crowdSPRING: How the Internet Can Ruin the World While Smiling Sweetly

crowdSPRING ruins the world, but i can save it

Steve Dembo at teach42 posted about crowdSPRING, a site on which creative projects [logo, website design, etc.] are posted for all to see. Then designers, hobbyists and, as Dembo points out, students can respond to the ad with a design that may be chosen. In “Real World Art,” Dembo writes:

“The site is called CrowdSPRING and what’s amazing about it is that people aren’t competing to win a contract to create the logo/design, they’re actually going ahead and doing the work and hoping to be the one selected as the winner.”

Dembo sums up crowdSPRING better than they do. He goes on:

“At first I was just way impressed at the idea of the site, and that so many professional and amateur graphic designers were participating. Then i started wondering whether any student graphic designers were jumping into the game. After all, why not? If they enjoyed doing design work and wanted to practice in some real world situations, why not try their hand at some logos for real potential clients?”

I’m impressed by the idea, too, and a quick look at something from crowdSPRING’s project tab shows that range of hobbyist to professional. Imagine if Sunkist, who recently tweaked their logo, opened up a similar competition? Very cool possibilities.

Unfortunately, this stuff ruins the world.

First, the crowdSPRING model is a kissing cousin of spec work – and here’s why that’s bad. The professional association for design, AIGA, takes the following position on spec work and design competitions:

“… organizations sometimes initiate contests as a way of developing logos or other identity work. Unlike disciplines in which the designer can bill for implementation of the proposed design (e.g., architecture), in communication design, the submitted solution already represents the bulk of the intellectual work. AIGA encourages organizations to issue a request for proposals from qualified designers. This sample letter may also be sent by AIGA members to help educate organizations offering contests.

AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide.”

You can see how spec work and design competitions can weaken the sector – but that’s not the big issue here. Especially in education – for developing students’ interests in and capabilities with design – we need to look at the opportunity cost.

The solution is direct, local charity. Walk down the street and give away a design.

If a student researches a crowdSPRING design, mocks one up and submits, he misses out on developing most of the skills that make a designer successful. He’ll have a logo for his portfolio, but he’s not a better designer than he was the day before. That, and he hasn’t done much good in the world.

So how can a student interested in design make a bigger impact on his own development and on the world around him?

1. Identify a business or organization that could use your help. This isn’t hard – it’s fairly obvious who does and doesn’t need a bit of rebranding. Stroll down Main Street, pop in, introduce yourself and offer to do a logo/website design for free. No obligation, no payment necessary. Just ask that you can use the design in your portfolio.

2. Work with them on the design process. This is the skill that matters the most – dealing with the people behind the designs you’re creating. Find out what they want, what they need, and figure out how you can do it. There are loads of free resources that can guide you in that process. Here are a few:

The student learns how to communicate with a potential client and plan/execute project management. It doesn’t get much more relevant than that.

3. Ram home that you’re part of the community – then add to it. These small projects are great opportunities to connect with the people around you. Explain that you’re taking a design class at your high school or that you’re a local student looking to develop a small business in design. You’re part of the community, they’re part of the community. It’s a lot more valuable than an anonymous crowdSPRING design with no feedback process, no connections and no conversations.

Schools especially need all the help they can get with positive PR. Engaging taxpayers, parents, and/or business owners with the fruits of their school taxes – and a bit of promise that local youth aren’t leading their community to Hell in a handbasket – can have a tremendous effect on garnering support of a school’s endeavors.

This isn’t one of those 21st century skills – it’s just old-fashioned, 20th century charity that happens to use Photoshop.

If a business/organization uses crowdSPRING for its logo project and it takes each designer 3 hours to research, sketch and develop a suitable entry, 100 entrants nearly wastes 297 hours.

Hey, one guy’s time will be made worthwhile with his selection and a couple hundred dollars.

My model? 100 students/amateurs go through the design process, build their portfolios and develop professionally. 100 small businesses or charitable organizations get free, high-quality design. 100 schools districts get good PR and 100 communities grow a little.

crowdSPRING’s problem is opportunity cost. It’s a very cool idea, and their PRO section may work out well as a business model, but it’s far less helpful than it seems.

Their idea does nothing to prevent the erosion of communication and community. My model adds to both. You decide.

13 Responses to “crowdSPRING: How the Internet Can Ruin the World While Smiling Sweetly”

  1. Mike Samson says:

    Hi Matthew, and hello to everyone who is adding their thoughts on this topic.

    You have really articulated some nice ideas here, and we are actually pursuing something in a similar vein (go to our site later today and you will see a new initiative – the crowdSPRING “Give Back”).

    We do appreciate dialog on the subject and have spent a great deal of time considering the competing points of view about our model and the spec work question. While we obviously see things differently from some, we also recognize that our site and our model aren’t for everyone, and we do respect other opinions. That said, I think we owe more of a response than that. Feel free to keep reading if you’re interested…

    It’s certainly not our intention to devalue design or the outstanding job that talented designers do. In fact, just the opposite. Just as iStockPhoto has helped bring about a change in the industry, we’d like to do the same. They’ve opened the door to millions of people who previously had no way to get noticed in the creative community. These folks are more than willing to upload their work and hope that it gets chosen because, at the end of the day, it’s what they love doing – and that’s why they do it. It’s not for the money – it’s because (as all artists know) creative people can’t stop being creative and they look for any outlet they can.

    The same goes for Threadless, really. It’s a community of creatives who love to create. They upload their submissions with a hope of being chosen but, at the end of the day, knowing full well that only one will be selected. They do it because they love to be creative. The do it because it’s fun. They do it because they like to be a part of a community.

    We like to think that we’re following the path that these other models have blazed. Again, we know it won’t be for everyone. That’s OK. We understand that there are plenty of established creative professionals who are too busy or uninterested in participating – we respect that. However, for all of the established creative professionals who’ve made it, there’s a groundswell of untapped creative talent around the world just looking for a way to express themselves and get noticed. This is who we built crowdSPRING for.

    Thanks again for the conversation. We really do welcome it – and I just thought we owed it a more thoughtful response, instead of just a stock “yeah, thanks for your input”…


    Mike Samson

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for the response – I’m impressed with crowdSPRING’s willingness to engage as evidenced on Steve’s site and here.

    My response will be short, but it’s not meant to be dismissive. While I understand that crowdSPRING is meant to introduce designers to the creative community and to get them practice with real projects, as I wrote in my post, it’s more effective for the developing designer/hobbyist to hop down the street and add some value to his community.

    If I were a business or organization, though, I’d love the crowdSPRING model. 50 logo designs for free? Good Lord, what a deal!

  3. Colin says:

    no need for it to be mutually exclusive. You can do both. I see a lot of benefits to an online, open source community that the local, grassworks style design initiative fails to offer, or at least makes them orders of magnitude more difficult to realize. Networking, faster feedback from multiple sources, the chance to learn from professionals, etc etc.

    There’s an open source site relevant to my particular field, ASIC (application specific integrated circuits) design, called There, thousands of people, from professionals to novices, assist in designing high end circuitry, from CPUs to Ethernet controllers, and offer them for free. Yet the ASIC field isn’t being destroyed, it’s going as strong as ever. Is OpenCores ruining the world?

    Frankly, any objections to crowdSPRING or sites like it are akin to those crotchety remarks about how email destroyed the written letter. I can’t help but see it as a simple supply and demand issue. If a graphic designer complains he can’t find work because thousands of amateurs are uploading free designs that businesses deem worthy of use in their public branding, then his skills weren’t that valuable to begin with.

  4. Colin,

    I can see the potential in a community like you’ve described – at this point, from what I’ve see, crowdSPRING doesn’t do that. I may be wrong.

    It sounds like ASIC works the way open source software sites do with everyone working together on the same project or on complementary projects. That’s a great model – and again, I don’t see crowdSPRING doing it.

    I don’t mind objecting to crowdSPRING because I don’t see it as being like the ASIC site you mentioned or the open source sites with which I’m familiar. Could it become like those? Sure – and I hope it does.

    There are lots of examples of market saturation that has made high-quality providers work harder. Sometimes that’s natural and good; sometimes it degrades the sector. We see it now with internet-based writing. Solid writers have to compete with adequate writers who cost 10% as much. The cost/benefit leads sites to hire the low-end writers and overall quality suffers.

    Even though that’s what the market wants and it’s what the market gets, it’s unfortunate. That’s also an example where those high-end skills were valuable, they’ve just been replaced by the written equivalent of fast food.

    I don’t like artificial protections on sectors, trade, or anything else. I just think that in this case, everyone [except crowdSPRING] could be better served by a different model.

  5. Steve Dembo says:

    Ok, you took that in a completely different direction than I was anticipating. I thought you were going off on a Cult of the Amateur rant, but I do think you bring up an interesting model. However, I don’t think they’re exclusive. I like your idea, and definitely think it has merit.

    If a student researches a crowdSPRING design, mocks one up and submits, he misses out on developing most of the skills that make a designer successful. He’ll have a logo for his portfolio, but he’s not a better designer than he was the day before.”

    I beg to differ. He’s learned different skills. Based on my own experiences in the business world, I dare say that far more often designers are working off of written spec documents and interpreting things from there. Yes,conversations do take place, but the written specs seem to rule. The best designers I’ve seen are able to take the written specs, do some of their own research and then create one or several comps.

    Plus, with comments from the ‘buyer’, people can get feedback on the designs they’ve submitted, make changes, and then resubmit new versions.

    I’m not saying that this is the perfect model, nor that it is in the best interest of professional graphic designers who make a full time living this way.

    But I’m also not going to say that it’s ruining the world either ;)

  6. Steve,

    The Cult of the Amateur is a good way to describe what I think makes the United States such a historically-great country. I seldom thumb my nose at it.

    If a designer, or any other service provider, can create great stuff off simple, written specs, they’re going to do quite well. Interpreting instructions clearly and then generating something appropriate is certainly a prized skill. In this respect, crowdSPRING is a valuable resource for designers who need practice.

    And if that’s the most important practice for developing designers [or those learning any subject] needs, you’ve just made an argument for why we could cut about 80% of public school staff and school budgets.

    The reason I think the crowdSPRING model is such a problem is because of opportunity cost – I said it before, I’ll say it again. The opportunity cost is far too high. The value you described for crowdSPRING is available in 1,001 different places, most of which make better use of everyone’s time, effort and productivity.

  7. Drew says:

    Hey Matthew,
    this is a fascinating topic and you’re post has just added more layers to it. One of the co-founders of cS has an article on 37 signals explaining (at length) their perspective on the whole thing. It’s worth a read, especially the lively debate in the comments afterwards. Personally I’m leaning on the side of spec-is-evil, but having read that article and Mike Samson’s comment here, I’m more appreciative of what they’re getting at by providing this kind of service.

    One thing I’m curious about is the comparisons being made between cS and iStock, Threadless etc. I’m not sure the similarities carry through as one of the commentors on 37signals said, on iStock the artist has multiple opportunities to get 1 picture sold, whereas on cS you get 1 shot for that particular design. Even if you want to re-purpose the losing design for another project, you’re going to have to put more work into it. I wonder if there are other more relevant comparisons cS could use?
    Like I said it’s fascinating and I look forward to seeing how things shake out for them, by all accounts it looks like it’s a successful model for them.

  8. Sean Nash says:

    I don’t know. To me, the bulk of this argument smacks of something akin to crusty old film photographers complaining similarly: “all these dern kids with their fancy little digital cameras… they’re ruining the world.” “And oh yeah… get off my lawn!”

    The simple reason is, if a photographer truly has a unique and creative vision and the skills to match, it doesn’t matter if everyone on earth has the same gear. In the past, there were a ton of folks making a living in “photography” simply by virtue of being able to afford the best gear.

    Now that gear isn’t the issue to the same extent, some of those folks died a lonely death. While that is sad, (my personality is quite blue) it is life in a free economy.

    In my opinion, if a kid can just open CS3 and crank out logos like the pros, then perhaps there is something less “mysterious” about that skill. Good is good. You can tell it when you see it. (If you have any sort of aesthetic sense) This crowdSPRING will not ruin the system, if anything it might light a fire under the butts of some.

    I actually like the idea for what it is- takes me back to James Surowiecki’s Wisdom.


  9. Drew,

    I don’t think that spec is “evil,” per se, but it’s a tough deal for someone trying to make it as a service provider. My take is that spec, especially in the case of crowdSPRING, is terribly unproductive. Just like you said, even if one can repurpose work done for a crowdSPRING ad, it’s terribly inefficient. Help out someone close by instead.

    I don’t buy the comparisons to iStock, Threadless, etc., either. Hopefully I’ll read a more compelling argument soon.

  10. Sean,

    Again, the biggest problem I see here isn’t crotchety protectionism, it’s opportunity cost. crowdSPRING offers a way to develop one’s skills – I think there are better, more productive ways.

  11. This reminds me of all the times local organizations would call the high school choral director or jazz band director to have the kids perform for their afternoon meeting.

    The “gratuity” (if ever offered) was maybe 5% of a professional’s rate and never yielded an actual paid gig. Of course if the kids couldn’t perform no professionals were hired.

  12. Suzie,

    Good point – there are a billion examples of schools being taken for spec work of sorts… and I’ve never heard a peep about it.

    Actually, good for that – at least the community can get *some* return on their awful investment.

  13. Daniel says:

    @ Mike Samson:

    Sorry, but the comparison to istockphoto and threadless is not accurate.

    You can sell one photo multiple times. You can’t sell a logo you did for company A to company B.
    You can try and copy a look and/or concept of a photograph, but you can probably never replicate it–not to mention the significant time it takes to re-stage the photo. A logo? An hour of work in Illustrator/Photoshop and voila, the same exact logo (or at least very close).

    You’re posting something that you did on your own–no client demands or needs to be met–just whatever you want in your own style. Good luck doing that with graphic design. Oh, and their compensation? $2,000 cash + $500 gift certificate if selected (plus $500 for each reprint). Compare that to crowdspring’s $200 reward for a logo (if selected).

    @ Colin:

    Open-source is a vastly different model. In an open-source model, everyone’s working on one big project, so to speak. In crowdspring’s model, you’re competing with everybody else in many small projects to “win” some cash. Apples & oranges.


    I think some designers are more affected by this trend than others. The established firms probably have a good roster of mid/large-sized businesses that simply cannot take risks with “crowdsourcing” their design work. I think it may be relevant to solo/freelance designers, whose clients may be made of a good number of smaller businesses.

    But again, I do have a few freelance clients that I have developed good relationships with, and

    @ Matthew:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. There are plenty of local businesses and non-profit organizations that can benefit from what graphic designers have to offer. If one wants to build his/her portfolio, this is a much more productive way to do it. One, you learn about client/designer relationship. Two, your work will actually be used in real life (as opposed to being a rejected proposal), which will add to your “cred”. And finally of course, you’re contributing to the local community.

    I think in the long run, crowdspring’s model is simply unsustainable for the designer, if s/he is aspiring to be a full-time designer.

    A typical designer probably has a few clients that he’s familiar with and doing continuous work for.. which is a sustainable model, since he’s not starting out with a blank canvas every single time. But in crowdspring’s model, you have to (if you want to get compensated for your effort) participate in multiple projects simultaneously. An average post gets 68 submissions. 1 in 68 chance of winning $250 (chances are there will be some unqualified submissions.. but 1:20 is still not very encouraging).

    Now for the amateurs/hobbyists, that’s not an issue at all, because $$ is not on their agenda and they’re not doing it full-time. But for the true aspiring designers… well, there’s a reason why people don’t make a living from contests.


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