Is Crowdspring unethical?

21:34, Oct 05 2010

The concept of crowdsourcing creative work has stirred plenty of debate in the design world, with many designers up in arms - but is it really unethical?

Crowdspring has attracted its fair share of criticism, based mostly on the way it does business.

It works like this: A Crowdspring client, usually a business, posts a brief for a design project and offers a cash reward.

Crowdspring users put their work in the running for consideration during the project's time limit, which is usually a week or two.

The client then chooses their favourite and to the victor go the spoils. To the losers... well... they get nothing. If at least 25 designs are submitted, the client is obliged to buy one.

Crowdspring takes a 15 per cent fee on top of any successful tender - so if a client awards $1000 to a designer, they charge $150 on top of that.


Doing work free in the hope that it will be paid for is referred to as "spec" work in the design community - short for "speculated" - or "pre-pitching".

It is considered by some designers to be unfair, and unethical - including Kiwi designers like Philippa Dawe

Philippa Dawe - the anti-crowdsourcing designer

Philippa Dawe is the creative executive of a New Zealand design and branding firm. She makes no bones about her dislike for the Crowdspring business model - and she is not alone.

"Hundreds of people carry out that work, and then only one gets paid, usually at well below market rate," said Philippa.

So... why do people volunteer their free time and effort for an uncertain payout?

"Crowdspring may be voluntary, but it only works because it sells a commodity (creative work) which is prone to abuse because the work isn't understood as a tangible business asset and there's so much competition for that work," she said.

One Kiwi company that has used Crowdspring is Air New Zealand. They recently used it to find a script idea for a new in-flight safety video (not any of their current ones - one for the future).

Air New Zealand awarded two Crowdsource users US$5000 and US$1000 for ideas submitted through Crowdspring. They then passed those ideas on to their New Zealand agency, .99, to work with.

Philippa is critical of this practice.

"I can think of no viable justification for a highly profitable NZ company sourcing unpaid work in this way," she said.

"Don't get me wrong. I love Air NZ and I am consistently impressed with their advertising and marketing ... but surely innovation doesn't extend to commissioning their creative work for free?

"That's not a fair exchange, that's exploitation."

Air New Zealand - the crowdsourcing client

Air New Zealand's representative, Tracy Mills, says there's nothing wrong with it.

"Last month [August] we trialled Crowdspring to see what other ideas were around in the marketplace," she said.

"We make no apologies for looking to new sources for creativity to keep a constant stream of ideas flowing through the business.

"It's all part of being innovative on the world stage."

The Design Association of New Zealand - a representative body

I was interested in whether this was shunned by a Kiwi design organisation, so I spoke to the executive director of the Design Association of New Zealand, Ralph Hill.

He shared Air New Zealand's view, saying competition is healthy.

"I think that is a perfectly legitimate business practice," he said.

"It's no different to a developer going to an architect for a plan - that's the system we work by. I think it's very healthy."

And as for sending work overseas, when it could be given to New Zealand sources?

"We can't get into protectionism," he said. "What if everyone did that? We would only end up insulating ourselves."

"There's some myth around that we are better than everyone else - we're not. What we are good at is taking ideas and adapting them.

"Design shouldn't be confused with invention - a designer is a person who gives shape, form and function to an idea."

The Design Association has represented fully fledged specialist design professionals since 1946, and has about 150 full members.

The Design Institute of New Zealand - the other representative body

I want to check to see if this was a widely held view across the industry, so I talked to Design Institute chief executive Cathy Veninga about it.

Though the institute is ethically opposed to pre-pitching, Cathy believes that, with the market becoming more competitive, it is getting more common.

"We don't promote that as fair and ethical," she said.

"Sometimes it's an open range. We've just got to live with that.

"The recession softens people's attitudes toward that principal."

She says that in the architectural industry there are a lot of competitions that attract plenty of entries. Not everyone wins, but that's the kind of culture they are used to.

As for our national airline sending work overseas, Cathy says "that's a shame", but understands that "for their own reasons they've done it this way".

"People are doing it more and more because that's what the market is valuing."

The Design Institute was formed in 1991 by the merger of the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (formed in 1960), and the New Zealand Association of Interior Designers (formed in 1968) and has about 1154 members.

"Bluegrrrl" - the Crowdspring designer

I also wanted to talk to the person who won Air New Zealand's Crowdspring project, so I tracked her down.

"Bluegrrrl" is an industrial designer from South Africa who has been using Crowdspring for less than a month.

She told me she wouldn't discuss the particulars of the contract, but she did share her thoughts on the Crowdspring model.

"In my country, design is not very highly regarded," she said.

"Industrial designers are under-appreciated. We are the black sheep of the design family.

"There aren't many industrial design jobs going around in South Africa. Crowdsourcing is really handy for freelancers and students who don't want (or need) fulltime work."

However, she does see the points being raised by other designers.

"It is risky, as you are never guaranteed an award, so I would not try to make a living out of it. I'd do it just for fun, and to improve my software skills," she said.

"Moneywise, crowdsourcing is probably more beneficial to clients than to the designers. Where else can you get dozens of people working for you - each one providing four or five designs - for the price that you would normally pay one?"

Michael Samson and Ross Kimbarovski - creators of Crowdspring

I couldn't get a hold of these two, but they were interviewed by Forbes last year,

"The beauty of our site is that it doesn't matter if you have a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design or if you're a grandma in Tennessee with a bunch of free time and Adobe Illustrator," said Michael.

"If the client likes the grandma's work better, then she's going to get the job."

So what do you think? Is it honest competition, or exploitation? What is your opinion of crowdsourcing and speculative work?