a logo design contest site years ago, and rather than debating with you on a blog, and arguing about people’s right, to work for free, for me.

Starting a design contest site.

Starting one of these sites is even cheaper now – $497 for a cloned 99designs script – so it’s not exactly an exclusive club. Most designers who participate, shuffle from one site to another, submitting the same designs on different sites for different projects because at the end of the day, most have no loyalty to one site or another. To clients or each other. Even the most rudimentary site boasts several thousand ‘creatives’ within days of launch.

And who knows. This may still be the inevitable change that I will have to embrace, if only to earn a living. That would be a sad day indeed, even though I’ll probably earn a less stressful, more profitable living than I do now. The designers that work for me now might not be so enthused at this ‘wonderful’ turn of events. And then they can bitch about me. And I can claim they’re trying to start an exclusive club to keep the inexperienced designers out. And I’ll call them ‘gatekeepers’. And just like I do today, they’ll wonder what the fuck I’m on about.


Just like Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.