Crowdsourcing behind the scenes: an interview with Adam Schilling from 99Designs

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UPDATE: Adam has kindly informed me that he resigned from his position at 99Designs.com. Although the opinions expressed in this interview were given during Adam’s employment with 99 Designs, he no longer represents the company. Thanks, Adam, for the update. Best of luck to you.

Crowdsourcing has been a hot topic lately in the design community. With a lot of designers who enjoy getting paid to do crowdsourcing work, and a lot of designers who classify it as merely spec work, I thought it would be interesting to get to the root of the question and go behind the scenes of crowdsourcing by having a chat with Adam Schilling from 99Designs.com. Take a look and then let us know what you think.

The first portion of this interview is a chance to get to know Adam and 99Designs.com a little better.

The second portion discusses the never-dying argument of whether crowdsourcing is a positive or negative aspect of the design community. [jump there]

Hi, Adam. Thanks so much for taking time to talk with GDB readers.

Hi Preston, thanks for this opportunity.

Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Hi, my name is Adam Schilling and I work for 99designs as Senior Designer and Designer Advocate. I’m passionate about design, typography, and freethinking. On my weekends, I snap photos and climb tall rock walls for fun. I live in Melbourne, Australia with my partner and our two wonderful little kids.

Can you introduce us to 99designs? (How it got started, The basics of what it is, etc.)

99designs began all by itself in the SitePoint forums back in 2006. In good fun, designers began challenging each other to ‘design-offs’—not too dissimilar to the Photoshop Layer Tennis we see notable designers participating in from time to time. In one discussion thread you had these wildly creative competitions occurring, and—just a click away—you had small business owners seeking tips on where to source identity and web design. It was only a matter of time before the two communities intersected and SitePoint was suddenly being asked to facilitate payments and provide better tools for managing projects. In just a few years these discussion threads had outgrown the SitePoint forums and 99designs was created to better support this growing movement.

99designs has grown at a great rate and seen tremendous success. To what do you and your colleagues attribute it’s great success?

The success of 99designs is attributed largely to its evolutionary origins and the community who started it all. We also have a fantastically talented team of staff supporting the community. By working together, we aim to get best results for everyone.

Other huge contributors are the way 99designs facilitates and promotes networking and follow-on work outside of the site. It’s a fantastic lead generation tool.

What are your responsibilities at 99designs?

I’m responsible for the overall user experience on 99designs. As such, I spend a great deal of time focused on our talented community of nearly 50,000 designers. By running quick user tests and listening to feedback and ideas I’m able to improve our usability, information architecture, and user interface design. I enjoy finding a problem and seeing its solution through to completion: from sketching or wire-framing in Omnigraffle, to producing polished mock-ups in Photoshop or Illustrator, to coding the finished product in HTML and CSS. Of course, I don’t do it all alone: there’s a team of talented developers at 99designs who tackle all the technical stuff.

Basically, it’s my job to listen to what is and isn’t working—and then collaboratively develop solutions that ensure 99designs is as enjoyable to use as possible.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I get to help designers! The great thing about helping designers is they have great ideas for how things can be improved. We’re able to hash those ideas out together and then I get to go off and implement solutions. At 99designs, we have a very agile development schedule and we’re usually able to get new ideas out the door quickly. This allows us to iterate to the community’s feedback and means we’re delivering best results. The process is a real buzz.

What do you enjoy least?

At one point in my career I might have answered web browser testing. However, the influence of Internet Explorer 6 is slowly diminishing and it’s getting easier and easier to get right. It’s a fantastic time to be a designer on the web—the future looks very bright.

What is your background as a designer and how did you end up at 99designs?

Screen shot 2009-10-05 at 10.17.55 AMI’ve always been a mad illustrator—ever since I was a little kid. I studied illustration and graphic design at university. I fell in love with typography early on (but didn’t really, really understand it until much later). I tried my hand at multimedia design (didn’t stick) and then around ten years ago I jumped into web design.

Mostly everything I learned about web design I learned online from incredibly generous individuals who freely shared their knowledge via blogs. I tried several courses, but—at the time—those courses were either dated, flawed, or non-existent. Big web conferences like Web Directions were invaluable for finding out where to look for help. Nowadays it’s much easier to get started.

My interest in user experience grew and grew with each new job I took on. By the time I got to 99designs it had become my mantra and way of design.

What advice would you give to upcoming designers who are trying to find their place in the design industry?

The design industry is huge and there is plenty of room for creative thinking. You just need to keep at it. Keep looking for your niche—and make sure your niche is fun. The moment it stops being fun your creativity will dry up. Remember, ideas come first, then execution. Draw upon influences, but always try to keep your work original. Develop your own style.

Education is much easier to access these days with plenty of reputable sites on the Internet offering great tutorials, podcasts and screencasts.

If you’re having trouble building a folio, consider volunteering your design services to a non-profit organization. And, you can always use services like 99designs, too.

[to top]

Crowdsourcing: good or bad?

There are some people who claim crowdsourcing is a blemish on the design community and an embarrassment to those who strive to provide quality work for clients around the world.  How would you respond to these comments?

There are definitely some strong opinions when it comes to crowdsourcing—and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’d ask what we could do better and how we might responsibly address their concerns. And, I’d hope for constructive, thoughtful, feedback we could carry over into a healthy discussion. We’re good at listening and we see ourselves as a leader when it comes to actively improving crowdsourced design services. We understand it’s still quite a new concept, but we all have a say in how it matures.

I would, however, push back against comments suggesting high quality work doesn’t exist on 99designs. We have many extremely talented designers of all walks of life on 99designs. For example, there are large groups of professional designers who have suffered injuries that preclude them from typical working arrangements. There are designers in remote areas—even third world countries, who would otherwise have very few means of supporting themselves.

It’s fair to ask how this affects clients around the world (we think: positively), but let’s not lose sight of the designers around the world, either.

In your opinion, what is the difference between crowdsourcing and spec work and why would you encourage designers and clients alike to use 99designs or other similar resources for their design needs?

Most of the criticism we face comes from those opposed to speculative work. Speculative work refers to any work where there is no guarantee of payment. Spec work is common where a business or contractor is trying to obtain a client… much of the initial work, such as proposals is done on Spec, with no guarantee of actually bringing that client on board.

Crowdsourcing, in that sense, is a form of Spec work. However, designers retain ownership of the work they produce and can leverage it towards other projects, as well as add it to their portfolio. Additionally, the time and energy invested is invested in designing and improving their craft—rather than sales and marketing.

We’re finding that 99designs appeals most to small business owners and up-and-coming individuals (authors, bloggers, musicians, etc), because it provides them with an opportunity to reach out to a community of designers. We’re helping to create a market for design services where one didn’t exist before, which over time should grow the design industry as a whole and provide more opportunity for designers than ever before.

Is there anything else you would like to say to GDB readers before we wrap this up?

Often, crowdsourced design is simply the beginning of an ongoing design process. For example, up to 50% of all design projects on 99designs result in repeat follow-on work. And in many of these cases, the first follow-on project is refining the design that was just awarded. This follow-on work takes place outside of the crowdsourcing model in a much more traditional sense and is purely between the winning designer and the client. I think this is the simplest and best explanation for the rise of crowdsourced design. Finding good designers is difficult. Where budgets are tight, crowdsourcing is a preliminary dip in the water from both sides of the pond.

Thanks, Adam. It has been great to catch a  glance behind the scenes of crowdsourcing & 99Designs and learn more about what you do there. Good luck in all!

Thanks again! I encourage any questions and feedback.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Absolutely…we couldn’t agree more.
    We are working very hard to make sure 99designs.com provides a fantastic experience for all…

    We still have work to do…but we are very encouraged so far.

    Cheers,
    Jason

  2. Thanks for sharing all this.
    I have been to 99designs community and won enough contests. You can see my profile here (99designs.com/people/crea8iveart)I think its a great place for freelance designers and also for beginners to learn.
    I am not in touch on 99designs from last 3months. First thing is that I have started my blog and whenever I get time, I prefer to write something or get inspiration.
    Will get back to 99designs definitely once I felt my I need some extra :)
    Thanks once again

  3. Awesome post, thanks for sharing the tips! If you’d ever be interested in an interview on my site I’d love to have you there. Check it out and let me know what you think – http://www.insidethewebb.com/

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