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The creative brief is two sentences, bespeaking the author’s level of design sophistication: “I’m looking for a logo for a law school technology institute that needs to emphasize innovation, using our school colors.”

Posted on the crowdsourcing graphic design website 99designs.com, these sentences launched a design competition that resulted in 29 designers submitting more than 60 options for consideration. One of them was chosen and offered the $399 prize. The design was clichéd—an outdated incandescent light bulb signified “innovation” and looked hastily done. When broken down to an hourly rate, the winning designer was likely paid a living wage, nothing special. But the other 36 designers, who went on to either pursue other work or enter other competitions, lost time and money on the competition. And although the director who posted the design brief was initially pleased with the outcome, after it was released, the institute received criticism for its poor logo choice.

It’s a well-worn argument in the design community that crowd-sourced design contests “amateurize” the profession, peddle mediocre work to low-budget clients and should be avoided. AIGA has come out against the practice, and many design associations and design firms have declared that they will not work on spec and that you shouldn’t either.

Yet many well-trained designers and copywriters are ignoring that advice and participating in contests on websites like DesignCrowd, crowdSPRING, Elance, Scripted and 99designs. Why would they join a marketplace of dilettantes? It’s pretty simple. They win.

Ben Capazo, who works full time as a designer at Envoi Design in Cincinnati, has won several contests on 99designs, and in so doing, he has established himself as a beer-label specialist. “I do it mainly for fun and to stay sharp,” he says. Acknowledging that many of the contests are just time-sinks, he says that he is selective, only entering contests that he feels he could win and his employer doesn’t find problematic. “I’d say, generally, the work you get from these contests is good, and much more budget friendly to small startups. Bottom line, there is money being made on sites like this. You just have to be smart about how you devote your time to them.”

Shana Cinquegrana is a mother in New Jersey who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and needed some income while she stayed at home with her baby. She has won 240 graphic design contests in six years, and she stockpiles the nonwinning files as a ready-made illustration archive that she can draw on for future work. Her niche has become designing for women’s small fashion and beauty businesses. So many of her contest awards have led to long-term clients that she no longer needs to aggressively pursue more, and she admits that the site is an easier platform for attracting business than pursuing individual opportunities. As a stay-at-home mother, she asks, “If I didn’t have 99designs, what else would I do?”

Like Capazo, Cinquegrana doesn’t think the crowdsourcing sites have created problems in this post-recession economy, which has seen millions of full-time jobs dry up and replaced with piece-work gigs orchestrated by Silicon Valley startups like Uber, Homejoy and Task Rabbit. “They’re just responding to what’s happened,” she says. Nor does she believe that crowd-sourced design work comes from the big companies who make up the bread and butter of design firm client accounts. When the recession hit, the more entrepreneurial types were trying to come up with online businesses, she explains. “Suddenly, with the rise of social media, everybody had an idea for a business and needed a logo and a brand, so there were lots of new opportunities,” she said.

Nicholas Sheriff, a web designer in San Francisco, took advantage of online design contests during the recent recession in order to build up his experience base, realizing that as a freelancer, he might be able to design twelve websites a year, but with these platforms, he could complete twelve in a few weeks. He also likes how he can easily create an online portfolio on the crowdsourcing sites that’s hosted and promoted for free. After focusing on contests for nine months, he started winning them, eventually connecting with a roster of clients and an angel investor who is funding his new iPhone app. “Designers can make a living designing on these sites,” he says. “But there is still a perception problem, and it’s been a hard sell getting my designer friends involved.”

The British organization NO!SPEC is adamantly against designers participating on websites that sell contest listings. One of their chief arguments is that contests put inexperienced designers under time pressure, disabling them from doing appropriate market research on the company that would otherwise enrich the design. Its website admonishes: “Don’t forget, the designers are the ones with the training, the ones with the marketing experience. They should be able to know all there is about clients’ needs, to be able to guide clients and produce the most appropriate work. You wouldn’t tell your lawyer how to defend you in a trial or tell a mechanic how to do his or her job. You look into their history, you hire them and let them work.”

But if the design contest website is also a free platform for centralized portfolio browsing, then it’s no longer working against the direct designer/client relationship. Compared to a stand-alone designer portfolio site, a potential client is immediately able to compare dozens of designers that specialize in the type of work the client is interested in. Furthermore, a transparent history of how that designer has responded to a creative brief or adapted to critique is available. So crowdsourcing sites can enable more design production overall, akin to what match.com has done for dating and what monster.com has done for job searching. Buyers and sellers co-mingle, and the marketplace itself is prioritized over the quality of the work.

These sites can also function as a treasure trove of visual ideas, joining the ranks of Pinterest, Behance and Dribbble. Thanks to stringent copyright and originality policing by peers and site administrators, millions of original images are displayed on them now.

A designer working at a startup in San Francisco (who requested anonymity) said that she listed a project on 99designs at the request of a client who wanted to keep costs low. “It felt like having my own design firm with junior designers vying for my attention,” she says. Admitting that it was fun to see the results of so many brainstorms, she says that the designs “weren’t horrible,” but they weren’t good enough for her client to use.

Graphic designer Dan Cassaro, who experienced an extra fifteen minutes of fame last summer when he tweeted an acerbic response to a design contest invitation from Showtime that went viral, says he will never participate in crowd-sourced design. But he’s not for outlawing it. “The general feeling is that you get what you pay for,” he said. “I personally don’t feel threatened by those contests. If people want to pay $10 for a logo, then that’s their prerogative. Someone who is a professional baker doesn’t worry about someone else selling Twinkies at a bake sale. It’s silly, but not really threatening to our industry.”

In fact, these sites may ultimately prove to be a win-win by enabling amateurs to have their own market, argues Scripted CEO Sunil Rajaraman. But they would have to eliminate the contests. Rajaraman’s company is not a crowdsourcing venture, but its plat-form similarly connects qualified freelance copywriters to agencies in need of content, enabling writers, he says, to do what they love. “We identify great writers, and we pay them fairly. The bottom rate is $20 per hour,” he says. “But we’ve had writers make $100 per hour, and even $7,000 in a single month off of Scripted jobs.”

Most of the writers vetted by Scripted are not professional journalists, but rather creative writers or graduates of writing programs. They aren’t feeding families, but use the site to supplement their income. Rajaraman contends that his site isn’t driving down rates for professional work. “Almost 100 percent of the work we do is for small businesses,” said Rajaraman. “We don’t contract with outlets that require professional, formally trained journalists.”

If his model proves successful over the long run, it points the way to a kinder, gentler disruption of the creative industry, one that doesn’t push competitions on spec to the lowest bidder and that preserves the important distinction between professionals and amateurs. ca
Jessica Carew Kraft (writingkraft.com) is an independent print journalist based in San Francisco, specializing in cultural trends and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Grist magazine, ARTnews and other publications. Originally from the Midwest, Kraft trained as an anthropologist at Swarthmore College and Yale University, then worked as an art critic, graphic designer and adjunct professor.

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