The terms “crowdsourcing” and the “gig economy” are relative newcomers in today’s dictionary. People usually associate them with the likes of Uber and online marketplaces like Thumbtack. But crowdsourcing and crowdsourcing competitions have a long and interesting history. In fact, some of the world’s most iconic designs were the results of design competitions – essentially crowdsourcing by another name. Design competitions were used to draw ideas from a wide field and inspire competitors to create bold designs; many designers rose from obscurity to fame by winning a competition.
Here are three examples of iconic designs you probably didn’t realize came out of design competitions:
In 1857, a small classified ad in the New York Times led to the creation of one of the world’s most famous parks. The ad called for submissions to design a park for a newly acquired plot of land in Manhattan. The challenge was so complex that the deadline was extended an extra 30 days. Even so, the eventual winners – Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – turned in their submission so late on the due date that they had to give it to a janitor…
Eventually, Olmstead and Vaux’s plan for “Greensward” stood out among 35 other submissions. Not only did it demonstrate a superior design, but it also captured an understanding of how New York City would continue to grow. Olmstead and Vaux explored how the city and the park would interact in the future. Though the design was modified as challenges arose, Olmsted’s bold vision led to the classic park that defines New York City.
Given the fierce competition that Coca-Cola has faced over the years (and its protective stance over its products and design), it might come as a surprise that the iconic Coke bottle was the result of a design competition. Interestingly, the bottle was actually created to address copyright and design infringement issues. As Coca-Cola began to move their signature beverage beyond soda fountains and into bottles for retail sales, they faced many imitators whose similar names and logos confused customers and impacted their sales. The company felt that the best way to protect their unique brand was to create a signature glass bottle that couldn’t be easily imitated. In 1915, they put a call out to several glass companies to develop a distinctive, recognizable bottle.
The winning submission, by the Root Glass Company of Indiana, was based on the shape of a cocoa bean and featured unique fluted grooves. Once its patents expired, the iconic bottle received trademark status in 1961. This extremely rare status for a commercial package demonstrates exactly what icon status means.
Architecture is another field where design competitions have created famous designs. The distinctive, curved design of the Sydney Opera House was the result of an architectural design competition in 1956. Jørn Utzon, a little-known Danish architect, won the competition among more than 200 competitors.
The creation of an opera house in Sydney was part of Australia’s growing economy and optimism following World War II. Australian leaders felt the addition would ‘add grace and charm… and help develop and mould a better, more enlightened community’. Utzon’s design stood out among the more common boxy Modernist submissions; the judges, especially renowned architect Eero Saarinen, were impressed. The bold choice that became the Sydney Opera House is now an iconic building.
These examples demonstrate that crowdsourcing competitions have the power to inspire creators toward bold innovations. Today, companies like Topcoder harness the power of crowdsourcing to help their clients design and build high-quality software with efficiency and agility.