Crowdsourcing, by its very name, encourages a comparison to outsourcing. But when Wired first published the article that entered the term into the popular lexicon, it was far from clear whether the phenomenon would realize its disruptive potential. Three years later it seems increasingly obvious that it will. Aided by a new generation of sophisticated start-ups, ever cheaper creative tools, and — most of all — a recession that is forcing cost-saving measures on businesses, crowdsourcing is rapidly migrating from the fringe to the mainstream.
Witness the upheaval currently afflicting the design industry, sparked by the rise of so-called "spec design" sites like crowdSPRING and 99designs. On these sites customers post creative briefs directly to the community, which then competes to create a design that best fits the clients' needs. A typical "assignment" will draw dozens of submissions. The winner receives a nominal fee (as little as $200), and the client receives a logo or Website design at a fraction of what a professional agency might charge. The losers get zip, which goes a long way to explaining why working on spec (aka 'on speculation," or without guarantee of payment) has always been considered the work of last resort for writers, designers and other creative professionals.
So one might expect crowdSPRING and 99designs to wither away like so many other seemingly ill-conceived Web 2.0 start ups. Instead, they seem to be flourishing. 99designs says it has paid out over $4 million to its community of 30,000 artists, and crowdSPRING expects to be profitable by next year. The success of crowdsourced design has sparked a vibrant, highly emotional debate within the design industry. (The brouhaha will go live at SXSW next week, when I moderate a panel on the subject of spec work in design.)*
Alarmed by the popularity of the spec model, a group of designers formed a protest group called NO!SPEC to persuade their colleagues (and prospective clients) to just say no to design contests. Their effort has not been in vain. The trade group AIGA — composed of some 22,000 designers — has gone so far as to stake out an official position on spec-work: "AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project."
The controversy shifted into high gear last month after Forbes published an airy, one-sided look at crowdSPRING. In over 100 comments to the article one could read persuasive, articulate variations on a single theme: "Fuck you and crowdSPRING too." Several prominent design blogs posted their own jeremiads lambasting crowdSPRING. "Spec work has become a major force in devaluing the perception of graphic design in the business world," writes eyeCinq. "The folks that run these outfits have managed to figure out a way to get thousands of people — some skilled enough to earn a decent living — to work for them gratis. It’s an amazing sleight-of-hand," writes the logo factor.
It would seem that the squabble has united the design community against the barbarians at their gate. And that would seem to bode ill for the future health of the spec sites, right?
Don’t count on it. A similar debate was taking place in the stock photography world when we published “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” back in that bygone era of June 2006. The fact this debate has been largely settled — in favor of the barbarians — speaks volumes about where graphic design, and, for better or worse, most other creative fields, are heading.
I made this explicit comparison on my blog last August. The demand for low-end design has ballooned in recent years alongside the profusion of start-ups and small businesses. Conveniently enough, so has the supply of what we might call "low-end designers" (amateurs, recent grads and the like). According to Forbes there are 80,000 freelance designers in the US alone. Most of these are, proverbially speaking, waiting tables. When someone matches demand and supply, well that's kismet!
iStockphoto and other so-called "microstock" agencies capitalized on a similar disparity. The result was the total disruption of the $2 billion stock photo industry. iStock is now the third-largest purveyor of stock images, and some 96 percent of its "workforce" is comprised of amateurs. In my crowdsourcing book I posed the question of whether stock photography was an isolated case, or just the canary in the coal mine. It was an open question as of April 2008 when I submitted the final changes to my galleys. Now it ain't. The canary is prone, lying motionless on a bed of its own droppings. It looks like it's time to find another mine.
* Two of my co-panelists have written their own distinctive takes on the debate. Please check out Threadless.com's Jeffrey Kalmikoff on the spec debate, as well as Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang's advice to designers.