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Crowdsourcing and The Tyranny of Choice

A wave of admonishment ran through the design world recently when the Department of the Interior (DOI) used a popular design crowdsourcing site to solicit ideas for a new logo. (You can read petitions and arguments here and here.)

It raises the hackles of designers when high-profile organizations (last year it was the National Endowment for the Arts) use the design equivalent of trolling—capturing everything in its indiscriminate net for very little investment.

There are a number of unsavory aspects to this practice, but most importantly, the client doesn’t benefit.

It is a terrible waste of time for a company.

Even though I wanted to ogle the submitted design work, my head spun to take in all those solutions (600+), many of which were inappropriate or just plain bad. There is much to say even about the creative brief submitted by DOI, but I’m focusing here on the cost to the organization.

Faced with too many choices, we reach an overload and we fail to make good choices.

Many books have been written on the subject of choice and decisionmaking, and there is science that supports the conclusions about the impact of too many choices. Armed with a little bit of knowledge from some of these books, we can all make better choices and decisions (see list at end of post).

In his book, Paradox of Choice (affiliate link), author Barry Schwartz talks about the pitfalls of too much choice. (You can also watch his TED talk on the same subject.)

“All of this choice has two effects on people. It produces paralysis rather than liberation. The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we’d had fewer options to choose from.”

The fallout from these two key effects of the staggering choices in today’s world manifests itself in more ways. There is an inherently lower satisfaction level which causes us to regret our choice more. It makes us imagine that there had probably been a better choice. And this regret makes us even more dissatisfied.

More options also creates higher expectations, simply because of the sheer number of choices. Faced with many options, we’re convinced we can pick the best one. The final blow to our happiness in our choice when we have many options, as opposed to fewer, is that we tend to blame ourselves for our lousy choice.

Suddenly, your job, which was probably already taxing just got taxed further.

One of the reasons Trader Joe’s is so successful and popular is that they limit the choices. They are aware of how a mindboggling array of choices affects our ability to choose and be satisfied. Think about the last time you stared openmouthed at the cat food or cereal shelf of a grocery store. You sigh, your shoulders sink and you tire just thinking about making a choice. There is a cognitive cost exacted with this type of decision.


In the case of a crowdsourced logo, many organizations lured by almost free and hundreds of choices don’t take into account the massive cost of staff time to adequately evaluate the choices. The money they imagine they are saving will get spent on staff time probably better spent another way. Factor in the time lost on confusion and second guessing, and the cost is even higher. Now, instead of evaluating a few very solid solutions based on a really useful brief, you’re navigating through too many wrong solutions that make choosing harder.

This is why crowdsourcing design is fundamentally flawed. All the focus is on the form of the thing (its looks). Form is important. But the form is only a small part of an effective identity—strategy, appropriateness, uniqueness, flexibility, lasting power.

These same theories apply not just to crowdsourcing design work but also to soliciting too many bids (unless there is a requirement to do so).

It’s something to consider if your staff is already wearing too many hats, you’re concerned about cost (in a broad sense), you reputation to protect, and most of all, you want the quality of the output to match the level of the work you do.

There are two ways good ways to avoid all this. One is to be very clear about your goals, purpose, tone/personality, audience, uses and needs. And the second is to sharpen your skills and confidence in selecting and evaluating the right designer (or design team).


Have you ever used a crowdsourcing site for design? Do you know anyone who has? If you’re willing to share your experiences, please do. There’s very little out there on what happens next.


Books on decisionnmaking and choices

These are all excellent books on making both personal and business decisions. They cite similar studies but each book’s focus is slightly different. (These are affiliate links.)

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely


{Above: Creative commons image from “flickr/iamdonte”}

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