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Picking a firm from Sortfolio to redesign Signal vs. Noise. [Detail]

Earlier today 37signals’ Jason Fried posted a note to the company’s influential and well-travelled Signal vs. Noise blog, proposing that 37signals “eat its own dogfood”, as he put it, and choose a firm from Sortfolio to undertake the blog’s redesign. Fried stated:

It’s been too long since we redesigned this blog. Years and years. It’s time for a complete redesign. We thought it would be a good idea to eat our own dogfood and choose a firm from Sortfolio to do the redesign.

Sortfolio, one of 37signals many products is designed to match clients with potential designers or, as the company puts it, “Find the right web designer for your next project.” All good so far…

It might be argued that the firm’s decision to use its own service to source a designer is to be celebrated, however, a closer look at the budget and the conditions for entry make for a little less comfortable reading. To be eligible for the $8,500 project 37signals stipulated only designers with Pro accounts would be considered. A Pro account costs $99 a month. That’s $99 a month 37signals earns.

86 upgrades equals one new Signal vs. Noise design. Seen in those terms, with 37signals on both sides of the table - as client on the one hand; and as company potentially set to profit considerably from the project on the other hand - and the picture looks a little less rosy.

Within hours of Fried’s post announcing the project, Oliver Reichenstein of influential international design firm iA had tweeted:

37 signals pays you $8,500 to redesign their website. Every pitch participant needs to pay $99 to compete. Seriously. /via @jasonfried 1

Moments later, he’d followed up with:

Also, the winner of the Signal vs. Noise redesign campaign gets a free baseball cap and a VHS copy of this video: http://bit.ly/ahFVE 2

Clearly, with a series of tweets in swift succession, Reichenstein was surprised by the decision 37signals had reached and how it might be interpreted, adding:

Read it again to make sure that I get this right before nominating @37signals for the Stingy King Awards. 3

Stinging comments from a respected designer. Reichenstein’s comments were swiftly followed by another equally influential designer, Mark Boulton. Equally baffled, Boulton tweeted:

I don’t even know how to think about that. It’s like paying to play for bands. 4

And so it evolved, until Fried himself interjected, responding directly to Reichenstein:

Why don’t you call me on my office hours right now and we can talk about it. Let’s air it all out. 5

An offer which Reichenstein was swift to accept, curious to hear Fried’s reasoning. Every aspect of the conversation, however, had been played out in public.

There’s no question that 37signals, and Jason Fried, are extremely talented. Their products and their writing - both at Signal vs. Noise and in their books - are well thought through. They’re well known within the industry for their meticulous attention to detail. One can’t but help question the thinking here, however, and it will be interesting to see how the discussion evolves.

One thing is undoubted, the market is now a conversation, something presciently written about over a decade ago in The Cluetrain Manifesto, subtitled ‘The End of Business as Usual’. It’s a book that’s well worth rereading, or picking up for the first time if you haven’t read it (not least given the fact that it’s now available for free). In the context of the above its themes are pertinent. As Doc Searls and David Weinberger put it:

[The web] is a bazaar where customers look for wares, vendors spread goods for display, and people gather around topics that interest them. It is a conversation.

In this new place, every product you can name, from fashion to office supplies, can be discussed, argued over, researched, and bought as part of a vast conversation among the people interested in it.

These conversations are most often about value: the value of products and of the businesses that sell them. Not just prices, but the market currencies of reputation, location, position, and every other quality that is subject to rising or falling opinion.

Consumers, and in this case peers, are quick to air their thoughts in public and those thoughts - good or bad - can very quickly take hold.

In an age on instant - and very public - communication, every decision a company makes is open to scrutiny. The conversation can quickly get out of hand, potentially damaging a company’s reputation. Throw Twitter into the mix and the results are potentially volatile (good and bad).

No doubt the discussion will evolve as Reichenstein and Fried have the opportunity to discuss 37signals’ thinking. Both are frequent, and open, writers, it will be interesting to see the conclusions, if any, they reach.

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