I, Luddite

Richard Conniff puts it elegantly in his post “What the Luddites Really Fought Against” in describing modern-day Luddites, a term defining people who protest against technology. (Wikipedia it.)


Not long ago I was labeled a Luddite at work after protesting the use of 99designs for several upcoming projects. To be clear, I care little about the professionalism of the comment — sticks and stones, you know? I’m sure the person who made the comment did not mean to offend. It was made in jest. So, whatever, I tried not to take it personally. But it did get me thinking.

Am I a Neo-Luddite? And if so, is that really all that bad?

I protested the use of 99designs because I do think it is spec work and hurts our industry. I also protested the use of 99designs because—setting my moral compass aside—I’ve never had a satisfying experience working within its model. It’s the nature of the beast:

  • Contestants often fail to comprehend creative briefs, or lack fundamental understanding of design principles, resulting in huge amounts of time spent in a feedback loop;
  • Contestants often use whatever freebie design components they can find on the web and rarely design anything original, which makes the design look, at best, disjointed or like a knock-off;
  • Final submissions always need re-touching, because they are not to a professional standard; contestants rarely understand file format differences (e.g. raster versus vector images) or rights management, let alone the importance of a clean, well organized source file.

From the top looking down, senior managements value 99designs as a cheap, quick way of solving design problems without having to spend much time actively participating in the process. But ask any designer, excuse me, any Luddite who’s had to implement a winning 99designs submission, and all you’ll hear is grumble, grumble, grumble.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about John Philip Sousa, “The March King”, who was also a Luddite. I know what you’re thinking, who the—it’s inconsequential. But in my reading of Neo-Luddism, I stumbled across a particularly striking quote from him in his prediction of the future of American music with the introduction of the phonograph:

…a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestation, by virtue—or rather by vice—of the multiplication of the various music-producing machines.

Now, replace the word “music” in the quote above with “web design”. That’s how I see 99designs affecting the web design industry. Maybe that does make me a Luddite. And I’m OK with that. I think, to a degree, it’s a healthy part of being creative.

Echoing my thoughts, Conniff concludes:

…it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, ‘mechanical in head and in heart,’ it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.

To be fair, I have seen some stellar art produced from 99designs contests, though in my experience it’s definitely the minority. I can also empathize with the view of 99designs as a quick, cheap alternative. That’s exactly what it is. Sometimes there’s just too much work to be done, and not enough time to do it. But that points to a larger organizational problem, and using 99designs as a Band-Aid does not have any organization’s best interest in mind.

So keep your 99designs. Give me Illustrator, a Wacom tablet and a week. Don’t outsource design work, then tell me to manage that process. Call me a Luddite all you want. I’ll wear that badge with honor. I’m a Creative, not a Suit. That’s the one label I will take offense to.

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