For a long time when we thought of offshoring jobs, customer service call centers like the one in Slum Dog Millionaire came to mind. These jobs were easily commoditized because they relied on relatively unskilled labor following a script. Today as globalization has moved up the food chain, offshoring affects everything from accounting and IT to medical and legal services.
But what about skilled creative work? For several years offshoring of design work has taken the form of crowdsourcing sites like 99designs and DesignCrowd that pair designers and clients all over the world by running competitions where dozens of designs can be solicited for for only a few hundred dollars. Clients get to sample everything and award the job to the “winner” who gets paid a nominal fee and everybody else goes home empty handed.
Understandably critics from established design circles have pushed back hard. Back when these sites launched, around 2010, the design industry, already plagued with the practice of spec work, took their protest online with the NO!SPEC campaign, which fights for fair compensation for design work.
Yet is crowdsourcing, or even globalization the problem? The true scourge as NO!SPEC rightfully pointed out is the practice of speculative work where a designer is dedicating time and resources with no guarantee of payment. Would you expect that of a doctor or even an accountant? Do my taxes, and the person who gets me the best refund gets paid for the job. The internet, and global competition only magnify problems already entrenched in the design industry for years.
One such site, promises “heaps of designs” and encourages clients to solicit feedback from “friends and colleagues.”
And while crowdsourcing design companies like 99designs and DesignCrowd cite large corporate clients like ConAgra and Adidas as having commissioned work, these sites primarily are trading in the low to middle market where thousands of small businesses are seeking logos, t-shirts or web design. One such site, promises “heaps of designs” and encourages clients to solicit feedback from “friends and colleagues.” This tone deaf language would make any creative professional cringe, but it underscores that ultimately they view design as a commodity, a perception highly offensive to design professionals. It also trivializes the process of writing a brief, giving proper feedback and focusing on quality versus quantity.
Established designers on the higher end of the business need not lose too much sleep over this, nor will clients who take branding seriously and understand the role good design can play in driving business results, entertain the thought that they can solve complex and nuanced problems in a matter of days with this approach. It’s akin to finding matrimonial bliss through mail order brides. Yet it does hurt the general perception of the value of creative work and creates an unhealthy side show in an already competitive and difficult to break in field.
The internet or even crowdsourcing itself are not the enemy.
It’s hard to see these kinds of practices and trends going away anytime soon, but the internet or crowdsourcing trends are not the enemy here. When the change is guided by design professionals themselves, the results can be promising. Formed by Justin Gignac and Adam Tompkins two creative alums from the agency world, the social network platform Working Not Working carefully respects the creative professionals in its community by both curating a credible network of freelancers - membership is selective - and by making clients pay for access to the community. That’s it. Once you’re in you pay market day rates established by the freelancer to commission work.
Working Not Working’s client base tends to be industry savvy agencies and brands. Any client scratching their head about why they should pay to simply have access to a community when they could open up a firehose of logos for roughly the same dollars will probably not play. There’s an elegance to this that weeds out anybody looking for “heaps of designs” for a few hundred dollars, a fact not lost on the high caliber creative professionals who don’t want to waste their time with irksome clients.
Could this model refine itself and become a threat to agencies they serve down the road, where self forming teams emerge from the community to pair, say a creative director, designer and writer to collaborate on a project? Does any of this step on third rails? I personally don’t think so but it’s a healthy debate. Nor do I think global competition hurts the design industry. There’s something fresh about working with a developer in Germany or a designer in Singapore and the multi-cultural impact that this has on design in general, provided the rules of engagement are fair and the compensation reflects the value of the work.
The real problem here is that you see rampant in all the creative professions including music and literature is the perception that the work is a frivolous expression of an individual who somehow wants to share it with the world, and that exposure is fair enough compensation. Creative work is like any other work. It is earned. Just because the artists who chose to go down this path actually like what they do, it’s no excuse for exploitative models to perpetuate the idea of speculative work.
Related Posts (both pro and con).