Crowd dynamics

Finding work is difficult, but graduates should still be wary of crowdsourcing, says Caroline Roberts. What sort of client would commission design services using this phenomenon?

You have to feel a bit sorry for the latest batch of graphic design graduates. Record numbers of them have been unleashed on to the market, all of them chasing after a dwindling number of jobs. Unless you’re in the lucky financial position of being able to be an intern, it’s a situation that’s bound to end in tears (or a job at the local Kall Kwik) for all but a few of the most talented.

Many of these graduates will keep their hand in by doing jobs for friends and family – the odd birthday invitation, school year book and (if they are feeling really brave) wedding invitation. It’s a great opportunity to do a one-off, live brief for a real client, even if it’s unlikely to be paid at anything like the going rate. In that respect, it’s not that dissimilar to the concept of crowdsourcing – the main difference being that you don’t have to pitch to your uncle. It’s a controversial way to get work, but in the current climate, it’s easy to see the appeal of websites such as 99designs and Crowdspring to young designers desperate to put something in their portfolio other than college work.

While most graphic designers are vehemently opposed to crowdsourcing, us journalists have already had several years to get used to the idea of being undercut by people with no qualifications or experience who are willing to work for less than the minimum wage. In the same way that anyone with a copy of Graphis Diagrams and CS3 can be a designer, anyone with a WordPress account and a copy of Looking Closer can be a design writer. Whether either is any good is debatable, of course. While as journalists we might have spent years looking at, thinking about and writing about design, this doesn’t seem high on the agenda in 2010. Neither does the concept of journalistic integrity, which in magazines such as this one (which understands the necessity of credibility within the industry) guarantees that what you are reading is truthful, accurate, objective and fair – the anonymity of the Internet means that this isn’t always the case online.

As the number of outlets for writing about design expands, the number that actually pay writers to do so shrinks, so it’s quite ironic that there should be so many new courses (at the likes of London College of Communication, School of Visual Arts and the Royal College of Art) which specialise in design writing. Perhaps in future we’ll all be competing on crowdsourcing websites for book reviews and consultancy profiles. At least we’d get paid something. Or maybe we’ll just have to set up our own blogs and suffer for our art. John Thackara has an interesting solution, which he offered up in a speech at the School of Visual Arts earlier this year, suggesting that these fledgling design writers keep their overheads low and ’squat rather than rent or buy a space to live in’. Hmmm.

Designers shouldn’t be too concerned about crowdsourcing though. It’s not likely that British Airways will be posting a competition to redesign its identity on 99designs any time soon. Aesthetics are just a part of what a designer can offer a client. It’s about steering them through the design process, giving them sound advice, standing up to them when necessary and backing down where appropriate – in a word, providing them with a service, something which is clearly lacking in crowdsourced transactions.

And if you’re a graphic designer, ask yourself this question. Would you want to work for the sort of client that would use a crowdsourcing website anyway?

Caroline Roberts is a design writer, and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Grafik magazine

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