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Design For Startups: Should You Use Crowdsourcing Or Hire A Designer?

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What’s the difference between using a crowdsourcing platform and working directly with a designer? I’m gonna break it down for you and help you decide which option is best for you.

Using Crowdsourcing: Design as a Commodity

When you’re a bootstrapping your new business and you’re watching your out-of-pocket expenses, crowdsourcing design sites offer a low-cost, low-risk way to purchase design.

In this scenario, design is like a commodity — the crowdsourcing site like a design store where you can browse many, many options before pulling your favorite one off the shelf and buying it. Designers will compete to deliver the winning design and receive your payment.

If you need a logo, you can sometimes get hundreds of options for a very low fee.

(Be warned: this sounds amazing but it can also be overwhelming–more does not mean better. For this reason, professional design firms typically only present 3-5 concepts even though they may explore dozens of ideas.)

One thing that’s interesting about this approach is that the designers are more anonymous than those you’d hire directly –at least until you’re further along in the process. And you’re more anonymous too. It’s common for people to interact using screen names rather than proper first and last names, job titles, etc.

Hosting A Design Contest

The most popular way to use design crowdsourcing is to run a contest (although it’s also possible to discover designers and invite them to work with you 1-1 in a traditional manner).

A design contest begins with you filling out a brief that designers can review, and those who are interested will submit design proposals for you.

If you go with a low prize amount for your contest, you’ll get a ton of designs to choose from because the contest will be open to designers of all skills and abilities.

Which also means there’ll be a lot of crap in there to sift through and manage.

Your contest will attract complete novices and hobbyists…but! Very often, high-level professional designers who find your brief interesting and a good match for their style and interests will also join in.

If you’re able to offer a higher prize amount, you can expect fewer designs, but you’ll only see proposals from highly-skilled professional designers whose portfolios and professionalism in client service have been vetted extensively.

At this level, you’re talking about a very comparable rate to what you would pay an independent designer you hire directly.

This model of purchasing design means you’re the creative director

And I don’t mean that like it’s a good thing. I know that sounds awesome, but it’s actually the biggest downfall of this business model from the client’s perspective.

Keeping it real: most design customers don’t know enough about branding to give good direction without some guidance.

They don’t know what they don’t know.

They use personal taste, industry trends, and “other brands they like” as direction for designers to follow. Any professional who knows what they’re doing would never approach a branding exercise this way.

With crowdsourcing, you’re the creative director. The responsibility for whether it does anything to help your business rests solely on you. The role the designer plays in this scenario is to give you what you’re asking for so they can win and get paid.

Because designers leave a lot of time and effort on the table when they don’t win, they’re generally not going to take the time to provide you with guidance — they don’t know whether they’re going to get paid or not, and they don’t know you, so they’re not all that invested in you.

They’re not providing consulting or strategy services for you, they’re just following your brief and feedback. They’re under your guidance

Despite the fact that there are almost always incredible, original designs presented, the winning designs are nearly always generic and “meh” and won’t help the customer create a strong brand presence.

The best designers on these sites lament this fact: that the customers on the whole rarely make good choices.

This, by the way, is why the quality of crowdsourced design often gets a bad rap; but I can assure you, it’s not because the designers aren’t capable of better quality, believe me, they are. It’s because there’s a breakdown in the process. 

I’ve read hundreds of client-created briefs and most of them look like they were filled out in under a minute or so. Armed with little information to go on, designers will just stab in the dark and cross their fingers. Design lottery. 

Give good feedback & communicate as much as possible

The breakdown is primarily in the feedback. It’s on your shoulders to give the designers exceptional feedback, and that can be pretty overwhelming when you have dozens and dozens of designers presenting their proposals to you.

Expect to commit more time than you think you’ll need if you want to get good results. A lot more.

There’s such a misconception about how creativity works, but the truth is that designers do their best work only when they’re given good direction and good feedback, they’re not magicians.

If you work with them well in this process and you’re super engaged, the end result can be a MIND BLOWING design for a bargain-basement price.

If you want to use crowdsourcing, I can’t encourage you enough to come prepared to write a great brief

There’s a standard form you’ll fill out, but you can also upload your own brief with more extensive background information. DO THAT. Do that homework, be ready to give lots of information for the designers to chew on — the more the better.

If you don’t know what information to include, spend some time learning about brand strategy, getting clear about your customer, what distinguishes you from the competition, and what it is you want your design to say about your company.

If you understand the risks of not having a designer’s guidance from start to finish, and if you’re willing to do your homework about branding and be really engaged in the process, crowdsourcing might be a good option for you.

Advantages of Crowdsourcing

  • Fast turnaround
  • Low cost
  • No hassle–no need to research designer portfolios, get referrals, interview designers, wait for quotes and schedule availability
  • Money-back guarantee–some crowdsourcing sites offer a guarantee which is great for you if you’re feeling nervous (not so great for the designers when you think about it, though)

Hiring a Designer: Design as a Service

When you work with a designer one-on-one, as part of the process a good designer will dig deep to understand you and will do research about your competitors and industry too. You’ll be asked a lot of questions, like:

  • What are the goals for your business?
  • Who is your ideal customer?
  • What do you stand for, what makes you different?

In my own business, I dig into those questions much, much deeper and guide my clients through a process that helps them answer the right questions really well (by explaining how, and why) so they can get real clarity about their brand before I ever sit down to the drawing board.

A dialogue about how to use design to achieve your business objective begins. You’ll understand the whys behind design decisions, and you’ll have someone with professional expertise on your side, invested in the outcome.

Designers providing you a service want you to succeed, because they want to keep your business long-term and they depend on a good review and referrals.

The benefits of establishing a long-term relationship with one designer

The more they work with you, the more intimate they’ll be about your brand and the more efficient and effective they’ll be.

Decisions made when laying the groundwork for your brand identity will be built upon on the next project, they won’t ask you “who is your customer?”… they’ll already know.

Some of my clients have been with me for 10 years, and when they need something done, the process picks up where we last left off. This familiarity and trust mean they have an ally for their business, not just design deliverables.

Why business owners don’t trust design as a service

Generally speaking, working one-on-one with a designer is more expensive than buying design from a transactional marketplace.

(That said, running contests with top designers or hiring them 1-1 on crowdsourcing sites can be equal to or even more expensive. It depends on the quality you want to be assured.)

It’s a big problem when a business owner hires a designer and doesn’t get much value from that experience. When you pay a premium price for a mediocre result, understandably, it can be disappointing or upsetting.

Mitigating the risk when hiring a designer

Of course, not all designers are made equal. There’s no professional certification process required to practice design, so theoretically, anybody with a copy of photoshop can call themselves a designer.

So again, this all comes down to you and doing your due diligence when hiring a designer.

  • Get referrals from your colleagues and ask them what their experience was like. Research many different designers to get a sense not only of their design aesthetic but their approach.
  • Look at their portfolios but also look for signals that they are doing well in their own business, that their clients are happy. Look for case studies — how did they solve problems successfully?
  • Interview them. Most designers will be happy to receive an email from you and give you a free consultation. Ask them about their process and what you can expect. Ask them, “What if I’m not happy with the outcome?” to alleviate your concerns about the quality of service you can expect.
  • Use your gut. This is my own personal opinion, but I think you should hire a designer that you like personally. Someone whose energy matches yours, who you feel comfortable with, who you enjoy talking to. There’s a creative aspect to the branding process for both you and the designer — some vulnerable things come up. You want communication to be easy, because the more communicating you do, the better your outcome will be.

Advantages of Hiring a Designer

When you find a designer that’s a good match for you, the experience is far more rewarding and effective than pulling a design off a shelf and hoping for the best. It’s an investment in a relationship that will benefit your business.