Whenever I start a new business, one of the first things I need to do is get a corporate logo; most people don’t think a business is real until it has a logo. It’s a pain in the neck, and pretty expensive–both in time and money.

First, I have to find a graphic artist.  I had a great one about 15 years ago, but she stopped doing this sort of work. Since then it’s been hit-or-miss. So just finding a qualified artist who is available for a one-off project can take weeks.

Then you tell the artist what you’re looking for. What type of business is it? What feelings do you want to evoke? (Investment firm = stability; web firm = whimsy; web-based investment firm = ???) Who is the target audience? What colors do you prefer? What do the competitors look like? All of these and more play into the design of a good company logo.

Then you wait and hope that you’ve chosen a good designer, because in a week or two they will come back with 3-5 designs for you to look at. You can choose one (sometimes two) for a second pass and even (occasionally) a third pass. Total price: typically about $1,000. You learn a lot from the iterations, but doing more of them can get very expensive.  I’ve known companies to pay upward of $100,000 for a logo; but that’s obviously inappropriate for a startup.

Hope you like the result, because you’ve paid for it either way!


So I was intrigued when I read about 99designs.com, a web site that allows you to run design contests for things like logos.

Here’s how it works:

You fill out a standard form describing what you are looking for (design, emotions, file formats, etc), and perhaps upload some samples of logos you like, to give the designers a starting point. Then you tell 99Designs how much you are willing to pay for the logo.  You can name any amount, but for a logo the lowest price is about $300, and the high end is around $800. This is the “prize” that will be awarded to the winner of the contest–although 99Designs keeps a percentage for hosting the contest. You can also say how long you want the contest to run–typically a week from start to finish.

Your design document is then posted, along with the amount of the prize, for designers to see. Pretty soon designers start submitting logo ideas. You can give them feedback, and message back and forth with them. This allows them to change their designs to better meet you needs. By the end of the week, you have several good designs to choose from. You pick a winner, they transfer the files and sign the legal releases for you to use their art, and they are awarded the prize money. Very efficient.

Here’s what I love: The designers come from all over the world. You can do as many iterations as they will do (which is many), and you get a lot of great designers interpreting your needs, so you get a wider variety of appropriate and beautiful designs.

It’s also very inexpensive. I ran a contest for about $500 and ended up with hundreds of entries. Many of them were iterations, but there were still many dozens of underlying designs.  You could never get that sort of response for that price with a traditional approach. And if you don’t see a design you love, you simply don’t award the prize and you get a full refund. So you only pay for results.

Our Experience

When we ran our first logo contest, I received a call from Victoria at 99Designs about 3 days into the contest. She was just checking to see if everything was okay.

I asked a few basic questions, and she was very friendly and helpful. I didn’t think I’d need to speak with them again, but I was very impressed that they’d reached out to me as a new customer.

As it happens, I did need to speak with Victoria again. When the contest was completed, we picked a winner. Unfortunately, it turned out that the designer had missed a critical line in our design specification. We required the design to be in a particular file format, and he could not deliver that format. That made the design useless to us.

I called 99Designs to alert them to the issue. They put the award on hold to give the designer a few days. But ultimately, when the designer was still unable to produce the files, 99Designs cancelled the prize award and reopened the contest. Victoria then personally invited several of the top designers to submit entries in our contest. The result was a great logo, which we absolutely love.

Throughout the process, I was blown away by the support 99Designs gave us. They really were amazing. What looked at first like it could be a disaster turned out brilliantly. A lot of companies could learn from the quality of 99Design’s customer support. They really set the bar very high.

Bottom Line

This approach may not be perfect for everyone. But for a start up with limited resources, that wants a result in a week or two rather than next year, 99Designs offers the perfect combination of quality, support, efficiency, and price.

Give them a try.

2 Responses to “99Designs—Design Done Better”

  1. 99 Designs completely devalues the design industry. It may look great on the outside, but you’re scamming real designers who work hard at what they do out of work for people who are willing to work for piss-poor cheap and a chance to win a couple hundred bucks.

    Regarding your comment “But for a start up with limited resources, that wants a result in a week or two rather than next year, 99Designs offers the perfect combination of quality, support, efficiency, and price.” You’re obviously hiring the wrong designers if it takes a year for your logo to be complete. If you actually want a good logo, and in a timely fashion, hire a professional, or a talented fresh-out-of college graduate who is eager to please.

    That’s what portfolio websites are for. Take some time to research good designers who have a great portfolio and track record. You’ll find the right people that way. 99 Designs is completely unfair to young professionals who’ve spent loads of time and money educating themselves to be a professional designer.

    Think of it this way:

    You want a new house. You start a contest that says, “$300,000 to the contractor who builds me the best house.” Then 100 contractors set out and build you a house each. That’s 100 houses you get to choose from, but only one person will get that $300,000. That means each house was built for $3,000. A real, respected, honest contractor would NEVER build an entire house for $3,000 and the chance they will win your money. It’s completely ridiculous, and wrong.

    The exact same goes for designers.

    Stop using 99Designs. It’s terrible for the industry.



    • Thanks for the comments! I disagree with most of them–but I do think you’re right about one area.

      With respect to scamming “real” designers–scams imply dishonesty, and I don’t think there’s any scam at work here. You may not like it, but it’s all completely transparent and above-board. And I don’t believe that simply because someone lives in another part of the world (where costs are lower), or speaks a different language, that they are any less “real.” I understand the frustration you must face as a service provider to see that there are others in the world who are willing to provide a similar service for less money. But that’s a reality of global competition, and it’s one many people face in many different industries. The solution is to adapt–to provide a better service, and/or at a better price point. The point of a service industry is to provide a service the clients want, not to whine that they don’t want or need the service you would like to provide. That’s just fundamentally not understanding the basics of business in a market-based economy.

      I’ve worked with many top designers. Good ones are often very hard to find. We spent 5-6 weeks trying to hire a good designer. We called a local design school for recent graduates. We asked friends. We posted ads. Were any of these helpful? No! I notice that you took the time to find my personal blog and complain about 99designs–but did you reply to any of our original ads looking for a designer? No. If you cannot be bothered to apply for the job, why do you think we should waste our time looking?

      The few people we found were either absurdly expensive, had styles that were inappropriate, or were fully employed and doing us a “favor” to fit us in (meaning yet more delays to get finished).

      And that brings up the risk. I checked out your portfolio online. It’s completely inappropriate for what we were trying to do. So if we had hired you, how would I know you could do the job? Would I end up paying you money only to realize later that you were incompetent? What sort of guarantee can you provide for your work? Can you compensate us for the lost time if you don’t work out? Or do you insist that we carry that risk if you fail to perform?

      Then there’s the turnaround time. It’s typically several weeks from the time I say “go!” to the time I have a finished logo. Ideally it should be quick–but there are always issues with someone traveling, or unavailable to meet for an iteration, or whatever. So if we started looking for an artist today, spent several weeks trying to find one, then engaged them and spent time working with them, given the various holidays–yes, I stand by the idea that we would not have a logo until next year. To think otherwise would be foolishly optimistic to the point of delusion. On 99designs the time from start to finish was approximately 1 week, and the cost to us was about $500. And we did not have to take out ads, or spend precious time and resources upfront trying to find the designers.

      Then there is the efficiency. We did not have to interview people, and look through portfolios. We simply created a single document explaining what we were looking for. It took about an hour to set up. But that also meant that each of those designers did not have to interview with us. So instead of driving to a meeting, or emailing back and forth to set up a call, they simply read the brief and (if they believed they could do the job), submitted a mockup. It probably took them less time than a traditional interview, especially if they could just modify some existing art. If we liked the mockup, we could give them very direct feedback. If we didn’t, they weren’t out any more time than they would have been with an interview, but they could also add the mockup to their portfolio of available art.

      As a professional designer, let me ask you: how much do you charge for a logo? How long does it typically take to turn around? And how many iterations / designs do you present? Can you guarantee your work? Can you make it easier for us to find you? Again, you never replied to our ads, only to this post about 99designs, so that you could complain about it.

      Most of the designers I know don’t like doing logo work; they view it as a loss leader to meet new clients so they can work on other, more interesting projects. My view is that I’ll use 99designs for “simple” design work–such as logos or web pages. For larger, more complex jobs, I want someone local–someone who will bounce ideas around with me, and who can try concepts.

      I have a fantastic artist I’m working with right now. He’s great–and he’s expensive. I have no problem with paying him, because what he’s doing requires a level of expertise that is far beyond almost any designer I’ve ever met. Could he have done a logo for us? Absolutely! Would it have been great? Definitely! But it also would have cost us ten times as much, and would have delayed him from doing the work we actually need from him.

      Finally, while I appreciate your house analogy, I think it actually demonstrates the error of your argument. I know places in the US where you can buy a nice house for $10,000 or less. The people who built those houses are perfectly capable, “respected, honest contractors” who meet all US licensing requirements. They are simply building in areas with very low costs. Does that make them less professional to you? Why does the fact that they are working in a poor area diminish them in your eyes?

      That said, my impression is that a lot of the designers on 99designs create some designs, then alter them slightly to fill the needs of many different contests until they finally win with them. So it’s more analogous to a builder who builds a house, then puts it on the market, perhaps repainting it and replacing the doorknobs until it matches the needs of some buyer. In the real estate industry this is called building “on spec” and it is a very, very common practice. (Of course, once that design is sold, the designer cannot sell it again–so they cannot double-dip, but it does significantly reduce the risk to the designer.) So your math is totally off.

      From my informal look, it appears that good designers win approximately 10% of the contests they enter. If they submit each piece (perhaps with slight variations) to 10 contests before winning one, and if the average prize is $500 (or higher, since they can choose to only submit to high-prize contests), then they are making about $500 / design.

      Now, you may view $500 for a logo as “piss-poor cheap” but I disagree. And if you think that we should be paying 100 times that (as your house analogy suggests), then you are proposing we pay $50,000 for a logo. And that is completely absurd!

      But here’s where I agree with you: I am also concerned about the move to what I call a “lottery economy.” When people do not have predictable income streams, it adds to uncertainty and risk across the board. Here in Silicon Valley, many people are compensated on stock options. While I like that, it does create a strange imbalance between those who happened to work at a company that did extremely well, and those who did not. Sometimes that imbalance does not reflect the underlying abilities or experience. But it evens out in the long run.

      I know it’s frustrating when your market changes. I would simply encourage you to find more productive ways to spend your time and adapt to the shifting needs of clients. I think in the end that will work out for you far better than a Quixotic attempt to hold back the tide of change. But in the end, if you cannot respect yourself for adapting to the realities of the marketplace, then I suggest you find a new profession.