I recently read a good article about crowdsourcing and spec work, and while I found myself agreeing with the author I couldn’t help but think at the same time that he was missing the point.
If you’re not familiar with the terms, crowdsourcing means recruiting many people to make design propositions and picking the best (whether it be through a contest, or a site like 99designs.com), and is a form of spec (“speculative”) work (i.e. work for which you are not assured of getting paid).
And I agree completely. In fact, I personally would not work with a client who engages in spec work or crowdsources their logo through 99designs.com, because to me that means they don’t value design.
But that’s their prerogative, and there’s nothing inherently wrong about it. And I dispute the fact that it hurts other designers. You can buy $100 Nikes, or you can buy $20 no-name sneakers. Someone who doesn’t value good shoes will buy the cheap sneakers, and nobody will think that what he’s doing is wrong or hurts poor Nike’s business.
Of course if everybody started buying $20 shoes instead of Air Force Ones then Nike might go out of business. But we would probably consider that Nike’s problem, not the $20 shoe maker’s. Nike is the one who has to justify their higher price point through branding and product quality.
So why, when it comes to design, do we take a stand against cheap (or even free) offerings? Nobody’s forcing designers at gunpoint to enter design contests, so you can’t really say they’re unfair. Crowdsourcing might result in bad design, but some clients want bad (but cheap) design. We could try educating them to see the value of good design, but what if they simply don’t have the resources to hire a “real” designer?
What’s more, in the case of design contests (especially coming from well-known brands), the real goal is often not to get a logo at all, but to generate free publicity. Telling those brands about the evil of spec work misses the point entirely: they don’t care, they just want their free advertising.
I think the success of 99designs makes it clear that spec work is here to stay. We shouldn’t caution it, but at the same time I don’t see any point in acting like it’s going to destroy the industry. Spec work might be bad, but it’s not wrong.