Like pretty much every skilled professional in the 21st century, graphic designers now compete not only against their peers but against anybody anywhere who wants to compete with them. Thanks to services like Crowdspring.com, clients large and small can post a design task and set a fee and sit back while far-flung competitors fight for the prize. (Only the winning design earns the fee.) Debates about sites like Crowdspring usually turn on familiar talking points: There are those who say democratization benefits clients by leveraging the market while leveling the playing field for upstarts who lack credentials and connections; then there are those who believe amateurization degrades and undermines a noble profession.
But never mind the morality of the crowd-sourcing systems. What about the results? I was curious, so I signed up for Crowdspring and posted a small design job. And to help me assess the results, I recruited some actual experts: Roman Mars, creator and host of the highly enjoyable design-focused Podcast 99% Invisible; Debbie Millman, president of design at Sterling Brands and chair of the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program; and the art department of Slate.
Before we get to the results, a few words about the parameters of my little project. I offered the minimum "reward" (to use the service's terminology) that Crowdspring allows: $200. Obviously that means I wasn't expecting to get the same quality that a top-tier firm like Pentagram or a superstar designer like Milton Glaser would presumably deliver. For that matter, offering the minimum fee meant that I didn't even expect to see the very best work the service could produce.
But that wasn't the point of this experiment. The point was to see what the minimum gets you. After all, the minimum is both the most threatening price point (as theoretical pressure on professional rates) and the most democratic (putting design within reach of those with limited budgets). My project was conveniently minimal: I wanted a logo for my email newsletter, and I certainly didn't have the money to hire a pro.
Registering with Crowdspring takes a minute or two, tops. You can lurk around looking at lots of other people's projects—and in many cases the submissions—for free, but if you want to post a job, you have to pony up: $359 for a "standard" account. (That amount includes the $200 minimum fee for the winning designer; obviously you can pay more if you want to offer a higher fee. If you pay $1,349, you can register as a "Pro" and supposedly get access to "top creatives," plus more control over who can see your project's entries, and so on.) I filled out the "creative brief" form, answering Crowdspring's canned questions ("What are the top 3 things you would like to communicate through your logo?") as concisely as possible and linked to an issue of the newsletter itself. My entire write-up was 192 words.
After a week, I had 32 submissions, from 22 designers. (All told, there were 39 entries, but some were withdrawn and replaced, or were revised versions of the same design.) That's nowhere near the "average of 110+" the site bragged about, but my lazy cheapskate approach may have dragged my total down. Either way, what I got was frankly a lot more than I was expecting. And speaking only for myself—my expert judges, as you'll see, don't all agree—the quality was better than I would have guessed.
Which isn't to say I was bowled over. Many of the submissions were easy to eliminate: They looked tossed-off, with icons that didn't make sense or were obvious clichés. And it was striking how curiously uniform much of the work looked—similar variations on slick, corporate, computer-graphic aesthetics. (One or two evoked Pac-Man, though I assume not intentionally.) There was also a remarkable overrepresentation of the color blue—I'd offered no color specs. CrowdSpring prods customers who post projects to rate entries on a five-star scale and send feedback to the designers. So I narrowed down my own favorites to five (see the accompanying slideshow) and turned to my expert advisers.
Roman Mars, while thoroughly diplomatic, couldn't get enthusiastic about any of the offerings, zeroing in on a side effect of their uniformity: a general lack of personality. Everything seemed "fine, and clean, and proper, without being right." One variation, which incorporated some speech balloons with squiggly lines (picking up on my brief's mention of the newsletter as a means of sparking conversation with readers), struck him as closest to the mark. He described it as "a little messier" than the others, and thus more human.