The microstock business was originally created by graphic designers, who thought photography was too expensive. They decided they could save money by sharing images with each other. To get more choices, they reached out to talented hobbyists and those who wanted to break into the business and told them microstock was a way to build their portfolios and get exposure. As a result, the quality and volume of the offering steadily improved.
This made designers happy. Now, they were able to get the pictures they needed for a fraction of what they previously paid. They could take on lower budget projects. They could deliver the finished product for less and still make just as much—or more—for the design portion of their work. Sometimes, they would charge their old customers the same they had always charged, or give them a slight discount, and put more money in their pockets.
Professional photographers screamed that these low-priced offerings were stealing some of their customers. Designers did not care. Initially, designers argued that this product reached a different market that could not afford traditional photography, a market professionals had never addressed. It soon became clear that increasing numbers of the high-paying customers—those who could afford to pay more—were also using microstock. Next, designers took the position that if professional photographers could not compete, they should get out of the business.
Now, the same type of crowdsourcing that has hurt photographers is hurting professional graphic designers. Like photographers, designers are now complaining. They say other competent professional designers, students and those trying to build portfolios, are undercutting them by doing spec work. New sites, for example, 99designs
, have set up contests where designers compete not with bids, but with final designs. Customers present brief outlines of their needs and a price they are willing to pay. Interested designers compete by offering finished designs.
Derek Powazek, founder of Pixish—which offered the same kind of contests before it folded—argued that the Web site’s users were not the same people who use graphic design shops. (Where have we heard that before?)
When crowdSPRING launched, it asked the crowd to redesign its site for a winning prize of $5,000. There were 418 entries. A student in the Netherlands won. The other 417 designers received nothing for their efforts. One blogger commented: “The only reason this level of inefficiency is tolerated is that the designers are paying for the waste, not the client. How clever! And how depressing.”
Designers may scream, but some continue to work on a contest basis, and that leaves fewer projects for everyone else. Customers love the system, because they get to choose from a large number of completed designs, and only pay the fixed cost for the one they like best.
The American Institute of Graphic Arts believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.
It is small comfort that the crowdsourcing strategy that initially benefited designers at the expense of many photographers is now hurting designers as well. A critical element in doing spec work as a means of making a living (and this goes for stock photographers as well as designers) is having some way to reasonably assess the odds of being paid for your efforts. For the professional, when it is no longer possible to make such realistic estimations of compensation for effort expended, it is time to move on to another line of work.