Why I used 99designs again

16 Jul

Last year I used 99designs to get a logo for my new startup Percollate. I was pretty pleased with it. Apart from fridge-drawings by my kids I’d never had anything designed for me before and it was exciting. Back then I had no idea of the kind of fallout this would create in my local community. I had genuinely never considered that this approach could be viewed negatively by people. After all, it’s got a kind of crowd-sourced feel to it so it has to be good. Right?


Turns out that most designers are dead against sites that take this approach. I say ‘most’ because these site exist and seem to be profitable. Most of these people I see regularly, respect the opinions of and certainly don’t want to upset. To get an understanding of their arguments check out

A few weeks ago I enlisted 99designs for a second time to help me with a logo for Awedience. Clearly, I hadn’t forgotten what happened last time so why did I do it?


One of the suggested alternatives a year ago was to engage my local community. Actually, I like this idea. At the start of the year I embarked on a web-based side project and decided that I didn’t want to be involved with the design / UI side of things. To a packed audience I announced the project and explicitly asked for people to come join me and build it. I had dozens of conversations about how exciting the idea was but not a single offer of design interest. Not one. So, as time was of the essence, I got on with it myself.

Design is Subjective

Most people will agree that Wagner was a genius. Fewer people, however, will find his work to their taste. It’s subjective. Getting into a relationship with a designer really worries me because our tastes might simply be misaligned. Having to terminate a contract after weeks of work would be devastating. 99designs is a great way to quickly find someone that seems to share your particular, personal, subjective tastes.

99designs has Changed

99designs allows you to throw your net to the whole community at the start of a competition. However, within just a few days you have to pick a handful of finalists. I appreciate that this argument will not hold much water for many people reading this but it does mean that those unlikely to win find out quickly.

Awedience is Multi-sourced

The logo came from 99designs. The theme was bought from ThemeForest and tweaked by one of my advisers. For my part, I have be putting in 12 hour days for some considerable time building the application frontend and associated cloud services. The point I’m making is that I have considered the startup as a whole and thought carefully about how best a build each individual part.

We ALL do Spec Work

Nobody wants to work for free. However, unless you work 9-5 and are never called upon to speculate or take a risk, at some point, you’ve done spec work. I can only speak for my own industry and experience, but here are two concrete examples…

Tenders for Technical Contracts

At my previous company we built a business offering platforms to various financial and government bodies. At no point were we able to simply show our previous work and get handed a contract. Here’s how we would spend the man-months:

  • Understanding the client’s requirements
  • Infrastructure design
  • Integration understanding and design
  • Failure identification and problem solving
  • Cost analysis
  • Pre-Pitch documentation
  • Presentation creation
  • Presentation planning
  • Presentation practice
  • Travel to client offices
Guarantee of income: NONE. 

Technical Job Inteviews

Over the years I have been on both sides of the job interview table. Today there is more background information a potential employer can pre-read (e.g. StackOverflow), but the process was almost always the same:

  1. Spend time writing a CV
  2. Spend time searching for a position
  3. Attend first interview – do we like you and is your shit together (at least on paper)?
  4. Attend second interview where you’ll sit our tests and actually show us what you know. (Some companies I know also expect you to deliver a formal presentation of your work).
Guarantee of employment: NONE.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

The price is great ($200) and the results are good enough. Actually, I love our logo but then, as I said previously, it’s subjective. Up until today I had only had positive feedback for – including designers from my local community. Will today’s revelation change their opinions?

In Conclusion

I do not hold with the argument that designers are being treated differently to the rest of the world. Companies like 99designs have come into an established industry and disrupted it. Telling everyone not to use these new services will not work. Designers and design companies either need to find a better solution to the problems raised in this post or concede the ground.

Finally, I believe in open, constructive discussions. Apart from spam, I won’t delete any comments from this post.


Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Startups


Tags: , , , ,

2 responses to “Why I used 99designs again

  1. Jo Gifford (@dexdiva)

    July 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Chris, thanks for inviting me to comment. Of course it’s anyone’s prerogative to use whoever you like to design a logo or undertake design work. Most designers have an issue with crowdsourcing like this because it devalues the industry and encourages spec work. Putting a CV together and job searching isn’t spec work – undertaking a job against hundreds of others with no payment terms in place is.
    Spec work in design is bad for both client and designer – for a designer to do a good job they need to fully understand the client and the brief. This invariably cannot be done when the work is unpaid, as unless the agency is large there is rarely resource to put the required time and effort in. For the client, this results in poorly thought out work, for the agency/designer, wasted resource. My advice would be to not speak to a room of people and ait for them to offer to hep you. Research some designers, look at their work, speak with them and engage someone as you would on any other project. I doubt you would ask several builders to build an extension and see which one you liked, and the same principle goes here. We turn down clients who ask us to do work for free, and prefer to show our portfolio, and ascertain a fit that way. Good luck with your projects and thanks for inviting me to comment. Jo (Cherry Sorbet Creative).

  2. drewfansler

    July 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    While your business decisions are your prerogative, you must understand the designer’s aversion to crowdsourcing becoming a business model for our industry. I disagree with your assertion that the job interview process is working for free. It is work done to show one’s value, both proven and potential, to a prospective employer. It is work that can be used for multiple interviews.

    In advertising, some prospective clients, generally big-ticket ones, can solicit a few agencies for a pitch, but those are governed by legal contracts on both sides, and if a client doesn’t accept the pitch and in effect buys the work, they don’t have the rights to it. The length of a contract or retainer can generally offset the initial manpower of the pitch, and agencies can usually absorb the loss as it is built into their budget. Crowdsourced competitions, by and large, provide no rights to the designer, no cap on time, and no promise of payment for services rendered.

    Themeforest submissions are by and large are not free. If that was meant as a comparison to 99Designs, the fundamental reason it doesn’t work is simple: programmers get paid every time someone downloads their theme.

    Just because your company is a startup does not excuse asking designers all over the internet to give you free work. You look at the logo you received as a $200 investment, while designers look at it as buying the rights to however many submissions you received, and the amount of man hours implicit in each. With those odds, your logo was likely sold to someone else before you, and it is also highly possible that it was copied from someone else’s logo.

    For clients, you get what you pay for. You won’t get a masterpiece from the drive-thru window—but if you like what comes out of the drive-thru window, again, that’s your prerogative. It’ll be something to put on your site and business card.

    If you offered a 99Designs-sized payment, it’s no wonder professional designers wouldn’t bite. But did you actively seek out individuals or just solicit an open call? Did you try calling a local university with a design program? There are probably students who would gladly take your project.

    Personally, I oppose crowdsourcing and dissuade clients against it and dissuade designers from giving their work away. It devalues what designers do, is not engendering to the healthy relationships from which good design comes, and leaves clients open to copyright and trademark infringement lawsuits.

    If designers stop entering crowdsourced contests, they will cease to exist.


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