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The trend that's revolutionizing digital creative

The trend that's revolutionizing digital creative Doug Schumacher

A few months ago, a small startup from Australia pulled in $35 million in VC funding for creating a workflow process to crowdsource what many agencies and design shops survive on. For anyone not familiar with crowdsourcing, here's the Wikipedia link.

The company is 99designs.com, and it's crowdsourcing the design process. Logos, web pages, business cards, you name it. Clients post a project -- it takes about 10 minutes -- and members of 99designs' database of 5,000 plus designers will submit their designs over the next week. It's a winner-take-all game and the fees start around $200 for a logo.

Sound potentially disruptive? It sure does to me. And as you might expect, when the story of their funding hit the press, some of the conversations blew up. Understandably, designers are concerned.

Why I tried it
While the news of 99design's funding initiated a lot of conversation around crowdsourcing, the practice has actually been around in various forms for a number of years. But the combination of a major crowdsourcing tool coming to the design world in addition to the company getting $35 million in funding for a pretty simple site structure was enough for me to take a closer look.

But the decision wasn't without a little anxiety over what crowdsourcing can do to just about any creative process. I've spent over 20 years making a living coming up with creative solutions to business problems. Many of my friends are in the same business. When sites like elancer.com started popping up, it was easy to say, "Well, that's coders dealing with ones and zeroes. With creative jobs, it's different."

Or is it?

After all, ideas are perhaps the easiest forms of data to exchange. Entire ad campaigns can be presented as a written paragraph with some visual references. For visual projects like design, you could argue the language issue isn't nearly as problematic.

Even the argument of cultural relevance is shrinking amid an increasingly connected world.

Seeing the potential for very big industry disruption, I decided to do what I've been recommending clients do when facing down a similar change in their industry's way of doing things. Get first-hand experience. One of the best ways to deal with change is by becoming more familiar with the source of that change.

My crowdsourcing project
In searching for the right project to try crowdsourcing on, I decided to use it for a logo for Zuum, a Facebook Page strategy tool I'm launching with a developer. There were several key factors in that decision.

One is that the logo is for a personal project, and I knew we had a certain amount of flexibility in case the crowdsourcing didn't pan out. Given that I really didn't know what I'd be getting for design results, that was key.

Another factor was that I had a clear idea of what we were looking for. I liked that you could write "Zuum" without picking your pen up from the paper, and that fluidity is something I wanted incorporated into the design

Related to that, we knew we wanted a word mark -- a way of handling the text in "Zuum" so that the design elements would be the word itself.

We also had a specific color palette in mind, which eliminated a lot of potential exploration, and would allow us to focus specifically on the word mark style.

Also, we launched Zuum with the idea of getting a working model up, and making tweaks as we gathered early user feedback. We decided that we would also apply that approach to the site design, and even the logo if needed.

Lastly, I have quite a lot of experience writing creative briefs and communicating with designers, sometimes working with people half way around the world.

The crowdsourcing work process
Before I get into the workflow process, keep in mind this is the only creative crowdsourcing system I've used. Given their funding and base of 5,000 plus designers at 99designs, I was confident it would be a representative crowdsourcing experience.

Sign up is easy, and within minutes you're already into the Creative Brief. As I mentioned, I think my familiarity with this part of the process helped considerably. The site does a good job getting to the core of what creative briefs are about, using a slider process to guide the novice brief writer through the key emotional drivers they'd like the logo to convey. You could argue that this is taking sandpaper to a very nuanced process, and I'd agree, adding that I think that's necessary to ensure that users with little brief-writing experience can get through it.

One other key option is the dollar amount for your contest. The site suggests prices of $195, $295, and $495, with the number of expected designs you'll get back for each being 25, 40 and 80 respectively.

Standard project duration is one week, but that can be accelerated for additional fees. Lastly, they've recently added new ways to add visibility to your project, again, for some small but additional costs.

One of the big challenges with any creative project is managing the review process. As any creative director can attest, having designs come in from 20 different designers, each needing feedback, can be daunting.

99designs has handled this issue well with a Basecamp-simple project management system. This is a central part of the offering, and if you're looking into crowdsourcing, don't underestimate how much the tool UX will impact your time requirements and the quality of submissions.

Once the project is in play, the site is easy-enough to use.

Probably the biggest adjustment for me is that as a creative director, I'm accustomed to knowing a lot more about my designer's styles and strengths, as well as having a strong collaborative effort throughout the project. Crowdsourcing changes both of those considerably. There's collaboration to a point, but part of the challenge in that is you don't have much of an idea about their background, or even how well they speak English (which unfortunately is all I'd be comfortable writing in.)

The results
Within a couple hours of posting the project, we had our first designs roll in. They weren't anything close to what I was looking for, and when nothing else showed up for the first day, I was worried it was going to be a bust.

But more designs came in, and as I started to give feedback on them, the submissions increased. In total, we ended up with over 60 logos to review. As you'd probably guess, there was a broad selection. Some seemed to be people with a bunch of fonts just putting things up. Others were far more serious efforts.

We chose the winning design based on both how it connected all the letters in a single flow, and also had a good sense of action to it.

Probably the most questionable call was not going with a more legible version. We did look at reducing and eliminating the connectors between each letter. But in the end, when we put this up against logos from other brands in our industry, we liked that it both stood out and had a modern, active feel to it.

Crowdsourcing: Is it right for you?
I ended up more than satisfied with the results of our crowdsourcing project. Then again, I think I had reasonable expectations, and a lot of experience working with designers.

I still see enormous value in working with talented designers who really understand the creative process, and know that achieving great design can be an iterative process requiring both sides to have vision and taste. And I don't see that going away, any more than needle drop music will replace top music artists. The exploration that's key to so many creative projects is not the same in crowdsourcing. Of course, the project only lasted one week, as well.

If you're contemplating crowdsourcing, I can say that having experience communicating with designers is not to be underestimated in terms of getting the results you want. If you're not familiar with that, this could leave you with the same frustration as trying to communicate with someone when you don't speak their language.

Perhaps ironically, I could see crowdsourcing being used more by agencies and design shops than large clients. It could be a way to give a project a kickstart by having a number of designs come in early in the process. I can also see this working for small businesses that aren't as particular about details of their logo.

One thing I am sure of is that crowdsourcing is here to stay. Creative development has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past twenty years, as tools have gotten into the hands of people around the world. And now that those global designers are also online, sites like 99designs are organizing and connecting them with paying clients.

Sites like Demand Media, iStockPhoto, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk have already turned creative processes into relatively low cost mass productions, often generating content that only a few years ago would have cost 100 times more. So our industry has certainly been shown the warning signs.

No matter what aspect of the creative process you're in, it will always be to your advantage to know as much about alternate business models as you can. What other people can deliver for how much. I believe good creative can still return enormous value, even at top industry rates.

But the fact is there are more people able to do creative work than ever before. And every year introduces more of them to the creative talent pool. More people means more competition. If you've been in this business more than five minutes, you've no doubt seen a fair amount of change already. There's no reason to think that trend is going to stop.

Doug Schumacher is president and creative director at Basement Inc.

On Twitter? Follow Schumacher at @MemeRunner. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Doug Schumacher is the co-founder of social media content strategy tool Zuum. Zuum reveals a number of key insights into what type of social media content will generate maximum impact for a given industry. His interactive career began in 1996...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Dustin Woehrmann

2011, August 22

Hey Doug,
One thing I was thinking about as I read your article... if you were to use a crowdsourcing service strictly for first round brainstorming ideas (which as a small firm could be a great way to kick off a new project), would there be a possibility of the client finding that out? And if so, and you were confronted, how would you handle that?

Commenter: Frank Fenten

2011, July 17

Assume I am a professional design freelancer, why would I submit a design? It's the money right? We all have bills to pay. Ok, so let's see how that pans out. Purely by the numbers, I must submit an average of 20 designs to have one chosen that pays me $195. If each logo design takes a minimum of 30 minutes to do, along with 30 minutes to upload, write up, possibly answer some questions and so on. That yields me just under $10 an hour. Woohooo! Book me a flight lulu, I'm going to VEGAS! And those numbers get worse for the 'higher paying' gigs. Ah, but, a better designer will beat those odds and get more money. Some may. But good design is subjective and the client may not have any sense of good design either, so you can't predict the numbers without investing quite a lot of time and effort into it. I'm sure some SME clients will love it, but it will either put a lot of design shops out of business, or, possibly more likely, you'll get a small pool of designers who make it pay (mostly students, I'd guess) but most of them wouldn't touch it with a bargepole.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2011, July 13

@Anand You bring up a valid point. The issue of trademark infringement is certainly a potential issue. However, I think that's true for all logo designs, not just crowdsourcing. I don't believe the majority of small business logo designs include trademark research. So real issue? Yes. But I don't think it's just a crowdsourcing issue.

Commenter: Anand Mani

2011, July 12

The issue with crowdsourced design is that, typically, no research is done to see if the logo has been done before and is covered under someone else's trademark. Given that 99Designs boasts that one of their "designers" is an 11 year-old child, I cannot imagine that they do their due diligence on trademarks and copyrighted work. It's very likely that some of the readers of this article will save money on the design only to make it up and then some in legal fees.

Commenter: Steve Chapman

2011, July 12

Doug - After reading this article I started looking for other references to 99Designs. I found an entire Google category under 99Designs Scam. The following was a blog entry from Mixgery from someone who knows the law and was very upset. Before you use your forum to promote something like 99Designs you may want to do some research. Your logo does not belong to you! Posted by - Peter McClean (2 years ago) WOW - you are all SO ignorant!! Without a proper judging panel, proper contest rules, nor proper "alternate means of entry", which EVERY real contest must have in order to even be LEGAL in this country, these "contests" are not really contests at all, merely underhanded attempts to rip off naive artists. Although 99Designs is an Australian-based company, they are hosted right here in the US, and they are also conducting business right here in the US, therefore they MUST comply with US laws. Allow me to elaborate on this, and also to educate you in some basics of copyright law in the USA... What 99Designs is doing is not only illegal in the USA, it is highly unethical as well. First of all, they state that, "After the prize is paid in full, the ownership lies with the contest holder which is royalty-free and irrevocable.", which is absolutely LUDICROUS!!! There are ONLY nine categories (as enumerated clearly in copyright law) by which works can even be considered eligible to be work-for-hire. These "contests" (and again, I say this loosely, since they do not have a proper judging panel, proper contest rules, nor proper "alternate means of entry", which EVERY real contest must have in order to even be LEGAL in this country) fall into NONE of these nine categories, so what this company is REALLY doing here is ripping off young designers fresh out of school who are too green to know their rights. They are simply skirting both labor and copyright laws, and attempting to steal intellectual property from others. Slavery was outlawed in this country long ago. Let me elaborate... even IF these people were on-site employees of 99Designs, 99Designs would not get any rights to their works if they were not at least paying them the federally established minimum hourly wage, right? RIGHT. So why on earth, when these artists are NOT employees of 99Designs, and they are NOT being fairly paid, would 99Designs possibly think for a moment that they could own (or transfer the right to own) these artists' works? If someone is not your employee, and they perform work off-site, on their own equipment, on their own software, paying for their own electricity, receiving no benefits of any kind whatsoever from your company, and said work results in the creation of intellectual properties, then for those properties to even be ELIGIBLE to be considered work-for-hire they MUST fall into one of the following NINE (and ONLY nine) categories, as enumerated clearly in copyright law. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1) A contribution to a collective work (such as a magazine, newspaper, encyclopedia, or anthology). 2) A contribution used as part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work. 3) A supplementary work, which includes pictorial illustrations, maps, and charts, done to supplement a work done by another author. 4) A compilation (new arrangement of pre-existing works). 5) A translation. 6) An atlas. 7) A test. 8) Answer material for a test. 9) An instructional text (defined as a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Works that fall outside of these nine categories (like LOGO DESIGNS!!) are CLEARLY ineligible to be work for hire, even with a signed contract. Just because 99Designs has tricked some artists into signing away their rights doesn't mean that it's legal to do so, or that their contracts are binding. 99Designs needs to realize that you can not bend and interpret the law to suit your needs. Law is law, and any wrongdoing WILL catch up with you eventually. (think Napster, The Pirate Bay, Jack Kevorkian, etc...) A contract by very definition MUST be inure to the benefit of BOTH parties. Otherwise, by law, it MUST be construed as a waiver. Also, if you will read through the blog postings for 99Designs, which can be accessed right from their website, many artists who have fallen for their scam never even receive the measly well-under-market-value pittance amounts that they were promised after the close of one of these "contests". I have read postings from several artists who have already been waiting well over six months to be paid for their works. This is completely unacceptable, not to mention illegal. -END-