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The newly-launched StartUp Britain website, which is backed by the U.K. government, "is designed to make it easier for new companies and innovations to flourish and encourage people who aspire to start new businesses to work for themselves."

But it's the subject of a significant amount of criticism. Some say it lacks all substance, and is little more than a low-quality link farm. Others point out that it promotes sites filled with affiliate links.

Some of the biggest criticism, however, has centered on StartUp Britain's promotion of 99designs, a US-based service that runs crowdsourced design contests.

Not surprisingly, design contests are a hot-button topic for those in the design community. On Hacker News, there is a vibrant discussion about a blog post entitled "Why designers need to stop moaning about 99designs.com."

The publisher of that blog post does make valid points, and there clearly is a place in the market for 99designs and sites like it. But is a design contest the right choice for you? In some instances, the answer might be 'yes', but here are six reasons to think twice.

Great-looking work product isn't necessarily great work product

Great design is about more than aesthetics. A great logo, for instance, coveys feelings and sends a message -- things that a great-looking logo may not.

A skilled designer looks at the big picture. If your logo is going to be printed, for instance, sizing, the level of detail and the number of colors used are crucial considerations that a less-skilled designer may not bring up, leaving you stuck with a logo that may have beautiful form but poor function.

In design contests, designers have every incentive to give you what they think you're looking for so that they can win the contest; they have far less incentive to try to help you truly figure out what you need by applying their expertise, but that's precisely where skilled designers provide the greatest value.

Process matters

Is it possible to post an RFP for a logo and watch as dozens of samples from dozens of designers flow in? Sure. But good design is just as much about process as it is about design, and the type of designer-client interaction found on design contest services can leave a lot to be desired.

You exclude a lot of designers

While there are plenty of designers participating on 99designs, and many are almost certainly quite capable, lots of designers refuse on principle to participate in design contests.

Logically, many of these are designers those with no shortage of demand from paying customers. From this perspective, it's worth considering that the kind of designer most of us would ideally want to work with (read: one who has lots of business) will have very little motivation to participate in your design contest.

Legal issues can be treacherous

Knowing and trusting the designer you're doing business with is of huge importance for companies. Even when you sign an agreement that assigns intellectual property rights in the work product to you and represents that the work product is original, the agreement is only as good as the honesty of the person signing it and your ability to enforce the terms.

Needless to say, working with someone you know very little about or who may be located in a different country carries significant risk. In this respect, doing business with a designer you don't really know can prove to be penny wise and very pound foolish.

Relationships matter

Although owners of new businesses may not require lots of design work, establishing a relationship with a quality designer early on is a good idea because chances are you will need services in the future as your business grows.

Having a solid relationship in place will minimize the risk of poor execution as your design projects take on more and more importance. Outsourcing design projects through sites like 99designs may be an appealing tool for getting jobs done when you need them done, but they can also dissuade you from the kind of relationship building that is beneficial long-term.

If money is everything, you may have a problem

Naturally, new businesses and small businesses usually have to watch what they spend carefully. That means hiring a big-name agency which charges $10,000 for a branding package is probably not an option. In most cases, it shouldn't be.

But when a service like 99designs is used primarily to cut costs, it raises red flags. The reality is that undercapitalization is one of the biggest causes of new venture failure. This means a business that doesn't want to spend more than, say, $300 on a logo because it realistically can't afford to should consider the possibility that it's undercapitalized.

After all, starting a new business usually comes with certain costs, ranging from entity formation to collateral creation. If you feel the need to 'cut corners' on these basic costs to save a few hundred dollars, there's a decent chance you don't have enough gas in the tank.

Patricio Robles

Published 30 March, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2419 more posts from this author

Comments (5)


Fiona Humberstone

Fantastic post. I loathe logo competitions.

I recently caught hold of a thread on twitter from a wannabe design contestant asking how they convert a Powerpoint design into an Adobe Illustrator file since that was one of the requirements of entry.

Anyone that designs a logo in Powerpoint and then seeks to convert to Illustrator is surely missing the point?

And I think that just about sums up the level of design capability of crowdsourcing.

over 5 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

Having tried this service for a couple of test projects I'd like to point out a few things (apart from the issue that 99Designs is a Australian startup (I believe)).

Firstly it isn't that cheap for the client - however it is a safer use of resources. Why hunt round for one designer, and have to rely on their competence (or lack thereof)?

Secondly most startups don't have a clue who to go to and either end up with the wrong type of supplier/agency, often paying through the nose for an entire process when all they need is to get going?

Thirdly, I can see how it works for designers, because the cream rises to the top and it delivers new clients to them who they then can supply further work to. So a designer may lose out 'first up', but once they have a client, it can get much more profitable as they don't need to do sales.

Finally, the reason as a digital agency: why we use 99designs? Because it offers a very quick turn-around for short-notice project AND it offers a route to different design styles and ideas.

On the two contests I have run, sure there have been lemons and you can spot them a mile off, but overall I have been pleased with the value given and the turn-around.

Then again, because we're experienced, we offer outstanding briefs and management of the process - which makes a major difference the the quality of output.

over 5 years ago


Dom Raban

Why is it that design, almost certainly more than any other service, is so often devalued? Imagine a website called '99builders' where builders come and build you 99 conservatories and you pick the best one. Or '99accountants' where you get your annual returns done 99 times and you choose the one that saves you the most tax. I could go on with hundreds of other examples but I won't.

If you're a startup and you're looking for a designer then, sure, request credentials from as many designers as you like. Then pick the three that you think are closest to what you're looking for (eg. have experience in your marketplace or some other kind of synergy with your organisation) and ask those three to submit either a price/approach pitch if a relatively low fee is on the table or a full creative pitch if the reward justifies the investment.

Believe it or not designers have to work for a living.

over 5 years ago

Jennie Wright

Jennie Wright, Marketing Manager at Syndicut

Aren't 99Designs just filling a market niche? My view is it's horses for courses. I can empathise with small business owners working to a tight budget. They still need an identity and may not have the capital to hire an agency.

The design work that is featured looks good enough to me, so if it's a logo you're after and that's all, then this seems like a good option.

What 99Designs doesn't do is offer in-depth value and guidance that you'd receive from an agency. A brand is so much more than a logo and it's pretty likely that if the business owner is scrabbling for pennies to pay a designer, they won't have the capital to recruit suitable in-house expertise to define and build their brand offering and realise it in a way that's relevant to their target.

One final point of interest to me, was that the graphics within 99Designs video are pretty ugly. Surely if you're a site devoted to design (even if it's churn and burn), you should be showcasing excellent design throughout and in particular in your promo video.

over 5 years ago


Tim Thornton

The issues aren't crowd sourcing per se, but really these:
1. The designer may knock up a nice design, but without the conversation that one has with a mre conventional approach some issues of the underlying message or (in this global exonomy) international culture may be lost. e.g. we had an amateur UK designer user the WW1 image of Lord Kitchener in a recruiting poster which was also to be used in Lithuania - the Lithuanians thought it was Stalin, and it didn't go down well
2, As this is often down to buying on proce, the quality may not be there - do you get the images in the right formats and with the right content so you can adapt them to print and web? Has any copyright clearance/licence been sorted. Again, another example, we had a Lithuanian TV person make a short demonstration video, which was well done, but on uploading to YouTube it came up with a copyright warning, and the guy had just downloaded a sound track from the web regardless of conversations beforehand to make sure any sound was copyright paid.

over 5 years ago

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