Monday, 27 May 2013

On the trickiness of crowdsourcing competitions: some lessons from Sydney Design

I generally maintain a diplomatic silence about crowdsourcing competitions when I'm talking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as I believe spec work (or asking people to invest time in creating designs then paying just one 'winner') is unethical, and it's really tricky for design competitions to avoid looking like 'spec work'. I discovered this for myself when I ran the 'Cosmic Collections' mashup competition, so I have a lot of sympathy for museums who unknowingly get it wrong when experimenting with crowdsourcing. I also tend not to talk about poorly conceived or executed crowdsourcing projects as it doesn't seem fair to single out cultural heritage institutions that were trying to do the right thing against odds that ended up beating them, but I think the lessons to be drawn from the Sydney Design festival's competition are important enough to discuss here.

'Is it a free poster yet?'
'Is it a free poster yet?'
A crowdsourcing competition model that the museum had previously applied successfully (the Lace Award and Trainspotting, with prizes up to $AUD20,000 and display in the exhibition for winning designs) had a very different reception when the context and rewards changed. When the Powerhouse Museum's design competition to produce the visual identity for the Sydney Design festival was launched with a $US1000 prize, the design community's sensitivity to spec work and 'free pitching' was triggered, and they started throwing in some sarcastic responses.  The public feedback loop created as people could see previous designs and realised their own would also be featured on the site had a 4Chan-ish feel of a fun new meme about it, and once the norm of satirical responses was set, it was only going to escalate.

More importantly, there was a sense that Sydney Design was pulling a swifty. As Kate Sweetapple puts it in How the Sydney Design festival poster competition went horribly wrong:

'The fundamental difference [to the previous competitions], however, is that by running the competition, the Museum pulled a substantial job – worth tens of thousands of dollars – out of the professional marketplace. The submissions to Love Lace and Trainspotting did not have a commercial context one year, and none the next.'
If the previous reward was mostly monetary, offering a lesser intrinsic reward in exchange for a previously extrinsic reward is unlikely to work. If there's a bigger reward than than the competition brief itself would suggest, one important lesson is to make it unavoidably obvious. In this case, the Sydney Design Team's response said 'the Museum would have engaged the winning designer for further work and remuneration required to roll out the winning design into a more comprehensive marketing campaign', but this wasn't clear in the original brief. Many museum competitions display highly-ranked entries in their gallery spaces, and being exhibited in the museum or festival spaces might have been another form of valid reward, but only if it worked as an aspiration for the competition's audience, who in this case might well have a breadth of experience and exposure that rendered it less valuable.

Finally, in working with museums online, I've noticed the harshness of criticism is often proportionate to how deeply people care about you or identify you with certain values they hold dear.  When you're a beloved institution, people who care deeply about you feel betrayed when you get things wrong. As one commentator said in With friends like these, who needs enemies?, 'Sydney Design are meant to be in our corner'. If you regard critics as 'critical friends' you can turn the relationship around (as Merel van der Vaart discusses in the 'Opening up' section of her post on lessons from the Science Museum's Oramics exhibition) and build an even stronger relationship with them. Maybe Sydney Design can still turn this around...

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