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!

  • DT

    May 19, 2008 at 9:41 am Reply

    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!

  • csven

    May 18, 2008 at 6:07 am Reply

    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 Crowdsourcing system, but not so much the creators” and then use Threadless as your example:

    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?

    I get the impression you’ve not given sufficient thought to Threadless’ business model in the context of the issue you raise and the status quo you seem to be defending.
    Let me ask you this: how many of your own designs are sitting in corporate storage somewhere? What is the benefit to you, the creator, when the marketing crowd, the retail buyer crowd, or any of the other crowds that come with the “industrial” system don’t vote for your design? Or choose not to manufacture every single concept you put on the table and instead relegate them to “the back of the bandwagon”? To paraphrase your comment, is this then not true:

    it is a win situation for the consumer and owners of the manufacturing system, but not so much the creators

    At least with Threadless, if someone’s favorite design doesn’t get selected for production/sale, there’s nothing stopping it from being produced through other channels; even if only as a one-off silkscreen.
    What would happen if you decided to take one of your shelved corporate concepts and have it produced elsewhere; to save it from the ignorant verdict of the industrial “mob” who’ve condemned the design to obscurity? Rhetorical question. You and I both know you’d be screwed.
    So while a “great” design, however it’s defined, may not be selected by the masses at Threadless, at least it has a chance. Threadless is far from perfect, but that’s more than I can say for the system in which you and I operate.
    Furthermore, have no great designs come from the industrial complex, with its own self-serving mobs; the same kind of problem which was so central to The Fountainhead? I believe some do, but perhaps far fewer than we’d have under other circumstances. That’s because I’d argue that the industrial complex is itself a form of Crowdsourcing. We just don’t recognize it as such because it’s become institutionalized; the crowds are segregated into Professions, and we’re comfortable giving up control in exchange for job security. Our economies, our businesses, our education systems, and even our thinking has gone “vertical” as a result. We are Asimov’s “The Profession” without the exotic hardware to brainwash us, and only the occasional anomaly to confuse the entrenched with inexplicable success.

    Secondly, to further complicate matters, you mix one man’s architectural perspective

    [common man is] a block to progress

    with your “industrial design” concerns

    design products that we can be sure they want

    Wright’s disdain for the “common man” doesn’t transfer well to the industrial design profession, which is, when you think about it, a kind of socialism in the service of capitalism; a controlled form of crowdsourcing complete with marketing tools for gaging mass acceptance, financial tools for determining greatest value to the mass of shareholders, and machines designed solely to spit out minimally acceptable product for mass consumption. Break from the “mass” methodology, and the term “industrial design” no longer applies … at which point the issue becomes circular.
    Define “great”. From whose perspective is something “great”? Is it “they”, the people voting on Threadless who determine through their votes what is “great”, or is it a wealthy department store owner who can pay for a beautiful but arguably uncomfortable house over a waterfall where the chairs are to be looked at and not sat upon?
    And when industrial design loses the concern for “they”, is it not taking on Wright’s perspective and thus crossing over to craft? And are we not just as likely to get a Falling Water as a result? I mean, Newson’s Lockheed Lounge is pretty, but I don’t want to spend an evening reclined on it. To me it has effectively no worth, and if I had to vote for a lounge on Threadless, it wouldn’t be that thing. Yet it’s sufficiently “great” to have been sold for millions of dollars at auction.
    Is Newson’s lounge the work of an industrial designer concerned with “they”, or the work of a architectural craftsman serving his own ego? And in the end, what need does a craftsman have with anything being discussed here anyway?
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Wright or Newson are mistaken in pursuing their visions. I don’t believe they were. But we should see things for what they are, and what they are is not related to “industrial design”.

    So to repeat, by including something like “Threadless”, the answer has to be “Yes, great products can and do emerge”. But by using nebulous qualifiers like “suitable or helpful” you make even worthless services worthy of consideration, which is a waste of time in my opinion. However, when properly targeted at sites such as Kluster and Cambrian House (which you incorrectly suggest is used to select “content”, when in fact people vote on “ideas” and then contribute to “designs” in exchange for royalties) as well as Wikipedia and open source software such as OpenSim, the issue becomes far less clear and worthy of further discussion regarding whether “Consumers as Creators” can deliver not “great” design, but “great” design on par with and at the same pace as the current industrial system.

  • larryr

    May 18, 2008 at 2:12 am Reply

    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.

  • DT

    May 17, 2008 at 10:11 pm Reply

    @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

    May 17, 2008 at 8:36 am Reply

    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….)

  • csven

    May 17, 2008 at 12:10 am Reply

    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.

  • DT

    May 16, 2008 at 11:01 pm Reply

    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.

  • csven

    May 16, 2008 at 10:53 pm Reply

    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 that quietly fall off the back of the bandwagon. So in this case where is the benefit to the creator?
    My understanding is that the benefit to the independent creator is the US$2000 monetary award they receive for winning plus additional US$500 for each additional run (essentially a royalty arrangement) up to something like US$10,000 if I’m not mistaken. As far as I know this is far better than most payments for similar work. How many industrial design competitions offer similar benefits … on a weekly, ongoing basis? None. And unlike far too many design competitions, Threadless doesn’t usurp the rights of non-winning entries.
    In the end, Threadless seems a far better option for graphic designers than anything available for industrial designers. If there were something similar for ID, everybody would love it. You’d love it.
    I’d venture you picked the wrong business here. Threadless is the exception.
    That said, I agree that in general the thought is valid and is very much in line with my “Low Definition Creativity” post from a couple years ago ( and comments I’ve made to you regarding “gateways” and the tendency for gatekeepers (e.g. Bebo) to casually and mindlessly monetize the content creators who form the basis for their worth.

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