Can we Crowdsource Great Designs?

I stumbled over an interview conducted in 1957 between Mike Wallace and Frank Lloyd Wright where he discussed his thoughts on the common man and designing for the common man.

Wallace: What do you think of the average man in the United States who has little use for your ideas in architecture, in politics, in religion?

Wright: Are you speaking of the common man?

Wallace: The average man, the common man, I think that you have sometimes called him part of the mobocracy—part of the mob.

Wright: He’s the basis of it. I think the common man is responsible for the drift toward conformity now. It’s going to ruin our democracy, and is not according to our democratic faith. I believe our democracy was Thomas Jefferson’s idea. I mean I think Thomas Jefferson’s idea was the right idea, but we were headed for a genuine aristocracy. An aristocracy that was innate, on the man, not of him…not this by privilege but his, by virtue of this own virtue, his own conscience, his own quality, and that by that we were going to have a rule of the bravest and the best. But now that the common man is becoming a little jealous of the uncommon man, as H. I. Phillips wrote the other day, “It’s getting to the point where” he said… “Well, what’s the punk got we ain’t got? He’s just got the breaks that’s all.” Now that’s going to ruin the common man, because the uncommon man is his vision. And I believe what you call the common man is what I call the common man, a man who believes in nothing he can’t see, and he can’t see anything he can’t put his hand on. He’s a block to progress.

This got me thinking about today’s big marketing buzz word Crowdsourcing or following the Wisdom of the Crowd or in Wright’s words the “Mobocracy”.

With the crowds making the choice or calling the shots in today’s Internet environment, it there an avenue for designers to leverage on this so that we can do genera breaking superior design?

There are those who believe in the idea of “Consumers as Creators”. They believe that by gathering the “Wisdom of the Masses”, we can finally design products that we can be sure they want. Or can we?

Like this post I wrote a while back: The appropriateness of getting your customer to design a product for you? I think this buzz word is a bit of a dud and grossly misinterpreted.

While Threadless, Cambrain House, Digg or StumbleUpon are great examples of Crowdsourcing systems, in my opinion, it actually leans more towards content selection, rather than content creation.

Wait a minute?

That’s right, Consumers are not really creating anything. The majority of them are selecting from a pool, which means it is a win situation for the consumer and owners of the Crowdsourcing system, but not so much the creators. Notice I used the term creators as they could be consumers as well. Which is where I think some of the misinterpretation problem comes in.

I would imagine that for every one cool Threadless T-Shirt made, there would be a majority of designs that quietly fall off the back of the bandwagon. So in this case where is the benefit to the creator?

But what about what Wright said? Do you think his amazing body of work is a result of listening to user? It does not really look like it, and it sounds like he did not care one bit. What about Apple? They seem to be very happy telling us what to like and we, equally happy, lap it up with little questions ask? Is there more to this equation? What about market research and critical insight?

Therefore, are the game breaking design solutions something what everybody wants (read mediocre/conformity or optimized) but may not need? Or something designers think we might need (read innovative but high brow) but may not want?

What do you guys think? I know that most of you would be jumping up and down at this time, but I’m thinking out loud here and am looking for what you guys might think about this issue. So do have your say!

. . . . .

Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

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8 Comments on "Can we Crowdsource Great Designs?"

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Hi csven,

Thanks for pointing out the problems and sharing your insights.

I appreciate it and had hope to throw out my thoughts to get such good feedback. This got me thinking about it the entire weekend.

Please keep in touch!

There are problems with this post, DT. The first, as indicated previously, is not properly differentiating between the various so-called “crowdsource” systems. You are, in effect, contributing to crowdsourcing being “grossly misinterpreted” by essentially painting them with the same “content selection” brush and providing no clear explanation of their differences. Such gross simplification confuses more than it clarifies. Cambrian House is far more than mere “content selection”, and I don’t believe Digg is even worth mentioning in the context of this post. What’s worse is you broadly state “it is a win situation for the consumer and owners of the… Read more »

vanity is certianly not the right word:)
take a read of the fountainhead, give it a try. its a world of egoism…not egotism. Its not “reality” but Mythology, but lasting myth is always grounded in the human condition in ways that matter.



@Larry I will check it out thanks!

@csven My point exactly. It seems Frank Lloyd Wright indulged in his vanity. It looks like while we should be in touch with the people, I think vanity does play a role. Maybe vanity is not the right word, but perhaps leadership instead?

larry Rosenthal

possibly time for DT to read the Fountainhead ….. just make sure you have a few months rent in the bank-)

Searching for Clever Zebras, one will find mostly stubborn Camels….)



Hence the first part of my comment. Let’s start by defining “crowdsourcing” in the proper context.

– If left as broad as spanning from Digg to Threadless, the answer I’d give is “Yes”.

– If focused on the hyped concept and qualified with “suitable or helpful”, I’d still say “Yes”.

– If focused on that same hyped concept but not qualified, I’d be much more hesitant to agree and start look for mitigating circumstances.

And let’s not get too full of ourselves either. There are plenty of traditional designer solutions in search of problems. Without an audience, we serve only our vanity.


Great comment as usual csven. And yes I would love for such a system as Threadless, and have actually thought up of one and even written a business plan for it. Strangely though, perhaps because it is an object rather than low investment t-shirts, discussions with designers degenerated into yours/mine and royalty payments. Perhaps industrial designers are different breed.

However we digress, perhaps it was not very clear, but I was leaning more towards the idea of whether the information we get from crowd sourcing is suitable or helpful in the creation of future break-through designs.

There’s a huge difference between a Threadless, where individuals submit graphic designs (very much like quite a number of design competitions) and a Digg where the “content” is little more than clicking a button on the screen. Or a Mechanical Turk where it seems to me that the crowdsourced content’s worth is often in its low-grade quantity and not in high-value quality; of an “anybody can do it” level. We should be careful not to paint them all with the same brush. “I would imagine that for every one cool Threadless T-Shirt made, there would be a majority of designs… Read more »

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