First Monday

DIY design: How crowdsourcing sites are challenging traditional graphic design practice by Adrienne L. Massanari

This paper analyzes the current debate over crowdsourced/do–it–yourself (DIY) design. Specifically, it highlights underlying tensions between discourse within the professional graphic design field and an increasingly sophisticated and global community of DIY designers who are challenging their professional norms and practices. Through an exploration of these sites’ approach to intellectual property, design education, compensation, and community, this research explain how crowdsourcing companies discursively frame (and challenge) traditional design practices. Specific recommendations as to how crowdsourcing sites and the professional design community might coexist peacefully are offered.


Professional design practice and the changing nature of design in light of Web 2.0
Crowdsourcing and labor practices in the digital era
Method, sites of study, and research questions
Intellectual property and design “authorship”
Design education
Creating community — How and for whom?
Professional responses to crowdsourced work
Conclusions and implications




While scholars have considered the productive nature of “amateurs” and their critical role in knowledge production (cf., Niederer and van Dijck, 2010; Shirky, 2010, 2008), few have discussed how the blurring lines between amateurs and experts are changing professional fields. For example, what do we make of the professional designer in this new economy? While Web 2.0 may encourage a global culture of participation, it may also relegate expertise to the margins in favor of amateur laboring. In the guise of democratizing and demystifying graphic design work, for example, a number of companies offer their services as marketplaces where “creatives” (designers) can find potential clients, and businesses can outsource their design needs efficiently and cost–effectively.

This paper considers the increasing prevalence and popularity of crowdsourcing design and competition sites. These spaces thrive on an increasingly digitally literate population who has access to inexpensive design tools that encourage student and amateur designers to learn their craft by entering contests and soliciting feedback from community members. As one of CrowdSPRING’s founders argues, “‘The beauty of our site is that it doesn’t matter if you have a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design or if you’re a grandma in Tennessee with a bunch of free time and Adobe ... Illustrator’” (Steiner, 2009). Thus, these sites represent a shift away from the notion that designers require formal training towards a do–it–yourself (DIY) approach, whereby design sensibilities are developed in and through conversation with other amateurs — potentially democratizing what some consider a “snooty” profession (Steiner, 2009).

At the same time, crowdsourced design is not without its detractors. Most notably, professional design organizations, such as American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) (Grefé, 2009) and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) (Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, 2010), as well as individual design bloggers (Pfiffner, 2009; Potts, 2008; Airey, 2008), argue that these companies encourage speculative (spec) design — that is, work that offers no guarantee of compensation — and thus are negatively impacting the industry. They suggest these contests often encourage sub–par final products, as they have been designed with little attention to the formal processes that most professional designers employ (such as concepting, research, sketching, etc.) (Lawson, 2006).

On its face, whether an “amateur” or “expert” creates a t–shirt, logo, or Web site design may be of little consequence; however, designed objects are rhetorical and persuasive. They shape our behavior and can have profound consequences. For example, the balloting problems in Florida during the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections highlighted the critical (and unstated) role that information design plays in the democratic process. As a result, organizations such as AIGA pushed for designers to have a greater understanding of their audience as not just consumers, but also as citizens (Lausen, 2007). And, while we may not see a contest for election ballot designs soon, the increasing prevalence and acceptance of crowdsourcing design makes the scenario seem more likely than ever. Thus, understanding how these sites are potentially transforming traditional professional design practices is critical.

The current study provides a much-needed investigation into the ways one creative community (graphic design) is being challenged by crowdsourcing — and more specifically — how companies that have monetized crowdsourced approaches to design are challenging the profession. Much of the crowdsourcing research to date focuses on not–for–profit endeavors, such as Wikipedia or fandom sites, where individuals create content for little/no pay but for which a larger organization is unlikely to profit. What research that does exist on monetized crowdsourcing considers sites such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or other spaces that profit in relatively unskilled or low–skilled labor. Relatively little work has been conducted on the potential impact of crowdsourcing on highly skilled and highly creative fields such as graphic design.

This paper argues that despite their rhetoric to the contrary, many crowdsourcing sites are less concerned about education and development of individual designers. Instead these sites focus most of their community building efforts on attracting and retaining clients (typically small businesses). In addition, many crowdsourcing sites’ approaches to intellectual property, education, community, and compensation tilt in favor of the company (or client) rather than the individual designer providing the creative work. However, their popularity with novice designers also suggests that greater opportunities for gaining experience outside of traditional design programs (and getting compensated) are desperately needed, particularly for those working within non–U.S./European contexts.



Professional design practice and the changing nature of design in light of Web 2.0

To best understand how these sites are shifting the nature of the graphic design profession, it is important to understand more generally what design is and what designers do. Design in all its forms (from product to industrial to graphic) is a “sense creating activity” [1] directed at solving wicked problems (Buchanan, 1995). It involves a complex and emergent interplay of problem definition and potential solutions, resulting in a circular process of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Lawson, 2006). More complex formulations of the process suggest that designers spend a significant amount of time, and intellectual and creative energy on the conceptualization process, both to get to the heart of the “problem” to be solved, and also creating meaningful metaphors (usually communicated through drawings or storyboards) that clients and end users will understand (Cross, 2007). Others focus on design’s unique combination of aesthetic and practical qualities, suggesting that “design is art that people use” [2].

Designers are part of what Richard Florida (2002) terms the “creative class,” producing cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984). The results of this kind of creativity is only considered valuable insofar as they appeal to some segment of “users” (Aspers, 2006). Unlike other forms of aesthetic work, such as fine art, design is both innovative and derivative. And, design work remains in conversation with larger cultural trends, and maintains a tight interconnectedness with economic activities.

The design community is often self-reflective and in disagreement about what constitutes its boundaries. As Dana Cuff (1991) notes, professions “... claim to a particular knowledge territory as distinctly their own ... the knowledge base is to some extent definable and to some extent mysterious” [3]. Thus, the process of professionalization is a constant dialogic between mystification and definition, both of which happen simultaneously and are often in conflict with one another. Examining these tacit professional practices can be difficult because of their relatively unspoken nature. That is, a collective community of practice engaged in professional work does not detail the criteria by which a person’s creativity or imagination will be judged, but these criteria do serve an exclusionary function (either explicitly or implicitly) (Beegan and Atkinson, 2008). Designers may be viewed by some outsiders as “snooty,” both because of their influential roles as cultural producers and tastemakers, and because they may obfuscate how design thinking works in an attempt to preserve design expertise and ensure its value (Steiner, 2009).

Despite the tendency of professional designers to distance themselves from amateur or novices, the boundary between the groups is permeable. As Gerry Beegan and Paul Atkinson (2008) argue, professional and amateur design practices have always been linked, “even when the relationship is one of repudiation. Professional practice defines itself by its distance from the unschooled practitioner ... At the same time, the professional is often a categorization that amateur designers reject, as a limitation to their creativity or originality” [4]. Thus, what constitutes the design “expert” and the design “amateur” has traditionally been constructed by professional design organizations such as AIGA, educators and design researchers working within academic institutions, and corporations that contract the work of freelance and in–house designers.

But things are changing. As numerous scholars have shown, the increasing availability of inexpensive digital design tools is shifting the relationship between producers and consumers (Deuze, 2007; Jenkins, 2006; Shirky, 2010, 2008). This prosumer shift potentially democratizes online content of all kinds, allowing for a greater diversity of design artifacts and perspectives to emerge. And, this ready availability of digital tools has encouraged growth in DIY practices online [5]. However, as Amy Spencer (2005) thoughtfully argues, just because a media artifact embodies the DIY ethos does not make it “good.” Additionally, merely having access to and instrumentally using the tools of graphic design, for example, does not necessarily make one a “graphic designer.” While it may be easy (and relatively cheap) to take a photo using a digital camera, remove red–eye and crop it using a graphics editing tool, and post it to a blog, this kind of brute force manipulation of digital objects, without the concomitant engagement in the process and theory of design — in design thinking — isn’t really design per se. But crowdsourcing design sites may be challenging what we consider the practice and the value of graphic design.



Crowdsourcing and labor practices in the digital era

As tools like the ones mentioned above become more readily available to the average DIY–er, we have also seen a rising interest in what might be produced by a global community of individuals physically separated but technologically connected. Both academic and business discourse suggests that what these individuals produce when working together far exceeds what they could do when working alone. For example, scholars such as Clay Shirky (2010, 2008) often highlight the positive outcomes of the kind of global collaboration that makes the open source community or Wikipedia possible, suggesting that such vast projects would be impossible to realize without the distributed collaboration enabled by Internet tools. And with collaboration, say the Web 2.0 cheerleaders, comes democratic discourse, or at least a larger crowd participates in knowledge production and governance.

Despite the positive rhetoric of the “wisdom of crowds” (Surowiecki, 2005) and the suggestion that prosumerism/distributed collaboration is inherently democratizing, critics suggest that these shifts may be reshaping the nature of labor — but not necessarily in favor of those who do the laboring (Scholz, 2008; Petersen, 2008). As Andrew Ross argues, “... a substantial volume of skilled work, knowledge, and IT technologies has been migrated to the cheapest available labor markets ... The goal is to extricate employers from their reliance on fixed supplies of regional talent and set them free to roam in search of emergent labor pools” [6]. This means that just as manufacturing work moved where labor costs were cheaper, so too has digital work moved to the margins — from the developed world to the developing. Optimists might say this is spreading the wealth around; detractors argue that corporations are just looking for cheaper labor pools to exploit so that their profit margins increase (Rushkoff, 2009). In addition to inexpensive/cheap labor, Tiziana Terranova (2003) suggests that the digital economy is predicated on a culture of free or immaterial labor. As she argues, free labor “is not necessarily exploited labor,” but only if it is exchanged for something of equal value to the participants (for example, fandom participants who perceive their community ties and involvement as their “payment” for contributing). Other work in this area suggests fans may assume that free labor is a given, and while not worried about being exploited, hope for recognition for their work (Milner, 2009). Still, there is an overwhelming tendency for corporations, rather than the community, to be the beneficiaries of this free labor (Terranova, 2003). Thus, labor within the crowdsourced world is inexpensive, distributed to the global margins, perhaps exploitative, and overwhelmingly benefits corporate interests.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that organizations are increasingly crowdsourcing their design needs — often in the guise of “competitions” or “contests.” For example, last year the Huffington Post (2011) hosted a competition for community members to design a new icon for the politics section of their site. After receiving negative publicity regarding the competition and myriad angry comments from designers in the comments section of the contest announcement, HuffPo updated it with the following notice:

We asked fans of HuffPost Politics to submit suggestions for social media icon designs as a fun way of enabling them to express their passion for politics — and for HuffPost. As readers of our site know, we frequently engage our community with requests for feedback and suggestions. So while AOL Huffington Post Media Group employs an in–house team of more than 30 talented designers, we felt this would be a lighthearted way to encourage HuffPost Politics users to express another side of their talents (Huffington Post, 2011).

Contests and crowdsourcing efforts like these have raised the ire of many within the design community, as they are seen to be undermining the professional expertise of those within the field and violating a core principle governing work between designers and clients — that the former will not complete speculative work because it potentially results in lower quality design and diminishes the economic value of design work overall (American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2012). For novice designers especially, these kinds of contests and crowdsourcing sites in general may produce a conundrum, as they potentially provide invaluable experience and real–world portfolio pieces for both traditional and non–traditional students of design. But is this the “not necessarily exploited labor” that Terranova (2003) discusses above? Are crowdsourcing sites and contests like HuffPo’s providing enough value in return for the free/cheap labor they receive from designers?



Method, sites of study, and research questions

This study employs methods from the field of discourse analysis (Foucault, 1972; Phillips and Hardy, 2002; van Dijk, 2011) to understand the ways in which crowdsourced design sites are challenging traditional notions of design expertise. Five Web sites dedicated to crowdsourced design serve as the corpus. All predominately (but not exclusively) cater to professional or amateur graphic and interactive designers [7]. Three (crowdSPRING, 99designs, and DesignCrowd) serve the needs of businesses looking for branding, logo design, Web design, and collateral. Two others ( and DesignbyHümans), produce apparel (t–shirts) with designs contributed by users that are printed by the parent company. These sites were chosen because of their popularity and because they serve as exemplars of the different approaches organizations are taking towards crowdsourcing design. Not included in my corpus are sites like iStockphoto and Shutterstock — while these sites’ audiences may overlap, they are specifically focused on selling digital photography rather than graphic/interactive design.

The crowdsourcing sites examined work in one of two ways. Sites like 99designs, crowdSPRING, and DesignCrowd are project–focused, meaning crowdsourcing occurs because multiple people contribute to specific design challenges/projects posted by clients (usually small businesses) and creatives compete against one another to be awarded the winning design. The clients themselves determine the winners, with individual designers having little or no involvement in the final arbitration. Community–focused sites, such as Threadless and DesignbyHümans also encourage multiple submissions from creatives — often around specific themes — but the community itself votes on what designs they would like to have produced (with the top designs submitted to the company for final arbitration). While technically a competition, these community–based sites encourage collaborative development of design ideas.

This research considers the ways in which these spaces are changing the relationship between clients and designers. Research questions guiding this study include: What are these spaces’ attitudes toward intellectual property and compensation? How do they discursively construct what design is in the era of crowdsourcing? How is the professional design community responding, and what solutions are they offering in the face of inevitable challenges from the DIY movement?

The next few sections discuss the differing approaches these sites take towards intellectual property and design authorship. Then how crowdsourcing design sites create community (and for whom it is created) is explored. Next, the ways in which these sites approach design education is examined. Finally, how designers are compensated for the work they produce is outlined.



Intellectual property and design “authorship”

Even within traditional graphic design work, the question of who constitutes the author within the design process is difficult to answer. Typically, clients and designers work together — the client defining the boundaries of the project, and documenting it in a creative brief, while the designer uses that information as a critical jumping–off point for their work. Drawing upon the work of Walter Benjamin, Ellen Lupton (1998) argues that the changing nature of the author is partially a reflection on technological shifts within the production of design artifacts. She suggests that a split has occurred, whereby the “author” and the “designer” are intellectual and cerebral pursuits conceptually separated from the physicality of “production,” but that these lines are blurring.

Earlier work by Roland Barthes (1978) and Michel Foucault (1984) suggests that the notion of authorship is a modern intellectual construct, and that texts are not static, but are necessarily shaped by a complex set of social practices around readership and authorship. Michael Rock (1998) traces the influence of these works (and ideas from postmodernism generally) on the graphic design field, arguing that there has been a transition from earlier “authorless/designerless” texts to ones where the designer’s presence within the piece is apparent. He argues that this mirrors much of the auteur theory within film, in which a director would be considered the “author” of a film, despite the complex labor relationships that actually existed on the film set. Rock (1998) suggests that like film, design benefited from this sort of positioning, as it shifted the art from low culture to high culture: “over the course of a career, the designer works on a number of diverse projects that have widely varying levels of creative potential, so any inner meaning must come through the aesthetic treatment as much as it does from the content” [8].

Given the complexities of how authorship is considered within creative communities like design, it is fascinating that most crowdsourcing sites retain a static and reductionist vision of authorship and rely heavily on legalistic notions of intellectual property rights. For example,’s policy regarding ownership of user–submitted content (not designs submitted for printing consideration, but rather user postings, critiques, etc.) is that while it remains the property of the individual, submitters, “grant a worldwide, non–exclusive, royalty–free, sublicenseable, and transferable right and license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the Website ...” (Threadless, 2007). The terms for design submissions additionally require individuals to assign copyright to the company for their designs, including the “right to sue for past infringement and the right to further sublicense the Design,” and that designers will not create derivative works based on their designs — this despite the “non-exclusive” nature of Threadless’ ownership (Threadless, 2011). Likewise, DesignByHümans’ submission rules require designers to acknowledge that DBH, “retains permanent exclusive rights to that design for commercial use on apparel and other promotional products ... and the participant hereby irrevocably assigns such rights to DesignByHü” (DesignByHümans, 2011b). Both Threadless and DBH note the temporary nature of their claims on a designer’s creation if it is not printed during the 90–day competition window. Additionally, both companies require designers to contact them to have designs removed from the site if they wish to use the design for something else if it is not optioned.

However, some sites do allow creative to maintain some control over their work. For example, Threadless also allows designers to retain the rights to their work for other non–apparel mediums even if their work is commissioned by the company (Threadless, 2010). Designers working with 99designs can choose to offer their logo design work in its “Readymade” store. Unlike the site’s sponsored contests, where creatives waive all of their intellectual property rights to designs created for clients, some logos for the “ready–made” store remain non–exclusively licensed, potentially allowing the designer to re–use the design (99designs, 2012b).

AIGA’s own copyright guidelines encourage designers not to transfer all rights they may have to a client or third party unless generously compensated. As they suggest in their guide to ethical design practice,

The client’s desire for work–for–hire or all rights is often for the purpose of preventing the client’s competitors from using the design or images in the design. The client can be protected against such competitive use by a simple clause in the contract stating: “The designer agrees not to license the design or any images contained therein to competitors of the client.” [9]

It is therefore surprising that many crowdsourcing sites choose not to allow designers to retain some creative rights given that this is a normal practice within the design community.

There are potential problems with the current intellectual property approach crowdsourcing sites take. Designs submitted on sites like 99designs and crowdSPRING can be made public depending on project settings, which might encourage designers to plagiarize one another — or at least have their designs “converge” more readily around one theme or idea. Perhaps to avoid this possibility, DesignCrowd only makes other designs public to designers after a contest has closed (at which point they can vote on the submission they like the best). Likewise, 99designs requires designers to agree to a “concept originality policy” whereby anything mentioned in the project brief submitted by clients can be developed by all, but unique concepts developed by one designer cannot be copied by others. 99designs’ policy gives the following example: “A real estate logo contest for Smith Properties is filled with designs based on obvious concepts like houses, roofs, windows, buildings etc. ... then a designer submits a really clever design based on a bird and the contest holder gives it a high rating. Other designers CANNOT start submitting designs based on birds — this is a unique and original concept for that designer alone” (99designs, 2011). While this policy seems reasonable on its face, both the interpretation of what constitutes an “obvious concept” versus a “clever design” and how strictly 99designs’ staff enforces the policy is debatable. Would using a silhouette of the head or a wing of the bird in the above example constitute plagiarism? How radically would the design need to shift to be “clever” and not merely a copy of another’s work? The problem with this kind of overly broad guideline is that it may inadvertently stifle or chill creativity. A creative working with 99designs might avoid submitting a unique or novel idea because s/he is concerned about it being viewed as derivative or because it shares some common elements with another designer’s work, even if the overall design is a radical departure.

Detractors of crowdsourcing design also point to the difficulty of protecting designers from clients who may not award them with the winning bid, but may use their design work later without compensating them. Or, as designer Grant Blakeman (2008) notes, clients may reject a proposal, but take design ideas offered and hire a cheaper designer. 99designs’ policy tells clients to “respect copyright” and reminds them that they only own designs for which they pay (99designs, 2010b). But they also offer a money–back guarantee (as does DesignCrowd and crowdSPRING) to clients who use their services if none of the designs is one they “love.” This means clients could presumably use these crowdsourcing sites to retain the services of a designer without actually compensating them for their work.

What is also noticeable about these sites is what they do not do in terms of intellectual property. They do very little to encourage designers and clients to employ a more flexible approach to licensing and copyright (à la Creative Commons), nor do they encourage remixing of content. In fact, contrary to the Web 2.0/DIY ethos that most crowdsourcing platforms try to embody, they actively discourage this kind of engagement — despite the fact that very good designs (of all kinds) are often remixes of larger cultural trends. The approach that crowdsourcing sites take towards intellectual property is likely to stifle this kind of creative engagement.



Design education

One of the arguments that champions of these kinds of crowdsoucing contests/sites have made to quash criticism from the design community is that it can help novices improve their design skills while working for real–world clients. This primarily happen in two ways: informally, whereby the community critiques and offers suggestions to other designers, or more formally through materials and resources provided by the site’s owners. For example, Threadless encourages K–12 art teachers to use the voting model they developed in their classrooms and provides a PDF of lesson plans and support for educators. Likewise, DesignByHümans (DBH) offers a short, but comprehensive guide for would–be designers on the basics of design. Both sites also provide critique forums where individuals can get feedback regarding work in progress before it is submitted to the broader community for an official vote. DBH also includes a “resources” forum where designers can share helpful tutorials, Photoshop templates, and ask general questions about design work. That being said, the DBH forum is not well trafficked (only around 75 threads posted over three years), probably because Threadless boasts a much larger community of participants and has much better name recognition. Like DBH, Threadless also hosts forums (called blogs on their site) where extensive conversations offer design tips and individuals designs for critique. Unlike DBH, these are regularly trafficked — with around 7,000 posts in the art and design category alone, suggesting a robust community invested in art and design practice.

99designs, crowdSPRING, and DesignCrowd are much less focused on educating designers. Unlike DBH and Threadless, all three sites offer fairly anemic information for would–be designers, instead focusing their attention on “educating” potential clients. For example, clicking on the “example logo design” page of 99designs and customers are greeted with several bulleted lists that describe the process and answers to “frequently asked questions” such as, “What if I don’t like any of the designs I get?” and “Will the designers tailor their designs to suit my business?” (99designs, 2012c). DesignCrowd’s “How it works” page includes a film that explains the process of creating a project and outlines the benefits crowdsourcing has over the traditional design process.

For the typical small business owner who turns to one of these sorts of crowdsourcing sites, it is interesting to think about what they might (or might not) learn about the design process. Clients on these sites are asked to complete a creative/design brief (a staple in the design industry) that outlines the goals of the project, a bit about the client’s business, the audience, and provides designers with a few indicators as to the kind of design style appeals to the client. Design briefs are considered an efficient way to help clients articulate the actual problem they need solved and guide the design process (Lupton, 2011; Airey, 2007). DesignCrowd, 99designs, and crowdSPRING’s creative briefs are surprisingly similar in form, featuring basic descriptive information about the client’s project needs as well as providing the opportunity for clients to choose design styles they like (often by showing logos for other major businesses) and explain what they want to communicate about their brand to customers. 99designs and DesignCrowd feature semantic differential scales on their creative brief forms where clients are asked if they want their design to be more “playful” or “serious,” for example, or “economical” or “upmarket.” Clearly the focus is the end product – whether or not the designer has created something that the business owner “likes” or satisfies their immediate needs. Less attention is given to other aspects of the design process — including the multiple iterations that a designer might share with the client as s/he is creating the final design — or the market research that the designer might undertake to create a unique finished product. These steps become invisible, thus further mystifying the design process and encouraging business clients to view it as simply delivering a bunch of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator files.




Crowdsourcing companies often suggest that the primary motivation for designers participating in projects and contests is to gain design experience. However, as Daren Brabham’s (2008) study of contributors to iStockphoto suggests, money is an important motivating factor for those doing crowdsourced work. Even those individuals who contribute designs to Threadless, which is perceived as much more community oriented than most crowdsourcing sites, are motivated by the potential of being paid for their creations (along with improving their design skills, potentially gaining freelancing work, as well as wanting to participate in the community) (Brabham, 2010).

With so many designers looking to crowdsourcing as a way to make money, it is critical that we examine the economic realities of this work. Threadless receives around 2,000–3,000 submissions a week and the top submissions, as voted on by the community, are vetted by Threadless staff and with from 5–15 picked to be printed each week (Coburn, 2012). For successful submissions, designers receive US$2000, US$500 to spend at Threadless, US$500 every time the shirt is reprinted, and membership in an “Alumni Club” (Threadless, 2012c). Threadless sells around 120,000 shirts a month through its Web site and retail outlets in Chicago and estimated to be worth US$30 million (more soon, if a deal with larger U.S. retailers happens) (Coburn, 2012). Given the payouts and number of submissions, this means that Threadless is paying anywhere from around US$4.15–$18.75 per design. DBH pays US$1,000 for winning designs, along with six copies of their winning shirt, and offers a tiered rewards system where designers receive up to US$2,500 depending on the number of units sold — or up to US$.50 per shirt (DesignByHümans, 2011a).

Crowdsourcing sites that focus much more on logo and Web site design are far less likely to compensate creatives appropriately. As of November 2010, 99designs boasted having 84,752 designers, who had created a total of 5,982,658 submitted designs and been awarded US$14,998,416 (99designs, 2010a). This means that clients were paying about $2.51 for each design submitted. Now, the company boasts that the number of designers has doubled (to 170,897 as of July 2012), and that US$37,338,940 in price money had been awarded (99designs, 2012a).

Similarly, DesignCrowd suggests they have 80,158 designers from 165 countries, and have paid out US$4,486,227 in project payments (DesignCrowd, 2012a). The company suggests that about 104 designs are submitted for every project. A logo project on DesignCrowd, for example, can cost a client anywhere from US$240 (with US$200 going to the designer, US$40 going to DesignCrowd) to US$940 (with the winning designer receiving US$780, six designers receiving “participation fees” of US$20, and US$40 going to DesignCrowd) plus a three percent transaction fee + GST (DesignCrowd, 2012d). DesignCrowd’s member profiles actually list the earnings of each designer, from the top (as of this writing, a designer from the U.K. has earned US$131,713 on DesignCrowd) to the bottom. Of the 63,117 designers listed on its “Search Graphic Designers Worldwide” page, only 3,692 have actually earned any money, suggesting that a very few designers are actually profiting from their crowdsourcing work (DesignCrowd, 2012c). However, a quick analysis of the countries self–reported by the top–ten earning designers suggests some diversity: three are from India, two are from the U.K., and one each are from Australia, Canada, the Philippines, Romania, and the U.S.

In general, the payouts for design work on crowdsourced sites is considerably less than a typical designer in the U.S. would make for comparable work. AIGA’s most recent salary survey suggested that the median income for “solo designers,” (self–employed/freelance designers of all types) was US$55,000 per year or around US$27.50 an hour (American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2011). In the same study, freelance designers (print and/or interactive) earned a median income of US$40–45 an hour; with junior designers or those who had three or fewer years of experience earning US$25–40 an hour as freelancers or around US$37,500–42,000 a year (American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2011). And while DesignCrowd features optional “participation fees” to entice designers to submit even if they don’t win the full payout, the total compensation for crowdsourced work pays a much lower hourly wage (especially as they are unlikely to win every contest or project entered).

DesignCrowd is also a bit different from the rest of the sites examined in that it also offers a design outsourcing service in addition to its normal contests/projects. This “white labeled” option offers firms the ability to solicit designs and present them to their clients through their own branded site, making it appear as though they are not using the DesignCrowd service (DesignCrowd, 2012b). Presumably design firms could use this service to create a flexible, virtual design team that was hired on a per–project basis. It is strange, however, that DesignCrowd highlights the “discreet” nature of this service, suggesting that less scrupulous firms might use this tool to solicit cheap design ideas and charge their clients, who may be hiring the organization because of its strong in–house design pool, premium design prices.

As designer David Airey points out, the typical pricing structure that crowdsourcing design sites use encourages designers to play a “numbers game” instead of developing only one or two different design directions fully. Thus, designs are created quickly and with little regard for providing well researched, unique, and creative work (Airey, 2008). Certainly the time constraints on most projects, as well as the fact that designers are not being paid hourly, provides little incentive for them to engage in research–based design (see O’Grady and O’Grady, 2006, for more about design research). And, as clients are the ultimate arbiters of what designs they like and do not like and spend little time consulting with their designers, it is unlikely that the final product will be revolutionary or even long lasting.

It is critical to note that although most of these crowdsourcing sites are not doing the “paying out” of project winnings, they imply that they are actually compensating the designers directly (rather than the clients who contract with them). The exception is both DBH and Threadless, as they actually do pay the designers directly. And, however little or much creatives are compensated, the crowdsourcing companies themselves are making money. 99designs, for example, raised US$35 million in a recent investment round (Lacy, 2011). Estimates suggest that Threadless made US$30 million last year, and new partnerships with major retailers such as Bed, Bath & Beyond are set to make the company much more in the coming years (Coburn, 2012). Unfortunately, the monetary reality of crowdsourcing mirrors that of many other Web 2.0 creative platforms, whereby companies financially benefit from work submitted by the “crowd” and absorb a majority of those profits instead of paying those doing the creative laboring a fair wage.



Creating community — How and for whom?

The crowdsourcing sites examined typically took one of two distinct approaches when addressing their audience, either focusing on the design creatives or the clients who were purchasing their services. Designers who wish to actually complete projects for clients seem to be a secondary audience for the crowdSPRING, 99designs and DesignCrowd, as their homepage appeals are much more oriented towards the clients rather than the designers themselves. For example, DesignCrowd focuses specifically on client needs and why crowdsourcing is a good value; suggesting in an introductory video that it is faster, cheaper, more creative, and risk free to companies posting their creative briefs to the site (DesignCrowdTV, 2011). While crowdSPRING highlights a number of larger companies that have used its services (logos for Starbucks,, Air New Zealand, and others are featured on its homepage), the main target audience for both it and the other crowdsourcing sites examined are small businesses. DesignCrowd posts the low prices for various services on its homepage (“logo design starting at $240”), crowdSPRING boasts, “Over 29,500 small businesses — and some big ones — trust crowdSPRING with custom logo design, web design and writing services. 96% of them would recommend that you try us too,” and 99designs lists the various business publications it has been featured in (including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Forbes). 99designs’ customer blog focuses on small business trends and case studies of successful design work contracted through the Web site.

On the other hand, Threadless and DBH seem equally interested in attracting those doing the design creation as those purchasing the designs. Both of these sites also suggest that submitting designs is natural progression of being a true “fan” of the Threadless or DBH community — that one might have purchased a number of shirts from the companies in the past before deciding to contribute to the community through a design submission. Several sites examined include elements of gamification (Deterding, et al., 2011) on their sites to encourage community among designers. For example, 99designs offers levels and points to encourage designers to upgrade their profiles and portfolio (99designs, 2012d). DBH’s profiles include badges for completing certain actions on the site (for example, being a prolific commenter, being an active member for a certain number of years), links to personal Web sites, and a list of other community members that are following them or they are following. Likewise, Threadless members can create robust profiles that include an optional personal blog, links to other external sites such as their Flickr photostream, and a complete listing of their individual design submissions.

Threadless in particular is aggressive in its positioning as a hip and arty design brand. Hallmarks of this include its collaboration with craft beer company Finches, which recently distributed a Threadless co–branded IPA; partnerships with indie bands such as Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Hot Chip, and The Decemberists; previous collaborations with organizations such as SXSW, Tribeca Film Festival, and David Eggers’ 826 National; and, appearances at San Diego’s pop/geek culture fest, Comic–Con (Threadless, 2012b, 2012a, 2012d). Threadless also includes a “sightings in the wild” of Threadless shirts being worn by actors on television shows in their “Threadspotting” blog and Threadless–TV features in–house music performances and random moments inside the Threadless headquarters.

Micah Baldwin (2009) suggests that the main difference between a company like crowdSPRING and one like Threadless is that the former is a creating a marketplace while the latter is facilitating community. Baldwin argues that for a marketplace like crowdSPRING, creating a robust community is actually counter–productive to the site’s goal:

While CrowdSpring clearly wants to attract a specific type of designer — one who is definitely competitive by nature, and probably in need of work — it cannot have a community that agrees in private on what to charge for different types of products ... In order for CrowdSpring’s community to truly be effective for CrowdSpring, it has to be controlled ... to ensure that price collusion doesnt exist and that it fosters competition (sic) (Baldwin, 2009).

The distinction Baldwin makes is important, but unsatisfactory, as it positions both the clients that use the crowdsourcing service and crowdSPRING itself on unequal footing with creatives. Perhaps the distinction that Terranova makes that not all free labor is “exploited” labor is a critical one to apply here — that the kind of compensation individuals receive by participating in a community like Threadless includes both the actual payment they receive if a design is printed, and non–monetary compensation: design critiques, tips, and hints, and a community of like–minded indie designers with which they can communicate. Therefore, sites like crowdSPRING that engage more with the small–business community (as evidenced by both founders coming from the world of business rather than design) and create a more top–down rather than bottom–up approach to community, “feel” more exploitative. Part of this may be the result of crowdSPRING’s marketplace approach whereby individual competition rather than collaborative cooperation is valued.

And while all of these communities attract designers from around the globe, few of them are actually engaging with the local community (unless you consider the local community to be predominately Western). As Fish and Srinivasan (2012) argue, crowdsourcing companies’ “recruitment of global labor speaks less to empowerment and more toward a desire to evade regulation and overhead costs” that wish to “‘scale out’ rather than locally configure” [10]. A prime example of this is exemplified by crowdSPRING’s “Give Back” program (Kimbarovsky, 2008). On the face, it is quite altruistic; crowdSPRING partners with non–profits and charities that need graphic design work completed, but are strapped financially. crowdSPRING vets the companies and then solicits submissions from the community, waving their normal posting fees and commission. However, a closer look at this project reveals that many of the selected charities are geographically limited in scope — focusing, for example, on organizations based in the U.S. or U.K. While the work these non–profits do is admirable, their inclusion also suggests a limited view of the global, and is unlikely to directly impact the local communities of the designers providing the design work. In addition, instead of crowdSPRING compensating creatives for these projects, designers are expected to do the work pro bono. Again, it is the crowdsourcing platform and its client that benefits from this arrangement, rather than the designer. crowdSPRING is perceived as “giving back” to the community regardless if the designer creating the work is compensated fairly or creates a design that actually addresses the client’s real needs.



Professional responses to crowdsourced work

There are a number of concerns voiced by professional designers about the crowdsourcing movement (and the blurring of the boundaries between amateur and professional design practice that it suggests). One involves the notion that DIY design ultimately undermines the value of design expertise. As Stephen Heller argues, “By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession. I like democracy as much as the next person, but because of new technologies, the definition of ‘amateur’ in fields like graphic design, photography, film and music, among others, is being redefined. With everything so democratic, we can lose the elite status that gives us credibility” (Lupton, 2006a). For Heller, then, the role of the designer is to be an elite (not just an “expert”) voice in the culture — whose work is perceived as difficult to do.

Much of the critique of crowdsourcing sites is made by individuals within the design community who view it as spec (speculative) work. In a typical design setting, this might occur in two ways: clients requesting custom work during the RFP (request for proposal) phase of the design process; or asking outright to see some work from the designer to see if they like it before committing to the project (Blakeman, 2008). If the client likes the work, the designer wins the account and gets paid. If not, the designer isn’t. Crowdsourcing sites are viewed as a type of spec work, as designers have no formal contract with the business with whom they are designing and may not get paid for their final work. Organizations like NoSpec! have taken issue with crowdsourcing suggesting that it is unethical, often resulting in “abandoned” projects where designers do not get paid even if they win, and that the promises made to attract novice/student designers are unfulfilled (that they will gain exposure and improve based on client feedback, etc.) (Douglas, 2010).

Contrarians argue that the backlash to crowdsourcing work is coming only from a well–established minority who represent only the professional elite of the design community. TechCrunch commenter Sarah Lacy likens the changes occurring to those that previously challenged travel agents and independent bookstores, or “nearly any business where a service provider is charging a premium because of an inefficient market. Graphic designers should be thrilled that it took so long to get to them” (Lacy, 2011). Lacy also points to several success stories that grew out of the 99designs community — individuals from Pakistan, the Philippines, and Indonesia who made significantly more on virtual crowdsourced projects than they could in their home regions. And again, Micah Baldwin (2009) argues that the design community is making the mistake of arguing against the ethical questionability of crowdsourcing and spec work while not addressing why it exists (calling it an “emotional” rather than “intellectual” response), which is that there are both designers willing to participate in doing it and businesses who would not be able to afford design work otherwise. The main argument in favor of crowdsourcing most often espoused is that it “lets the market decide” — meaning, if there was not a market for cheaply produced design work, then sites like these would not exist.

My research suggests that the marketplace argument is not an entirely fair assessment of crowdsourcing and its impact on the design community. Yes, crowdsourcing sites do provide a platform for participation (for both designers and arguably clients), but they do little to educate clients as to the true value of design work — and the reasons why simply paying as little as possible for a design likely does not solve the underlying “wicked problem” that needs to be addressed. In addition, the ways in which the client–designer relationship is mediated by these sites’ technological framework allow both parties to hide behind the crowdsourcing company. This may result in clients devaluing the importance and worth of design work in ways they would be unlikely to do if they were confronted face–to–face (or in a less rigid environment) with designers. And, it may provide fewer incentives for designers to create quality work.

This research also highlights an ongoing problem: designers are less transparent than they could be about design thinking, and in the process they may unintentionally undermine its perceived value. Consumers typically are exposed to design only after the final product is produced (be it building, chair, smart phone, Web site, logo, etc.) and are not exposed to the process of design thinking and research. In this way, sites like Threadless, while both removing barriers to participation by allowing “non–designers” to create, may also emphasize the importance of design thinking as a kind of critical literacy skill. By being more transparent about the methodology that designers use to design might, ironically, encourage individuals to have more respect for both the expertise of professional designers and the difficulty of designing well. One possible solution, offered by designer Ellen Lupton, is that professional designers could start presenting themselves as “expert” do–it–yourselfers — this might not alienate novices/amateur designers but could encourage the public to view expert designers as simply having a bigger toolbox (methods) from which they can work (Siegel, 2006).



Conclusions and implications

This study examined five different crowdsourcing businesses to better understand how they may be changing design work. In terms of intellectual property, most of the sites examined gave far more latitude towards the clients’ rights than the designers’ with the exception of Threadless, which allows creatives to reuse their work in other forums. Most of these sites focused much more directly on those purchasing the designs, offering little in the way of design education and development for novice designers to become experts. Again, Threadless (and DBH to a lesser degree) was the exception. Designers participating in crowdsourcing would likely make much less money than their U.S.–based equivalents (at least according to AIGA’s salary survey) especially if they had years of experience. And, the project-focused sites featured much less robust engagement and community for designers. It is unlikely that small businesses crowdsourcing a logo or Web design would have much insight into the importance and value of the work that designers do, as their interactions are tightly controlled and mediated by these sites’ owners.

The findings suggest that creative and crowdsourcing sites (particularly the marketplace-type) are unequal playing fields with regards to intellectual property and compensation. These sites encourage clients to view design work as merely a commodity and not a very valuable one at that. With the possible exception of the more community–oriented sites like Threadless, it appears that crowdsourcing design favors the needs of those offering the platform and the clients who use it rather than the designers who are creating the actual designs. This stands in stark contradiction to the stated purpose of many of these services, which suggest they are providing opportunities for designers and merely connecting designers and clients more efficiently.

As for what these findings suggest about the nature of graphic/interactive design and how it is changing in the face of crowdsourcing — the results are mixed. Certainly, the existence of crowdsourcing sites may encourage individuals to feel empowered that they can create logos, t–shirts, or Web sites — that they do not need to leave this kind of work to “experts.” But at the same time, many crowdsourcing sites flatten the complexities of design thinking from both ends. It encourages clients to view the process as a simple exchange (as the client, I tell you what I want via a form, and you as the designer create it and provide me my files) rather than a creative co–productive endeavor with the designer. These sites encourage designers to chase potential monetary rewards, and accept the “wicked problem” as defined by the client as a simple matter of providing a logo in the right color or font, with little ability to work with clients to articulate the underlying problem/need. And yet the graphic design community has done little to offer alternatives to these spaces for those individuals wishing to develop their skills outside of a traditional design program.

How might crowdsourcing sites improve their relationship with the professional design community? Here are a few ideas based on this study’s findings:

  1. Create a bottom–up community rather than a top–down marketplace. While sites like crowdSPRING may appeal to client companies looking for cheap solutions to the design problems, it’s likely that they will have a hard time maintaining a professional community of designers willing to work with them over the long haul. This sort of attrition means that guidance from expert designers is almost non–existent, making the overall designs less successful. Threadless has created a thriving, robust community of individuals who critique each other’s work — this should serve as a model for other for–profit crowdsourcing sites. This also requires sites to rethink their approach to competition and collaboration, as a community is unlikely to flourish if collaboration is implicitly (or explicitly) frowned upon.
  2. Educate potential clients and designers about the design process. Provide a much more robust interaction between designers and clients, rather than simply relying on a set of form fields to facilitate communication between clients and designers. Perhaps steer certain businesses away from using crowdsourced design if it does not meet their needs. Moving beyond over–simplified design briefs that are unlikely to yield real solutions to the problems clients are experiencing is critical, as is encouraging much more communication between designers and clients as it will help both parties understand the needs of the other. And, if crowdsourcing companies are really serious about offering opportunities and education to novice designers around the world, they would be wise to actually educate both parties about why good design results from in–depth design thinking.
  3. Create payment systems that move crowdsourcing beyond a “numbers game.” Require clients to pay designers a fair wage and engage designers for work only after viewing their portfolio. This may encourage clients to better understand the process and outcomes they should expect when engaging a designer and help them to better evaluate the designs they receive. Consider different ways of monetizing this work — perhaps moving to a model where clients are “introduced” to screened designers for a fee (a kind of online design matchmaking) instead of skimming money on a per–project basis. Again, crowdsourcing companies would do well to encourage communication between clients and designers that moves beyond simply “describe the problem” and “deliver the files”; both because it will improve the final design product (and its longevity), and because it will likely yield long–term and more collaborative relationships between designers and clients.

Given that crowdsourcing is unlikely to go away, the professional design community will have to continue to adjust to this changing marketplace reality. This paper’s findings suggest a few ways in which design organizations might engage the public and designers to shape crowdsoucing design practice in a way that is more humane:

  1. Create spaces where novice/relatively inexperienced designers — especially those who may not have access to traditional design programs — can learn the tools of the trade and be mentored by expert designers. Encourage designers to collaborate with one another. Consider creating online tutorials and classes that provide individuals with a design education inexpensively. Perhaps partner with existing crowdsourcing sites like Threadless to highlight the work of novice (and especially non–U.S.) designers. Building connections to local organizations in non–U.S./U.K. contexts is especially critical if the design community wishes to empower emerging talent around the world. AIGA and other design organizations need to offer a real alternative to crowdsourcing sites if they are truly concerned about encouraging, teaching, and preserving design expertise. It is likely that a number of novice designers are turning to the crowdsourcing spaces that do exist because they perceive few opportunities to build their portfolio and skill set given economic, geographical, and other constraints. AIGA and other design associations need to address these realities, and provide the tools, resources, and both formal and informal educational opportunities to meet the needs of novice and early–career designers.
  2. Educate the public as to why crowdsourcing sites may not yield the best results. Explain and illustrate the value of design thinking and how brainstorming, research, and ideation can improve design work. Move beyond the “no spec” argument to offer more concrete reasons why businesses should be wary about crowdsourcing their design work could help designers make the case for the need for more traditional design (and compensation) approaches. Highlight the potential for exploitation and the tendency for designers to simply provide a bunch of unrefined ideas rather than realistic, viable solutions to their problems when they are not fairly compensated for their work. Grounding the argument in terms of how individual designers are negatively affected by this kind of work may help humanize and move the discussion about crowdsourcing beyond simple economics to one of ethics and social justice. The public (and the small–business clients who make up much of the market for crowdsourcing) is unlikely to “get” the value of design unless they understand what designers do and why it is critical. As such, they are attracted to crowdsourcing sites because they are perceived as easy and inexpensive ways to meet immediate design needs. Design organizations need to better address these small–business realities. Perhaps AIGA or GDC can create meeting spaces where more novice designers and businesses with smaller budgets/projects can be matched and mentored by more experienced designers. This could help novice designers gain “real world” experience while still receiving a fair wage and ensure that small businesses were receiving quality design work and individualized attention for an amount they can more easily afford.
  3. Work to challenge existing intellectual property laws — or at least encourage designers and organizations to consider alternative copyright schemes, such as Creative Commons licensing, to allow more flexibility for both designers and clients. Remixing cultural and artistic elements has always been a part of design practice; recognizing this with a more reasoned approach to copyright would be beneficial for all parties involved. While this is a daunting task, it is a critical step if the design community wishes to continue to be able to converse and challenge culture though design — and retain some control of their creative work — rather than be limited to what little remains in the public domain.

As with all research endeavors, there are several limitations to this study worth noting. The current project focused on a relatively small (albeit popular) portion of the crowdsourcing companies in operation. More research needs to be undertaken to unpack the ethical assumptions underpinning for–profit crowdsourcing, and especially those sites that tend to challenge creative practice and potentially displace professional work. It would be useful to conduct a longer–term study — perhaps a large–scale survey or interviews — with both designers and clients to understand their reasons for participating and how these motivations may change over time. Additionally, more work to uncover the local impacts that global work like crowdsourcing has on communities is needed. Ultimately, it is imperative that we continue to examine DIY/Web 2.0 phenomena for their impact on professions of all kinds instead of simply championing the “wisdom of the crowds” as being inherently democratic and beneficial for all parties involved. End of article


About the author

Adrienne Massanari is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
E–mail: amass [at] uic [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 17 July 2012; revised 27 August 2012; accepted 3 September 2012.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

DIY design: How crowdsourcing sites are challenging traditional graphic design practice
by Adrienne L. Massanari
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 10 - 1 October 2012