Crowdsourcing the Creative Process

The traditional process for sourcing creative work contains significant risk for the buyer along with the potential for wonderful reward in the form of great design. The typical risks are threefold: first, finding and working with the right designer for your project; second, the inherent limitations in choosing design concepts; and third, the problem of committing to buy something you have not yet seen.

There is, however, a non-traditional option that many businesses are pursuing — crowdsourcing creative work. Wikipedia defines crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.”

Finding a designer, developing a working relationship, and communicating exactly what you need can be a challenge — particularly the first part. Sure, there are plenty of ways to find a creative services provider — you can ask friends or associates for recommendations, you can pick up the yellow pages (or the online equivalent, Google), or you can use a freelance marketplace online (such as Guru or Elance) to solicit bids. You might have a few recommendations, you might get a dozen Google hits, or, if you post your requirements on Guru, you might receive 50-100 bids and proposals to wade through.

Tough Choices

But … how to choose? When using a traditional approach to identifying a provider, we also tend to use traditional criteria to judge their strengths and make a choice: What is their education? How strong is their portfolio? Who are their other clients? Where are they located, and do they have nice offices? These are the questions one asks to mitigate the risk inherent in hiring a contractor or freelancer.

Once you have found a provider, the challenge becomes communicating exactly what you are looking for, and vocabulary can often be a barrier. Adjectives can often fail us in these situations, particularly when the buyer is not particularly sophisticated in the terminology (e.g. “modern,” “traditional,” “futuristic,” “cool,” “funky.”) How do you go about telling someone what you want your brand to represent? The best designers will spend time with the client to understand their business and their audiences and will work hard to lead the client to a great solution. But the ability to truly understand their client’s business is not something that every designer brings to the table. It is incumbent on the buyer to find a way to communicate their needs.

When you are shopping for a television, Best Buy displays 30 or 40 different models to choose from. At the grocery store, Campbell’s Soup typically has about 50 running feet of shelf space with every imaginable variety there for the choosing. But when you hire a designer using the traditional model, you typically will receive three to five working design “concepts” to choose from, and (hopefully) one will suit your needs. But this limited choice is, well, limiting. You will choose one, and you will work with the designer on revisions, and (if you did your homework and hired a good provider) you will probably end up with a nice piece of work. But, until those final deliverables are in your hands, you don’t really know what you’re going to end up with. And there is no guarantee that you will be happy.

More Choices

Which brings us to crowdsourced design. There are numerous online services that take the freelance marketplace we talked about earlier to the next level using the power of crowdsourcing. These sites don’t simply facilitate one-to-one connections between buyers and sellers of an unspecified universe of services — they focus in on specific markets where they can leverage their expertise most effectively. For creative services, online marketplaces such as Crowdspring take the transaction from start to finish and ensure that all of the risks inherent to outsourced design are addressed by tapping a global pool of creatives rather than a single individual.

Even within creative services you can find the crowdsourcing model further drilled down to fill very specific niches. Threadless, for example, uses the model for t-shirt designs. Popdeck is for skateboard designs, and Redesignme is for product design. There are even sites like Sellaband that have repurposed the crowdsourcing model for the music industry, and we’re seeing more and more examples of some of the world’s best known brands, including Starbucks and Dell leveraging crowdsourcing for product design and marketing.

The difference between these sites and the traditional approach to outsourcing becomes obvious when we examine how crowdsourcing is integrated into the user experience, which usually starts with buyers posting projects and designers from around the world providing designs created to the buyer’s specifications. Leveraging the crowd for creative services addresses the shortcomings inherent in traditional sourcing, and is a fast and simple way to find a creative. It provides virtually unlimited choice, and it significantly reduces the buyer’s risk.

Get Specific

Using a crowdsourced approach to creative services, buyers can write and post a creative brief to communicate exactly what they are looking for. The brief can describe the business, the product or service offered, the audience they are communicating to, and the basic look and/or feel they are going for. They are free to name the price they wish to pay, determine the length of the project (typically 1-3 weeks), and list the file formats they need delivered. In turn, the tens of thousands of designers from around the world who comprise the sell side of crowdsourced design services can upload actual designs for the buyer to choose from, and an average project can receive up to 100 entries.

Using crowdsourced design services, buyers can usually score each entry and give feedback to the designers, who can then revise their entries and re-post for the buyer’s approval. And at the end of the project, the buyer simply chooses the entry they like best (much like that TV at Best Buy) and in some cases, such as with Crowdspring, the site handles payment and file delivery along with legal agreements for both parties to transfer the rights to the intellectual property being bought.

This model does have its detractors, with many designers who work in the traditional model decrying “spec” work and insisting that the process devalues good design. They argue that the buyer reaps all of the benefits in crowdsourced creative services and that the designer creates work with no guarantee of being paid for their services. But, much like traditional outsourcing, the Internet has enabled a new way of doing business in the creative world, and given creatives around the world access to new jobs and new clients.

The new crowdsourcing model for outsourced provides a truly level competitive playing field for designers. It no longer matters where a designer was educated, how fat their portfolio is, what their client list looks like, or how fancy their office is. All that matters is their idea and how well it meets the buyer’s objectives. And for buyers of creative services it is the idea that matters first and always.

Michael Samson is cofounder of Crowdspring, a site that enables crowdsourcing on a project basis.


  • What the author described in this article is not crowdsourcing. It is a form of a reverse auction.

    Real crowdsourcing would look like this:

    Instead of using a single person as the evolver, it would average out the ratings of a large pool of people and select the best-fit design. The Genetic Algorithim will then go back and change the design.

    There are many other examples in Kevin Kelly’s excellant book. While a reverse auction may resemble crowdsourcing, it only iterates through a single generation. There are no further iterations to apply evolutionary pressure. We have not yet even begun to tap the full commercial potential of crowdsourcing — nay, let’s call it for what it really is: complexity theory.

    Ho-Sheng Hsiao

    Isshen Solutions, Inc.

    • Interesting post and comment – and it highlights the two main versions of crowdsourcing:

      1) harnessesing collective intelligence through a collaborative approach – such as Kelly’s evolutionary (memetic) model

      2) harnessing distributed intelligence (diamond in the dirt) through a competitive process.

      But both are crowdsourcing as defined by Jeff Howe – outsourcing to the crowd via an open-call. And interestingly both are evolutionary models of creativity – just a difference between gradualism and punctuated equilibria.

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