Crowdsourced Design or Cheap Labor?

One of our students asked me recently about design sites that claim to crowdsource design. Although many fabulous participatory projects are currently happening that use peer production in innovative ways (see, those do not include the projects on sites like and

Rather these sites show that the participatory strategy of crowdsourcing can also be exploited by clients to the detriment of designers. These sites seek design solutions from large groups of people, but do not engage in modular systems of collaboration. Clients post briefs, including a set fee, and then ask interested users to post possible design solutions. In the end, only one participant is paid, and paid well below market value, for each project.

The sites do not encourage collaboration between designers, and there is little communication between designers and clients. Uploads produce no shared resource—no commons—to benefit the larger design community. Rather than a Creative Commons licensing model, old-style proprietary rights are reinforced as the chosen designs are passed on as client property. Such sites pit crowdsourcing participants against the professional design community, devaluing professional work by reducing design to an anonymous commodity. In fact, many find these sites unethical and exploitative.

For more on this topic, including examples of fabulous crowd-generated projects, see my recent book Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content
For an interesting discussion of, see Bob Garfield, an interview with Matt Samson, “The Crowdsourcing Dilemma,” On The Media website, July 9, 2010, (accessed November 20, 2010);

See also Christopher Steiner Forbes, “The Creativity of Crowds,” Forbes Magazine, January 22, 2009, (accessed July 14, 2010).

See the NoSpec Movement: