Crowdsourcing creative = cannibalism

by Dirk Knemeyer

There are a lot of interesting things happening around crowdsourcing, many of which intuitively seem really good. Companies like Jovoto and Genius Rocket are serving as global connectors of people who want work done with people who are willing to do it. The benefits, according to Genius Rocket, include "Providing...hundreds of custom solutions, from thousands of creative professionals." and "Delivering agency level creative without the agency overhead." Jovoto's stated objectives reflect more altruism, focusing on "...the act of creation is free, collaborative and, above all, fair." Both companies appear to have reasonable objectives: Genius Rocket is trying to maximize impact while minimizing price, while Jovoto appears based around social consciousness and the professional training of students and young practitioners for design as a profession.

The problem with these and other services is they continue to relegate creative professionals and their talent into a marginalized position in our society.

This continues a tradition that goes back to the earliest moments in human history: the power, glory, success and control went to the warriors, the manipulators, the wealth accumulators. Artists have and continue to be relegated to the fringes of society. It is true that, in a world of mass media, performance artists and particularly musicians and actors can and do share a level of cultural capital and control commensurate with those in non-creative pursuits. However the lot in life of designers remains largely anonymous, underpaid and crippled relative to their higher earning and better-regarded peers who pursue business and capitalistic success as a means unto itself, to the detriment of the collective good and human condition.

How does the crowdsourcing of creative exacerbate this problem? In lots of ways:

1. Reinforces designers are a commodity not a valuable, skilled profession. If you can go to Genius Rocket and pay much less money to get orders of magnitude more people solving your problems, this teaches the purchaser - someone who by definition has power and capital - that there is nothing special or valuable about design. It is a game to be spun out to the masses and returned at a cut rate. Would those same purchasers do that with their company's accounting? How about their HR compliance? How about legal advice? Nope, never and no fucking way. There is a clear value chasm between the pillars of business in a structural and compliance sense and how it operates in a creative sense. People from the "business" side get rewarded with big titles, splashy salary and upward mobility. Creatives are treated as fungible and squeezed into mid-level ceiling positions. For example, my buddy Luke Wroblewski, one of the finest interface designers ever, had to append (VP) after his milquetoast title to try and communicate to the business world at-large that "I am more than a marginalized creative!" Having "hundreds" of creatives create "thousands" of concepts for a fraction of what quality work should cost further exacerbates this inequality.

2. Communicates that creative solutions are about quantity and "throwing shit at the wall", not intentional, thoughtful problem solving. One of the critical steps in Paul Rand's conception of design was percolation. That means, once you've done your research and started thinking about solutions, stepping away from the explicit problem and let it bounce around in the back of your head as you do and think about other things. This will help great ideas to form in unexpected ways and give you meaningful insights that make a profound difference. The power of percolation is, in a word, insane. SO powerful! There is no room for percolation in a world of $500 logos and $1,500 30 second videos (current projects listed on Genius Rocket). It is a world of fast food schlocky problem solving. "Quick! Have 1,000 people willing to do work for nothing throw stuff together! Some of them have gotta be good!" It is anathema to great design, an exercise in styling that succeeds as design only in cases of incredible luck or serendipity. Not only is the capable creative talent being disenfranchised from the process entirely, non-creatives are being taught that this is from where design springs forth! For shame. For absolute shame.

3. Prevents creative businesses from fairly competing in the free market. Genius Rocket gloats at disambiguating agencies, removing the "company" around the "creatives" in order to provide the work more cheaply. Great, yes, there are people who would be trying to run businesses and would stand to take money spent on creative and either spend it on overhead or keep it for profit. It sounds good on paper to provide savings by removing these costs. Yet, these people and their companies are the very infrastructure by which creative professionals are being given a platform to compete, contribute and behave as recognized, respected professionals operating within the auspices of business as it manifests in modern capitalism. Once you've rooted those people and their companies out of the market, then what? Is the future a world of countless, faceless creative freelancers who page thru project lists, learn to work really, really, really fast and cobble together lots of micro projects to make enough money to try and remain at parity with the Sr. Director of Blah-Blah-Blah at Alpha Dog, Inc.? Is that really in the best interests of any of us in the creative class?

Listen: I'm not naive. I understand basic supply-and-demand. I understand the technology for this sort of crowdsourcing is out there, and so long as a market can be created from pulling together enabling technology with clients and producers this is going to be part of our reality. And in truth there is a place for this type of service for tiny start-ups or other organizations that do not have the revenues or present potential to afford creative even if they wanted to. However, these services are not about providing creative for those companies who are, in essence, "in need": they are about providing it for everyone. The $500 logo is a product that all companies are encouraged to partake in and, insodoing, even companies that really need something more are being snookered into thinking logos simply "should" cost $500, like just another can of beans on the supermarket shelf.

But we should not be encouraging it or participating in it. To their credit Jovoto is heavy on altruistic language and vision, in stark contrast to Genius Rocket and many other providers. But in some way that makes their participation even worse: they know that the creative class has it bad. They know that "fair"-ness is something that creatives enjoy in far too short a supply within the operating paradigm. It is a fine line being walked, having the vision to empower young creatives to get experience and advance themselves in order to join the professional workforce, yet unintentionally undermining that very same workforce in the process.

My "agency" designs very complex software, and no crowdsourcing application like these will ever disenfranchise me. This isn't about me and protecting my particular fiefdom; it is about us as a healthy and diverse creative class. Once upon a time I was in the business of selling and providing "taglines and slogans". To see the U.S. Small Business Administration is crowdsourcing their tagline for $400 - in the process literally cutting out the legs of the companies that they are ostensibly in place to assist - is absolutely heart-wrenching.

It is up to the creative class to take the leadership role in helping our constituency succeed, flourish and thrive within the operating paradigm, no matter how counter the capitalist mentality or agenda might be to our more broadly minded worldviews.

Topics: Design, theory, Analysis, Blog