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Regarding Crowdsourcing

May 1, 2009


Crowdsourcing is a relatively new business tactic which seems to be causing quite a stir in the design community.  It was first brought to my attention in the graduate mechanical engineering design class I took last fall at Georiga Tech.  What is crowdsourcing?  Crowdsourcing is one way that businesses can “buy creativity.”  Instead of employing “designers” (who are essentially selling creativity), the business gathers a large group of people together (or just relies on the internet and self-motivation for the people to come to them–not a bad way to recruit in the first place) and presents the group with the same problem which would have been presented to the designer.  Not surprisingly, a group of people with diverse backgrounds can deliver a large number of ideas from which a business can sometimes cull a game-changing solution to a problem which needs solving.

It seems that crowdsourcing would not be able to fill the role of technical jobs which require highly specialized knowledge (the crowd, large as it may be, would likely not have the specific knowledge of a highly trained technician or professional.  unless the crowd is so large that it contains the person with the technical talent–behold the internet and job search engines.).  However, crowdsourcing does seem to be generating a lot of value for businesses, wherever fresh insights and innovation are required (a large group of people, with a diversity of backgrounds and ideas, could potentially produce a better solution to a problem than a small group of so-called “design experts.”).

In other words: this business tactic has big implications for the future of design firms.

In poking around the internet to find information on and to discover reactions to this new business tactic, the reaction from the design community seems to be mixed (i.e., from my short survey of articles, blogs, and comments from individual designers on this topic–check out some of the comments on that Wired article!).  Some people are ambivalent.  Some people are vehemently opposed to it.  I say: embrace it!



Myself, I come down firmly on the side of: “crowdsourcing is a good thing.”  I have several rebuttals and criticisms for the critics of this business tactic.

1.  Criticising crowdsourcing for “watering down” or for “dumbing down” design quality (which really is what some critics are saying crowdsourcing does) is a faulty argument.  Designers, of all the professionals in the business world, should understand that the purpose of their innovative work must be directed towards identifying and answering the values of the customer (myself, I discussed this topic–the ethics of design–in this essay).  The consumer is the ultimate judge of the value of design work.  If the quality-for-cost tradeoff which the consumer gains out of relying on crowdsourcing is valuable to him, then crowdsourcing is an entirely valid means to “purchase creativity.”  And, more importantly for the future of the design industry: professional design firms must recognize that they must deliver equivalently better creativity and services for their fees, or risk business extinction.

2.  Fear of paycheck loss and medieval guild protectionism seems to be rampant among crowdsourcing critics.  Designers who complain under the first point seem to believe that the work of “design” should be restricted solely to those who have earned, in some mystical way, the title of ‘Designer.’  “Surely the plebeian crowds are incapable of crafting finer work than WE, The Members of the Supreme Design Union (members ONLY!)?”  This guild-like protectionism reeks of “anointed privelege.”  As if the work of design–a fun and wonderful activity to engage in–should be denied to the crowds who can potentially engage in it through this business tactic.

3.  Finally, I simply find it ironic that designers, of all people, are complaining that crowdsourcing is a “problem.”  Designers are supposed to be the people who create solutions for problems–and are not the people who should respond to a ‘problem’ such as this by pouting.  A good designer finds motivation and inspiration for creativity in any problem which he or she confronts–and innovates their way to a solution.   Feeling threatened by crowdsourcing?  Well, it’s time to get motivated and prove your worth!  Innovate, create, deliver, and advertise more of your great work, and prove that the fees which you demand for your creativity and services are worth the cost to your customer.  Competition is never a bad thing.  Members of the design community should not react with petulance to this new and competitive entry into the field, but view it as a motivating challenge through which we will be able to further justify and deliver value to our customers.



I think there are exciting implications for crowdsourcing, with respect to hiring and human resources.  Even though crowdsourcing seems to lend support to the concept of “the wisdom of crowds,” it would be false to say that “crowds have wisdom.”  A crowd is just a group of individuals and all the ideas which can stem from this crowd must, ulimately, come from the minds of the individuals in that group.  Even when specific features of the concepts presented by the individuals are recombined in a group-work setting (to create a result which was better than the individuals could have created alone)–the starting ideas still had to come from the individuals in the group

Crowdsourcing itself could be the technique which could enable testing for creativity…  If a certain crowd were exposed to a number of various problems which require innovation for solution, from a wide range of disciplines (such as product design, graphic design, business decision, route planning, etc.), the response of the crowd’s individuals to these problems could help suggest which of the individuals have the most creativity.  Perhaps it would become apparent that certain people would emerge as the “leading lights” of the crowd, with respect to the ability to be creative.  Alternatively, if you were only interested in discovering creative talent with respect to one discipline (such as graphic design), the individuals could be presented with a number of different problems which only stem from that discipline.  Now, if this same battery of tests were performed on multiple sets of crowds, perhaps a group of the “highly creative” could be culled out of the crowds–and then employed as a team of “creative experts.”  Here are my initial thoughts on how I might devise each of these tests:

1.  Present the problems to the individuals who will comprise the “crowd.”  As stated earlier, they should be from a wide range of fields: from product design, graphic design, business etc…  And all the problems should require innovation in order to reach a solution. 

2.  Give the individuals a pad of paper and/or computer so that they can jot down solutions which come to mind for the different projects–and they must work independantly to create these solutions.  This first step, I believe, is critically important: ideas can only arise from the minds of individuals, and thus the individuals of the “crowd” must work seperately initially to create solutions to the problem on their own.  This also gives the individuals the time to develop ideas in the noncompetitive environment of working alone–conflicts of personality and shyness will not hinder ideation at this point.  Importantly, I think they need to come up with clear justifications for why they came up with the concepts they developed (the reason for this becomes clear in the next step).

3.  Bring the “crowd” back together–and then each individual must present their ideas (and use the concept justifications presented earlier to explain their reasoning to the crowd!).  Fear of public speaking is highly prevalent in our society, and it is important that the participants not be aware of the necessity of the presentation of their ideas before this step–this could stifle creativity and cause them to pull back from presenting ideas which they might feel the group members would call them “crazy for coming up with.”  But, during their presentation, the participants must be made as comfortable as possible in order to not hinder the presentation of their ideas–small groups perhaps?  The fear of public speaking also has implications for the logistics of performing steps (1) and (2) of this process…  It may be worth considering not even having the study participants aware of each other in the first two steps–present the problem to them individually, not as a group, and have them work on ideation in separate rooms entirely.

4.  At this point, one of two things could occur.  The first would be, “the customer” could step in to select the idea which he considers to be “the best idea,” or work with the group to combine those elements of the different designs which he thinks would make up the best solution.  The other option would be to allow the group to debate their ideas, combine concept features as a group, and then present their solution to the customer.  I think the former option would be best…  Since the customer is whom the design process must serve, his participation, as early as possible in the design process, would ensure value generation as early as possible.

5.  Post-study analysis of these group studies could be performed in several ways.  Video of each individual’s presentation of their concepts to the group could be useful, and so could video of the debates which led to the final design.  Also, collection of the “design notes” made by the individuals when they worked alone would be a must.  Quantifying how much of each individual’s ideas made it into the “final design” may be tricky, but it may also be the case that, even when problems are spread across different disciplines (product design, graphic design, business), it might become readily evident that a few people in the group are the “leading lights” when it comes to coming up with creative solutions to problems.

This has wickedly interesting implications for hiring in industrial design firms.

– Justin Ketterer (A guy who not only is not yet employed by the design industry, but is graduating in August and is having to break into it from the outside, as an engineer-by-training.  Competition?  I say bring it, and I’m probably starting with a much lighter resume than you already have!  This blog is the practice of what I preached earlier: its purpose is to prove my ability and intense interest in mechanical design and engineering.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2009 6:26 pm

    Interesting article. I’m a graphic designer and generally think of crowdsourcing in regards to websites like 99Designs so I’m coming at this from a slightly different point of view from you. Although I typically feel that crowdsourcing graphic design isn’t a good thing for the customer or the designer, I think you’ve made some really good points and offer a slightly different point of view from what I’ve heard before.

    Point #3 in your critique of opposition to crowdsourcing is right on. You’re absolutely right. I’m a designer, if I don’t like crowdsourcing then I need to be letting my clients know why they should stick with me rather than go the crowdsourcing route. Crowdsourcing isn’t going to kill the design industry. There are still plenty of clients out there that understand the value that comes from hiring a designer or design firm. Honestly, I’m guessing that many of the people that are having design work crowdsourced are the type of people that I wouldn’t take on as a client because they don’t understand the value of design. And, as you point out, I have no one to blame but myself if I can’t make a case for why someone should hire me.

    I do take issue with one of your statements. You say “…Since the customer is whom the design process must serve.” I believe that both parties must be “served” or the process will die. Clearly there are designers being served by crowdsourcing (I might argue that they aren’t being served or compensated adequately but that’s for them to decide) or it wouldn’t be growing like it is, and it’s important to make sure that they continue to be served. Maybe a small point but I don’t think it’s inconsequential.

    • justinketterer permalink*
      May 1, 2009 7:49 pm


      Thanks for your comment! I understand where you are coming from when you mention “clients who don’t understand the value of design.” The surging popularity of crowdsourcing could represent business leadership’s belief that the creativity and skills of designers can be done by any old joe out there on the web. I suspect this is most likely due to a lack of business leadership’s understanding of how much more designers can and do accomplish beyond “makin’ it nice and pretty.”

      Perhaps the virulent anti-crowdsourcing reaction from some of the design community is partly due to an unecessary interpretation of this situation as a blow to their ego (“I’m not better than Average Joe Crowdsourcer?!”)–but I can sympathize with some of the anti-crowdsourcers statements that “Well, those business people just don’t understand how much value we add.” But like you and I agree: this means we designers need to communicate to business leadership WHY we add so much more value than Average Joe Crowdsourcer.

      What I can’t sympathize with is how most of the anti-crowdsourcers SAY it!

      Too often when I see detractors criticize crowdsourcing, I see them say something like, “No one understands my art and the world must be full of moronic rubes! There is a legion of fools who employ crowdsourcing, and these uncultured bumpkins fail to understand the value of my creative abilities!” This anti-crowdsourcing sentiment, if expressed to a potential client who is vacillating between crowdsourcing and contracting a professional designer, will quite likely win the designer a comparison to an emo highschooler, but most likely not win the client’s contract!

      I think it’s very likely that the average detractor DOES have abilities which can create more value for a customer than the average “crowdsourcing plebeian.” And it is THAT which the professional designers and graphic artists need to be hammering home to everyone who will listen, just like you said.

      This really is a grand opportunity for professional designers and graphic artists to not only refine their art to outcompete the “crowdsourcing plebeians” by an even greater distance, but also to sell themselves on the basis of how much MORE value their skills and services can accomplish for their clients. I think this will require clear communication with the customer, and a clear appeal to what they really want (and much less vitriolic denunciation of the crowdsourcing competitors). We may have a new player in the game, but I think the rules are still as they were and always will be: identifying and appealing to the customer’s values and answering them with our work :-)!

      Thanks again for commenting.

      – Justin Ketterer

  2. May 4, 2009 4:56 pm

    Really appreciate your article…very well thought out.

    Crowdsourced design, such as our service 99designs, definitely does stir emotions.
    We are very sensitive to the issue and do listen to the critiques of the design community.

    As far as 99designs is concerned…something that is often overlooked is that 50% of all the projects on 99designs lead to follow on work for the designer outside of 99designs.

    That’s pretty powerful and a tremendous value to designer and client alike and we will continue to evolve our service to maximize the value we provide to both sides of the equation.

    Thanks again.

    Jason Aiken

  3. justinketterer permalink*
    May 4, 2009 5:18 pm


    Thanks for commenting, and thanks for that “50% follow-on work” statistic, too! I had suspected that crowdsourcing sites such as 99designs were not only serving to increase design quality through open-bids, but are also helping to increase the overall volume of business which is able to be accomplished through follow-on work, too. Crowdsourcing sites are yet another very effective means for designers to “get their name out there”–and back their name up with a track record of quality work. Professional networking on steroids!

    It’s really exciting to see companies like yours operate. Imagine all the work which is able to be done now due to the service you provide, which could not have happened before! Keep up the good work, and thanks again for commenting.

    – Justin Ketterer

  4. May 5, 2009 11:13 pm

    I love this stuff, Justin. I don’t think anyone in business – particularly marketing, should get so high and mighty as to think they know better what the customer wants than the actual customer. Embracing the change toward crowdsourcing and finding ways to work (and capitalize) with it just may put some folks in a better position than others.

    I wonder if there’s a way to crowdsource together; as designer & customer. Let the customer help guide you as a designer and a marketer in the right direction. At my company, we learn the most when we actually spend time experiencing what our customer experiences right along side of them.

  5. May 6, 2009 4:43 pm

    ktroia, It’s not about the marketer knowing what the customer wants better than the customer, it’s about knowing how to help them get what they want. Obviously the customer know what they want but they need people to help them accomplish their goals.

    If I’m building a house I’ll tell the builder what I want and let them determine how to make that happen. I can specify that I want 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and even select a floor plan but I’m not going to tell them the type of wood to use or what nails will work best. They do what they do and I do what I do. I wouldn’t tell a doctor how to perform my surgery (I’m by no means putting myself on the same level with doctors 🙂 ).

    Your second paragraph is right on, working together is the way to get the best outcome. Crowdsourcing often leaves this part out and that’s the problem.

  6. May 18, 2009 3:23 am

    Hm, interesting…note however, crowdsourcing is about a lot more than design/creative, that’s just one, very specific area where crowdsourcing can be employed. It’s been used for everything from Search relevance testing to searching for lost people (or illegal immigrants on the Texas border).

    • justinketterer permalink*
      May 18, 2009 11:03 am

      Good point. I think it has enormous potential to expand into quite a bit more than where it’s currently most successful. I had thought it would be most successful and possibly even be restricted to non-technical roles too, but if you check out websites like Innocentive, some of their open-calls are pretty intensely technical projects. Many of the projects have to do with chemical engineering, for example. Wave of the future / Friedman’s Globalization 3.0?

  7. June 23, 2009 2:05 pm

    Very interesting analysis. I’m currently working on a project with a group of citizens in Alexandria, VA. We’re exploring crowdsourcing to identify and solve acute needs in the community. Would love your thoughts if you have a minute: thanks!


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