Design Needs To Adapt To Digital Disruption Too (@Damien_Creatif’s Master Thesis)

Damien Henry presenting his work at the "Prix du Mémoire Digital" in Paris, France

Damien Henry presenting his work at the “Prix du Mémoire Digital” in Paris, France

My activity leads me to speak to a lot of Masters or PhD students who explore the crowd economy. Actually, at eYeka we receive so many interview requests that I am now sending standard replies with links to the most common answers (Why do brands crowdsource? Why do consumers participate? etc, for which a lot is available online and in academic literature). But some research projects stand out as really original and interesting. After sharing a good Masters thesis of a student of mine who worked on women’s pro sports, this post is a Q&A with a French designer, Damien Henry, who completed his thesis (not under my supervision).

Entitled “Crowdsourcing: Can Graphic Design Become Uberized?“, his already award-winning thesis is a rare piece of research that explores the pros & cons of crowdsourcing from a designers’ point of view. While I do not endorse all his findings or POVs, I believe it his work is worth being shared beyond the French-speaking world. So I’m translating a slightly edited English transcript of our conversation (images and links have been added by myself).

Hello Damien, can you tell us where you come from?

damien henryHi Yannig. Now 34 years old, I have just finished school for the second time! My first stab was at Esad Amiens, where I studied design and worked on a film project called “Passe-Muraille.” This short allowed me to present myself in order to get my first clients as a freelancer. Then I worked at a small agency, where I was hired to do everything from corporate clips to motion design and visual identity projects. There were weeks when I started by filming for a road salt company in Germany and I finished by building booths for trade shows in France. This allowed me to get invaluable experience in presenting companies through a variety of means of communication.

My early career allowed me to gain experience in presenting companies through a variety of means of communication.

Today’s new means of communication allow for much richer messaging than before. When I worked in the agency, where you deliver to order, and sometimes it’s a bit frustrating because you can’t experiment as much as you would like to. Despite a very professional delivery, and good-looking aesthetics, I found it often lacked depth in terms of design. I wanted to be involved in the earlier stages, and not just in the formatting… So I decided to study digital communications (again), which is quite a change when you have a comfortable job and a family. But I found it to be worth the risk, because it gives you a fresh boost when you work in a sector that you love.

An interesting visualization of Damien’s curriculum: his projects and roles above the dates, the evolving communication tools below (source:  Damien Henry)

Why did you choose to write a thesis about crowdsourcing?

Choosing you Master’s thesis topic is the very first step. You can choose an easy topic, one that has already been covered many times, a highly complex one that you will struggle to cover, or one that you are passionate about. This is the option that I chose. If you lock yourself in a room for 6 months to study, then it’s better to work on a topic that interests you!

If you lock yourself in a room for 6 months, you’d better work on an interesting topic

Long working hours... Damien's desk

Long working hours… Damien’s desk

I thought about the fact that, as a designer, you often have to explain your work, your value, because some clients see you as creative technicians rather than creative strategists; they think we’re just infographic designers. Since the topic had to relate to digital communication, I chose to focus on crowdsourcing to explore whether there could be a link between companies’ ignorance about design and crowdsourcing usage. It’s a provocative subject, but I noticed that many designers were against this practice, even if it is quite common to work on spec in agencies.

I wanted to understand this discontent by taking a step back, by leaving passion on the sidelines and rationally exploring the ins and outs. I thought there was a need to complement the existing literature with a designers’ point of view. This was no easy task as I had to “unheat” myself as a designer in all this heated discussion about crowdsourcing and spec work. But I really wanted to understand how this new process was used in the creative process.

It wasn’t easy, but I really wanted to understand how crowdsourcing was used in the creative process

What did you find out? What were the results of your research?

I found out one important thing: Crowdsourcing agencies and design agencies have a very different role. The recent rise of crowdsourcing is complementing the design practice, not replacing it. There are multiple forms of crowdsourcing, and there can be differentiated on multiple levels: creation process, positioning, end results or reward levels. I specifically looked at 3 platforms:

  • eYeka, which hosts ideation contests that often serve for agency inspiration. These crowdsourcing operations are a supplementary step in the marketing process. They also organize video contests, which requires specific skills and is different from the designers’ work.
  • Fiverr, which is a true marketplace where clients (private individuals, SMEs etc.) post design requests and, for a price often ranging between 5 and 50€, they receive propositions from the crowd. The level of quality reflects the low reward.
  • Creads, where a contest’s deliverable is a finished product, a usable piece of design work. The platform serves as intermediary which also takes an active role in the creation process, as they have a department dedicated to provide client servicing and deliver ready-to-use designs.

And this is where crowdsourcing differs [from traditional design work]. All communication is mediated by a platform, a contest or project, and community/project managers (except for Fiverr). Creatives execute design work more than they are involved in feedback loops with the client. Platforms attract numerous creatives, and the communities are a mix of professionals looking for extra revenue and amateurs who seek fun or to challenge themselves against professionals. The equilibrium is not easy to understand.

So, I tried to understand WHO the contest/project winners were and HOW they won contests. I looked at many participant profiles and found out that it is virtually impossible for any designer to make it a full-time activity. Even the best cannot reach a level of productivity that would allow them to make a living while producing decent-quality design.

I found out that it is virtually impossible to make crowdsourcing a full-time design activity.

crowdsourcing memoire damien henry

Damien’s cover shows Oompa-Loompas, these caracters created by Roald Dahl, who work for free in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

How have your friends and colleagues reacted? What about the jury?

The jury liked my designer’s perspective on crowdsourcing. Even if I sometimes took a stance rather staying in the neutral position that one would expect from a researcher, they liked the closeness between my profile and the research topic. They also praised the multi-method approach by which I combined interviews, website reviews, survey research, contest participation… Even with the limited time that I had to fully investigate this complex subject, I managed to have a well-rounded methodology, and I think that was a strength of my work.

Among the people I met and interviewed, I felt that there was a shared passion for the topic. Everyone was open to discuss the matter, and of course opinions differed across actors, but there was a strong desire to push a common understanding of creativity in the crowd economy. This makes me want to organize a debate, and if this was possible, I would be among the first to participate and advance the understanding of crowdsourcing. I hope that my work will usher reactions, and invite anyone to leave comments under this post.

Even if opinions differed, there was a strong desire to better understand creativity in the crowd economy.

I think that platforms should share more data about their crowds and winners, but I also understand that they have to control their communication. By featuring winners over non-winners, they maintain a creative ideal that could be undermined by cold, hard facts. eYeka welcomed me warmly even after I shared my initially “hostile” position, and I was surprised by the richness of our discussions led in a spirit of full transparency. Despite not being a fan of crowdsourcing, by adopting a researcher’s mindset, I softened my position to better understand the nuances.

Despite not being a fan of crowdsourcing, by adopting a researcher’s mindset, I softened my position.

I don’t think crowdsourcing is a threat for our profession – that’s where I might draw the ire of my colleagues – and I think we have to put matters into perspective. Ironically, the jury was even more critical towards crowdsourcing than I was in the end. I keep thinking that crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, one that can make talents emerge without dumbing down everyone’s work. I think that ethical models are possible if platforms move towards more transparency and revenue sharing.

Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool that can make talents emerge without dumbing down everyone.

How do you position yourself vis-a-vis crowdsourcing after conducting your research?

I think that the boundaries between professional activity, leisure contest participation and rights transfer blur the perception of creative crowdsourcing. It is difficult to clearly separate professional labor for which you are being paid real money and hope labor in which you work for future employment and reputation building. Creads has been confronted with this problem in the French press: how do you reward the crowd if just 1 or 2 participants earn money?

I think that the design profession is simply evolving, and there is a need to rethink the freelance model in general. Few creatives have really been hired by brands and/or agencies after participating in crowdsourcing competitions, and the ones who did took the risk of working for uncertain prospects, just because they saw no other alternative in a saturated job market.

The design profession is evolving, there is a need to rethink the freelance model.

Beside the “hope” they also take the plunge because it’s very easy to create an account and just participate on these websites, while – at least in France – it can be very cumbersome to navigate through the paperwork needed to get freelance status. These rules have all been created at a time where crowdsourcing didn’t exist, and that’s why we need to rethink the model.

The cover of the "Earn without giving away your ideas" manifesto written by François Kaspar, French designer whom Damien interviewed for his thesis (image via AFD)

The cover of the “Earn without giving away your ideas” manifesto written by François Kaspar, French designer whom Damien interviewed for his thesis (image via AFD)

I think there will always be a need to educate clients to the value of design work, because some still see it as a hobby than a profession. But I realized that this aspect is tough for many, and the commercial aspect is one that few designers are skilled & educated for. Part of young designers’ education is simply to refuse any type of free labor… but this will only be possible for those who have a commercial strategy and know how to “sell” themselves appropriately.

Should creatives who participate on crowdsourcing platforms be recognized with a separate and specific status? I’m no legal expert, but I think it’s worth thinking through. The debates are heated and each blog post raises the eternal concern of the “death of design” or, more broadly, the “death of a profession.” But I feel that it’s up to us, designers, to propose an alternative rather than to try to shut the platforms down – as the French cab drivers and Uber.

It’s up to us to propose alternatives rather than to try to shut the platforms down.

As soon as there is expertise, there are few chances that platforms can credibly replace us. It’s the same for design: if we are good enough, there’s no need to worry. What hinders designers and creatives to create a cooperative organization which would help find clients and conform to a common set of rules? I think the solutions are many, and more ethical forms of crowdsourcing are possible, they just have to be discussed. The profession just needs to be aligned. At least that’s my opinion.

Do you have final thoughts, or anything you want to share?

I love being a designer, listening to clients, coming up with solutions and progressively tailoring them to their needs. It’s not unlikely that I will become a designer again, one day, despite the current path that my career is taking. But for now I see a lot more potential in bringing these skills to make big organizations competitive, because they are very worried to not remain competitive will all these changes that happen (digital disruption, automatized work etc.).

I love being a designer, it’s not unlikely that I will become a designer one day again

I believe that design can genuinely help organizations adapt, it just needs to be properly explained and applied. Designers need to be better at communicating their added-value, in terms of approach, in terms of vision, in terms of out-of-the-box thinking. Designers are people with great ideas, not just people who know how to design infographics.

So when I hear “my business is not doing well, it’s because of uberization,” I want to challenge that because it needs to be considered in a more nuanced way. Sometimes the term is used to simply describe competition, including that of individuals and entrepreneurs, and this is too easy. Every profession – including design – needs to find solutions to adapt to digital change, not to fight it.

Every profession needs to adapt to digital change, not to fight it

Damien Henry and two sculptures from a past artistic project

Damien Henry and two sculptures from a past artistic project

Thank you Damien!

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