99 Designs Website Review

Designers – for the most part hate the term ‘spec work’, which if you are unaware is the creation of a design to be judged by the customer for the mere chance of getting paid after your hard work. This is the basis of the website ’99 Designs’, where you post a contest and designers have a stab at the brief you’ve posted to take away the prize. I recently gave it a go so read on for my evaluation.

Spec Work:
Firstly here’s a little more about spec (speculative) work and why it’s frowned on by designers.
You might be able to see it already but the premise of getting paid only after you complete a logo is quite unsettling especially with the knowledge that you only have a very small chance of winning unless you are a stunning designer. This also equates to an incredible amount of wasted time for each designer who doesn’t win, even the winner sometimes. A statistic I read online recently said that over a million hours of time has been wasted on designs for spec work without being awarded anything in return. True, the designers know this going in and it’s a pretty good way to create a portfolio for artwork but that’s certainly a lot of time without pay.

Another article I read mentioned you wouldn’t just walk into a doctors office with multiple doctors who each give you their prognoses of what’s wrong with you, only to have you pay the one you like the most… There seriously would be something wrong with you if you attempted that today, so why is it different for designers? Sure I love the fact that you aren’t stuck in one designers mind and only what they can imagine, but the collective nature of everyone’s minds is a powerful thing and you’re much more likely to get the design you want.

The only reason I decided to try 99 Designs was the fact that most of the designers I contacted didn’t respond at all, and being in Brisbane, Australia there are a fair few of them with lavish websites saying how much customer intimacy means to them, well that’s obvious hokum from their indecency to reply to my emails.

Fluidic Ice Logo
Fig1. – The final design of the Fluidic Ice logo.

How it works:
I seriously had a lot of questions before I went into this contest and 99 Designs website wasn’t very helpful as their FAQ only scraped the surface of what I wanted to know, such as timeframes between each stage.

1. Choose which content you want designed.
2. Start a contest specifying what you want in the design.
3. Pay upfront right before you launch the contest.
4. First Round – Where designers submit their initial designs and you give feedback on each one for refinements, this lasts 4 days if you chose the 7 day timeframe.
5. You choose up to 6 finalists to continue to the next round for design refinements. Contrary to what I thought where only designs get into the next round, but instead the designer and all of their designs that aren’t eliminated get into the next round. You have about 3 days to decide. This is your last chance to get a refund before the final round.
6. Designers submit more designs based on feedback until you get something you’re almost fully happy with.
7. You declare a winning design which you have 14 days to decide on and you can create polls for friends to help.
8. You collaborate with the winning designer for any final tweaks you would like and specify which output file types you need. To download their designs for perusal however you’ve got to sign a transfer agreement which means that after 5 days 99 designs transfers the money to them unless you approve the files and release the payment early.
9. The transaction is complete.

The Contest Set Up:
Now next here’s some information on how to set up your contest and the fields and parameters you should focus on most. Before getting started with your contest your first step is to decide on what type of logo you want, presentation is everything as you don’t want a logo that looks like it’s been drawn in crayon unless it’s for a kindergarten or other child related activity. The number of designs you get will reflect the price you pay, there are 4 distinct tiers of pricing although you are able to select your own price for a slight edge and more designs coming in.

The first tier is Bronze, priced starting at $299 they typically say you will get around 30 logo’s designed which are by ‘good’ designers.
The next tier is Silver, this gets you ‘better’ designers and typically around 60 designs after the time frame, this pricing starts at $499.
The third tier Gold and other than getting even better designers due to the lucrative pricing you should expect around 90 designs with a price of $799. (They should have made it 99 Designs)
The final tier is Platinum and consists of only the most qualified designers hand picked by 99 Designs. You’ll get around 60 professional designs and this pricing starts at $1199

Now out of respect for the designers (and the copyright agreement) I won’t display any images here of the contestants who didn’t win. Although I will show you alternate designs from the designer who did win, it just may not be the winning design.
I decided to go with the silver tier because I had the money and really needed an eye-catching logo for my music, videos and blogs such as this.

There’s quite a lot of options to choose from when setting up your contest, first you have to decide which type of design you want.
Here’s a list of what 99 Designs say their designers can do:

Logo and Website starter, Brand Identity pack, Logo Design, Logo and Business Card, Business Card, Stationery,
Banner Ads, Infographic, Brochure, Banner Ad, Flash Banner, Signage, Email,
Web Page Design, Landing Page Design, Icon or Button, App Design, Facebook Cover, Social Media Page,
T-Shirt, Clothing or Apparel, Merchandise,
Illustration and Graphics, Card or Invitation, Product Packaging, Product Label, Book Cover, Magazine Cover.

So in other words basically anything you see that can be printed on.

After the type of design you want you are able to select some deeper parameters such as a few sliders that tries to communicate what overall feel you were wanting in your design like ‘Feminine – Masculine’, ‘Young – Mature’, ‘Simple – Complex’ and a few others. There’s also a few other text boxes where you can enter your own information and a place to upload any example logo’s you like the look of, but just make sure to specify what you like in it or they could misinterpret that.

The next page let’s you select your prize from the tiers above or create a custom tier for a more lavish reward. You can then promote your contest through their website, twitter and other social media with some check-boxes at an additional cost for each one.

You then get to the contest options some of which are:
Guarantee your contest – Guarantee to award a winner for your contest, forgoing your right to a refund. Attracts 200% more designers!
Blind Contest – Prevent designers from seeing each other’s work.
Invitation Only – Only allow designers that you personally invite to your contest.
Private Contest – Hide your contest from search engines and have designers sign a confidentiality agreement. We provide a standard template for the NDA or you can upload your own (as a PDF)
White labelled Contest – Share designs with your clients and incorporate their feedback easily – all under your own brand.
Duration – How quickly do you need your final design?
There are options for: 7 Days, 3 Days, 2 Days, 24 Hours at Free, $39, $59, $79 respectively.

I recommend the 7 day contest due to getting more designs overall over the longer time period. I also went with the Private Contest to hide my logo from prying eyes in google.

Finally you get to the payment details, where you simply pay for the specifications you’ve chosen and your contest will begin.
You shouldn’t expect too many designs in the first few hours as obviously people have to find the contest and then design the logo, but keep an eye on the watchers in the top right to have an idea of how many people are likely to submit entries. On average the designers submit a couple of logos each based on how much feedback you offer and how fast you reply to their previous designs. Some of them don’t speak English fluently however they usually can type enough to get by and understand what you are wanting.

Once you’ve got your contest up and running you have entered the first round, which lets anyone submit designs for the duration of that segment. After the first round closes you have a few days to choose up to 6 contestants you like the most for entry to the final round, where they submit revised and designs and ultimately find your perfect design. I recommend not using the full 6 finalist slots if you have already selected your favourites just to fill it completely, simply out of pure respect for the designers who, if selected, will work really hard perfecting their design thinking they have a good design. This is why I only went with 4 finalists. In my design brief I also mentioned that second and third place gets a consolation prize as a thanks for contributing which is $25 and $15 respectively as they’ve worked really hard on each of their designs and at least they get a little something back.

Due to this, I thought about designing my own website where the client chooses how the money is split between the entries, similar to a running race where either first three contestants split the money, 80%/15%/5% or even the top 5 or 10 designers (or designs letting people try to submit more great ideas for a better split), this would be interesting to how these contests work and whether or not designers feel it’s worth working on a contest with only a $200 prize for first place or a contest for $400 split to the top three entries.

I was utterly surprised when I got 122 entries by the conclusion of the first round which 99 Designs said I should only expect around 60 designs as I bought the silver pack. True, a lot of them weren’t to my liking but each designer tried really hard to work on my feedback and by the last day there were a lot of designs I really liked. You can’t expect to get great looking logo’s in the first few days as typically that’s when the new designers submit their work and often some others copy their ideas and change a few details. I found you get almost double the entries if you guarantee the prize near the start, it’s amazing how fast the logo designs came in after doing that. Thanks to that guy’s blog I read (but forgot the link) to said to Guarantee the contest as it worked like a charm even though you forfeit your refund, therefore I recommend guaranteeing after you have a couple of designs which you think have potential, but certainly before the third day.

By the conclusion of the final round I had gotten a total of 140 designs, typically with many refinements of similar designs as you give feedback and each better looking then the last. I was a little disappointed in the final round however when two of the designers out of the 4 I selected didn’t submit anything new and just hoped their designs were god enough to win. As you would probably expect they didn’t win as the other designers got far ahead of them and one of them in particular was winning in my mind before the start of the final round. That’s why if you’re a designer you should keep submitting new entries even if it’s very similar to the previous ones.

What I loved about the winning designer ‘Linguart’ was his ability to interpret what I was commenting back and thinking to create a truly beautiful piece of artwork which I love as well as many other designs which I wish I could also use. The winning design I selected was simply a baseline for his imagination as he also developed an amazing music themed logo using the same watery cube which I hope to use for my music channel. He managed to merge a treble clef and the ice cube in an abstract way that looks beautiful and being simple enough it can be a 2D logo and 3D with those amazing lighting effects.

If you’re looking for a great designer on 99 Designs try inviting ‘Linguart’ to your contest, who knows he may be the one you’ve been looking for in your contest, I sure am happy with my logo.

Fluidic Ice Logo
Fig2. – The final 2D version of the logo.

Summary and Rating:
99 Designs is a useful site where clients can go to fulfil their design needs relating to basically anything, or so they say… The site is run heavily in favour of 99 Designs, evident through the up front payment and the manipulated ‘guarantee’ button as a form of securing your money with them, which surprisingly doesn’t actually guarantee any designers money. Their clients come second with not a lot to gain other then fairly cheap designs by the labourers working in the ‘sweat shop’. Lastly come the designers who generally feel like they are tossed around, pulled and trodden on simply for the client to get a nice design. The real travesty here is that designers might not even see a cent for all their hard labours working day and night on initial logo’s through to the final refinements. Even then someone could steal their ideas and reshape it a little to end up winning the contest, all to the despair of the original artist. Spec work is truly a cut-throat field which I can understand is why many designers prefer to start their own companies, because hey, they have the skills to do so and you are guaranteed to get paid at the end of all your hard work.

One interaction that I forgot to mention was that often designers fight other designers for the scraps of food they are being thrown from the corporate fat suits above. Metaphor aside, some designers often comment on designs that aren’t theirs complaining miserably about how this design was chosen above theirs which they believe to be superior. This isn’t necessarily just for 99 designs either, there’s a lot more spec work sites out there that do the same. It saddens me today that people don’t seem to have dignity and congratulate each other when they win, this is also evident in games where a few members of one team fight each other over kills and being aggressive when someone makes a mistake. This didn’t happen on my contest but i’ve read the comments on some other contests like this. But back to designers, this can often be exacerbated by the fact that the designer is oblivious to how much time and effort went into a design, and even choose a design that someone simply googled, only to find out later that it was copyright and now has no logo and no money. If you’re still reading this and looking for a logo and decide to go with 99 designs, make sure you reverse image search (or tineye) the logo or design before you declare a winner.

Rant aside, the site functions pretty effectively for what it aims to do, providing multiple points of view for a single logo design preventing the kind of ‘writers block’ that could occur in single designers that you may employ. The process was relatively hassle-free, although I didn’t like the pressure to choose the finalists before a certain date as I usually like to sleep on it a few days with a new perspective each time, although I understand why they do it if the contest isn’t guaranteed, it would have been an utter waste of everyone’s time except for 99 Designs who would take the entirety.

Contrary to what you may think there are a few designers who enjoy the contest scene and I can understand why, firstly the designers know the pros and cons when they go into this job, secondly it may not even be for the money, to start a successful career designers need to have a wide portfolio of different subjects and where better to start then actual designs people have requested, if they win it’s just a bonus for them. There’s also the thrill of winning your first contest or simply getting to the finalists, it signifies that you have what it takes to be in this business and have proven yourself even if you don’t quite win.

Thanks for reading and I hope this has enlightened you on spec work and helped you to create an informed decision about whether or not to use 99 designs.
Leave a comment if you agree or disagree with anything I have said or to provide your own opinion.

Here’s a great site which outlines the best ways to make the most out of your contest:

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