3.14.2011

Coercing people to work for free and then calling it "crowdsourcing" doesn't make it moral or ethical or profitable.

I don't have a photo to go with this one but I do have a king sized rant.  Recently on Twitter a local photographer, who loves the idea of being an social networking guru, posted a link that pumps 99 Designs, a company that "crowdsources" design, logos and a lot of different graphic design work.  I think it's wrong to advocate "crowdsourcing" because it damages the fee base by which most designers earn a decent living.  It's a price grab that really only benefits  99 Designs.  The designers lose out on their normal income and security while the clients lose out on well thought out, custom designs from the real pros (who wouldn't touch this crap with a thousand foot pool).

So, what is this flavor of "crowdsourcing"?  The company mentioned invites you to throw a "design contest" (which they host and profit from)  and suggests that hundreds or thousands of designers around the world will slave away working on a design just for you.  Hey, logos start at $249!!!!  It's disingenuous to call this a contest.  It's speculative work.  It's a tiny carrot.  On a hundred sticks.

So thousands and thousands of man hours (and women hours) get thrown into creating a logo.  And you get to be the final arbiter.  And the capper is, if you don't like any of the hundreds of designs you get your money back!!!  How exciting.  The problem with all this is two fold:  First, it pushes people to work for free in a slow economy with the hope that something will pan out. And second, since the "design contest" initiator sets the price, even if you win it will be for a price that isn't enough to sustain a decent standard of living.  That means fewer dollars into the local school taxes, the city taxes and the state taxes.  More people marginalized.

But it also sends a message to every potential client who explores the market that there is some sort of fixed price for design and art.  That the creative process has become a commodity.  Sound familiar?

Oh yeah, stock photography!  Which led to "dollar stock" which led to the decline of the an industry.  Now the only people making money in stock photography are the stock photo companies themselves.  And even they are now victims of their every shrinking price/value bullshit.  They initiated a race to the bottom and now seem surprised that most of the value has been sucked from their companies.

So,  it takes a good, committed designer many hours to create a truly creative and valuable logo that provides ongoing value for a client.  Technology doesn't make the process of creative design any quicker than it was ten years ago and there's certainly no way an artist who licenses intellectual property can industrialize their process and earn additional revenues by increasing throughput.  There are no efficiencies of scale in real custom art.  All this new process is able to do is to deteriorate the perceived value of art in order to debase the pricing.  And the value of debased pricing works in only one direction.

This is a win/lose proposition.  It hurts even more when people who are ostensibly related to the art process side with the aggregators to push an idea that harms an entire industry.

Some will say that this process separates the wheat from the chaff but what it really does is separate highly trained, insightful and hard working people from their income stream.  It's a cold, callous and calculating business model that Goldman Sachs would love.  As long as they are on the other side of the equation from the artists.

The sad thing about self appointed experts with big microphones pointed back at the web is that they have an audience they didn't earn and their sole intention is to monetize their bully pulpit.  Sad days for real artists.  Thankfully, lots of clients can see thru this kind of horse shit and still hire professionals to design, create and help them market successfully.

I guess in a pure market driven economy the thought is that naked cannibalism is good and ordained by some god somewhere. At least some of the population will get fed.... When did the actual value of art exit the market?  When did it get replaced by a bunch of Ayn Rand clones bent on destroying all markets by reducing them to the equivalent of pork bellies?

This is not a question of being unable to compete on talent.  It is a moral question of who should benefit from true value.  There is an intrinsic value in all we do.   There used to be an understanding in marketplaces that you would sustain your providers and they would sustain you.  Now is it just every man or every business for themselves?

Thank goodness that this drivel on the web hasn't penetrated into the general public consciousness, yet.  Not all of us nor all of our clients have walked up to Jim Jone's table and drunk the Koolaide.  Not every author has given away their books to drive their corporate speaking engagements.  Not every photographer has walked away from their copyright to embrace a royalty free existence (and impoverishment).

If someone offered you a contest instead of a job would you take it?  If you were a freelance electrical engineer and someone came to you and said,  "Design the next great cellphone for us on spec (with 1,000 other engineers)   and if we decide to build the one you design we will pay you a wildly reduced fee?"  If you were a chef and someone came into your restaurant and said, "Make us your best entree.  We'll sample yours and those of all your competitors and then we'll pay the check at the restaurant whose food we liked best.    What a great opportunity for you to connect with diners!"  I hope you would have the gumption to throw them out of your restaurant or tell them to stick their cellphone contest someplace where only trained proctologists could recover it.  Because what they are basically saying is,  "Let me exploit you."  And we're supposed to pretend this is the new economy.....?

42 comments:

Josh said...

Well said Kirk. A lesson that always has stuck with me..my old man is a professional mechanic and he's always frowned on moonlighting. Using the shop and tools that the regular paying customer supports, you're really biting the hand that feeds you. You're basically undercutting your own livelihood.

There's also a reason most union trades will boot you for moonlighting...you're devaluing the whole trade. It's the same principle. It's a cancer to the value.

Don said...

Well...

Yeah. That's about right.

Kurt Shoens said...

As an engineer, if I were offered to work in the fashion described, I would politely decline. Then I would laugh at the offer with my friends. I don't think I could work myself up to a sense of outrage about it.

Where is the coercion? If the coercion is that this is the only work available, then it's time to find another way to make a living.

People pay engineers due to the competition for their skills. Isn't that the case in the creative arts as well?

kirk tuck said...

Right. Sure. It's a pure free market.

Anonymous said...

Engineers have a healthy dose of hubris now. Let's see what happens when their market turns on them.

Jan Klier said...

It's an age old pattern playing out in a different market.

The common thread is that the Internet has removed friction that previously presented barriers to entry. Essentially the customers that play in this space never believed that they got value equal to the price they had to pay previously, but they had no choice to either pay or go without.

That does not imply that the work has less value, it's just that maybe 50% (arbitrary number) 'get' that value and are happy to pay for it. The rest, doesn't 'get' it, and happily pays $500 for a wedding, $249 for a logo, or $1 for the same generic non-exclusive website stock image they share with some of their competitors.

It's been proven many times, and with data, that these things matter when it comes to business success. A good branding and logo will grow your business faster. A unique website design will grow your business faster. A properly trained wedding photographer will deliver a superior image, guaranteed. There's no question about it. But is it valued by everyone? The answer is no. Some are content to eat McDonalds and are loving it. Either out of ignorance, or because it's good enough for them, or because they can't afford the better product.

But the fix to that is not in hanging on to artificial barriers. Just like trade-tariffs might keep a few people from going unemployed for another year or two, but hurt the overall economy long-term.

If you have the skills to produce a product that should demand a higher price, you just have to work harder in finding the customers who understand that value and are willing to pay for it. You can't find a quick sucker who doesn't have an alternative anymore. Cool. Game on.

If you are a GWC with a 9x5, you make a few bucks shooting microstock on the weekend. If you're a seasoned photographer, you shoot assignments and make a few residual stock sales in RM collections.

If you are shoot-and-burn kinda guy, you do a wedding for $500 burn a CD, and call it good before you got back to your 9x5 on Monday. If you're a PPA CrMP you sell albums worth $80K for a single wedding and drive home in a Mercedes.

If you're a designer with a good portfolio and a good business plan, you don't participate in design competitions, because you have clients that appreciate your skill and time and pay you accordingly.

Also, if any of you are using Firefox while reading this or posting a comment - keep in mind that this is a crowd-sourced browser. Unless you made your $50 donation to the Mozilla foundation, you a bit of an issue: you can't stand on a soapbox against crowd sourcing if you use any of the open source products (Firefox, the Linux server that runs your website, JQuery that is in your website code, etc.).

Noons said...

The so-called "new economy" is nothing more than a race to the bottom. Always was, always will be.
It's never been thought out for longer than the next yearly report.
It is irresponsible in the extreme and those who spread it should be hung for crimes against humanity, foremost of which would be slavery.

John Burridge said...

My wife's cousin recently approached me asking me to hook him up with some of my design colleagues to do a logo. I posted a request on facebook to see if there were any takers. Maybe because his budgest was modest, but one of the only people to pipe up (a non-designer) was someone who'd used a similar service and was raving about his results. I shared this information with my wife's cousin, and he'd already tried that avenue, but found the end products not to be really in sync. All this to say is that sometimes this crowdsourcing stuff gets discarded, which is great, but on the dark side, more people may be coming aware of this phenomena than we'd like.

Well-written rant, Kirk, but just because we don't like it doesn't mean it won't gain some traction, right? Will it fall to powerful branding to rise above all of this lowest common denominator stuff or do we need even newer models to cope?

martin said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly Kirk, I despise scams like this, they benefit only the individual/company who propose this model..I have seen many variants of this type of approach, enter the competition but before you do subscribe to this that or the other, the trouble is some folk will always fall victim to this approach because of naivety.

Keep em coming.

Jim said...

Unfortunately this has been the state of the fine art market for some time now. You create art on spec, pay a fee to enter contests/juried exhibits, they cover all costs out of the fees (including paying themselves) and laugh their way to the bank while one, two or three "winners" (out of hundreds or thousands of entrants) are getting their photo taken accepting their "honorarium". Besides the shows there are entire magazines based on this model, B&W Photo, Nature's Best and Nature Photographer all work on variations of this model. You provide the work, you provide the money and they take the profit. It's been coming for years. I once had the Smithsonian ask me to take a week off my day job to shoot an assignment for them in return for "photo credit". That was about 20 years ago. I see now that they are in league with Nature's Best Photography magazine.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the Walmarting of the world. Brought to you by the very people it will destroy. Rush to the bottom? I'd say that about sums it up. Sad that it was being championed by a supposed photographer.

Steve Burns said...

As someone else has written, "Well said!"

I'm sure that this was not something that was written in haste; rather it stewed for some time.

David Ingram said...

It is a pretty sad economy for all but those in the top .01%. Only the "haves" and the "have mores" are benefiting during this recovery from the crash of 2008.

Anonymous said...

Exploitation is a good word to describe people taking advantage of other people's painful positions in times of economic disruption. Love the right wingers who always couch this as an equation of market demand. We're firing much needed school teachers right now not because they are in ample supply but because we are too cheap to pay them and too short-sighted to understand how much pain our selfish decisions will cost us in the future.

It's like America's hate/hate relationship with unions. Yes, they may have overstepped but they did bring us things like: retirement accounts, the 40 hour work week, weekends with our kids, job safety, and a much better quality of life for generations of workers. And this during our periods of unprecedented prosperity. It's not the unions who destroyed the economy it's the narrow vision of greedy and presumptuous supply siders who only care about themselves.

William Souligny said...

I couldn't agree more. But, next time tell me what you really think :) Best regards, and thanks for holding the torch so high.

Anonymous said...

it works also for industrial designers :
You might want to give a patent for free to Henkel AG & Co
http://www.packdesign-contest.com/start.php

the shipowner is : http://www.hic-online.de/web/index.php?lang=2
Any slave?

kirk tuck said...

To be fair I've had a few posts that revisit the old saw of "if you aren't competitive.....blah, blah" Or "I only want to pay the cheapest price on the globe...." But I chose to delete those comments because it's a world view that bothers me. There are many, many things that aren't measured by the almighty dollar or how many clicks you can generate.

If you are a supply side street preacher your comment hit the ether.

Ron said...

Kirk,
You had me at "tiny carrot on a hundred sticks."

Perfect analogy.

The only thing more distressing is the number of people who will participate in this, for whatever reason.

- Ron

Chris said...

Hi Kirk,
How do you feel about SXSW not using professional Photographers to document their event year after year? They call for volunteers instead and "pay" them with a badge. I thought about doing it this year and went to the first volunteer meeting and found 150 photographers in the room with me. After thinking about it some more and the amount of time it would take versus the experience I'd get I backed out.

kirk tuck said...

Chris, Good for you. The organizers of Southby make millions from the event each year and the press provided by the 150 exploited photographers helps create buzz that keeps the event growing. Their contract is beyond predatory. Not a jab at the event itself. Just a bad contract for image creators. For very little reward.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy your blog but have never posted a comment until now. I read this most recent post last night and moved along with whatever else I needed to get done not thinking much else of it. Until this morning...

I was reading the business section of my local newspaper and came across an article that spotlights new businesses in the area. The business was that of a "Do-it-yourself" photo studio session. The photo studio essentially rents the studio to an individual for as low as $29.95/half hour. The individual has acess to all the costumes, props, backdrops, lighting, and even a camera if necessary. The studio then provides a CD of the pictures taken.

The article then cited that one of the owners was a professional photographer who developed some neurological condition that prevented her from being able to hold a camera for any length of time but needed to be able to still make a living doing what she knows and loves.

When I read the article, I immediately thought of your past posts and most recent rant and thought you and your readers would be interested in a new business idea coming to a town near you.

James

Anonymous said...

don't worry obama will save us all. we will let the government set the prices for photography

John Krumm said...

There doesn't seem to be much of a "photographer's guild" out there to break the necessary knee-caps (figuratively of course). It would be interesting to compare the situation in some other countries, where (I hear) photography is a regulated profession.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's a good idea. The economy seems to be doing better. Perhaps the people at Goldman Sach could give us some of our money back as well. I would have loved 3 trillion to spend on a down market, at less than one percent interest. Or doesn't supply side economics count for crooked people?

And that Obama jab? Just remember that the market is up 40% since March of 2009. That low point was just two months after the republicans brought back their lease car of a country. They trashed it bad. And I hope they never get their deposit back....

Guess if the government can set prices for doctors and interest rates that would be good enough for photographers.....

Anonymous said...

For anyone who works for free, or cheap, and gives their work away without thinking about the macro perspective: "There's a sucker born every minute."

For companies that think they can get creative work cheap or free, and still get quality: "Sometimes you don't get what you paid for, but you never get what you didn't pay for."

Labelle Photo said...

Perfect! That is about right!

Rafa said...

Really interesting article, and very well written. I'd like to add that this "issue" is not exclusive of the art and design world nowadays. I'm a software developer and in my industry "crowdsourcing" appeared some years ago. And as you mention the terrible thing is that tech companies around the globe are aligning with these sites, which leads me to think... Is this how they value our work? Sad, very sad.

Thanks again for putting words to my thoughts!!

Anonymous said...

It just isn't the case, unfortunately, that engineers aren't asked to design for free. Here are some sample clauses from a current Texas State RFI (Request for Information):

"Information requested: ...development ideas, explaining how the department should develop the facility from concept through construction and operation, including the individual steps the department should take to procure the facility"

"conceptual ideas will be public documents upon receipt"

"This RFI does not commit ... to contract for any supply or service whatsoever, nor will any response to this RFI be considered in the evaluation of any response to a solicitation document"

"...will not pay for any information or administrative cost incurred in response to this RFI."

So, design up a system, tell us how it will work, and as a reward we may include your ideas in the public tender and you can bid on it along with everyone else that now has your ideas... Hello to crowd-sourcing of engineers...

MyVintageCameras said...

I agree with Jim above. I have had the same feeling recently about 'photo contests' and juried show entrance fees. I think I've made more meaningful contacts through blogging.

The problem with our 'new economy' is that since the 80's we've been content to pursue the race to the bottom. But the Bottom never comes. It's a bottomless pit and soon people will be paying to be able to work. Oh, that's what all those entrance fees are about.....

kirk tuck said...

There's a local gallery run by a photographer who's always looking for a way to get rich. He has "juried" shows and his deal is to charge a $125 per piece "hanging fee". That doesn't include framing or the entry fee for the juried show. After you've "won" you hand him images that you've framed and he places them on the wall. Suppose you are a "super" artist and you get three pictures into the big show. You might pay $45 per image as an entry fee ($135) and then ($375) in hanging fees. You're in for the cost of the frames and then the fees which total (in our example) $510.

His last show opening attracted almost four dozen people. Most of them fellow photographers. I'm not sure they've ever sold a piece of art from one of their shows. But he's a winner every time.

We regulate scams when it comes to products, investments, cures, financing and food but when it comes to scamming artists, everyone is onboard.

Frank Grygier said...

It seems to me that most of these predatory scams play upon the lack of confidence that photographers have in their work and their reluctance to get out and sell themselves to potential clients. It is hard to put your work out there. Maybe it is the anonymity of it that makes it attractive at any price.

kirk tuck said...

Then again Frank, it may be that older, established photographs get mesmerized by the false promises of the "new economy" and, in their role as industry "gurus" proselytize to the younger generation on Twitter and on "professional" forae until photographers entering the field accept it as truth.

As Cheney supposedly said, "It doesn't matter if it's true. If we say it enough times it becomes the truth...."

Frank Grygier said...

The thousands of photographer that believe they have a future career in the business are a fertile source of income for those who would take advantage of the "guru" status that they have reached by selfless promotion on the internet. I am one who has attended workshops and will attend more to learn what I can about an art form that I am passionate about.I am old enough to know the the odds of making a living at photography are long but young people who are "mesmerized" by all the hype can be duped by the half truths that permeate the internet.

kirk tuck said...

We are on the same wavelength. I get approached to do workshops a lot but I really believe I can only concentrate on a few things and do them well. I keep so busy writing and shooting that stopping to organize and teach seems like a whole separate career.

There are some really good teachers out there. And then there are a lot of people who failed to make the jump into the new digital world of commercial photography who teach out of desperation. Hard to know, from the student perspective who's really good and who's full of shit.

Frank Grygier said...

I found your blog searching for opinions on equipment and soon found someone with a sincere passion for the art of photography. I guess we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum but I enjoy your writing and can appreciate all the effort you put into your chosen profession. I have come to trust your opinions and enjoy your your photographs.

kirk tuck said...

Thank you. I appreciate your candor.

Matt Fragale said...

Sadly, this is not happening only to photography. Look at the customer service industry. How many companies can you call today and speak to a person who really knows and understands what you are asking about? Almost none. They are mostly just people who read from a script and can't handle anything out of the ordinary. This same debasement of the value of the workers is happening the world over and in nearly every industry. The theory seems to be that the business itself is more important than the people. "We give you a place to do what you do, therefore we deserve all of the profit from it", as opposed to "We exist because you do what you do, therefore we should help each other out", which is the way it really should be.

I think the big problem with things like art in this environment is that there are so many talented amateurs who don't really have hope or ambition for making a career out of their art, but occasionally produce something of value to someone and are happy to earn a small amount from that. From their perspective, this sort of thing is a win. From the perspective of the business, it's a win. From the perspective of those whose lives are dedicated to the art, it's probably a sign that they will need to innovate somehow to survive. From the perspective of society as a whole... I think it's a huge loss for more reasons than I can begin to enumerate in a comment space. The question though, is how do we turn back the tide?

Anonymous said...

Thinking about it, crowd-sourcing is happening with iPhone/iPad software development (my other passion is writing software.)

There are hundreds of thousands of apps in the store, yet few developers make a living from it.

How many apps are free? How many are ad supported? How many are priced at less than a latte? People scream when an app is over $5! "It's too expensive!" Much of the software isn't very good as a result. Garbage in, garbage out.

Developers even pay Apple an annual "entrance" fee to be allowed to add an app to the store.

Fascinating now that I think about it.

Anonymous said...

Adapt or don't.

kirk tuck said...

"Adapt or don't" That's irrational. All choices are binary? BS.

Thomas (PD-JKT) said...

I agree, Kirk, in general.
Though I would like to know, how to find a graphic designer, willing to work for rather small money, since we simply do not have the budget as a start-up to pay for the big shots and their big shots' fees.
It's not exactly on topic, I would admit, but there must be a model for flexible fees aka affordable prices for creative work as well. If this is not the one, which one will work in your opinion?

kirk tuck said...

Thomas, Graphic Designers are flexible. Take a cue from the legal profession and offer to share the risk and share the profit. I am always open to reducing my fee in exchange for a cut of the upside profit. But it must be in writing.

Say you need a logo and a really good one might run $10,000. You can't budget that much but you have a proven team in place, a great product and the prospect of winning big. Could you offer a budget of $2500 or $5000 plus a percentage of each product sold during the first year?

If things don't work as you expected the graphic designer shares the pain but if it hits the graphic designer might make $50,000 or $100,000 on a very small percentage of the total. It would be a win for everyone.

Lawyers negotiate deals like this all the time. Is it okay for everyone to win? I hope so if everyone needs to shoulder some of the risk.....

People with great ideas for products and services often discount the value to the project of just the right messaging and branding, which, in many cases can be just as or more important than the product itself.

Consider it part of the cost of realizing the vision instead of just an afterthought at the end. Good design might be your secret weapon for success. Especially if you have competitors with similar products/services.