Article by Martin Gibson – Twitter: @martingibson @embody3d – 31.08.2010
In the last few years we have seen an emergence of global project centres for freelancers of any occupation, particularly design-based industries because of the computer related savviness of the designers themselves. These project centres include growing websites like Elance, Freelancer and the Australian based ServiceSeeking which offer freelancers the opportunity to bid for projects using tokens which cost real world dollars. Of course the concept has taken off as it allows prospect employers and project managers the opportunity to pick from hundreds and thousands of tender applicants very quickly and as a result of this intense competition project costs tend to be far below standard industry expectations. To give you an idea of the scale of these online market places, even the relatively small Australian startup ServiceSeeking has $285,750,000 in quoted projects.
This concept has also exposed a gaping difference between design fees charged in established western countries versus developing countries like India, China and Eastern Europe as tenderers of these projects are competing against one another from all around the world. This global competition has never quite been realised on this scale ever before. For developing nations these global project centres offer great opportunity to offer incredibly low prices compared to their western counterparts, but of course for them this undercut price is actually a substantial amount of money compared to other occupations in their host country.
For western designers whom have dominated global design training and trends for the past 100 years, are finding these markets incredibly troubling for a variety of reasons. Due to the economic collapse of late 2008 manufacturing has slowed due to low consumer confidence. Many designers, particularly in America, have been laid off and many have turned to freelancing design as a way to take back control of their future, or purely as a matter of survival to earn some money in a very shallow pond.
The global design industry is suffering from an oversupply issue. There are simply way too many designers for a market that is slowly but temporarily contracting, thus causing a downward spiral in design hourly rates for contractors. In Australia graphic design is the most aspired to occupation of high school students. Let’s face it design is a very fun industry and students are going to pick this type of occupation over business or science related fields.
Contracting design markets, an oversupply of designers and overseas competition are extreme pressures faced by western designers. For developing nations design is one of the easiest professions to access. All it takes is a cracked version of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Indesign and some CAD programs, some attention to detail and an eye for beauty and WAALLAA!!! We have a designer..cost: $0, time: 0 seconds! Online there is an abundance of templates and online video tutorials made available for free for these design amateurs to access! For other professions for example a marine biologist, there is simply no access to this type of training and equipment in these developing countries (not to mention no market need for these jobs either).
Below I am going to go into some main points as to why these online market places are bad for established designers.
The way jobs are posted and tenders are submitted on these online market places emphasises price as the most important aspect of the potential designer. There is no opportunity to show these employers previous works through any kind of portfolio, the only real options are price and delivery time. This environment causes employers to choose poorly trained designers from developing nations who offer a substantially lesser price for tender, not knowing the difference in quality they may receive.
These ridiculous prices posted on these websites by employers forces western designers to make unrealistic and unfeasible prices, delivery time and delivery scope. I have seen a company advertise for a Solidworks CAD modeller, to design and model a whole exhibition stand with multiple concepts, renders and even a miniature model required for around $700! Traditionally this work would take a couple of weeks and involve a whole team of designers. But really they are asking for just one person to complete this in around 4 days!
Because these projects have such mini budgets, designers need to complete these projects really really quickly so they can make a somewhat livable amount of money. Performing more projects, more quickly means more administration time including: trying to find more sales, doing paperwork like quotes and invoices and email and phone communication to clarify the brief with clients. Subsequently all this means more work for less money.
Online free markets unprofessionalise the industry, where anyone with a dodgy version of a design program with no training can compete and win against design heavyweights. As designers submit tenders for a project, other designers can see what they bid, and then it gives them the opportunity to submit a lower bid, and down goes the downward money spiral. It is like bidding for an Ebay item, but in this case the price is always getting lower. I have seen employers asking as little as $35 for a logo design! By western design standards where a contracter might earn $50 an hour being able to deliver a logo in 20 minutes is just ridiclous and allows for no proper design process to take place. Sometimes it takes me a minute alone to launch Adobe Illustrator!
Communicating with overseas designers can be difficult and sometimes there seems to be no real accountability or effective communication taking place. Any problems that arrise especially legal problems are going to be incredibly difficult to resolve as the designer or employer may have radically different law differences to settling disputes.
I recommend designers not use these online tools as it will only further encourage this downward spiral of quality and wage expectations in the design industry. You will find yourself in a desperate trap where you used to earn $50 an hour and now you are earning $15, and all you are doing all day is being stressed about designing a logo in 15 minutes. This is no way to design and it is no way to live, how is one supposed to support a family? However if work is really that hard to come by, one must consider whether design is really the best field for you to support your needs. What’s the point of designing masterpieces when the guy at McDonald’s is getting paid better? I am not saying money is the be all and end all of life, but if you do a 3-5 year design degree you deserve to be fairly compensated.
I am not contending the legitimacy of these websites nor am I ignorant of the great value they offer employers to quickly and easily collate tenders. There is a place online for this practice, but it must be done in a manner that fairly portrays designers full value, not just the price they charge.
Thankfully at this point in time, Industrial Design and CAD market penetration has been fairly low compared to graphic and web design and coding. But still this next generation of online business transactions could be a nasty and worrying future for design contract workers not just in the west, but all around the world. Design is beautiful, it should be glorified and respected by clients, but these traders have turned this process into a pack of hounds competing for a stale bit of meat. Don’t use these tools…maybe it’s time we went back to the phonebook!