Crowdsourcing Design

A critique of massive open online creativity

My thesis investigates the methods of and the ideas behind the crowdsourcing of design – that is the outsourcing of creative labour to a large and unspecified group of people by means of dedicated profit-oriented digital platforms. While innovation has always been the result of collaborative effort to some degree and large design contests are nothing new, such websites have been created to attract large groups of people, sustain a steady crowd and harness their creativity on a massive scale. As such, they are a new phenomenon. In recent years, dozens of platforms for the crowdsourcing of design tasks, such as Jovoto (2007), 99designs (2008), Quirky (2009) and OpenIDEO (2010), have emerged, with hundreds of thousands of designers from all over the world contributing to them.

The thesis examines the workings and the rhetoric of these platforms by comparing the way they address the masses today with historic notions of the crowd offered by Gustave LeBon, Sigmund Freud or Elias Canetti. Today’s practice of outsourcing work to the networked crowd is juxtaposed with older visions of distributed online collaboration, collective intelligence, free software, commons-based peer production and the promise of the empowerment of the individual user.

Furthermore the thesis compares the crowdsourcing of design work with other forms of crowdsourced digital labour, especially with the so called microtasking as it is spearheaded by Amazon Mechanical Turk (2005). The crowdsourcing of design work is organised decidedly differently to other forms of digital labour and the question is why should that be so? What does this tell about changing faces of design as a practice and what are its effects on design as a profession.

At its core, the study is a history of ideas, taking some of the utopian ideas of early online history as a vantage point from which to to view current and, at times, dystopian applications of creative labour online. The goal is to better understand the social mechanisms employed by the platforms to motivate and control the crowds, the parameters that define their structure and the scope for their potential redesign. Thus, the thesis is not only about the crowdsourcing of design but about the design of crowdsourcing and about the ethics of these platforms as human-made contingent social systems. Can crowdsourcing be designed in a way that is fair and sustainable to all stakeholders?

The analysis is based on an extensive study of literature from Design Studies, Media and Culture Studies and Human-Computer Interaction, combined with participant observation within several crowdsourcing platforms for design. The results of this small-scale design ethnography are triangulated with a series of interviews with different stakeholders.


Royal College of Art
Critical Writing in Art & Design,
Supervisors: David Crowley, Monika Parrinder