Is crowdsourcing killing the traditional design industry?

Is crowdsourcing killing the traditional design industry?


If you’re under thirty and you wear t-shirts, then you’ve probably heard of

In 2000, Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart launched a website where people could submit designs for t-shirts and the public would vote on the ones they liked best. The winner would receive free t-shirts with their design and the t-shirt would go into production so that anyone could buy them.

What sounds like a simple process of audience participation turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a network of over 76,000 Facebook fans, thousands of designs and a seemingly endless market for expansion.

This stunningly simple idea has successfully transformed into an innovative business. represents the heart of crowdsourcing design; audiences engage in the creation and critique of new products and services.

So what happens when you’re concerned about products with design faults? Well, you could complain about it or, if you’re like the team managed by Maxim Schram in the Netherlands, you could redesign the product yourself.

In 2007, Schram founded, an organisation to help companies innovate through co-creation. Built on the understanding that end-users have huge creative potential, provides a service that supports organisations that don’t have the tools or expertise to harvest the creativity of their customers.

This is how it works. Companies upload a product that is already on the market and needs an upgrade, or products that have not yet been launched. Users post comments on the design and develop new versions, which they then upload. Each new design is rewarded with a virtual amount of money – RDM – which can be used to buy real products from Redesignme.

Welcome to the fledgling world of crowdsourced design.

Design practice has a pretty long history of participatory design where users have become involved in the creation of products and services. For the most part, this has occurred at the periphery – you won’t find too many glamorous design magazines that feature this type of audience engagement in the design process.

Yet, increasingly, we are seeing new design-related magazines and websites that call on the crowd to both create and participate in critiquing design.

Ready Made: Instructions for Everyday Life, a design magazine and associated website, focuses on facilitating the production of design by providing readers with examples, instructions and reviews on how “amateurs” can create their own design objects. Ellen Lupton’s DIY: Design it Yourself book and website works on the assumption that if you have access to design tools then you too can create and critique with the best of them.

In all of these examples, we are witnessing ways in which crowdsourcing can become embedded in the client/creator process. Some of the benefits include:

  • The client receives a product that is audience-tested in the selling environment.
  • Products are demand-driven – crowdsourcing can indicate whether the product will be popular or successful, thereby limiting risk for producers when developing new products.
  • Crowdsourcing design produces a saleable experience that engages audiences in unique ways.

So what does this mean for design practice? If the answer to new products and services is out there in the crowd rather than with the designer you just employed, what will happen to established industries? Will we need to educate a new generation of designers to both embrace crowdsourcing and its outcomes on products, services and experiences? And is that enough?

Designers have held a central position in the relationship between client and product, bringing their skills and experience to the process. What will change when clients are able to engage with and respond to crowdsourced solutions? And what mechanisms can designers put in place to take advantage of the increased capacity and capability that can come from working in partnership with the crowd?

The ways in which this will play out are as yet unknown. The next few years will determine where and how designers engage in crowdsourcing to the benefit or demise of their profession.

Angelina Russo is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University. She is a Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation and an Australian Research Council Post Doctoral Fellow.

Photo: left-hand

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  • Marty Hills

    Here is an Australian example of crowd sourcing at its best, and used to give aspiring fashion designers the kick start they need.

    • Angelina Russo

      Thanks Marty! A great example!

  • Elisa

    Crowdsourcing is an innovative new way to design. I have seen designers who get too stuck in there boring world to be really creative anymore, this gives us the opportunity to find work that interests us and keeps the professional designers sharp and innovative.

    • Angelina Russo

      Hi Elisa
      It’s a great point! Rather than constantly doing the same type of work, crowdsourcing allows designers to dip in and out of different job types; developing their skills and playing with new partnerships!

  • Chris Dixon

    I think it will just make the agencies sharpen their service offering to a more customised service.

    • Angelina Russo

      Hi Chris
      I’m interested to understand how you think agencies will sharpen their service. Would be great to hear more!

  • DesignBay Crowdsourcing Marketplace

    Crowdsourcing (whether fashion related or graphic design related) can’t be used in all scenarios and thus will never cause the “demise” of these professions. Crowdsourcing is revolutionary and will definitely alter the way these industries work but, essentially, it will capture a ‘market share’ of the spend in these industries (that has traditionally gone to full-time designers) and redirect it to a virtual workforce of freelance, moonlighting, offshore and amateur designers and creatives.

    There will also be a large portion of design work that will continue to go through the traditional channels that it always has. Traditional designers will continue to have a place but they might consider how they can differentiate themselves from crowdsourcing. In the field of graphic design some clients want customer-service, strategic advice, someone to call and/or a designer that can manage a larger, more complex project. Crowdsourcing can’t provide this. These sorts of features and offering need to be the differentiators that traditional designers offer over crowdsourcing providers.

    Alec Lynch

  • Angelina Russo

    Hi Alec
    Thanks for your response. I agree that there is a difference between the strategic advisor/ manager of large design project and someone who works to deliver crowdsourced design solutions. Having said that, I would hope that crowdsourcing propels some designers, particularly small and medium enterprises, to imagine themselves more within the strategic space. The potential to harness crowdsourcing for some aspects of a managed project are very real and one of the areas we are hoping to explore more fully in our next research project!
    (and congrats on DesignBay!)

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  • Paul Reynolds

    Interesting piece.
    The man who made the most sense to me, and still does, on innovation , design etc – was/is Charlie Leadbeater in his seminal 2007 TED talk.
    This presentationincludes his take on how the mountain bike was designed by the user community.

  • Paul Rowe

    There are examples of full-time designers involved in crowd-sourced designs. Threadless contributors include a stable of people who are full-time designers. For these the web has become their shop-front and a new way to connect with current and potential customers.

  • Peter Connolly

    The design process is built on ideation and sifting through the various designs – however generated – to best meet need within functional constraints, requires Design expertise. For this reason there will always be a place for Designers.

    Using the crowd is the democratisation of design, but democracy too has its design constraints. Knowing these will likely be the most significant tool in the future Designer’s kit and could likely open a whole new field of study.

    The most glaring of democracy’s design constraints is the fact that the majority can often be entirely wrong, and so finding the best design may eventually be akin to mining and refining ore.

    I foresee a time when the “cloud” will be used to filter the “crowd” to recognise good design. This is the way Design must surely evolve and that to me poses the real threat for a large portion of the Design community.

  • Domo1

    Lol Nice xD

  • Nadia

    Hello there,
    I’m Nadia, student of Swinburne Uni. of Technology (Sarawak Campus), and coincidentally, me and my group mate are doing ‘Crowdsourcing in the Fashion Industry’ for our E-Commerce Strategy final paper. Any other important facts that we should note upon? It’d be nice to get a little help from an expert 🙂


    • James Tuckerman

      Hi Nadia. For an interesting industry opinion, you should track down the Melbourne owners of (just visit the site). They are turning crowdsourcing into a business model, much to the consternation of designers. Not saying it’s right or wrong but definitely worth checking out. JT

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