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The Dynamic Business crowdsourcing experiment

Inspired by an interview with 99designs’ founder Mark Harbottle last month, Dynamic Business decided to put crowdsourcing into a real life scenario by using the site to source this month’s cover design. Here’s how editor Jen Bishop found the experience.

It was a big risk to take the final cover design of this magazine out of my team’s hands but I have to say, I’m delighted with the final result. Myself and our art director Chantelle Gregory thought it would be a great one-off experiment. And then we went one further by letting the readers vote for the ultimate winner from our top three choices.

We received 270 cover designs from all over the world with Effendy Chen being the final winner. 99designs, which is the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace, lets you post a brief and what you’re prepared to pay for the work, and then designers compete to ‘win’ the contest and the prize money. If you don’t like a design, you can eliminate it. If you think something has potential, you give feedback and hope the designer comes back and refines the design to suit your needs.  We learned a lot from the experience so I’m keen to share it with you here.

The first thing you need to know is that you’ll probably receive a lot of rubbish from people who haven’t put much time or effort into their submission. I certainly spent the first few days seriously questioning why I’d agreed to this. One stock library image after another was submitted, many completely off brief. But the support staff from 99designs were great at giving us advice on how to give feedback and attract better designs.

The next thing you need to know is that this is a time-consuming process. When you’re in a busy day job, to have to keep on top of the designs daily is a chore. But when the good designs come in (and, to be honest, they are the minority), it’s really worthwhile. We had three we would have happily run on the cover and we spent a lot of time going back and forth with those designers, refining concepts and just getting to know them.

While our readers loved the idea and the chance to get involved, what surprised me the most was the groundswell of negative comments we received about crowdsourcing via the Dynamic Business Twitter and Facebook. Many said it cheapened the design profession and that it was unfair some people did the work and ultimately weren’t rewarded for their time. While I can see where they’re coming from, my personal view is that it’s a free market. You can choose to participate in or not.

From a customer point of view, as someone who is used to dealing with professional, talented, in-house designers, I’d say crowdsourcing is a risky business. I know I can give my designers a brief and be confident I’ll get what I need when I need it. With crowdsourcing there are no guarantees. Then again, it can be a lot cheaper. Like anything, you have to go into it with your eyes open and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages.

Chantelle Gregory, who is the art director on Dynamic Business, was initially concerned about crowdsourcing the cover but thought it would be an interesting experiment. “I agreed to go ahead with it because we were going to be featuring a non-biased article on whether or not crowdsourcing is successful and what the pro’s and con’s are,” she said. “I thought it would add a level of depth to the article if we could not only collect experiences from others, but then compare those experiences with our own.”

Gregory found the experience time-consuming, adding: “If you are not willing to put in the time and effort towards communicating with the designers and offering feedback in order to reach the desired result – don’t do it. Once we started offering more feedback, the quality of the submissions definitely improved. Crowdsourcing is very different to approaching a marketing or branding agency who knows exactly what they are doing.”

It was an anxious few days for both of us but by the end of the week, Gregory and I were much happier. “After time spent on feedback towards the end of the competition we had a few really great submissions and were able to refine the ideas to a point that we were very happy with,” says Gregory. “I think we were very lucky when Effendy decided to enter the competition! He hit the nail right on the head and had a great concept and illustration style from the start – exactly what we were looking and hoping for.”

Gregory, who has been a designer for four years, added: “I felt that most of the people submitting work were not professionally trained so you do need to spoonfeed them quite a bit.” She agrees with many of the anti-crowdsourcing brigade, but says: “Crowdsourcing is what it is. It is clear from the beginning that if you want to enter a contest on these sites, that you are entering knowing that there is a high chance that you won’t win the job. Sites like these should be treated like a competition space where you enter a competition for fun and to gain industry experience. But know that there are hundreds of other people entering and that you might not win.”

Fellow Australian designer Des Lau has a different view. He works full-time at a design company dealing with print collateral and has started freelancing in his spare time under the Visual Juice brand doing logos, brand identities and front-end website designs.

While at his day job he gets handed clients, crowdsourcing has been one way of increasing exposure for his freelance role. “You have to actively find clients and spread the word. 99designs has actually brought me a few clients as well.”

What’s good for Lau is that he can pick and choose the contests he wants to enter at the times when the contest fits his schedule. Although he admits, “you can do a lot of work for no pay and no reward,” the process has also taught him a lot about the end-to-end process of dealing with clients and responding to feedback. “As long as you’re willing to put in time for a possible reward then it’s all good. A lot of people are against it, but you have to do work to get somewhere. Your experience grows,” Lau says. “I found my skill on 99designs and I really enjoy attacking one niche and having success with it. Most of my portfolio is 99designs and it has definitely helped.”

Effendy Chen, who won the Dynamic Business contest with a prize of $1,000, is 25 and lives in North Sumatera, Indonesia. He was an art director for an advertising agency before going freelance this year. He started his career as a graphic designer on lifestyle magazine Aplaus where his drawing skills were noticed and he was given a regular comic strip. Three years ago, he joined an advertising agency and he was promoted to art director this year. He joined 99designs six months ago.

“It’s a good place to improve your design skills, communication skills and of course, the networking. As a freelance designer, it is very hard to build a client base and 99designs opened up opportunities for that. I’ve made several good clients and friends.

“I saw the Dynamic Business contest on the first page with a great prize. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my design’s rating going up faster than the others and at the end of the day I won the contest! Wow! I’m truly happy with the news! It feels really great when you see people congratulate you as the winner. It’s truly one of the best achievements for me.”

Chen understands some people are against crowdsourcing design. “Everything has a positive and negative side. I’ve heard a lot people against crowdsourcing as they say it cheapens the design profession. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who see this as an opportunity to sharpen their skills and start networking with international clients. Yeah, sometimes you’ll be pissed off to see a project with a price that doesn’t seem fair. But there are still many others that are willing to pay more because they need professional skills. So I think it’s about how much you see your skill being worth. Overall, I see the crowdsourcing sites as an opportunity. I do like them.”

Why graphic design is so important to businesses

Dean Jones is a serial entrepreneur and a compulsive investor from Melbourne. Currently with his hands full running The Clarendon Hotel, marketing his new beer brand ExWife Bitter, and with partnerships in a clothing label and record label, Jones is no stranger to crowdsourcing design for these brands: “99designs was one of my first uses of crowdsourcing and since then I’ve used it wherever possible.” He lists convenience, control, value for money and choice as the attributes he appreciates most.

Once upon a time, Jones owned and managed several design studios. During those years, he began to understand and appreciate the importance of professional design. Now he sees it as an essential part of any business.

“Given that design is the corporate version of first impressions, it’s so important for people to see something positive about your business when they do engage with it for the first time,” he says. “We go and buy a $1.50 can of Coca-Cola that probably costs 1.5 cents to make. You’re buying a brand, you’re buying an experience, you’re buying a logo.”

He says what 99designs does is encourage business owners who would otherwise do it themselves to realise the benefits of good design by making professional design accessible and affordable. “You’re setting up a shop and you spend $50,000 fitting it out and don’t spend $500 on a logo? You’re an idiot. I can’t think of a situation where do-it-yourself—unless you actually are a designer—is the best option.”

Pro tip: “The quality of the work is absolutely linked to the quality of the brief. It’s about knowing the language of design and being able to articulate what you want, and then communicate what you do and don’t like as opposed to the classic customer comment, ‘I’ll know it when I see it’. The old adage is ‘garbage in, garbage out’: if you work with them they can produce amazing results.”

Customer case study 1: Brendon Sinclair, Founder, Tailored Web Services

Using a background in the marketing sector, Brendon Sinclair started a web development agency that designs and codes websites, then helps website owners with internet marketing and search engine optimisation. “I’m not a coder, I’m not a designer, I’m a facilitator for all those things,” he remarks.

Sinclair uses crowdsourcing on behalf of his clients, “because you basically have a limitation as an employer of a graphic designer,” he explains. “I could get the brief from the client, get my designer to design the website and the client will like it or hate it. All the client is getting is one person’s take on the web brief.”

He believes crowdsourcing is suitable for most clients because of the variety of designs it offers, the speed at which design contestants work, and the affordability factor. “It’s the best solution for the client because it’s easier to get the client involved in the design process. It’s also quicker to get the design done because you have so many people working on it,” says Sinclair. “If I had a designer designing a site that takes a week, it’s going to cost me $1,000, whereas if I get it done on 99designs it will cost me $1,000 but I’ll have 10 great designs and I don’t pay unless I use it.”

Pro tip: Look beyond the contest. “I’ve gotten in contact with designers whose design style has suited another sort of client. Even if they didn’t win contest A, I have them do work for client B, client C, client D, all because they did that contest, they made the changes, it was easy. If you develop a relationship with them, it’s a resource you can call on when you need.”

Customer case study 2: Charles Noble & Bao-Minh Tran-Vo, Founders, Continent Eight

Continent Eight is a small web design company that provides end-to-end solutions for website owners, from online strategy through to coding and developing, and “getting business for a business,” says co-founder Bao-Minh Tran-Vo.

What crowdsourcing design does for the agency is add value in an area where the founders have no expertise. “Know your strengths and your weaknesses—we’re not designers, we’re programmers and that’s where 99designs fills our gap,” says Charles Noble, Continent Eight’s other co-founder.

“If we sat down and did those designs ourselves it’d take so much time and, for the cost that we charge out ourselves, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” Adds Tran-Vo: “For us it’s about focusing on your core competencies. Our core competency is development whereas 99designs’ core competency is providing these fantastic designers.”

Another factor is cost. As a small agency, Continent Eight uses 99designs to help them compete on price while not compromising on the range and quality of the designs offered. They once used a boutique design agency and were charged four times what they would have put up on a 99designs contest, “and got one design that really wasn’t even that good,” says Noble. “We love the fact that we can get so many designs to the client and look professional.”

Crowdsourcing also involves less risk, he adds. “You can say ‘I just can’t find what’s right for the client’ and get your money back. When we went to the boutique design firm we had to pay them anyway.”

Pro tip: “Keep the community alive throughout your project and you’ll get more designers coming to it,” says Noble. “You put it up, don’t put much money on it, don’t give much of a brief and don’t give any feedback—the designers won’t bother. Make it feel special for them because they’ll get bored otherwise. Make it a bit special and quirky.”

We’d love to know what you think of this crowdsourced cover. Feel free to tweet @dynamicbusiness or email your feedback to editorial@dynamicbusiness.com.

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Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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