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Florian Alexander Schmidt

PhD Work

The Design of Creative Crowdwork: From Tools for Empowerment to Platform Capitalism

The thesis investigates the methods used in the contemporary crowdsourcing of creative crowdwork and in particular the succession of conflicting ideas and concepts that led up to the development of dedicated, profit-oriented, online platforms for the outsourcing of cognitive tasks and creative labour to a large and unspecified group of people via open calls on the internet.

It traces the historic trajectory of the notion of the crowd as well as the development of technologies for online collaboration, with a focus on the accompanying narratives in the form of a discourse analysis. One focus of the thesis is the clash between the narrative of the empowerment of the individual user through digital tools and the reinvention of the concept of the crowd as a way to refer to users of online platforms in their aggregate form. The thesis argues, that the revivification of the notion of the crowd is indicative of a power shift that has weakened the individual user and empowered the commercial platform providers who, in turn, take unfair advantage of their newly gained power.

The thesis examines the workings and the rhetoric of these platforms by comparing the way they address the masses today with historic notions of the crowd, formed by authors like Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti. Today’s practice of crowdwork is also juxtaposed with older, arguably more humanist, visions of distributed online collaboration, collective intelligence, free software and commons-based peer production. The study is a history of ideas, taking some of the utopian concepts of early online history as a vantage point from which to view current and, at times, dystopian applications of crowdsourced creative labour online. The goal is to better understand the social mechanisms employed by the platforms to motivate and control the crowds, and to uncover the parameters that define their structure and the scope for their potential redesign.

At its core, the thesis offers a comparison of Amazon Mechanical Turk (2005), the most prominent and infamous example for so-called microtasking or cognitive piecework, with the design of platforms for contest-based creative crowdwork, in particular with Jovoto (2007) and 99designs (2008). The crowdsourcing of design work is organised decidedly differently to other forms of digital labour and the question is why should that be so? What does this tell about changing faces of design as a practice and what are its effects on design as a profession? However, the thesis is not just about the crowdsourcing of design work, but especially about the design of crowdsourcing as a system. It is about the ethics of these human-made, contingent social systems that are promoted as the future of work. The overarching research question is: can crowdsourcing be designed in a way that is fair and sustainable to all stakeholders?

The analysis is based on an extensive study of literature from Design Studies, Media and Culture Studies, Business Studies and Human-Computer Interaction, combined with participant observation within several crowdsourcing platforms for design and a series of interviews with different stakeholders.

Supervisors: Professor David Crowley and Monika Parrinder


  • PhD


    School of Humanities


    Critical Writing in Art & Design, 2011–2015

  • I am a design researcher from Berlin and a guest professor for design theory at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW in Dresden). I hold a diploma in Communication Design from the Berlin School of Arts Weissensee. In 2009, I initiated and organised the conference Volkssport Design at the Museum for Communication in Berlin. I have given classes and workshops at various universities and written for various magazines such as eye, form, design report and bauhaus. I am the author of the award winning book Parallel Realitäten (Niggli, 2006) on the design of virtual worlds, co-author of the book Kritische Masse (form+zweck 2010) on amateurism in design, editor of the book The Edge of Our Thinking (RCA 2012), a publication of selected research papers by the RCA and co-author as well as co-editor and translator of the book Crowdwork – Zurück in die Zukunft? (Bund Verlag 2014).
    I am a member of the group Designjournalists, the Design Research Society and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Designtheorie und Forschung DGTF.
  • Degrees

  • Diploma in Communication Design, School of Art and Design Berlin Weißensee, 2008
  • Experience

  • Guest Professor, University of Applied Science (HTW), Dresden, 2014; Editor in Chief, AGENDA Design, London, 2015; Consultant, IG Metall,; Freelance Writer & Design Critic, 2006; Freelance Communication Designer, 2004
  • Awards

  • First prize, Writing & Commentary Core 77 Award, 2012; Third prize, Writing & Commentary Core 77 Award, 2011; First prize, Shrinking Cities & Arch+ Award, 2007; Prize, Braun-Feldweg Design Criticism Award, 2006
  • Conferences

  • The Design of Creative Crowdwork: Circuits of Struggle at the University of Toronto, 2015; Crowdwork–The Future of Design?: Digital Labor Conference at the New School NYC, 2014; The Revolution Will Not Be 3D Printed at the German Society for Design Research, 2013; Crowdsourcing Design: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at re:publica Berlin, 2013; Why Crowdsoucing Needs Ethics: Crowd Work 2013 at the University of Karlsruhe, 2013; The Outsourced User: For a Fistful of Dollars at Transmediale Berlin, 2013; Design as Popular Sport at the Design Conference TYPO Berlin, 2010; Volkssport Design at the Berlin Museum for Communication, 2009; Creating Tools for Conviviality: FMX at the Stuttgart International Media Conference, 2007
  • Publications

  • Co-author & co-editor 'Crowdwork – Zurück in die Zukunft?', Bund Verlag, 2014; 'New Aesthetic's Pixel Futurism', Froh magazine, 2012; Editor, 'The Edge of Our Thinking', RCA, October 2012; Hive – Design by the Masses', Bauhaus magazine, 3, 2012; 'Monster Soup – Making the Invisible Visible', Un-Making Things, 2011; 'Gamer as Designer', Informatik Spektrum, 2010; Co-author 'Kritische Masse', Form & Zweck, 2010; 'Flickering vs. Frugal', Form, 227, Birkhäuser, 2009; 'Volkssport Design: live and let live?', Eye, 74, 2009; 'Design in Second Life', Form, 215, Birkhäuser, 2007; Co-Author 'Space Time Play', Birkhäuser, 2007; Author 'Parallel Realitäten', Niggli, 2006