The trend that's revolutionizing digital creative

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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, 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 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.



Dustin Woehrmann
Dustin Woehrmann August 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM

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?

Frank Fenten
Frank Fenten July 17, 2011 at 5:05 PM

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.

Doug Schumacher
Doug Schumacher July 13, 2011 at 4:47 PM

@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.

Anand Mani
Anand Mani July 12, 2011 at 5:18 PM

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.

Steve Chapman
Steve Chapman July 12, 2011 at 1:02 PM

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-