Despite its incredible impact in the design world at large, the Internet and its attendant crowdsourcing tools have manifested in some troubling ways for graphic designers. Sites like 99 Designs, which invite thousands of young designers to do spec work with only a sliver of likelihood that they’ll receive compensation, have led many to sharply question its value. "[It] reduces a significant decision—one that could well determine one’s success in the marketplace—to nothing more substantial than a beauty contest," explains the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Paddy Harrington, executive creative director at Bruce Mau Design, has watched these developments closely. "Sometimes it works," he tells Co.Design. Other times, it backfires. Harrington points out recent crowdsourcing bungles like this, which drew so much ire, it was rewarded with its own mocking hashtag on Twitter. "The trouble often comes in finding the balance between tapping the crowd for its collective wisdom and leveraging the skill of professionals."
Despite his professional peers’ repeated salvos against it, Harrington believes that there is a place for crowdsourcing in design, where expertise is leveraged by popular opinion. This fall, he and his team found an opportunity to test their ideas, after being tasked to create a visual identity for the Swedish "open source music festival," Festival 2014. The idea behind the festival is simple: The headliners depend on how many attendees buy tickets. More advanced sales equal bigger names—a reversal of the typical business model for big festivals.
"It’s an ambitious project," says Harrington. "It opens and engages the world up to a process that’s normally behind closed doors." The Festival 2014 project seemed like the perfect chance for BMD to test a new model of crowdsourcing in design—one that focused the conversation around the design as it progressed, rather than asking the crowd to come up with ideas from the very beginning. "We felt that since we’re asking people to crowdfund the festival it’s a corollary that they should be able to take part in the process of developing the concept," says Victor Hillebjörk, the festival’s founder.
"We decided to open ourselves up," he explains. "We built three very rough sketches that we’re now sharing with the festival’s Facebook community." The hope was that feedback from people who had "liked" Festival 2014 on Facebook would help steer the brand in a direction informed by the people powering it, without completely losing BMD’s overall perspective. "There were many precedents for open-source identities but none, that we know of, that opens up the design process in this way," says Harrington. "It put us into the uncomfortable position of sharing things publicly before we felt they were ready."
On November 1, intense conversations erupted about the three proposals. The first imagined the festival nickname—UXU—as a sound wave. "I think that the waves start to look more like droopy blobs or slowly dripping glue," one fan wrote. "UXU says nothing about where this festival takes place, and that might be a downside." Noted. A second proposal took the letter "U" and turned it into a tabula rasa logotype, customizable dependent on context. The community loved this one. "It’s definitely clever," one commenter wrote. "The U letter has a strong visual and conceptual depth in its very form." BMD’s third idea, for a series of "U" shapes that each represented a different ticket holder, was more ambivalently received. BMD and the festival organizers went with proposal #2. "In the end it doesn’t have to be the most commented on or even most liked design, but the one that has the strongest arguments on its side," adds Hillebjörk.
BMD’s strategy of sharing the mid-process designs definitely isn’t revolutionary—at least not in the way spec sites once claimed to be. It’s an incremental approach, introducing public feedback from an audience that is already invested in the project at strategic moments in the design process. "Historically, design studios didn’t have the ability to connect so easily to the rest of the world," Harrington says. "You wanted to get things exactly right before letting them out into the wild." His goal is to find a third way. "I think you have to let your guard down and accept that things might get hairy," he adds. "It’s an exciting time for design."