If crowdsourcing sites really cared about designers…

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It’s a well-known fact: the question of using crowdsourcing sites like 99Designs.com (←link to a Millo interview with 99Designs) or Crowdspring.com is always a hot topic in the design community. When it comes to this issue, I have to admit I have always been somewhat of a fence-sitter.
So I decided learn for myself what all the hype was about. Why do so many designers swear by these sites as a great way to find design clients while other designers completely detest this form of design work? So I registered for an account at 99designs.com and gave it a whirl. This article summarizes my findings.

First, the good.

I know, a lot of you probably don’t want to hear the good about my experience because you are so set against crowdsourcing. While I still would not recommend this path to any designer hoping to make a viable career from his talents, I can admit that 99Designs did do a few things well. Most impressively, they have a forum where you can make suggestions on the contest process. As you scroll through the forum, you can see that many of the suggested issues are in the planning stages and will be implemented soon.

As a designer, I really appreciated that 99Designs was listening to the voice of the designers who participate in their contests.

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The bad & ugly: changes crowdsourcing sites should make

While the experience wasn’t terrible, I found that there were a few simple steps that sites like 99Designs can take in order to make the process as beneficial for the designers who participate in the contests as clients who come looking for design work.


The site managers seemed to get really caught up in pleasing the clients who come to get design work done for them. While this portion of their customer base is important, you have to remember: without designers, the clients would never pay you. Instead of tailoring everything (including the “how it works” page) to the clients, take time to make the designers feel important.
Some might argue that the designers are not customers because they don’t pay anything to the site. Fine; consider the designers to be employees. Either way, you need to treat the designers who participate in the contests with more respect and give them more attention from the get-go.

The particular contest I participated in was a logo design contest. Unfortunately, the client had no clue about what makes an effective logo and which logo decision would be the most beneficial for their company. While I didn’t hate the winning logo, there were much more successful logo designs there. (NOTE: Please do not misconstrue this as a bitter rant stemming from the fact that I lost the contest. I didn’t really expect to win, I was more interested in learning about the process.) 99Designs should have educated the client in order to better understand what makes a successful logo.

They should also assist the client in writing an effective creative brief. While I am unsure of the exact process that a client goes through when creating a competition, some of the design briefs that I read were far from complete. They lacked essential information that any self-respecting designer would need in order to produce great work.


As I browsed through the projects, I noticed there were a lot of projects that were priced far below a proper amount. I won’t go into too much detail about how much I charge as a freelance designer, but $150 USD for a logo is simply not enough if the process is done correctly.
Either 99Designs doesn’t care about the quality of the work being created (you get what you pay for), or they do not care that the designers are doing more work than the payment is worth. 99Designs should help clients understand that graphic and web design take skill, time and money.

Part of my freelance design contract includes a section that explains that I am not held responsible for completing a project if the client fails to offer proper feedback. This only seems fair and natural. If the client fails to provide feedback on a design, how can I tailor that design to best fit their needs? Clients should be taught the importance of timely and effective feedback.

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Did you know that sometimes clients run a contest, don’t like any of the results, choose to pull out, and get a partial refund? That’s right. The sites cover their bases by only giving a partial refund in these situations. But what about all the designers who took the time to read the design brief, submit designs, even modify designs? They’re left out in the cold. Crowdsourcing sites should force clients to accept the fact that people are putting in time to create something for them. The risk they take when choosing this method over hiring a professional designer is that they may not get exactly what they want or need. But what’s to keep a client from running a contest, not choosing any design, and then hiring their “nephew who knows how to design” to mimmick their favorite option?

Sadly, nothing.

Join the discussion

Let’s face it. Crowdsourcing sites are not going away any time soon. So instead of discussing how much we hate or love them, try joining in on the problem-solving aspect. What do you think crowdsourcing sites can do to further help designers? Please share your thoughts with the community.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. Good article Preston, I’ve read quite a few similar posts. It’s good to see your interview with the former 99Designs employee. While I’m strongly opposed to what they do, it’s good to get an insider’s view.

    While I recommend design students I tutor and others to stay far, far away from 99Designs – you bring up good points if a designer chooses to participate in one of their contests.

    • @Andy Burdin,
      I agree. I wouldn’t highly suggest this method to anyone looking for a real career in design. But, if this is an option designers are considering, I thought perhaps the sites could accomodate a little.

      Where DO you recommend your students go to find design work?

  2. I think the main problem that a lot of designers have with crowd sourcing sites is that the prices for designs are simply too low. This is decreasing the value of design work and also decreasing the quality of the work being done.

    I think these crowd sourcing sites should definitely set a fair minimum price. It would be good for both the designers and the business clients.

    • @Cre8ive Commando,
      I obviously agree. Do you think that, at the same time, the sites should require a certain level of professionalism from the designers since they require higher prices for clients? How do you suggest they monitor that?

  3. Some very valid points, nice article! There are some really terrible designers on 99designs and they seem to manage 4 or 5 star ratings when it looks like the logo (for example) was made in good old paint. I’ve only messed around and had a few goes but I’ve not once had any feedback, positive or negative. (Makes me sound like I have a rather large thorn in my side, but I don’t, just my general opinion!) Cheers again!

    • @Tim,
      I know what you mean. I never got any feedback on my design. Do you think requiring too much feedback could ever pose a problem though?

      • @Preston D Lee, Requiring too much probably would be a problem, but it would be helpful to actually know how far off the mark you are. I understand though that if a contest has hundreds of entries it will be a real pain to critique everyone’s work, but at the same time, since they are in effect paying for the work a few words or pointers seems fair, and would bolster competition a bit.

        I’ve also noticed a good deal of the people offering the work are design companies themselves sub contracting, which is by all means fine, but I do wonder what sort of mark up they are getting.

        Man I sound grumpy..

  4. Nice write up on 99designs. I haven’t checked them out lately, but definitely submitted some designs way back when I first started freelancing as a way to sort of “test the waters”. And yes, try to earn some quick cash.. which is really all these crowdsourcing sites should be – a way for new designers to test their skills out, and maybe get a little cash to help fund their creative endeavours. Then, after a few months of busting their asses on projects that get no feedback, and are beat out by some logo design that looks like a 5th grader did in Microsoft Paint, they should stop submitting and move on to the real world of design – the one in which you actually have to go out and meet clients and make pitches.
    Personally, I’m fairly anti-crowdsourcing.. I understand their appeal, both to new designers and the clients – but I wholeheartedly believe that they’re cheapening the design profession. What would be great is a site that has a pre-selected pool of designers for the clients to choose from, based on the designer’s portfolio and skills. The client would have to submit a solid creative brief – by answering a pre-determined list of questions about the project, including an honest budget – which is then sent to the chosen designers from the pool. The designers can either produce a bid, or pass it up. Once a bid is approved, the designer and client work one-on-one to create the product. Simple as that. No spec work, no competing against a 5th grader with a copy of Photoshop. A much more honest, and effective, way to get solid design work from the design community. It keeps the clients aware of the value of good design, and keeps the designers happy and productive.
    Now, I’m sure there’s a site out there like this already, and I think Upstack.com is kind of built upon this premise, but I’ve yet to see a crowdsourcing site that is truly beneficial to both parties – client and designer. Anyone know of any?

  5. The crux of this post seems to be that designers aren’t getting value for their time from crowdsourcing.

    I disagree.

    You make an issue of setting minimum price requirements. Yet both Crowdspring and 99designs do exactly that. Just because their minimums are below your minimums doesn’t make them non-existent.

    As a freelance designer you’re free to place your own value on your time, and set your own rates. But there are, and there will always be designers who will be more than willing to work for less money than you. It’s the way of business.

    More so in a global economy. It’s extremely narrow-minded and lacking in global vision to assume that $150 USD for a logo is “simply not enough”.

    Your argument sounds very similar to the old photographers’ gripe about amateurs underpricing them and stealing their business. You know what, if you’re charging $50,000 for a wedding or $500 for a stock photo there are always going to be buyers who can’t afford you. And they were never going to be clients of yours anyway.

    But they can afford someone cheaper.

    Don’t insult a buyer by implying that he’s cheap or not knowledgeable just because he doesn’t want to pay your price. And don’t insult a creative professional by saying he’s not “doing the process correctly” just because he’s doing it cheaper than you.

    If the price point doesn’t make it worthwhile for you, don’t take part. It’s that simple.

    Have you had, or considered having a guest writer on Millo? Are you paying them the same thing Nat Geo or NYTimes would pay? What about those stock photos you illustrate your posts with? $1000 RM or $2 microstock?

    Are you consuming of crowdsourced content while trashing the crowdsourcing content model?

  6. Hey Preston,

    Thanks for writing this.

    I think you make a lot of valuable points.

    First – I’d like to address your point about remembering who our customers are.

    This is critical! You astutely point out how important the design community is and believe me – this is not lost on us.

    As a marketplace, 99designs has to balance the interests of:
    – the buyers (clients)
    – the sellers (designers)
    – and ourselves (the business)

    This is not always easy – and there will be times where we make one group happy, and other times where we make another group happy etc… and so on. You pointed out our forum where users provide feedback & suggestions on how to best grow 99designs. We encourage everyone to participate and it has a huge impact on how we develop our service.

    A couple of examples of things we have done in response to requests from designers in the community:
    – Make all projects prepaid
    – Add Guaranteed Projects
    – Create Blind Projects
    – Develop an “Ready-made logo store”
    – Develop Multiple Prize projects
    – Investigate suspicious projects
    – etc…

    The list goes on and on – these were all top rated requests by designers on our forum.

    Obviously there are still plenty of things to improve – you mentioned educating clients as a perfect example. I agree wholeheartedly – and setting the right expectations on how to run a project and give feedback is a huge part of this.

    Honestly – this is a work in progress and will always be so. We have a lot of 1st time & repeat project holders who do a great job – we also have project holders who don’t quite get it.

    We are working on it. We do a lot behind the scenes to help projects holders get back on track when they are not doing everything they could be (clear design brief, reasonable expectations & feedback, feedback, feedback) to run an effective design project. We email project holders DAILY to remind them how important it is to give feedback.

    Additionally -we recently rolled out a new Feedback Tool to make it easier for clients to give feedback and we do promote it in our communications with them. But to your point, we have talked about forcing feedback in some way – we just have not gotten there yet. It’s always a balancing act – making sure we preserve the value of participating for all parties – reducing friction, making it easy and profitable.

    Minimum Price Requirements is also an fantastic discussion.

    99designs is an open marketplace. The big benefit for a customer is we take out the risk that they will pick a designer and then not like what that designer creates for them – our model allows the client to see the designs before committing to a designer.

    One thing this does is it allows clients to browse open projects and see the price to quality ratio. They may look at the designs coming in at the $150 level vs $300 vs the $500 etc… and then decide where they fit. As a contrast an elance model is just a race to the bottom – all designers just try to under bid each other.

    We also try to set reasonable expectations on price when projects are started but I do agree that we should revisit some of our minimums – web design for example.

    The pricing discussion is also complicated by the fact that we now exist in a global economy – this is a toughy for sure!

    Ultimately I think it forces designers in places like the US and UK to really up their game and start providing more sophisticated design services that justify and command incomes that they need. (Interesting Article – http://bit.ly/bZJ0tY)


    Preston I absolutely hear you about the refunds – and believe me we hear this a lot from the community.

    Here’s the deal – we are convinced that the 100% money back guarantee is an essential selling point to attract the small business client. We also feel that if we do our jobs – clients will be completely blown away by the experience and it will be a moot point. The good news is – for the most part this is true. Our refund rates are low – but we always try to get them lower and we will continue to improve.

    One correction – we do not offer partial refunds – 99designs refunds all the money – including our fees. So we make ZERO and lose out on all the work (customer support) we put in too. As I said – we feel the guarantee is a critical selling point – so we are wiling to take the risk too.

    I really hope this helps – and as always – we are open to opinions, suggestions and discussion.

    Jason Aiken

  7. Preston: great article, and refreshing not to hear someone automatically bash the contest sites. Where they are definitely not the place to potentially bank-roll your entire salary, for me, they have been helpful in connecting me with some profitable clientele. Over half of the contests that I have won have resulted in return clients and some long-term business relationships. That’s the good.

    The bad is as others have commented. It is very frustrating seeing your own good design sit without any feedback, when substandard work is being rewarded. No accounting for taste, I suppose, but it does seem to be an epidemic. But honestly, that can happen anywhere, not just on the contest sites, we’re just not as blatantly aware of it. I have worked in printshops as a designer off and on for years and the same problem exists — people will “hire” their nephew-who-used-Corel Draw-when-he-was-in-junior high, and then bring the job in to be printed and expect it to magically become beautiful when it goes on to the press. Unfortunately, people do tend to take the cheaper route and settle for the substandard.

    I believe in light of this, it’s even more important for good, professional designers to participate on the contest sites, if not for anything but to raise the bar and show the contest holders that they don’t need to settle. Some prices for contests are low, but some can be very fair, so as a professional, you just need to pick and choose. Also, in defense of 99D and Crowdspring, both contests have “guaranteed” features on their contests that insure the winning designer is paid, and that the client doesn’t back out and steal any ideas. Not all contests are set up that way, so again, just pick and choose and make sure you only enter guaranteed ones. Also, 99D has recently implemented “blind” contests where you don’t see any other entries, so stealing between designers is impossible as well. That alone, I think, has given a lot of protection and support to the designers.


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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by prestondlee: New at Millo: If crowdsourcing sites really cared about designers… http://bit.ly/c2GOb7


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