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How HuffPo's Crowdsource Controversy Hurts Designers—and Itself

Attempts to crowdsource design work hurt both designers and the companies looking for a free lunch.

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free—especially when the milk is so aesthetically pleasing? That's the question the Huffington Post confronted yesterday after a minor controversy erupted when it asked designers to submit ideas for a new logo for its politics section.

I can understand the cynicism leveled at HuffPo's request for a new, community-designed social media icon. The site is taking advantage of designers, a move that mimics GAP's actions a few months ago. Feathers get mighty ruffled when it comes to spec work—uncompensated trial work—in the design community.

The ethics of spec work fall along fine lines. GOOD, for example, provides incentive-based challenges for designers, such as redesigning the food label, the city streets, or creating infographics on a range of topics. But we don’t ask people to design permanent site elements, and we develop relationships with designers who excelled during our projects, often reaching out to them later to work on paid pieces.

When a company like Huffington Post or GAP employs crowdsourcing to get proprietary design work done for free, the result is almost always negative. To many designers, it's the same as asking a plumber to do some work on the pipes and in lieu of a paycheck, they'll just put up a sign in the bathroom acknowledging all of the plumber’s hard work.

But as with any fight (or tango), it takes two. Huffington Post shouldn't have asked for free work, and up-in-arms designers should understand that their own willingness to accept work on spec is what keeps this practice around.

Most of the people submitting work to Huffington Post are looking to launch a career, hoping free work published at a high-profile site will bolster a burgeoning portfolio. But these projects rarely translate to a paying design job.

The Huffington Post, which employs a staff of 30 designers for projects just like this, isn't crowdsourcing as a cost-cutting measure. It just doesn’t understand how to properly engage in the design world. Absent from these projects is respect for process. For on-spec submissions, designers are working in a bubble, hoping their designs resonate once they've left their hands. But good design hinges on collaboration. The best work is born of missteps, mistakes, and teamwork.

In the end, the perspective absent from the logo will be the Huffington Post's. Design is important, and social media icons are important! That's why you pay someone to make them, and collaborate on the process. Proposals like the Huffington Post’s rob the firms behind them from getting what they want—just as the designer is robbed of ideas and the process of knocking them around.

If all the free milk you get is spoiled, you may reconsider buying that cow.

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