By Joseph Kalinowski published March 1, 2017

Things to Consider Before Crowdsourcing Design


I was trying to help a friend. His association needed a new logo.

Now, creative directors, designers, and everybody else who works in the visual arts have a term that we usually dread hearing – design-by-committee. Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing. In this case, after a couple rounds – with plenty of input from the committee – I came up with a logo that seemed to encompass all of the suggestions.

Weeks passed and I didn’t hear a word. Then, I saw an email from the association using a new logo. It wasn’t the one I designed based on feedback from the stakeholders. It was an icon purchased from one of those “buy-a-logo” websites, with my type treatment applied.

That experience prompted me to look deeper into the online design offerings for marketers. Most of them use a design crowdsource model. These sites work a couple ways. Marketers can make a request for a graphic (e.g., logo, custom image for a blog post) and artists can submit their work for consideration.

Crowdsourcing sites are gaining in popularity because they’re free or inexpensive (prestige of designing the winning one or incentive-to-participate prizes are often the only compensation earned by the designers). For the artists, it’s an opportunity to showcase their capabilities and market themselves on a high-traffic site.

Crowdsourcing comes with a mixed bag. It does have its benefits, but it also isn’t the best choice for long-term content success.

Crowdsourcing design isn’t the best choice for long-term #content success, says @jkkalinowski. Click To Tweet

Members of the American Institute of Graphic Artists warned almost seven years ago in a Forbes article that crowdsource design sites often lack a vetting process. Because people can simply fill out an online form, the site is filled with inexperienced designers looking to build a portfolio.

Twist your crowdsourcing

If you’re using the same stock images as everybody else, crowdsourcing is a good first-step alternative to improve your visual content strategy, according to author and friend Roger C. Parker.

Crowdsourcing is a good first-step alternative to improve your visual content strategy, says @RogerCParker. Click To Tweet

Mozilla found another benefit in design crowdsourcing when it tapped into its community for help with its new logo. Wired writes about how the software company teamed with a London-based agency to create logo concepts. Then they asked the online community for feedback on those logos. Over 3,000 comments and five months later, Mozilla had its new identity.

Mozilla Logo

Image source

Josh Miles, principal of branding agency Miles Herndon, expounds on the benefits: “Crowdsourcing is also a reasonable option for campaigns seeking contributing points of view, such as voting for a new flavor, or submitting to a customer-driven storyline.”

Crowdsourcing is a reasonable option for campaigns seeking contributing points of view, says @JoshMiles. Click To Tweet

Velocity Partners’ creative director Doug Kessler isn’t an advocate of crowdsourcing but he recognizes that budget constraints force some companies to use these design sites. If that’s your situation, Doug offers this counsel: “Skew the brief towards super-simple solutions. Don’t be too ambitious. Just go for simple clarity (which in itself is harder than it looks).”

If you have to crowdsource due to budget constraints, skew brief towards super-simple solutions. @dougkessler Click To Tweet

Buddy Scalera, author of multiple books on creativity and visual storytelling, says a prerequisite to working successfully with crowdsource sites is having a strong design background. His advice may seem contradictory, but it’s not. “If you have a strong design sense but no time to do the designs, these crowdsourced solutions could help you get things done on a tight schedule with a modest budget,” Buddy says.

A prereq to working successfully w/ crowdsource sites is having a strong design background, says @buddyscalera. Click To Tweet

Go for quality design

Crowdsourcing design reminds Doug of the line – “Fast, cheap, good: Pick any two.”  As he says, “Crowdsourced sites offer fast and cheap. Do the math.”

If you don’t have the experience to guide a quality crowdsourced design, you should work directly with an experienced artist. “Great designers do more than follow your directions. They use their abilities as visual storytellers to help you tell your story,” Buddy says. “You need to invest in the right places. If you’re looking to get designs made for less than you pay for shoes, you should reevaluate what your customers want from you.”

Great designers do more than follow directions. They use their abilities to help tell your story. @buddyscalera Click To Tweet

Even with a smaller budget, you may be able to afford a customized experience. Find a talented freelancer or small design-focused firm to help. Then, track the results of the content using their creative to build the business case for quality graphic work. Buddy says it well, “Cheap, non-specific designs may not evoke the emotion you need to drive your business. I wouldn’t hunt for the cheapest solution for my design needs, especially now when it’s getting more difficult to capture attention and engagement.”


Crowdsourcing your design work can be an option to consider if you seek active community feedback, can provide detailed design briefings, and have a good sense of design and structure. In the long run, though, consider the value of working one-on-one with a design expert who can help deliver your content goals. As Doug says, “A good relationship with a talented design resource is a long-term asset for your business. It pays to invest in that.”

Find a talented freelancer who can help deliver your #content goals, says @jkkalinowski. Click To Tweet

Want to hear from these experts on visual storytelling and many more? Register for Content Marketing World, Sept. 5-8, Cleveland, Ohio. Use BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joseph Kalinowski

JK is the Creative Director for Content Marketing Institute. He has worked as an art director for 16 years in both the advertising and publishing industries. His role at CMI is to assist with the ideation and creation of projects and to work with the CMI staff to ensure they achieve our goals. Follow JK on Twitter @jkkalinowski.

Other posts by Joseph Kalinowski

  • Buddy Scalera

    Nice job on this post, Joe. You’ve highlighted an important concept in modern marketing, as it relates to design. You can’t keep doing things the exact same way you’ve always done them, but expect to lower costs and get higher ROI. The business is evolving in real time, so you need to pivot and adjust to remain competitive. That said, this blog post will be out of date in a year, so you should do this “state of the state” post every year.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Great suggestion, Buddy! I think that we should revisit this and other topics regarding design and visual content each year. You make a great point about the pivot. I think that pivot will happen when marketing’s analytical thinking and the creative’s subjective vision find a common ground. Thanks again (as always) for your input and thoughts on this subject. It seems you and I spend a lot of time talking about it!

    • Roger C. Parker

      As always, Buddy, your comment sparked an idea.

      Basically, the importance of separating “design” from “production.” In one of my early books, Design to Sell, I emphasized the importance of “Design once, produce often.”

      What do you think of the idea of investing “fair and reasonable” fees for the design of templates for various types of reusable visuals, i.e., podcast episodes, interviews, and book reviews, but tighten your purse strings when it’s time to produce a one-time-only graphic for a specific project based on an existing template?

  • Doug Kessler

    I was going to crowdsource this comment but I was scared the quality wouldn’t be there. So: excellent post on a topic we ought to be talking more about. It’s no good just looking the other way and pretending that crowdsourcing creativity won’t take away a slice of the market.

    It will make in-roads. But I think mainly at the low end, where clients value design less (just the kinds of clients the real professionals are keen to avoid!).

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Doug… You are so right, especially the adage you used “Fast, cheap, good: Pick any two.” Unfortunately, it’s usually the first two choices of the three! Also, I would have heckled you on a crowdsourced comment! LOL. Thanks again for your insightful input on this topic!

    • Roger C. Parker

      Interesting, Doug, to see your comment here in a discussion of crowd sourced design. Said from the perspective of someone who has a huge (and inspiring) collection of white papers and SlideShares that you’ve been involved with. So many lessons, so little time! g)

  • Franklin Wall Solutions

    I’m struggling to see how the platform or media by which a business promotes it’s services dictates the end quality of it’s output?

    As with services bought direct, if the price looks to good to be true it usually is. Crowdsource sites have a higher propensity of ‘businesses’ slashing their prices and ending up compromising their client’s results as a result, nobody would argue that. But a great many that operate on crowdsource sites choose not to water-down either their pricing model or the fabulous quality they output. I know because we are one of them.

    As ever, a buyer needs to engage thoroughly with the potential supplier(s) they are considering, to find their best fit. The media route through which they found each other doesn’t change that requirement one iota.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks for your insight on this topic!

    • Roger C. Parker

      Thank you for emphasizing the importance of client engagement, in terms of indicating their preferences, providing a detailed creative brief, and offering candid, timely comments.

      As always,garbage in, garbage out.

  • Roger C. Parker

    Hi, Joe: Congrats on a thoughtful, balanced approach to a relevant and timely topic.

    One of my friends had a positive experience using, I believe,, because of two relative unheralded features: focus groups and collaboration.
    * Focus groups allow you to share your “finalist” designs with your social media tribe. You’ll see how many people chose each option.
    * Collaboration. This is a high-level option that allows you to share your “final choices” designs with your market, friends, and peers. This basically allows you to run an A-B or A-B-C test with those whose opinions count the most.

    When I participated in my friend’s choice, I was able to add comments about why I chose, or didn’t choose, each option.

    At any rate, thanks for stimulating discussion!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Roger! While I have had many conversations with many designers and marketers (as recent as last night at a designer’s gathering), I have heard a mixed bag of thoughts and stories regarding crowdsourcing design. I have heard of positive experiences, such as yours, and on the flip side I talked to a few folks who have had negative ones. It’s such a mixed bag, hence the advice of weighing your options before you pursue the crowdsourcing route! Thanks again for the kind words and I hope to see you soon.

  • Jaylene Ericsson

    Hi Joseph,
    Thank you for the tips. I’ll definitely make sure that I consider these things as I was just about to begin with crowdsourcing design.
    Thank you!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks, Jaylene. Best of luck to you on your design adventure!

  • Tara O’Reilly

    Everyone I’ve met that has used crowd sourcing websites for logo designs have had a horrible experience; wasting their money, their time and ending up with something mediocre. They tend to be start-up businesses with no money or appreciation for design as a profession (due to lack of understanding).

    People could buy a stock image account for $200 /yr with the ability to download multiple images per day for their article posts. Then they could invest in a designer for important campaigns.

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