My 99Designs Experience

A lot of people asked me to report on my experience with 99Designs, so now that the contest is over I thought I’d jot down some notes.

For those who don’t know, 99Designs is a “design crowdsourcing” service. You post a contest in one of several design categories, with a specified monetary prize for the winner. Designers submit designs, which you rate and comment on, and based on the feedback they may submit updated designs. At the end of the contest period (a week, by default) you pick a winner. They get the money, and you get the rights to their design.

Getting my contest started was straightforward enough, although they could have provided some more examples of how to write a good spec.

For the first couple of days I saw zero entries. This was a nerve-wracking period – I was wondering if I had committed some 99Designs faux pas, or if it normally took a while for designs to appear. They would do well to add some kind of notice for contest holders saying “Don’t panic! Designers are working on their submissions“. Or maybe even provide a way for designers to indicate that they are interested and working on an initial submission.

Eventually designs started trickling in. Around the 4th day I saw a design that was good enough that I felt confident switching to “guaranteed payment”—in which it is guaranteed that someone will get the prize. After that submissions came at a steady clip. At the end I had a remarkable 93 submissions, all for a $145 “Bronze” level prize.

The design of the feedback system is simply awful. As a contest holder, you have (at least) three avenues of communication. There’s an “Inbox” – which never has anything in it. There’s  contest-level message board (which doesn’t feed into your Inbox). And then every designer to submit to your contest gets their own contest/designer-specific message boards, which have no connection to the main contest message board or your “Inbox”. If you leave feedback on a design, you leave it on the designer-specific message board. If they reply, you are not notified in any way. That means that if 20 designers submit designs, in order to keep up with responses to your feedback you must remember to check 20 different message boards manually. In addition, it is apparently impossible for designers to private-message the contest-holder. For an otherwise well laid-out site, the communication UX is a disaster.

Apart from that my experience was good. There were a lot of just plain low-quality designs, yes; but there were enough good ones to choose from at the end of the contest that I felt like my $145 (actually $100, I had a coupon) was well-spent.

The really nice part, for me, was that it enabled me to not think too hard about the design. This particular design was something that I wanted to look good, but apart from that I wasn’t very particular. 99Designs let me get a lot of different design perspectives on it without having to spend a ton of time working with a designer to hash out ideas.

Bottom line, I would use them again.

EDIT: Something I forgot to write about. One thing I noticed about the designs was that a lot of the designers seemed to be cuing off of previous designs more than the actual design spec. For instance, a designer would add a subtitle which was not part of the spec, and then subsequent designers would copy the subtitle word-for-word. This was a little annoying.

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  1. We used 99 Designs on a previous project and had a slightly worse experience. We budgeted in $300 for the design, which resulted in quite a few designers contributing by the end (around 150). Upon voting up a few of the participants, the message board lit up: that designer was using art from another designer without attribution. Said designer claimed he'd bought it as part of a stock art package but couldn't prove it.

    In the end, we wound up with something usable. But the drama combined with the possibility of ending up with something that we'd have to fight over later makes me leery of doing it again.

  2. I still have an issue that this is basically spec-work, i.e. work in advance for a chance of payment.

    As a developer, I wouldn't accept that nor do I think you would, Avdi. Yet, this is somehow OK for designers to do. Other than that, I'm glad you got a cover for your book out of it.

    1. If I were a designer and I were just getting started , or were experiencing a dry spell, I would TOTALLY do work for 99Designs.

      As a developer I do a lot of work which isn't even on spec—it's completely free. Just look me up on Github. OSS work doesn't make me a dollar but it makes me happy and builds my reputation. See also: this blog.

      My guess is that every single designer on 99Designs has weighed the options and decided that spending a certain amount of time on crowdsourced spec work is the right thing for his or her career at that time—whether for the practice, the variety, the portfolio, or just for the odd extra buck.

      1. I don't think OSS work is the same. As a developer of the OSS project, you aren't tied to someone else's requirements and/or feedback. You're scratching your own itch and if someone else finds it useful, so much the better.

        You are right that as someone who's starting out will try practicing here and that's cool. But since you as the requester retains rights to the work, are they able to use it in their portfolio?

        It just feels a bit wrong, but maybe I've listened to too many web design podcasts. 😀

        1. OSS isn't tied to someone's feedback – an it also doesn't carry with it a chance of payoff. Trade-offs.

          Yes, designers get to use their designs as part of their portfolio.

          Everyone wants to protect themselves and their friends. I'll tell a prospective client that they really need to pay top dollar to get reliably good development done. And I'm right—cheap outsourcing really is a crap-shoot. That said, a lot of people are perfectly happy with the cheap devs they've found on ODesk or ELance, so maybe what I have to offer is overkill for them

          The point is that there is space in the market at all levels. Frankly I don't think the existence of 99Designs is really going to threaten the business of top designers who build their reputation on exceptional work and forging lasting relationships with their clients.

  3. As a logo designer i can say that you won’t get original and high quality design on 99designs, because:

    • 99% of submitted designs are stolen logos or cliparts…
    • most of designers are just a children (i saw a 14 years old kid participating a contest)
    • and finally, do you think that professional designers would work under that kind of circumstances?

    so, 99designs is spec-work based website which is not offering professional design services…

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