My 99designs Logo and Business Card Contest

April 18, 2012

As I wrote in a [intlink id=”3176″ type=”post”]post just published[/intlink], I recently ran a 99designs contest to get a new logo and business card (see that post for the final results). In this post, I want to talk about the experience in more detail, although I should add that I decided (for some unknown reason) to make my contest private, so it cannot be viewed by anyone that is not a 99designs member (membership is free, if you really want to take a peek).

99designs, in case you’re not familiar with it, is perhaps the most popular of the “crowd sourcing” line of Web sites. There’s a good video on the home page that explains the concept, but I’ll give a quick overview, too. People who need design work done—logos, business cards, t-shirts, posters, brochures, Websites, icons, etc.—choose a category in which to start a contest. There are minimum prices, which vary by the project. For example, a Web site starts at $599 and a logo starts at $299. This is the minimum amount you can price your job at; you’re free to pay whatever price more than that. You then provide as many details as possible about what you’re looking for and begin the contest.

Once a contest is opened, designers can start uploading designs. This is a key benefit for the clients: you get to see the possible results. As the client, you’re not trying to hire a designer and hope s/he can do the work to your satisfaction, you’re buying the actual finished product. From the designer’s perspective, you get access to more jobs and clients than you otherwise would, and you’re guaranteed to be paid. (I’ll discuss the pros and cons and ethics of all this later in the post).

As designers are submitting work, you can provide feedback in a couple of ways. First, you can rank the work, which is a simple 1-5 stars. I didn’t really care for the terms assigned to these rankings, though, because one star meant “Has potential”, and there were clearly submissions that did not have potential (but I didn’t want to outright eliminate them either). You can also provide written feedback on a single design, to a specific designer, or provide notes to the public at large. For example, a designer might submit a handful of designs and I could say that I liked the font in this one, the colors in the other, etc. If several designers were submitting things that were off, I’d clarify the needs in a global message. Hopefully the designers will watch your feedback and customize their work accordingly. You can outright cut a design, which I did more aggressively towards the end, or outright cut a designer (which I think I only did twice).

At some point, the client can guarantee the job, which says that the overall quality is good enough for you to commit to paying someone. At another point (four days, in my case), you choose just the finalists (up to six). Over the following three days, in my case, you provide feedback to the finalists and can only receive more submissions from them. Once the contest is over, you can choose a winner. You indicate to the winner any final change requests, and what format you want the materials to be in. The designer does all that and uploads the final materials. You then sign off on it and the designer is paid. That’s the general formula, here’s how it played out for me…

I wanted both a logo and a business card. I thought I was going to create two separate contests, but it’s an option to tie them together, which is smart. So I created a logo and business card contest. I could have added in stationary or whatever, but I don’t have that need.

The minimum price is $299 for the logo, I believe, plus $99 or $149 for the business card (I forget). That put my minimum somewhere in the $400-$450 range. People that don’t like the concept of 99designs often focus on this idea of getting something of quality for relatively little money. Of course, experience would suggest, that almost never happens, regardless of the situation. What many people don’t know, or it just doesn’t get discussed as often, is that 99designs strongly encourages clients to spend more money. 99designs explains how you’ll get more and better submissions the more you’re willing to spend. They even have packages and enhancements to draw attention to your contest, much like eBay. In the end, my contest had a fixed price of $644 (USD), plus it cost me about $50 in fees that went to 99designs (much of that for running a private contest). Clearly, you could spend a lot more money for a business card and a logo, but I don’t feel that $644 is an unreasonably cheap price to pay. I could be wrong. What do you think?

As part of the contest particulars, you set the timeline. I had the contest run for a week, but I could have made it shorter (which I think means you have to spend more money). I also provided the requirements and suggestions for what I like. This was tough, because while I know what I like, I also like to be surprised. The downside to this public system is that once I started indicating that I liked a certain style, all of the designs started coming in along those lines. One designer near the end really came up with something different, and borderline brilliant, but there wasn’t time for that designer to really put something together that was entirely right.

Fairly quickly on the first day I started seeing designs, but they were generally poor. I would hasten to say that those designers with the greatest need and least experience were probably the ones to initially submit. And that makes sense. But there were several initial designs that I could have created, which isn’t good. This continued into the second day, with generally so-so designs. I think I eliminated one designer early on, as her work just wasn’t to my taste at all.

But by the third day, I reached a point where I had maybe 50 designs from about 15 designers, and I was seeing decent enough work to go ahead and guarantee the contest. I also read elsewhere that guaranteeing the contest is how you really get the best submissions, which turned out to be completely true. Within the next two days, I went from around 50 designs from 15 designers to 327 designs from 90 designers! It’s also at that point in time that the better quality submissions came in. I believe two of my finalists were there on day 2, with the other two coming in after that, including the winner.

Over the next two days, I continued providing feedback as the submissions came in. All told, I provided 222 comments! I was not prepared for that amount of work. And it was tough, because I often couldn’t provide suggestions for improvement, just comments along the lines of “Doesn’t quite work for me”. On the other hand, I would think designers would be used to that kind of feedback by now. Clients can be, um, difficult, no?

I was also surprised that designers would occasionally pull their submissions. Sometimes I think this was because the designer later thought twice about it. It was kind of annoying, though, as it would prevent me from seeing the progression of a designer’s work, which I found to be useful information. One designer outright pulled all of his designs. I suspect it’s because he knew he wasn’t going to make it to the finals, but it struck me as a tad unprofessional. There also seems to be a air of protecting one’s work as a reason to pull a submission. I don’t agree with that theory but…

After four days, I had to select the finalists. You can select up to six, I think, but I selected four. One designer created a single look which was my favorite. A second designer created a couple of looks that I really liked, but those didn’t resonate as well for the other people I got advice from. A third designer had two looks that were both good, but neither was as strong as the others. I included that designer in the finals because I liked the variety and thought he could put something interesting and different together. And the fourth designer was doing totally different things that really intrigued me (as already mentioned).

At this point I had less feedback to offer, which was particularly hard for Designer B, who was my initial favorite but eventually overtaken by Designer A. In short, all I had for Designer B was “I really like it, but I like Designer A’s thing better, and I don’t know what else to tell you.” On the other hand, if I could put design needs into words, perhaps I would actually have design skills!

During the final period, the designers also worked on the business card aspect of the contest (if they hadn’t already). A couple of designers even went ahead and mocked up the logo as a favicon/avatar and showed what the logo would look like as part of a Web site. Neither was an obligation of the job, but going that extra mile was a smart move. Plus it allowed me to see how a design would work in different formats, which was important in making the final decision. Doing more than you have to is always a good way to work!

With the contest over, it was time to make a decision. In the end, I had a total of 397 entries to consider! I ran a couple of polls on my favorite designs to get some more input, and I spoke with my wife about it a lot.

Once I chose the winner, I asked the designer to make a couple of minor changes (especially with the business card), and then indicated what actual files I’d need to receive. She provided those, we both signed off, and she got her $644. Again, you can [intlink id=”3176″ type=”post”]see the final choice here[/intlink].

I’ve since paid another designer I know some money to customize the CSS for my new template in order to adopt the logo and colors to it. I hope to put that online soon.

Overall, I’m very pleased with my experience. I was able to get a professional logo and business card at a price that I could afford. More than the price, though, I really benefited from seeing a lot of ideas. (I even came close to anointing two designers the winners, but that would have cost me twice as much and I knew I’d never use the second design.) But one of the reasons why I choose the finalists that I did was because they gave me the best range of designs, both among the group of them and individually (i.e., the winning designer had a great range in her portfolio). The whole experience was like visual brainstorming, and I imagine I’ll use 99designs again.

Now as for the ethics of it…

Before using 99designs, I had read some posts about it and saw some discussions of the ethics of such sites. Ethics are always personal, so I would never presume to suggest how anyone else should feel about these types of sites. However, I did think about it considerably, and decided that I didn’t have a problem with it. The main reason I feel it’s okay is this: both sides know exactly what the deal is going into it. The rules are clearly established, adhered to, and fair. Yes, it sucks for the 98 designers that put in some time but didn’t make any money, but that was their choice to participate. And even the winning designer, who seems to be quite good and has won 19 other contests, has also lost in 180 others.

Yes, sites like these could be described as taking advantage of people that badly need work, but the counter argument is that it gives people more avenues to get work. How else will a new designer living in an obscure part of whatever country find work and experience? And that’s another thing: experience. Those designers who didn’t win are able to get a lot of experience in terms of seeing what clients want, how to interact, and what professional quality work looks like. To me, that’s quite something. When I first started out, I would have been thrilled to have those kinds of opportunities. Where do you stand?