One-click wonders

The growth of crowdsourcing websites like 99designs could mean an uncertain future for the graphic design profession

The internet has brought countless benefits. Life without it is unthinkable. Yet for many trades and professions it has also come at a high cost. We only have to look at the impact on journalism from blogging; the effect on the music and film industries from file sharing; and the way the high street has been devastated by online retailing.

I’ve always thought that graphic design was immune from the more damaging effects of the online revolution. Until now, that is. Today we find ourselves in a networked world where users make their own content; where fully-functioning, downloadable websites are advertised on prime time TV; where nearly everyone has basic graphic design skills; where businesses can launch with a Facebook page and a Twitter account; and where the role of the designer is up for urgent renewal.

But why worry? Clients pay us for our fabled conceptual thinking, and you can’t digitise thinking, can you? Well, not quite, but you can subject it to the democratising and levelling effects of the internet, which is pretty much what a crowdsourcing website called 99designs is doing. It describes itself as “the fastest growing design marketplace in the world”, and it has just launched in the UK after rapid growth in Australia and the USA.

Here’s how it works. Clients are invited to host ‘design contests’. They post their briefs on the 99designs website and instantly gain access to “thousands of talented designers” willing to compete against each other to create “a logo design you love”. If you don’t love what you are offered (out of the dozens of submissions), you can have your money back. 99designs offers a range of rudimentary design services: logo design, web design, business cards, icon design, WordPress themes, stationery design, brochure design, print and packaging, T-shirt design, banner ads. And the prices are eye-poppingly cheap: logos start at £195; web pages from £395; brochures from £125. Delivery is promised in “just 7 days”.

The company makes some big claims. Based on figures up to the end of January 2012, their total pay-out to UK designers was £1.38 million. In the UK they have hosted over 7,000 contests; 6,347 designers have participated and 694 have been successful. Globally, 99designs has paid $30 million to designers. They boast more than 140,000 designers in 192 countries. The company has heavyweight venture capital backing and is ambitious for more growth.

In purely business terms 99designs is impressive. No other design group can match its scale of operation. But post-banking crises, businesses need to have ethical credentials if they want to avoid public scrutiny, and needless to say, 99designs has its critics on this score. There is plenty of bile and vitriol directed at them by designers offended by the low standard of the work on show, by the idea that design is reduced to an automated one-click online service no more complicated that buying a book on Amazon, and by the ethical implications of treating designers as an unsecured labour force.

99 problems but…
I went to see Patrick Llewellyn, 99designs’ CEO, in the plush St James’s offices of his venture capital backers. There aren’t many design studios in this financially well-upholstered part of central London, and Llewellyn is quick to let me know that his offices in Melbourne and San Francisco are “nothing like this!” He exudes evangelical zeal, and he’s keen to stress that he’s a “business guy, not a designer”.

I ask him to explain why designers should get involved with 99designs. “Our biggest pitch is that we have the customers,” he says. “If you’re looking for work, we’ve got it. We’ve already been paid. So we’ve got work for you. There’s no cost to enter – only your time, and if you love design, then it’s not a bad way to spend your time.”

Next, I ask him to list the benefits for clients: “Lots of choice, lots of ideas, and all happening in real time,” he says gleefully. “What was typically a three- to six-week process can now be condensed to seven or ten days. It’s like designing on steroids. You can start iterating in real time. All at a price point that we think is pretty affordable.”

But the case against 99designs is a strong one. For a start, most of the work is dire: cliché-ridden logos not much better than clip art and web pages that would earn a foundation year student a fail. Secondly, there is an argument to say that young and inexperienced designers are being exploited. Clients are given the huge commercial benefit of being able to choose from dozens of submissions, yet are only required to pay for a fraction of the effort that they are responsible for generating. Choice, we are often told, is the great benefit of free markets: but what sort of choice is it, if it is at the expense of someone else?

99designs argues that it is bringing clients to designers who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them, and it points out that designers are free to continue relationships with clients independently of 99designs. “We think of our site as a sort of dating service for designers and clients,” Llewellyn states. And it’s true that they are only doing what clients do anyway when they ask for unpaid pitches. It’s just that 99designs are doing it on a global scale, and instead of five, ten, or 15 studios battling for a single job, they have 100 designers fighting for a single low-budget project. These are poor odds and only the desperate can contemplate gambling on this scale. But Llewellyn is dismissive of arguments against the malign effects of free pitching and spec work: “The no-spec-work movement is all about building business the traditional way. We think there is a new paradigm. We think submitting work on spec is a much better way to find work than knocking on doors.”

Towards the end of our discussion, Llewellyn reveals the surprising information that his top 1,000 customers are all small creative agencies: “Typically, web design agencies or a small agency with an art director who knows how to write a brief,” he says. “They function like a typical agency but they get their design work from us. People also use us to pitch. Think about it: you can create a small agency easier than ever before.”

I wasn’t expecting this. Could this be the future facing graphic designers? Will graphics go the same way as royalty free photography? There will always be demand – perhaps even growing demand – for highly talented and gifted designers, and for specialists such as information designers, app designers and exhibition designers. And any designer with a body of good work, sophisticated client skills, and a credible philosophy of design, has nothing to fear from 99designs. It’s the bargain basement of design, a service that only suits clients with minuscule budgets (plenty of them around), or those who have no interest in, or need for, sophisticated design (plenty of them, too).

But it’s snooty and blinkered to pretend that such clients don’t exist, or to insist that they shouldn’t be catered for by crowd-sourced design. Let’s not kid ourselves: graphic design has been ‘internetised’. This is the law that states that if something can be done online, it will be. And as we know, everything online is either free or dirt-cheap. Well, graphic design’s turn has come. And like everyone else in that leaky boat, we all have to learn to deal with it.

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