News analysis – What’s the problem with crowdsourcing site 99Designs?

Crowdsourcing design site 99Designs launches in the UK this week. The site, which allows clients to launch open competitions before choosing a concept from what is effectively a massive free pitch, is predictably unpopular among designers.

99 Designs

To be fair to 99Designs, they’re quick to acknowledge this controversy, with the press blurb stating ‘Do crowdsourcing sites help SMEs and start-ups by keeping costs low or do they undervalue industries? 99Designs would argue that its site generates leads and creates new markets.’

Now the site, which was founded in Melbourne in 2008 and set up a San Francisco headquarters in 2010, is launching a UK presence, with a web address and a physical presence in London. It boasts British clients such as London café Le Petit Village and charity KiDs of Bolton, founded by Bolton Wanderers footballer Kevin Davies.

The site operates by allowing clients to launch open design competitions. If you’re, say, in need of a logo, you can log on to and start a ‘contest’. Input a few simple details (company name, sector, preferred colours etc.), post your brief and, hey presto, you’ll soon have hundreds of hungry young designers from around the world submitting their propals, of which you get to choose one. All for as little as £195.

So really, the flaws of 99Designs from the point of view of a professional designer are obvious. Notwithstanding the fact that the process asks you to submit creative work for free, it also then demands that you work to a very restrictive, and rather arbitary, brief, with little client interaction. No opportunity here to build a brand or get to the heart of a client’s values.

And what of 99Designs’ argument that the site helps SMEs and start-ups save costs? Well, there have always been and (sadly) always will be clients out there willing to pay peanuts for bad design.

Tom Actman and Phil Cook of consultancy Mat Dolphin addressed this point brilliantly in their £25 logo experiment last month.

Aiming  to explore the design process of a budget logo design site (although not in this case a crowdsourcing site) the pair posed as ‘Dolphin Plumbers’ and commissioning a logo. You can see the results here.

They made two very pertinent conclusions. The first was that the logo they got (after a fairly quick and seamless process) wasn’t very good. The second conclusion was that you get what you pay for. The pair say, ‘People or companies who aren’t particularly interested in the way they present themselves can’t be blamed for spending as little money as possible on a service they don’t see value in.’

Is it a problem that there are clients like this? Well, yes it is if their perception of the design industry (as a churn-it-out quick, free-pitching entity) becomes the norm. The best defence against this, as Tom and Phil point out, is to produce ‘well-considered, fairly-priced design that includes the client in the process’ to differentiate professional consultancies from ‘the lowest price gets the job consultancies’.

This is true of course, and on one level professional designers have nothing to fear from 99Designs and its ilk. But there is another issue here worth examining – what is it that attracts designers to post their services on sites like 99 Designs?

Middlesbrough-based digital designer Mike Kirby has had two spells using the 99Designs. The first, he says, was a few years ago when he was still running a studio, although after entering 10-15 competitions he then decided it wasn’t for him.

He was drawn back to the site just over a year ago when he set up as a freelancer and needed to start bringing in income to support his enterprise.

He says, ‘Where I am has been hit particularly hard by the recession, with a lot of company closures and scale-backs, which has led to a greatly reduced expenditure on new media design. This was coupled with the closure of Business Link and One North East, whose funding and grant schemes helped support the industry up here and were responsible for generating a great deal of local clients.

‘Having been outside of the design community for a while and with these circumstances, finding new clients or gaining new work from old clients proved trickier than it may otherwise have been. This led me to try 99Designs again.’

Kirby has so far entered 82 competitions, winning 28. He says, ‘I actually don’t find that conversion rate to be bad at all, especially when I think of how much time I used to spend writing proposals or going to networking events to find clients or get projects.’

He adds, ‘The potential quick payment was also appealing, given that a culture of late-to-extremely-late payment seems to have emerged here in the UK.’

Kirby says he has had follow-on work from about half of the competitions he has entered. ‘The real money of course is not earned within 99 Designs’, he says, ‘The real money is in the follow on work, which can be charged at more normal rates.’

He says, ‘In many ways 99Designs should be viewed and used not as an alternative to normal client work, but instead as an alternative to networking and pitching where, if you’re good, you actually get paid for what is effectively your pitch or networking time.’

As well as this, 99Designs appeal to younger designers looking to build their portfolio while making a little money is obvious (because setting up a Tumblr won’t get you any cash). UK-based Jonathan Frost (who has entered 100 competitions, winning 14) says on his profile, ‘With no real qualifications or previous clients, I had no way of gaining any income through design work previously’, while Keegan Ranandy, from Indonesia, says, ‘My primary motivation was to learn and I never through that I would actually win a contest.’

Asking Mat Dolphin’s Tom and Phil if they think there are any benefits to young designers using 99Designs to, for example, build their portfolio, the pair respond, ‘It’s a difficult one to answer and hard to respond with an outright no.

‘There are plenty of ethical reasons that make us encourage young designers to seek other ways to build up their portfolio, but starting out is incredibly tough and a live brief from a real client with a (small) chance of paid work at the end could be viewed as a good opportunity, as long as you know what you’re getting into.’

The pair add, ‘If you think “working” for these kind of sites is a good opportunity then its not up to us to try to stop you, but in our experience, no half-decent design studio would ever expect their employees to work for free.’

So again – is 99Designs really a problem? If both client and designer enter this Faustian pact knowing what they’re going to get out of it – the client a cheap and potentially iffy logo and the designer, possibly, a few hundred quid, then what’s the harm?

Well the harm is that both client and designer begin to regard this process as how the design industry ‘works’. If designers start to see 99Designs and other sites as a legitimate way of breaking into the industry – and starting a client relationship by offering them free work – then this is an issue that needs addressing.

Hide Comments (12)Show Comments (12)
  • james a November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    what’s a ‘controversary’?

  • james a November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    ‘pertinant’? FFS this is why i don’t buy design week anymore

  • Paul Bailey November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Very interesting, balanced article and as usual great input from the Dolphins.

    However, the end of the article states that ‘this is an issue that needs addressing’. I do tend to agree but how, and importantly by whom? Who is it who decides how the design industry works? We may not like it but our industry may be evolving, in ways we may not like, but who’s to stop it?

    The internet is enabling new ways of working and may well have changed the game, again.

  • Richard Baird November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I design very minimal but what I think are relevant identity’s through a clear process of research and strategy. The isolated logo component (of an often broader brand identity scheme) would not ‘win’ on these sites because of the leanings towards trends and the compounding of two visual ideas, a this + that = logo approach. I believe this will have a detrimental effect on the design industry moving forward as originality and creativity give way to the quick and volume focused recycling of of old ideas.

    I think designer’s need to take into consideration their wider design related activities, (writing, blogging etc) that get sidelined because their time is filled with speculative work. I don’t think you can have a sustainable design career working on speculative projects and the portfolio you build from these is likely to appear superficial rather than holistic.

  • David Bartholomew November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    On average, I wonder if designers supporting this site are making the legal minimum wage? (I appreciate that the legislation does not apply.)

  • Mike Barlow November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    How many clients really know the difference between good and, not bad, but just plain mediocre design?

    How many times has a client picked the one design of many you hope they don’t pick and you kick yourself for even having it in the line up – and the really great designs are dismissed?

    What makes the difference? Are some clients ‘design blind’ or just don’t care, as long as it’s cheap?

  • Paul Sid November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The issue I see is that many small and medium size businesses cant tell the difference between good and bad design, making 99designs price break and service appealing and putting the squeeze on small agencies trying to service the same market and educate the end user on good design.

    In essence great for some, but bad for others.
    Hopefully the bad designers will get weeded out and over time clients will learn to appreciate good design, rather than pushing for bad design without knowing.

  • Aree Cohen November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    To the designers out there who hate the way the internet is addressing an inefficient market, and is somewhat changing that industry – what you need to do is respond with an online client/designer interaction model that serves clients who want top tier designers, and those designers who want to be seen as such. The only way to fight emerging online services that hurt you is to respond with another online service that supports your industry and profession. Define your market, and build an online solution for it.

  • jstamo03 November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    think designer’s need to take into consideration their wider design related activities, (writing, blogging etc) that get sidelined because their time is filled with speculative work. I don’t think you can have a sustainable design career working on speculative projects and the portfolio you build from these is likely to appear superficial rather than holistic.

  • jstamo03 November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    think designer’s need to take into consideration their wider design related activities, (writing, blogging etc) that get sidelined because their time is filled with speculative work. I don’t think you can have a sustainable design career working on speculative projects and the portfolio you build from these is likely to appear superficial rather than holistic.

  • Simon Daley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A very well-written and thought provoking, unbiased article, followed by some excellent comments and observations below.

    I must admit, I begin the article with the mindset of hating sites like 99designs, but Mike Kirby does make some interesting observations that have given me pause for thought – particularly in relation to pitching and networking and associated things which could also be argued as speculative.

    I appreciate this article is a couple of years old but it was on my mind recently after a quiet spell of work, and I was led to this article.

  • Simon Daley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Actually, after having a good browse of the site in question and giving it more thought I have come up with my own analogy.

    There are some people in the world who are signing themselves up to “live streaming” video sites – (fulfilling all manner of *requests* in front of their online cameras). The money is good apparently, but surely there should be limits to what a person does for money, even if times are hard.

    Applying this analogy to this situation, there is a line no designer should cross no matter how desperate they are or how quiet work is for them. Its a line that should not be crossed if you have any self-respect. Designers who sign up for this service give weight to the notion that this kind of way of devaluing design is acceptable (when it is not).

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