Rants: Crowdsourcing Should Never be a Part of the Design Process
Crowdsourcing is the “fast food” of the 21st Century. Like a drive-thru window at McDonald’s, we can get our product better, faster, and cheaper. Unfortunately, like fast food, this expedited and “automated” experience also has negative repercussions. In the practice of design, a deep connection between the collaborators, project leaders, and clients, as well as an intimate trust amongst the partners, is a necessity. Crowdsourcing, like fast food, dehumanizes the “creator” and drastically shortens the design process by facilitating an environment that neglects the research and strategy that is required to give an organization a unique voice. Because of the competitive nature of “the crowd,” in order to have their work selected, designers fall back on old concepts that a client will likely approve of immediately, thus eliminating risk and innovation from the design process. Crowdsourcing also facilitates short-term relationships between the creator and organization, a side-effect that results in an inconsistency and lack of sustainability in the organization’s messaging. This post is a warning to entrepreneurs and leaders in the social sector to look past the convenience of crowdsourcing volunteer designers, and to understand the implications of such technologies.
Who’s In Charge Here?
By creating an interface for consultation, as we see with certain online services or “middle man” agencies (won’t name them here), the endeavor loses a sense of leadership. This begs the question: “Who’s in charge here?” Not that I am advocating for a dictatorship, but it is common knowledge that the secret ingredient behind any design studio, service mission, advertising agency, community church group, school, etc. is the collective’s vision – something that is created by the sum of an organization’s parts, but facilitated by a leader. While the people that comprise of a larger organization are vital pieces to the puzzle as a whole, without a leader there can be no consistency in vision, or output, of that contribution.
Every working environment, big or small, has a leader of some sort – even if it is not explicitly acknowledged by the community, it is human nature for one or more individuals to assume a leadership role within a larger machine. Think about group projects back in high school – there is always that one guy or girl that ends up leading the group. They were not assigned that position, it just happened.
Crowdsourcing, however, is one of very few examples of a “working environment” that actually does not have a leading voice of any kind – the “organization,” in this case, then, becomes an interface. It does not have, nor does it intend to have, a consistency in output (whether that be in terms of strategy, aesthetics, or language). The “leaders” in these cases are Directors, not Officers – they do not have input into what their “team” is creating – they are just there to make sure that a plethora of stuff is being created, in general. This creates a huge margin for error, a lack of consistency and, quite frankly, chaos.
Competition is Bad for Design when the Judge is Not a Designer.
Because most crowdsourcing platforms, specifically in the design industry, operate as “competitions,” the creator’s mind is forced to think about what the client would pick, as opposed to what the client needs. This sort of paranoiac environment / the general desire to “win” produces really aesthetically beautiful work, but unfortunately has the tendency to eliminate any strategy or conceptual groundwork behind the work. In short, the crowdsource-lovin’ designer is good at making “facades” – pretty stuff, not stuff with substance. Stuff that a client would DEFINITELY be ok with, not something they would have to take a risk on. This reality actually squanders a creator’s ability to create that which is new, because they are too preoccupied with “winning” using that which is old and expected.
Crowdsourcing fuels a very unproductive environment, one that favors the “I’ll know it when I see it” client to designer relationship. True innovation comes from taking risks – it is impossible to “know it when you see it.” In fact, most ideas that are truly new often times lack a lot of initial appeal. In The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun speaks to the idea of resistance in innovation: “The secret tragedy of innovators is that their desire to improve the world is rarely matched by support from those they hope to help.” In google’s early years, they pitched the idea of “ranking” searches to yahoo and other major Silicon Valley companies, but were shot down constantly. Shortly after Alexander Bell invented the telephone, he approached Western Union for financial assistance. They saw no value in his invention, and asked him to leave – oops. These kinds of game-changing ideas take getting used to, you need to understand them before coming to a judgement. When the familiar and the unfamiliar exist together as a sea of options to pick from, the familiar always wins.
Creating something new requires us to completely reconsider our assumptions – true innovation comes when you are surprised by the outcomes of an endeavor, not when you work towards making the thing you expected to make. When an organization leverages a crowdsourcing platform, they will receive exactly what they asked for. You want a logo? You will get a few hundred to pick from. You want a website? Here are a couple pretty home pages. Design has major potential beyond these topical things – instead of stating what they need, people that want to leverage the full potential of design should instead be stating what their problem is, and should be open to the solution.
A website is only one out of potentially millions of ways to build the partnerships this particular client desires, but when the scope of the project is limited by the prompt delivered to designers in a crowd, all of the other potential directions design could go in are closed off.
A Lack of Commitment, and a Lack of Consistency.
A platform that uses interfaced facilitation is really easy to ditch. If a designer thinks you don’t fancy their idea, they’ll just walk away – you are as much a number to them as they are to you. There are millions of projects they can choose to submit to. When they leave, their seat will be replaced with the next 1,000 designers that are fighting to win your approval.
When developing your brand, your product, your business, or whatever it is that you want to introduce to the world, you want a leader to stand by your side through it all. Selecting a team to work with you as opposed to a number to work for you yields a higher possibility to develop a lasting relationship of trust and commitment as opposed to an insincere acquaintance.
Let’s Think “Networks”
So clearly there are a lot of downsides to the crowdsourcing movement – both for the makers and the buyers. As we have discovered throughout this article, crowds invite any and all that want to take part without a means of filtering, or a sense of leadership. Crowds dehumanize the creator, and therefore creates an environment of “makers” that lack passion, recognition, and commitment for the work they are creating. Interfaced facilitation, like crowdsourcing platforms or placement agencies, also create unstable leadership – an environment in which executives choose to “farm out” the work as opposed to provide hands-on guidance to ensure quality and consistency.
So what is the alternative? I propose this: Instead of using, or becoming part of, a crowd, utilize and grow “networks.”
Networks, as opposed to crowds, are crafted over a long period of time, sometimes an entire career. We all have networks – they are people with whom our lives have intersected, worked with, spoken with at a conference, gone to school with… We don’t seek out a network, they just happen over time. Networks are comprised of people, not numbers. Networks are hundreds (sometimes even just a dozen), not millions. Networks are collaborative, not delegatory. Networks of friends, by nature, are honest, trustworthy, and consistent. By shifting our mindset to see the internet as a small community, we can still leverage the talents of many people to get work done efficiently, but we can do so while remembering that the person behind the interface, email, skype call, chat room… is a person, not a number.
What is your take on the crowdsourcing movement? Do you think it can work well for certain services? Are you skeptical, like us? Discuss in the comments below!