We’ve all heard it: crowdsourcing is the future. It seems to make sense, and for a capitalist like me the fundamental idea is sound… you need a service, and there are a lot of hungry people out there willing to provide it — let them fight it out, you just reap the reward. You spend the least amount possible and receive the maximum reward for that. We could have all kinds of warm, emotional conversations about the “right” or “wrong” of that, but the truth is that it’s really just a numbers game… everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants the maximum reward for the minimum expenditure.
But while the individual reward of such an approach certainly seems clear, from a macro perspective there are all kinds of things that are wrong with this approach. First of all, the truth is that cheaper and better rarely go hand-in-hand. There is a reason why things that are exceptional are rare… the best of anything is inevitably in a minority. And while there are certainly times where this approach is valuable — say for example when trying to find the best price on toothpaste, where we know for certain that the product we’re buying is exactly the same wherever we buy it — we rarely employ it on things that are important to us, and where the outcome is dependent on the effort of the individuals providing the service.
Additionally, the net effect of contributing to such a system is that you have manipulated market forces downword. And while that may not matter to you in the short term, in the long term it means that the service which you’ve effectively said, “has little value to me” will lose the efforts of those that are exceptional. What the system will be left with is everyone else… those with enough free time to do anything you want for the slim potential of “winning” your attention. And for those contributing to this ever-declining system that are good at what they do, have proven to be short sighted: for the opportunity of one, very small reward, they have driven the price of what they aspire to do for a living drastically down. Good luck trying to make a living doing that.
So the question is, are there situations where paying more is worthwhile? Absolutely. When you’re sick, you don’t put an ad out for a doctor and take the lowest bidder. And even when given the option of using a med student over a doctor with years of experience, people will generally choose the doctor with more experience. When choosing someone to take care of your kids, you wouldn’t think to ask hundreds to apply and then select the lowest bidder and the most superficially attractive option. When you hire a contractor, you don’t hire the one desperate for your work and willing to take many times less than any professional would. So what do these things have in common? That the amount you are willing to spend is directly proportional to how important it is to you.
So since we’re designers here, let’s cut right to the chase and talk about something near and dear to our hearts: branding. Why not crowdsource your brand? Or at the very least, your logo? We could have all kinds of discussions about how you just may get a great result from this process… hundreds of options to choose from for less than you spent at Starbucks last month, or on your new smartphone. Yes, it’s possible… you may be able to channel your inner brand savant and find the one logo that seems to capture exactly who you thought your company was, taking into account the story of who you were, are and want to be, current design trends and fads, the challenges of creating a logo that works in print, web and video, the multiple instances necessary for multiple color and b&w scenarios, the potential evolution of the mark and finally, of course, how it reinforces and informs your larger brand initiative. And if you don’t, what’s the big loss… you didn’t pay that much for it anyway.
But a brand is built from the moment it first appears in the world. From that singular moment, you are being judged… not just by your potential customers, but by everyone. Designers, reviewers, politicians, investors, and of course, your competition. And I assure you, what your 99designs logo says about you is that I do not care about my brand. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on commercial-grade video equipment for my lobby, but I don’t care what you put on it. I’ve spent millions of dollars on advertising space in the Wall Street Journal, but it doesn’t matter what I say or show. And many people may agree with you, but the people that really matter won’t.
Think about the brands that stand out to you, the brands that are most successful. Apple, Nike, BMW, IBM. None of these brands were created through crowdsourcing. They were part of one very organized, very coordinated branding initiative, that was executed exceptionally well, across all media, over many, many years. And while someone may one day achieve such a thing through crowdsourcing (highly unlikely, unless the crowdsourcing of the components themselves was orchestrated by one very skilled individual or individuals), that magical case study will be the exception, not the rule.
There are certainly valuable things about the crowdsourcing model. Let’s say you’re a small business, just starting out and leveraging your credit cards to make ends meet while you wait for that “one big break.” Crowdsourcing is perfect for you. What if you’re starting a new career — maybe you’re a consultant or you’ve just started your own contracting business, and you feel like a logo will help you feel committed to your project, give you something to rally behind. Great, do it! This is a perfect use of this new, inexpensive resource. Use the model and the system.
But when you succeed, then pay someone appropriately to help you intelligently develop your brand. There is an expertise required to fully realize a brand that very few have. And the efforts of those few are valuable, as they should be. Your brand, from the moment it is created, is a living thing… it does not rest, it does not sleep, it is a constant in a sea of change, even as it changes the world around it. It is who you are, and who you aspire to be… and that my friends, is not a responsibility that belongs with the lowest possible bidder.