Art design for the masses, chosen by the masses

Industry execs say crowdsourcing is one of the best ways to stay on top of consumer trends, so a host of new sites are asking professional and armchair designers to submit art for sneakers, skateboards, car art, and stationery.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
Tim Roberts, founder of Infectious.com, standing next to his Audi wrapped in art called green bandana funk. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

Tim Roberts' black Audi A3 has something called green bandana funk.

It's not slang for a mechanical problem or lingering bad smell, but rather, lime-green graffiti art in bandana patterns that dot the exterior of his otherwise shiny urban sedan. Roberts, a longtime tech executive who previously helped Twitter get off the ground, sometimes forgets the vinyl stickers are there, until they prompt a nearby driver to roll down a window and ask about his artwork. Once he even found a pack of young skateboarders surrounding his car in a parking lot taking pictures with their cell phones.

"It's this totally social experience," Roberts said from the office of Infectious.com in San Francisco's Mission District.

VC-backed Infectious.com is Roberts' newly launched Web site for buying car art from independent designers like Nico Berry, formerly of skate magazine Thrasher, and Apple Creative Director Andy Harding. The vinyl stickers, which range from Barack Obama logos to bubbly characters riding spaceships, adhere to any part of the car and can come off with the use of a blow dryer. For between $35 and a few hundred dollars, anyone can add some artistic flare to their wheels, Burning Man-style.

It's hard to predict whether car art will sweep the nation (most likely, not), but Infectious is just one of a new generation of graphic designer collectives that are finding new avenues to sell their artwork--from car graffiti to stationery to sneakers and skateboards.

Most of these upstarts are cherry-picking from a business trend called crowdsourcing, in which they ask professional or aspiring designers to submit artwork, and then a larger community votes on the best of the bunch. The Web site sells the best choice; and the winning designer gets a cut of the sales or a cash reward.

An early prototype from Misk1 for Infectious.com. Infectious.com

Of course, the low-hanging fruit of the crowdsourcing business--T-shirt art and photos--has already been picked over by popular sites like Threadless.com (for T-shirts) and iStockPhoto.com (photography). But now a range of companies are trying to tap into design talent for a much broader swath of products, and help make artsy goods more affordable and accessible to the masses. Executives in the business say crowdsourcing is one of the best ways to stay on top of consumer trends.

"It's more powerful when the consumer is telling you what they want," said Mariam Naficy, CEO and founder of Minted.com, a high-end design site for wedding invitations, birth announcements, and holiday cards.

Minted.com, a venture-capital-backed site that launched this summer, takes the idea for crowdsourced high-end design to the $10 billion annual stationery business. To be sure, the site features cards and stationery from established brands like Dauphine Press, but it also finds new artists from a body of work submitted in regular contests. For example, Meaghan Nolan, an associate editor at Town & Country, won $1,000 in a recent design challenge for thank-you cards.

"It's saying the brain trust for good ideas isn't being held by a few people," said Charlene Li, a technology consultant and former analyst with Forrester Research.

The economic advantage of this business is that Minted.com doesn't create the designs itself, nor does it house inventory. It prints on-demand, and pays artists when the market has deemed them worthy for sale. The challenge is to build a thriving community of aspiring artists and buyers, but if it does, stationery is a high margin business (an estimated 50 percent). That's why Minted is working on ways to incentivize the average person to vote on designs, according to Naficy, who didn't disclose those details yet.

For Infectious' Roberts, crowdsourcing is a way to get people used to a relatively new idea of putting disposable art on their cars. But ultimately, he sees taking art submissions to other types of products, which could include skateboards, book bags or other unique items.

He has competition for attracting high-end street designers, however. This week, Andy Howell, a former professional skateboarder and longtime graphic designer, launched Artsprojekt.com, a collective of skateboards designers like Shepard Fairey to sell various products like skateboard decks.

"I call this a neo-contemporary art movement--the combination of commercial and fine art, like Warhol did in the '80s," said Howell. "Our vision of Artsprojekt is to liberate every artist in the world by allowing them to productize their ideas and monetize their obsessions."

Artsprojekt is a subsidiary of Zazzle.com, an older print on demand site for T-shirts and coffee mugs. The spinoff is a nod from Zazzle that it wants to appeal to higher-end designers, too.

Former pro skateboarder Andy Howell founded Artsprojekt to sell new artistic skateboards and other goods. Andy Howell/Artsprojekt.com

No matter whether it's skateboards or stationery, the trend shows that it's only getting less expensive to attract creative. Sites like Minted, Infectious and Ryz invest in the technology system to make it easy for talented people to showcase work and allow for the community to vote. The trick is developing a community.

Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, said in a recent interview with CNET News that crowdsourcing works particularly well for graphic design because there's a low barrier to entry. The model naturally drives the best ideas up to the top.

"You have a lot of people who can do low-end design. You know they can create a logo. They can lay out a Web page, even though they're not professionals," he said. "They're adequate enough that they can make a supplementary income doing it or do it for fun."

If Threadless is any example, then new sites like Minted.com and Ryz for sneakers may have success.

Threadless is the grandfather of crowdsourcing for T-shirt design. It originally started in 2000 when two guys met on design forum and put up their first T-shirt design challenge. Eight years later, the site has an ongoing call out to designers to submit art for T-shirts and posters; and it receives roughly 200 submissions a day. People among its 800,000-person registered user base vote on the designs and Threadless puts up six winners once a week. (It pays designers $2,000 in cash, $500 in gift certificates for the site.)

Like other such sites, Threadless also commissions art from well-known designers.

Threadless is profitable, according to its CEO Thomas Ryan, and late last year it opened its first retail store in Chicago, where it's headquartered. It also plans to open a Threadless kids store in the area and has talked about other locations around the country.

Ryan said that Threadless also intends to introduce other new products based on a recent project called Naked and Angry, which allows designers to submit patterns. He would not say what those products would be but it has tried out neckties.

"The age of community has arrived to the degree that companies are able to foster a vibrant community of designers as a way of creating new types of products," said Ryan, who joined Threadless three months ago from the music industry.

"That is, products that lend themselves well to self expression."

Car art from "Buff Monster." Infectious.com