This article is part two in a three-part series. The first observes on criticism towards brands, the second on criticism towards design, and the third engages on the state of design criticism.

In the first article, “The Impulse to be Heard”, the perception of criticism towards brands was discussed in relation to Internet anonymity and the prevalence of empty but destructive critique. Its conclusion emphasizes on patience and knowledge as necessary components towards constructive contribution, or otherwise it is as good as noise. This second part, A Design Battle Cry, continues with two supposedly unharmonious areas in the design business: Crowd-smashing and crowdsourcing.

To clarify in this context, crowd-smashing in the article interpretation is the criticism towards creative work while crowd-sourcing is the solicitation of contributions from the creative community. The nature of criticism and crowd-smashing is explained in the first article, as an impulse to be heard. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, while not an exclusive term to the design field (but shall be referred to as so in this article), holds many subject definitions. The first generic definition of crowd-sourcing is set in 2006 by Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, as “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.”

Naturally, having attributes of dividing creative work (especially for large-scale projects that require concentrated commitment and responsibility), eliminating client interaction and the requisite of following through with the next project’s action point, the concept of crowdsourcing is quite enjoying a love-hate relationship in the creative community.

On Crowd-sourcing

Whoever said, “Design is subtraction” obviously did not mean reducing the amount of contributed ideas that he/she likes.

As in the case of the Sydney Design, brought to attention by an article of Desktop Magazine, the “design IS addition”. Where addition means flooding entries of satirical ‘creative’ work as rebuff (you get what you (lowly) pay for right?) to how the industry perceive Sydney’s design. In a nutshell, the furor is the backlash of designers towards the contradictory decision to outsource (with a monetary prize of $1000) the laureate branding identity of Sydney Design, a long-standing initiative by Powerhouse Museum to celebrate, recognize and raise standards within the Sydney’s design scene. Like celebrating works of fine art behind cheap plastic frames.

“A festival that is tasked with celebrating and promoting capital-D Design should know the core of great Design lies within thoughtful interrogation of a subject matter. Meaningful dialogue and collaboration are at the heart of the design process, and it can’t be achieved through posting 5 paragraphs and some tension sliders on a crowdsourcing site. Sorry, it really can’t.”

The satirical barrage was successful and the competition has thus far been pulled.

However, like the first article, are we simply shouting just to be heard? If we are asked to explain the bitterness, could we answer it sufficiently? Are we all rage and fury over practices such as crowdsourcing because of competition to our paychecks? Are we not able to innovate ourselves out of this rut, bypassing and putting crowdsourcing to rest? These questions certainly cue a reminder again that we might be too needlessly agitated over commercial practices beyond production control.

“Going forward designers—individually and as a community—must continue to communicate the worth of investing in design services, always offering a sense of the value created for the client from hiring a qualified professional designer, and by explaining that the client is the one who loses out with crowd-sourcing or spec competitions. The argument must be based on the contribution of a designer working with the client to solve the client’s problem, and not on the solicitation process the client uses. Of course, there will always be cases when the client wants nothing more than a decorative mark, and then our arguments will ring hollow.” (via AIGA)

Criticism towards the ethics of crowdsourcing is no stranger to the design scene, much like the viewpoints on speculative work. Although it does more harm than good, the industry will still see the surge in outsourcing models regardless, solely the reason being due to the tremendous demand for creative work with the boom in small businesses, startups, big and small brands sprouting wildly across Yellow Pages.

Frustrating as it may be, what the creative industry should and continue to do, is not to keep talking but to win these clients over from their crowdsourcing rationality by doing what they do best. Designing better.

On Crowd-smashing

We have seen logos bashed in the first article, and that is just one of the many ‘hit list’ of the Internet critics. Late 2012 witnessed Apple’s removal of Scott Forstall (senior vice president of mobile software) over a reported refusal in signing a public apology and (more importantly in the eyes of design geeks) his involvement in and Apple’s possible severance of faux-real visuals, aka. Skeuomorphism.

For some reason, the agitation in Apple’s hierarchy fanned the flames for designers’ (mostly the UI crowd) dormant urge to quickly hang skeuomorphism up for public execution, some ditching the iOS faction onto the other side of UI grass, the sprouting of anti- and pro- blogs and discussions like this and this. The debate over designs mimicking visual elements of real-world devices versus designs, of which some might go as far as terming it conventional, that flaunt flat clean edges like the Microsoft Metro (the term “Metro” was eventually dropped due to legality issues) design language as seen on their Windows 8 and Windows Phone UI, is likely equal in terms of personal preferences and design functionalities. One displays a straightforward stripped-down language that directs focus to typography and colors, the other champions emotional involvement and content richness. Like any other public dislikes, the call to crowd-smash skeuomorphism has become another consuming culture where users undiscerningly ride the criticism bandwagon exclaiming words like “kitsch” and “gaudy”. Let it be said that a nebulous term like skeuomorphism, although part of the Apple’s iOS brand, is by no means a hero feature in brand deliverance. It is an experience. An engagement. A reasoning that many had failed to see.

“If our job as designers is to make technologies user-friendly, then why not make them familiar? And as designers we have a responsibility to make interfaces more familiar to all users, not just the most cutting edge techies.

Why not make the notepad look like a legal pad if that will help your average tech user to understand the concept of the application in one glance? (Bear in mind that the average tech user is getting older and technologies are being utilized by the masses en force these days.)

To strip away these familiar elements is stripping valuable teaching tools away from the less inclined, average user.” via Webdesigner Depot

Skeuomorphism, like all visual metaphors, are not all that brand new and bad, considering that the commotion are about the preferential difference between a consuming culture (“I hate this”) and a supporting culture (“Let’s improve this”). Web design, for example, has always been an advocate of flat designs while game design chooses the skeuomorphic appeal for emotional immersion. Even automobiles feature skeuomorphic trademarks; compare a Jaguar’s authentic upholstery (Connolly leather) to that of a Honda’s faux leather upholstery. As Dan Kraemer, creative director of design firm IA Collaborative describes flat design and skeuomorphism, “These are two different approaches to creating great experiences, and I can’t necessarily say one is better than the other.” It honestly comes down to how a designer works with his tools and choices. Apple should not entirely abandon its skeuomorphic fetishism for the possibility of showing poorly of its brand health rather than brand confidence. What matters most right now is the sticking-to-your-guns approach, patiently reinforcing the identity.

As for crowd-smashing, Michael Bojkowski says it all.

“Blame the interwebs and services like ffffound, Designspiration, Pinterest or, most notably Tumblr, for the spread of this new form of ‘graphix’. There’s no dodging the fact that the idea of the ‘graphic designer’ as jack-of-all is slowly being consigned to the annals of history, whilst the emergence of a hit squadron of designers, with a burgeoning range of expertise, and a plethora of aesthetic approaches are fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.”
(via Desktop Magazine)

Neville Hew
Neville is a designer working with brands.
Neville Hew
Neville Hew

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