Start Up Britain and the Crowd-sourcing argument

Posted on 12/04/2011


Start Up Britain...

...or Cock Up Britain?

Read the background to this (below) or get stuck into the argument:


America is famous for its entrepreneurial society and this (as well as sheer size) has helped the US foster some of the world’s largest companies. With the hope of resurrecting the UK economy, David Cameron’s conservative government are trying to foster that same start-up culture in the UK. was launched two weeks ago and caused a lot of controversy. The majority of companies and services it recommended were American, questioning how useful the whole project would be to UK businesses. The site also suggested companies crowd-source their logos and marketing collateral using the crowd-sourcing website 99logos. So much for supporting the UK creative industry, which the conservative government claims to see as the future of the UK economy.

The argument

Crowd-sourcing is a bit of an experiment. Over the past few years it’s helped film makers and businesses get their ideas off the ground or even build investment clubs. It gives everyone, not just wealthy individuals or industry professionals, the chance to contribute to something bigger. is using it to source creative work from as many people as possible, for as little money as possible.

I can see why someone might suggest crowd-sourcing creative work. When a company starts out the battle’s ensuring the product or service work, so any available resources would naturally be channelled into this. A logo won’t make up for terrible service or a bad product.

But that’s not to say it’s unimportant. For all but the most embryonic of companies, identity is vital to a successful business. A friend of mine works for a tech start-up where their main challenge is finding new business. They’ve already sorted the product and systems, but what they need are new contacts and greater awareness of what they do. This won’t come from customer recommendations alone; they need a strong identity if anyone’s actually going to remember them. Let’s get one thing straight: some off the shelf clip art does not equal an identity.

What about having the widest range of logos to pick from? I imagine a lot of entrepreneurs are advocates of free market economics, which is why crowd-sourcing (having as large a market as possible) is seen as a good thing. Choice is the driving force behind free markets, so it would follow that having  hundreds of logos is better than having a handful.

Choice like this works if you’re buying a TV, because it allows you to compare prices of the same model from different vendors. But a logo’s not like that. Give five designers the same brief and you’ll get five different responses. Creative work can’t be judged on price alone, and more choice only makes the decision process more difficult.

This why the pitch process exists. By being selective about who you request samples from, you select your price range and narrow down who you want to work with. The whole process is much more informed and easier than skimming through tens or hundreds of samples and relying on gut reactions.

It also makes financial sense for both parties. This trial process is a compromise between the client who wants to see at least some of the goods or potential before buying and the agency who’s putting work in for free, but hopes to make it back if they’re successful. Crowd-sourcing skews this dynamic purely in favour of the buyer. You pay in advance for a TV because you know exactly what you’re going to get. This is just how it works. You can’t crowd-source builders to complete several extensions on your house and only pay the one you like the most. Service industries can’t work like that.

Good logo design is more than mixing a few shapes and some text; it’s visualising a brand and the ideas it represents. If the image is cheap or the idea doesn’t appeal to someone, the business loses out. If it’s forgettable they’ll struggle to find clients. It takes takes time and energy, and often experience. Crowd-sourcing can’t give you this. For all but the newest of start-ups, 99logos and the like aren’t much more than giant clip art galleries. Whatever the coalition government might think, I hope entrepreneurs can see this; if not the UK economy had better place its hopes elsewhere.