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While some of the initial uproar may have died down, the topic of crowdsourced design continues to be a lightning rod issue for the industry. Recently, one of the largest design crowdsourcing sites, 99designs held a contest for their own homepage redesign, presenting an opportunity to revisit the controversial topic. I spoke with Patrick Llewellyn, CEO, 99designs and Debbie Millman, President of the design division at Sterling Brands and President Emeritus of AIGA, the largest professional association for design, to get their differing perspectives on crowdsourcing for our readers and see what (if anything) has changed.

plewellyn-headshot.jpgIn preparing to interview Llewellyn about crowdsourcing in general and the contest specifically it was interesting to learn that the company has dedicated design staff which prompted my first question, “Given that 99designs has it’s own in-house design team, why put the homepage redesign out as a contest?” Llewellyn’s response was twofold, citing the “finite resources” of 99designs staff who are busy with other work but also explaining that “we love doing community style contests” that offer the 99designs community “new things to get them involved and engaged.” He went on to describe the circumstance as generally being a “nice convergence” of 99designs wanting a site refresh and another way to encourage community participation.

The idea of contests being fun and an opportunity for designers to engage in a sort of friendly competition was a recurrent one during my interview with Llewellyn along with the idea of providing mutual access for designers and clients. In response to a question regarding the makeup of the four-judge panel he replied that he thought having a guest panelist was another “great way” to build community excitement and involvement. “Why do you participate in design contests?… To win, get great feedback and develop skills.” Comments from some of the site’s 158,000 registered designers specifically citing competition and fun in addition to client aggregation as part of the site’s appeal, speak directly to his point.

This idea was put to the test when I asked Llewellyn “What are the benefits of a site like 99designs for designers?” To which he replied “Freelancers, students who are learning… what’s the hardest thing about being self employed? Getting customers and getting paid. With 99designs all the work is in one spot, there’s a condensed time frame and designers know they’ll receive prompt payment anywhere in the world.”

He proceeded to describe a hypothetical example of a designer “looking to gain experience, [who] loves design and hates business development, who maybe can’t or doesn’t want to leave the house, or lives in an area with no access to small business” using 99designs to get new clients, noting that 99designs has paid out almost $1.5 million a month to winning designers and that some have built such a large following that they no longer have time for contests.

One designer profiled on the 99designs blog, Arnesia Yada describes how “after a few wins and a few ongoing relationships with clients, we quit our job to be freelance graphic designers.”

When I pointed out that contests on the site such as the SXSW T-Shirt drew over 658 entries for a promised $589 pay out (which comes out to approximately $1.11 per design) and asked the number of designs submitted in relation to those $1.5 million dollar pay outs, he did not have hard data immediately at hand but stated that “higher profile contests will draw thousands of designers who want to be associated with a particular brand” and continued to say “there is an opportunity cost associated with designing and finding business.” A company fact sheet sent in follow up indicated the average number of design entries per contest as 110.

But even if there were only a dozen entries per contest, if each entry takes at a minimum of 4 hours of design work that means that contest holders are only paying for 4 out of 48 hours. That leaves 46 hours of unpaid work on the table. To date, 99designs own homepage redesign contest has received 407 entries from 123 designers.

I asked about the additional potential risk of designers having their work poached Llewellyn conceded that I had “raised a point’ but said that 99designs was a “great self-policing community” and that this was a “risk for any freelance designer.” The cost/benefit of that risk and whether or not it is equivalent to other forms of self-promotion and business development remains open to debate.

Given the contrast between the community-empowering tone of Llewellyn’s responses and the criticism crowdsourcing has received my question, “What has 99designs done to help support the professional integrity of the design community?” was a chance for Llewellyn to speak directly to critics.

Llewellyn pointed to specific efforts such as shortlisting the review process, trying to get customers to refine who they want to work with faster, a one-to-one invoicing tool, and active efforts to encourage continuing client/designer relationships by encouraging contest holders to reach out to previous contest winners before starting a new contest.

He went on to note that 30-40% of all projects lead to ongoing work and stated “we support that as a pay off to risk, to create a meaningful relationship.” Llewellyn went on to add that [99designs] made design accessible to a whole other breed of customer who wouldn’t have engaged with a designer in the first place,” likening 99designs crowdsourcing model as akin to the stock photography market.

An important distinction to be made is that with stock photography, photographers are paid per image download, which led me to my next question. If access, exposure and community were really at 99designs’ core then “Would they consider changing the contest structure so that compensation for every design entry was built into their pricing model, similar to the publishing industry’s “kill fee” concept?”

Admittedly this would probably require a cap on the number of participants per contest. But it could also have the beneficial effect of helping focus clients on a given design style or direction while making entries more competitive, potentially raising the level of design submitted. Llewellyn wasn’t at liberty to go into great detail but did say “We’re at the beginning of a bunch of exciting things… and looking at ways to analyze and reward designer participation across the board.” Llewellyn stressed that “this is not a race to the bottom” adding that the average price offered for contests has doubled and the value for work has increased.

debbie-millman-headshot1.pngBefore you go all warm and fuzzy on crowdsourcing you may want to read on. It took only one question “What do you think of the idea that crowdsourcing sites benefit designers by providing greater access for designers and clients?” for industry leader Debbie Millman to get to the heart of the case against crowdsourced design—“I think that’s absolutely ridiculous” she replied “there’s already access, it’s called the internet.” Millman, a long time vocal opponent of spec work and by extension crowdsourced design elaborated on her point explaining, “If they really wanted to provide access they could host a portfolio site. Portfolios are what give [potential clients] a sense of what people can do. It’s not about access; it’s about abuse of power. At the end of the day they [crowd source businesses] get paid and clients get a plethora of design options for free, how is that fair?”

Moreover, Millman noted that in addition to portfolios, clients can get an idea of the type of work a designer would provide through proposals outlining the type of work and approach the designer would take, not by “doing work and not getting paid for it.” More to the point she said “Would you go into a department store try on a pair of shoes, walk out with them and say you were only going to pay for them if you liked them?” and asked “In what other industry is there an expectation of getting work for free.”

In response to the assertion that crowdsourcing was a means for students and young designers to build experience and clientele, Millman recommended other avenues such as creating self-generated work, doing pro bono work for an organization and volunteering. When I asked her specifically about business development and ways to get new customers she straightforwardly replied, “Call them” and said, “When I was a young designer I called anyone I could and showed them my portfolio.” She also advised creating “the portfolio you want to create.”

Giving her thoughts on crowdsourcing in general she stated, “When people are willing to do work for free it becomes very demoralizing,” she continued, rhetorically asking, “How many millions of dollars in free work is being given away?”

Lastly, I asked Millman if she thought that crowdsourcing was symptomatic of a larger issue of commoditization and/or lack of respect for design. Millman firmly replied “No” that it was more an example of “bad behavior in business” and in fact, there is a “tremendous amount of respect and awareness of design right now.”

Although AIGA, the professional association for design is officially against spec work (which includes crowdsourced design) and many in the industry oppose it, ultimately it is up to each individual designer and/or agency to decide for themselves. Although this article attempts to present multiple sides of the issue to aide in that decision and continued dialog on the topic, it is by no means exhaustive.

To read more of Debbie Millman’s thoughts on the issue:

For more from Patrick Llewellyn and in support of crowdsourcing:

Finally, we want to hear your thoughts on the issue. What do you think of crowdsourcing and other types of spec work? Have you participated in design contest? What was your experience?

Poll Question

Post a comment and let us know what you think.

FYI – This poll closes at midnight Pacific Time on May 27th. The results of the poll will remain hidden until then so we can reveal the results in a follow up post early next week! Thanks for voting and all your comments!