Open sourcing, crowd sourcing, and commodities

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Last night I attended Shel Perkins presentation at an AIGA Raleigh event; I’m a big fan. I recommend Shel’s book— Talent Is Not Enough— to any designer who is interested in the operations management of a creative firm. Shel takes the complicated issues of trademarks and copyrights and makes them easy to understand. And his advice and guidance on Cash Flow is extremely valuable to any design business owner! Shel is a passionate advocate for our profession and I can’t say enough about his significant contributions to AIGA.

When responding last night to a question on the general topic of ‘spec’ work and, more specifically, about the growing trend of on-line logo factories, Shel answered that he is not a fan. I agree with Shel on his stand against spec work and his ‘old-school’ disfavor with on-line business models that exploit young, desperate or amateur talent. We see eye-to-eye on these issues. But Shel went on to make an off-hand comment regarding open source that, uncharacteristically, missed the mark.

The comment was that such ‘crowdsourcing’ creative models are a part of the ‘open source’ movement. I can understand that these approaches may seems similar, but they are not; there are a significant distinctions between the two. This needs to be better understood by the design profession if we are to play a relevant role in modern innovation efforts.

According to wikipedia:

The difference between crowdsourcing and open source is that open source production is a cooperative activity initiated and voluntarily undertaken by members of the public. In crowdsourcing the activity is initiated by a client and the work may be undertaken on an individual, as well as a group, basis. Other differences between open source and crowdsourced production relate to the motivations of individuals to participate.

In short, open source occurs when like-minded participants form a community to solve a common problem. They form a networked model; all participants benefit in some way from the solution. The ‘source code’ is transparent and ‘open’ for all participants to use and improve. The community sets priorities and decides which solutions merit support and which are dropped to the side. The community is in “control.”

Crowdsourcing is driven by the agenda of one central player. The model is more like traditional competitions in which the vast majority of participants will not and do not benefit at all from participating unless their solution ‘wins.’ Even then, they may be rewarded richly or not at all. In the final analysis, a central figure— good or bad— is in control.

Both models can lead to great innovation but there are significant distinctions important in light of last night’s discussion. Open source creates a model in which the community sets the acceptable standards of behavior. Such communities do not accept and typically punish exploitative behavior. Ask Novell. Crowdsourcing models offer no such inherent protection to participants.

What’s more, I think last night’s comments may be overlooking a more important factor in the debate of design factories, and that is the increasingly commoditization of the traditional design industry. As more and more people become more visually literate, and as the tools they are given become more and more sophisticated, the traditional craft of the profession becomes less of a craft and more of a commodity. This is a natural phenomenon witnessed in the mass production of everything from furniture to candlestick making.

As hard as it may be for us to hear, it is simply not that hard to make things look good these days. Designers who do not understand this will endure a fate much like our photographer friends are suffering.

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