CrowdsourcingI co-founded a non-profit social business in Tanzania, East Africa, where unemployed and unskilled Tanzanian women are trained to hand-roast coffee beans which are then packaged and sold to coffee shops and grocery stores. Although this is a non-profit (and inevitably low budget) business, I believed in the need to invest in a good logo to develop our brand and identity.

I heard about crowdSPRING and was really intrigued by the idea of crowdsourcing the logo at a really affordable price. What was daunting and made me hesitate was that full payment had to be made upfront. Nonetheless, because of the refund (not full) guarantee and the fact that we would have access to so many different designers, we decided to take that leap of faith and go for it.

The signing-up involved a rather painful decision-making process where we were invited to “Keep your project details out of the search engines – $29 non-refundable” (which we got) and “Get a highlighted listing to attract more Creatives – $49 non-refundable” (which we didn’t get), and after including project and listing fees (these are two separate fees, the difference I know not), our final bill was $355.50 for a logo award of $250 (this means $250 goes to the designer and the rest to crowdSPRING).

We then filled in the project details and clicked submit. We were set. Fingers and toes crossed we sat and waited. After a frantic 13 days and 23 hours, we received 105 entries (pretty spectacular for a $250 award project, we think, after comparing the number with other projects) and are currently in the midst of wrapping up with our winning Creative. Given the circumstances, we are happy and satisfied with the results we have gotten, yet we also have learned lessons from this process which we wish we had known or thought of before.

1) Creatives can’t afford to spend too much time on your logo (especially if your award is $250)

Neither of us had run a business before nor were we particularly creative or arty people. We did not have a mascot or a symbol which we were already set on to use. We knew what we didn’t want (i.e., tacky coffee cups or smiley face beans) but we had no idea what we wanted and were open to be persuaded. We were intrigued by how Starbucks used a sea siren and Apple used an apple (both of which have zero relation to their product) for their logo and that these have since become distinct, universally recognised household symbols. So we asked the Creatives to come up with imaginative, mind-stretching, new ideas for a logo symbol. Although many of the designs submitted were stunning, ultimately they were all still descriptive/literal in nature, or predictable in the use of very traditional symbols like coffee cup and coffee bean.

We were waiting to be wow-ed by an idea which was really out of the box, but eventually we had to guide/prompt the Creatives to submit designs based on specific symbols/ideas which we already had representing or embodying our brand (e.g. hands, women, beans). Although this was kind of disappointing, I realised that given the sum of money offered, the time frame given and the uncertainty of winning, the Creatives could not be expected to take as much time as they needed, single-mindedly pondering, sketching, researching and consulting, to find that one fresh and great idea for a symbol. While this might be what a designer who has been engaged for a good price and commissioned to design a logo would do, the Creatives on crowdSPRING would not, and could not be expected to, do that. Hence the not-so-imaginative entries.

2) It helps if you already have an idea of what you are looking for.

The disappointment caused by the above issue may be eradicated of course if you already have an idea of what you are looking for. For example, if you have already been using a horse or a tree or a sunbeam to symbolise your brand, then the process gets more straightforward as the Creatives then focus on rendering a horse or tree or sunbeam, and you focus on finding a horse or tree or sunbeam which you really LOVE.

As we started out on a blank slate and were looking for a new idea, we were open and liked many of the designs we saw, even though they were all hugely different from each other. Hence, the Creatives were not getting a clear idea of what we wanted, because we gave high scores to designs which were so vastly different. Because we just really liked them all! We didn’t know what else to do either.

3) You don’t have time to be fickle.

Given the limited time frame you are allocated (14 days max), you really can’t afford to change your mind once you’ve decided you liked or disliked something. For example, we encouraged the Creatives to try working with a face of a woman, to represent the coffee roasters, and we also rewarded designs with a face we liked with high scores. So the Creatives continued to submit entries based on what they observed to be what we favoured. However, after receiving several different designs on that concept, and also after feedback from our customers and friends, we started to change our minds and decided that it was just a little bit too potentially controversial to have a face on the logo. However, it was too late to retract our earlier statements in our project updates, and it was also too late to retract the high scores we had given earlier. So although it was technically still possible for us to add a further update at that stage, we felt that it was pointless given the very short amount of time we had left.

4) Go for commercial appeal or stay true to your identity?

One of the Creatives who participated in our project submitted a beautiful design comprising a coffee cup. We loved it immediately, but on second and third thoughts decided that it was too generic and did not embody everything we felt was special about our brand (the hand-roasting, the old-fashioned indigenous appeal, the empowerment of women). We had a thought-provoking dialogue with that Creative (which we really appreciated), and from that as well as consideration of the different design submissions, we inevitably started to think that perhaps being commercially attractive was a trade-off against encapsulating all the aspects of the brand’s identity in one single image. Sure enough, when we got feedback from our customers and friends, the crowd had overwhelmingly preferred the generic yet attractive design to the other designs which carried more of the elements which we felt our brand represented. It was a really tough choice to make but eventually we went with the design which we felt reflected our identity the most. Did we make the right choice? I guess only time will tell!

Rebecca Chang is a former attorney and co-founder of a start-up social enterprise in Tanzania which seeks to empower unemployed Tanzanian women through fair wage jobs and skills-training in the art of hand-roasting coffee beans and the creation of coffee beverages. Rebecca blogs about life in Tanzania at Fleeting Fridays and she may be found on Twitter @changpqr.

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