Design Report: Open source - the art of creative collaboration

Crowdsourcing design brings consumers closer to brands, but is there a risk that it devalues the professional design process, asks Scott Billings.

Citroen: Orla Kiely-designed special edition
Citroen: Orla Kiely-designed special edition

Collaboration is the buzzword of the moment. In the era of mass social networks, open innovation and crowdsourcing, the consumer has become creator. These trends, combined with an emergent co-design philosophy, all point to a breakdown in silos of professional practice and a coming-together of previously disparate parties. Across the world, groups with shared interests are using social media to connect, debate, collaborate and act on their ideas in a way never possible before.

In consumer branding, too, collaborations, while not new, are becoming more prevalent and taking on new forms - in particular, by engaging consumers to generate creative ideas. Over the past few years, companies have started to draw the public into the process of design and development by using crowdsourcing initiatives and promoting design competitions.

The idea, says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design agency Stocks Taylor Benson, is that online crowdsourcing and design competitions allow customers to feel part of the brands they buy.

'There is no doubt that crowdsourcing and competitions can be used to generate a buzz around a brand and make customers feel involved, and it can offer certain small-scale and short-term benefits for the brand,' says Bakowski. 'By throwing design open to a multitude of people, the brand may also end up with some very good ideas. In fact, with thousands of people submitting, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them in isolation might be better than those from the brand's design agency.'

Is crowdsourcing devaluing design?

A recent initiative run by Sony, called Open Planet Ideas, has gathered suggestions from people around the world on ways that the company's technologies can be repurposed to tackle environmental problems.

'Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,' says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. 'It's very interesting to use new ideas from consumers, and it's good for us to understand them better.'

To some, this may seem very appealing, but there is plenty of resistance to crowdsourcing and relying on competitions when it comes to actual design work.

As this article was being written, a finely balanced yet passionate debate was unfolding on the Facebook page of Adobe's Creative Juices initiative, a forum set up by Adobe for professional and non-professional designers to share work, ideas, discussions and design techniques. The controversy stems from a competition thrown out to this community to design the new Creative Juices logo, whereby the designer of the winning identity receives a copy of Adobe's Creative Suite 5 software.

Some members of the community, many of whom are professional designers, feel that the competition is a ruse by Adobe to source numerous creative ideas for free. It can then select the best and implement it across all its Creative Juices promotional activity, in turn promoting Adobe products to existing and potential customers.

Others see the competition merely as an important platform for allowing creative people to share their work, receive peer recognition and feedback and, ultimately, to give the site a community-sourced logo.

While Adobe Creative Juices is a relatively low-key open design competition, it does reveal some of the awkwardness that surrounds public design collaborations, especially on high-profile or commercial platforms. Detractors believe that open competitions devalue both the design process and the skills of professional designers.

Last year, clothing retailer Gap found itself dealing with the fallout from the seemingly shambolic launch of its new, professionally designed logo. Almost instantly, the logo - an oddly anachronistic Helvetica and gradient-square affair by New York agency Laird & Partners - was pounced upon by online commentators, many of whom decried it as a big mistake.

In a strange tactical shift, Gap then ran, fleetingly, an open competition to search for a second new logo, asking people to 'share your designs'. The crowdsourcing bugbear raised its head - free design work for a multinational corporation, anyone? - and in the end the whole affair petered out with a reinstatement of the brand's classic blue square logo.

Social pressures

Marka Hansen, then-president of Gap North America, admitted the company had made a mistake. 'We've learned a lot in this process and we are clear that we did not go about this in the right way,' she said. 'We recognise that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community. This wasn't the right project at the right time for crowdsourcing. There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we'll handle it in a different way.'

The Gap debacle says a lot about both the power and pressure created by social media - and brands' willingness to bow to it - as well as the treacherous waters of crowdsourcing design ideas.

According to graphic designer Ben Stott, brands that feel the need to rely on consumers for designs are already lacking a necessary connection with their customer base. In Gap's case, Hansen's comments would appear to confirm his assessment.

'I would be shocked if a client who didn't already have this type of collaboration as a part of their strategy suddenly asked to do something like this,' says Stott. 'But then, there are brands like Nike that do amazing things that involve people without (the participants) really even thinking about it.'

Two things are coinciding here: the unprecedented ability of consumers to debate and respond to a brand's behaviour, often en masse, and the increased access to creative technologies, allowing more people to design and produce their own content, including graphics, film, photography and animation.

Crowdsourcing and open competition are one response of big business to these two developments. While not everyone is a great designer, if the crowdsourcing net is cast wide enough, there is a fair chance of a catch.

'Creativity has been democratised for some time and we are now starting to feel the effect of this on the design community,' says Stott. 'Technological advances raise the bar on what everyone can achieve, making us all content producers. Photographers have had it far worse than designers: everyone is a photographer, but, as we know, not everyone is a good photographer.'

So do crowdsourcing and open competition threaten design as a profession? The standard design industry response has been to admonish 'crowdsourcers' as devaluing design by holding what is essentially a gigantic free creative pitch. Yet most designers don't really see the public as a threat.

'Crowdsourcing is an amusing and enjoyable diversion: if in doubt, ask the populace,' says Howard Milton, chairman of design group Smith & Milton. 'But crowdsourcing can never belittle the design profession, because we all know it is an amateur pursuit.' According to Milton, we will 'continue to dip in and out of this source, but it will never replace a well-thought-through brand design'.

Stott claims that the industry should react with greater poise to crowdsourcing and open competitions. 'When the design community comes out and screams, it looks like protectionism; like we're saying that only we can design, using our special powers. I have no problem with it at all - most examples are generally bad in any case - but I do think it will evolve to become something that is less obvious and unnatural than it is now.'

Tying up with artists

Design competitions and crowdsourcing may still be in their awkward infancy, but a more tried-and-tested method of collaboration comes through brands linking with high-profile artists and big-name designers. Coca-Cola's tie-ups with fashion designers including Manolo Blahnik and Matthew Williamson; Citroen's special edition DS3, decorated by Orla Kiely; Issey Miyake's and Paul Smith's reworkings of Evian bottles; and Adidas collections designed by Stella McCartney are just a small selection of these kind of brand-designer partnerships.

One of the longest-running - and, arguably, most consistent - artist-collaboration programmes is that of vodka brand Absolut. Beginning in 1985 with a poster by Andy Warhol, the brand has remained committed to strong links with the art world since, more recently working with such figures as director Spike Jonze, rapper/producer Jay-Z and artist Damien Hirst.

'Absolut has a rich legacy of creative collaborations that have ensured the brand has continued to evolve,' says Vlastimil Spelda, marketing director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, which has owned Absolut since 2008.

Of course, professional design agencies should also be capable of evolving a brand, so where do artist collaborations come into an overall marketing strategy? According to Spelda, they are complementary to the more brand-focused design work that is commissioned from agencies. 'Collaborations provide an effective marketing tool through which brands are able to creatively express their personality. They drive consumer interest and deliver standout and presence within the trade,' he says.

However, Milton believes that if designers were offered the same freedom as artists, similarly left-field results could be achieved.

'There is an assumption that jobbing brand identity is incapable of taking a brave creative leap, yet the ability to grow a brand in the right direction - even in a massive jump - is far more likely to come from the designers who understand and work with these brands every day,' he argues.

'Regrettably, they are simply never given the chance to fling emotion into the mix because the marketer lacking in real creative confidence will seek to repress and minimise personal risk.'

Strategic thinking

Absolut's Flavor of the Tropics duty-free edition was created by design agency Williams Murray Hamm, but agency creative director Garrick Hamm acknowledges that the brand gains something more than just effective design when it collaborates with artists. 'For Absolut, working with artists is part of an overall strategy,' he says. 'It's not necessarily about the design output itself - most good design groups should be able to push the brand - but shows it moves in these artistic circles.'

According to Milton, the artist-brand collaboration merely provides a 'quick PR win'. 'It's the addition of cool and the quality-by-association stamp,' he says. 'Basking in the reflected glory of a renowned artist might seem attractive to some marketers. For once, they take a hands-off position and let the artist have centre stage, reaping the plaudits and admiration for their daring. This is something few can do when engaging with the "professional" designer.'

Ultimately, the success of any collaboration rests heavily on the strength and synergy of the relationship. A weak link or cursory 'artistic' flourish will be transparent to consumers, while a committed, long-running programme of focused artistic endorsement will be viewed as more authentic.

Whether fresh design ideas are sourced from established artists, through open competitions and crowdsourcing, or from a standard design agency process, one thing is now certain: the public, more powerful and vocal than ever before, will respond to the outcome, as Gap discovered to its cost last year.

'(Technology changes) have turned the world on its head in the past few years and designers have to up their game,' says Stott. 'We can't control everything and we're no longer closed off from everyone. Younger designers know this - they try things out quickly and online, ditch what doesn't work and move onto something else. But traditional design has this process: we go away and think and set up a structure. We may have to rethink our process. In 15 years' time, graphic design will not exist as the profession it is now.'

CASE STUDY: Brancott Estate/Sarah Herriot Design

Wine brand Brancott Estate, which pioneered the production of Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, commissioned jewellery designer Sarah Herriot to create a range inspired by the landscape of its vineyards. Herriot was chosen partly because she was raised in New Zealand and has an affinity with its landscape, but also because of the overlap between Herriot's and Brancott's customer profiles.

'Our customers are culturally astute, affluent and discerning, so we have to work hard to connect with them,' says Matthew Bird, marketing controller at Pernod Ricard UK wines, which owns Brancott Estate. 'A design collaboration is an effective way of reaching consumers, but to make it successful it was really important for us to take a lot of time to build a relationship with Sarah, establishing the basis upon which we wanted to work together. As a result, there was a lot more time spent upfront compared with a normal design-agency process.'

Herriot's designs include a women's pendant and a pair of cufflinks, sold via the companies' websites.

'It's important for me to be able to tell people why I've made things in the way I have,' says the designer. 'These pieces capture the vineyard's location and there is the story of where I'm from. But I wouldn't necessarily do any collaboration; it couldn't go against my design ethos and I need to feel happy with the process and results, as in the end it will have my name all over it.'