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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

We Don’t Crowdsource

Recently, I was having a hard time deciding what to do about packaging for our first small production runs of Cubelets. I could only see two options, and both were bad. The dilemma involved either hiring a firm to design the packaging (at a cost we couldn’t afford) or doing it ourselves (which we are not particularly good at). Mark came up with the idea of holding a competition. Designers would submit entries and we would pick a winner, rewarding the designer with cash, Cubelets, and instant fame. A perfect third solution.

Later, in conversation, somebody mentioned that we were crowdsourcing our packaging design and I feel obligated to clarify. In my mind, crowdsourcing relies on the wisdom of the crowd itself, the power of collective opinion, even democracy. Crowdsourcing implies that we would use whatever packaging design that the crowd wants, which we are emphatically not doing. We are soliciting entries from individuals in the crowd, then we are deciding which one we want to use.

Democracy is a great way to structure government. But design shouldn’t be crowdsourced. Are a thousand naive voices better or more valid than one thoughtful designer’s? Probably not.

It might seem fiddly to make this distinction between the wisdom of the crowd and the wisdom of a single, particularly good designer in the crowd. But this is something that we’re trying hard to teach with Cubelets. Today in the media, we’re seeing a lot of oversimplification — phrases like “society has a negative view about…” or “America voted for….” I think these are poisonous ways to think about the world. Society has no views: certain individuals do (but others don’t). America didn’t vote: Americans did, and many of them probably voted the other way. By generalizing and refusing to look deeper at the complexities that cause some emergent phenomenon, we’ll never be able to solve (or even understand) the really big problems in the world.

Join the Conversation  7 Comments
  • I know in your mind you think your distinction means that your competition is ok. And I agree that crowdsourcing does have great implications to help us solve big problems. But you are not looking into crowdsoucing your design, you are looking for work to be done on spec.

    However, some in the design community are now confusing Crowdsourcing with Spec work (and I’m afraid that’s what the person you talked with said), which is what you are asking to do. Spec work is any work done without compensation. And unfortunately, that’s what you are doing. Having designers have to do the work to bid for a job with no guarantee of compensation dilutes our trade.

    You say “…might seem fiddly to make this distinction between the wisdom of the crowd and the wisdom of a single, particularly good designer in the crowd…” but that good designer in the crowd needs to be compensated. He needs to be compensated for his work, his education, and his experience.

    I wish you well with your product, but I hope you reconsider your position on Spec/Crowdsourcing. I already have told my girlfriend that this is a great early Christmas/Birthday idea.

    For further reading, http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/position-spec-work

  • Shel

    Crowdsourcing is most frequently defined as delegating tasks by “open call” instead of by a business relationship. The resulting product varies in how democratic it is. Just because the outsourcing entity is selecting the surviving design does not change the nature of the relationship.

    Crowdsourcing certainly can have a negative connotation, when the entity soliciting it is making money in great, gooey gobs, and the crowd is not. (Huffington Post, anyone?).

    For Modular Robotics, giving your followers the opportunity to participate is very much in line with the spirit of your product. You are designers, first and foremost. You are launching a product that will be a great tutor in both robotics and creativity. You may, or may not get a useful package design from the competition, but you’ll have more ideas and specifications than you started with. It won’t turn Modular Robotics into a company that relies on crowdsourcing, and it certainly isn’t your business model. You’re on a crazy adventure launching this product, and you’ve invited a few willing participants to pitch in. Be proud to show the upside of crowdsourcing.

  • Unfortunately, making and not making money is not justification for asking people to design on spec. And being designers, there should be respect for the hard work that other designers have put in to learn their trade.

    Now I have to insert the obligatory “can I use your product for a week and then pay if I decide I want them?” comment here. Or to make it more specific, sending a call out to Lego, MegaBlox and Mod Robotics asking them to send me their products and I will award the company who’s product I like best money and then keep all of the products anyway. (Ideas/Comps/Design Explorations are a Designer’s product, so I feel this analogy is justified.)

    If you can’t afford to have a large agency design your packaging, that’s fine. Then you need to take the time to set a budget and research small agencies or freelancers. Do your homework, ask them questions and then make a decision based on their talent, body of work and price. I know it sucks on a shoe string budget, but you might be surprised the level of talent that you get simply because your product is so unique.

    When you hire a designer, they will take the time to really understand your brand, your product, your user experience. All of these need to be conveyed in the final design of the packaging. (Think about opening an Apple product for the first time.) You will have a dialog that will ultimately help you get the best results and the most impact. Designers will be held accountable to meeting your brand standards and guidelines. They will be held accountable for creating a package that speaks with the voice of your company.

    Contests/crowdsoucing/spec do none of this, and they dilute the final product.

    I feel that by crowdsourcing/asking for work on spec (especially for an integral part of your user experience) you are handicapping your brand.

  • Eric

    @John: Thanks for your thoughts on this. Although my post wasn’t about the ethics of competition, I feel obligated to respond. Since writing, I’ve looked at the No-Spec web site, read a few articles about the position, and respectfully disagree with all of it. It’s a friendly competition and people are free to play or not. Competitions are a part of life: if you don’t like it, then don’t enter.

    I have a background in architecture and design competitions are part of the culture. While sometimes people lose, good designers win and I think it’s a fine way to structure things.

    I appreciate your analogy of calling 3 robot manufacturers to evaluate products on spec. We get these emails daily and simply choose not to send out any robots.

    I guess it’s a fundamental disagreement about what’s acceptable. It’s sort of like we’re holding a running race in your town. Instead of entering, you’re staying at home and writing to complain that we’re holding the race in the first place.

  • Günter

    Important for me is the availability of cubelets.
    The packaging I do not care.

    thanks Günter
    Vienna, Austria

  • I think if you are a freelance designer and you have some free time, why not enter a contest like this? Even if you don’t win, if you have done a good job you will have a piece that you can be proud to put in your portfolio. And if you do win, you get the cash, which you may not be able to earn in the time it took you to make your entry anyway. Freelancing is tough, as there is never a guarantee you will have paid work.

    Secondly, while hiring a professional firm to do the work will certainly yield quality results and better communication, they can be very expensive for a small company to do business with. Even after holding this contest, if they are unhappy with the entries they may still have to go that route anyway.

  • Israel Alvarez

    Although I’m not a designer, I’ve worked very closely with them for decades now, from my roots in print production to managing software development today. I’ve followed the debate over design competitions with interest, and something about this response from established designers always rubs me the wrong way. Note that no one is being forced to submit spec work – this is purely voluntary. These types of projects are a great way for beginning designers to get a potentially wonderful portfolio piece. The argument that this is potentially taking a job away from an established designer strikes me as equivalent to the RIAA’s argument with music piracy – even if true, it’s a symptom of an underlying problem, namely that your prices are too high.

    Personally, I support the decision to put this out for competition.