Can $200 buy me some decent amateur design work? Can $200 buy me some decent amateur design work? Can $200 buy me some decent amateur design work?

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May 31 2011 7:41 AM

The Crowd Is Wise—but Can It Draw?

I offered the amateurs on $200 to design a logo for my newsletter. Here's what they came up with.

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Debbie Millman was even less impressed: "Nothing remarkable, nothing with charisma or stature or intellect or wit." She suggested that CrowdSpring's "four boilerplate questions" (and my somewhat terse answers) were part of the problem: a successful design would require a much more thorough conversation.

My advisers from Slate's art department were somewhat more upbeat. Holly Allen liked the "visual wit" of a version that converted the M in the newsletter's name (Consumed) into an envelope icon that also suggested a speech bubble. Natalie Matthews and Slate design director Vivian Selbo liked that one, too, though each had other favorites. Vivian made the case for a type-only version, in which the name fades from one color to another against a reverse background. "It best represents the idea of consuming as an act whereby the thing taken in becomes part of the whole."

I liked that one, too. But as it happens, this was Roman Mars' least favorite design: "All I see is 'Umed' and think it is a logo for a new university hospital." That was a good point. But without a clear consensus, I decided to embrace the theory that divisiveness is good: Anything that's both someone's favorite and someone's least favorite must have something to it. My winner (who goes by "designholic" and turns out to be in Brussels) promptly sent me proofs and finals in various digital formats, and my approval prompted Crowdspring to fork over the $200.


I was a more-or-less-satisfied customer—but was I also an immoral one? Millman reminded me that every designer who submits a job to CrowdSpring and doesn't get picked is working for free: This variation on crowd-sourcing is "exploitative," and while she was too polite to say so, I'm clearly the exploiter here. Mars, meanwhile, told me that he'd once considered having his 99% Invisible podcast host a contest to design a replacement for San Francisco's city flag (which he detests), but he was convinced by his design-world contacts that the professional community would flat out oppose this effort, for similar reasons.

With these concerns in mind, I tried to find out a little about the people who had submitted entries to my logo project. The version with the mail icon had come from a "lpavel," who is apparently in Moldova and who has prevailed in six past CrowdSpring projects; he didn't seem upset at not winning this one, and offered this link to his online portfolio. Another one of the better entries came from a designer in Bulgaria, whose entries have evidently won 59 CrowdSpring jobs. A third came from a designer who, amusingly, asked me not to reproduce her design in this column—because she'd tweaked it and submitted it to another logo-seeking project for a company with a name that started with a "C." (It seems to have won her a $400 award.)

It was hard for me not to think about CrowdSpring in the context of the "democratization" of my own profession over the last decade or so. Argue all you want about whether, say, unpaid contributors to the Huffington Post are citizen-journalists storming the barricades of the elite media, mediocre talents being exploited by a profit-hungry business, or both. They're a fact of life, and I suspect that the same is true of designers in Moldova and Bulgaria taking a shot at getting $200 from some guy with a newsletter. I wouldn't use CrowdSpring for a more serious design project—but I also wouldn't have shelled out serious money for this one. As Roman Mars summarized it during our discussion: "It looks like you got what you paid for, which should be reassuring to everyone."