Profit Minded

Crowdsourcing cuts costs for some, income for others

does crowdsourcing design hurt artists?A Profit Minded post on Friday that explained how business owners could employ crowdsourcing to save money on small graphic design jobs was unwelcome information to one group of entrepreneurs: graphic designers. Not that the blog trumpeted anything all that new. Reporting on the trend in 2009, the New York Times quoted an MIT business school professor who said crowdsourcing is "one more step on the path to leveling the playing field between small and large businesses."

But far from fair game, some graphic designers have come to see the practice as a threat to their livelihoods. It's not just Yahoo! readers who feel this way. A Wall Street Journal article on crowdsourced graphic design last year also drew designers' ire.

Just as many American manufacturers have shipped jobs overseas to cut costs, small and large businesses are increasingly using crowdsourcing to find cheaper services in fields including computer programming, data analysis, accounting, and even, as some angry readers suggested Yahoo! should do, blogging.

Bryan Gummersheimer, of Fresno, Calif., who has worked off and on as a freelance graphic designer for nearly two decades, wrote me an email to say "thank you for teaching people how to rip me off." Fair enough. As a freelancer in a creative market, I also have seen rates drop drastically as some venues turn to cheaper markets elsewhere in the world to fulfill copywriting needs.

So how can self-employed designers compete in this increasingly cut throat, albeit innovative, marketplace?

Some, including Gummersheimer, say graphic artists shouldn't try. Crowdsourcing competitions are "for the bottom-feeders of the design world," he says. Instead, pros like him discourage young artists from responding to crowdsourced contests. Graphic artists should band together to refuse to work "on spec," as crowdsourcing platforms demand, and stick to rates recommended by the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA), he says.

Gummersheimer, who got his start out of high school as a self-taught designer working for a local newspaper, says he spent $1,200 for his first computer in 1994. Design software packages like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, priced in the thousand-dollar-range back then, were simply beyond the reach of his credit limit. Today, he says, an amateur can get a start for a few hundred dollars with a used Mac and steeply discounted, or bootlegged, design software. "Everyone who has a computer … thinks they're a graphic designer. They learn just enough to get by with Photoshop and then start trying to make logos or graphics," he says.

This new development means people with his years of experience have to work harder to sell themselves. "I walk into an office and I have to be better than everyone else. I have to show why they should pay me thousands of dollars for a logo when the last guy did it for $50," Gummersheimer says. He wants customers to recognize that technology is just a tool: "The artist is still the person coming up with the ideas and putting them together. The program can't pick the colors or add in the principals of design for you. That is all on the artist. My job is to listen to the client and design a logo that appeals to his customers. His customers have to trust the company and it starts with creating a brand."

OK. But in fields from lawncare to plastic surgery there are professionals who are established enough to demand high prices, while others take lower pay as they build a client base. So why do designers begrudge the go-getters who are willing to compete on crowdsourcing platforms to build a portfolio?

The problem, Gummersheimer and others say, is that the crowdsourcing trend trains paying customers to expect free work from skilled professionals. Hundreds of artists submit ideas in a crowdsourced contest, but only the one who wins gets paid: "It would be like that plastic surgeon doing a nose job for free and you only paying if you like the work," says Gummersheimer. "It really does erode at the very core of our world."

Indeed, in an article called "What's the Harm in Crowdsourcing?" American Institute of Graphic Artists Executive Director Richard Grefe explained that the practice "compromises the value designers can provide their clients through a problem-solving relationship." AIGA's position on crowdsourcing is similar to its position on spec work, which is that "professional designers should be compensated fairly for their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients."

In the end, Gummersheimer takes solace in believing that businesses will get what they pay for. "This is why I don't shop at Walmart and I pay good money for a mechanic instead of the cheapest guy I can find," he says. Meantime, he's also gone back to school to finish his bachelor's of fine arts degree and plans to follow that up with a master's degree.

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