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What's the harm…?

AIGA [Extreme Detail]

AIGA have long fought the good fight against crowdsourcing, clearly articulating the very real issues that plague the ‘winner takes all’ (‘and the losers don’t get paid’) approach to sourcing design by subcontracting it to the masses, whereby countless hours of needless, generic work are wasted.

Richard Grefe’s recent article for the Institute, What’s the harm in crowdsourcing?, continues this theme and it’s well worth reading (if only to awaken yourself to the fact that government agencies the world over – in many cases the very same agencies that promise the creative industries will save us – have unsurprisingly opted, in the face of relentless economic constraint, to pitch for the lowest common design denominator).

Grefe states:

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s use of crowdsourcing to design a logo … is simply the most recent highly visible example of a practice that we can expect to see more and more often. While those against crowdsourcing believe it undermines the value designers can provide a client through a thoughtful engagement, those who embrace it consider it an effective new marketplace.

Grefe’s analysis is a worryingly accurate assessment and one can almost hear the enthusiastic chorus of agency commissioners: “This, truly, is an effective new marketplace!”

Few would doubt Grefe’s conclusion that the crowdsourcing phenomenon is one we can expect to see more and more often as we embark down a road of long term road of economic uncertainty.

The challenge we face as designers is to articulate the value of a meaningful exchange between the client, expressing their needs, and the designer, understanding those needs and – critically – interpreting those needs (and, occasionally, identifying alternative, better-informed needs the client may never have even considered).

This exchange – one that is intensely personal and one that is fundamentally based upon a close working relationship between the client and designer – is critical, if the design process is to deliver more than simply an end product, devoid of strategic thinking.

Identifying design outcomes can, more often than not, stem from relationships developed between client and designer, where a designer grows from a position of understanding to deliver a campaign that reflects the clients’, often vaguely defined, needs.

The result? Both client and designer are happy.

The journey, when embarked upon with an open mind (on both sides), can often deliver far more than the initial brief dictated. The designer grows, but equally, the client grows. The result is often a team. A commisioner and realiser who, when working together and growing a partnership, can achieve a great deal. Much more than the simple, short-term, lowest common denominator form of transaction that crowdwsourcing suggests.

Where great design works the client and designer form a close bond, with a clear understanding and mutual respect emerging. As Grefe adeptly summarises:

For the designer, crowdsourcing demonstrates a lack of respect for the value of design’s full potential and places the lowest, rather than the highest, value on design services. However, it is important for designers to understand that it is not the practice of design that is being treated as a commodity but the design artifact, because most of those utilising crowdsourcing have no idea about the process of design or its potential contribution to positioning and strategy.

The emphasis on process is critical if we are to persuade clients – who let’s face it, are pressed in economically challenging times – to understand the real benefits of design.

When a partnership between client and designer works it’s about much more that simply, “I need X designed.” It often involves the designer offering strategic direction and giving guidance, based upon their accumulated experience and specialist knowledge.

The problem with crowdsourcing - and it’s a problem we need to articulate as designers - is that it reduces what is, in reality a complex relationship, to one that is fundamentally simplistic and focused only on the outcome. The reality is that design is much more complex and is less easily compartmentalised. When a partnership between client and designer works, its boundaries are often blurred, with the designer delivering much, much more than what was initially asked for.

At its most valuable, design is a process, not an end result. Where crowdsourcing is fundamentally flawed is in the perception it conjures that the design is an end product only. As designers, with much, much more to offer when working with clients, it’s our responsibility to articulate this clearly.

Focusing on telling that story will, in all likelihood, go some way towards dispelling the myth that crowdsourcing is the low cost panacea it’s often portrayed as being.

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