Revisiting 99Designs


I decided to pay a visit to my former “job”. I’m not sure why, maybe with the vague hope that the community there isn’t thriving much. Sadly, it still is.

I checked out one of the highest paying logo contests—$1000, 1268 entries to date, even with just one more day to go, it won’t be surprising if that number reaches at least 1500. If each design took an hour to create, that’s easily 1500 hours of unpaid work, tsk tsk tsk. Congratulations to the winner who gets $1000! But wait, there’s more… I logged in (I could still do so since they don’t delete accounts) and the price amount reflects only $700! From the discussion, it appears that 99designs takes out 30% of the total price amount, on top of all the other fees the contest holders pays. Apparently, neither the contest holders nor the designers have been informed of this. It didn’t use to be this way, maybe they’re getting greedier.

The discussion thread runs 12 pages with comments like:

“Feedback plz!”

“Please stop asking for feedback here! I give feedback throughout the day when Im awake and when Im asleep obviously Im thinking about what to say to you in the feedback!…”

“You have eliminated more than 200 logo, you know what you want???”

“Did you read the brief?”

“Stop whining!”

“Is it ok to submit a psd file?”

and so on…

Maybe some people thrive on such environments. I don’t.

Would you care to share your experience with contest sites? Did contests help or hurt your design career?

  • April 26th, 2011 /

40 Comments to “Revisiting 99Designs”

  1. Muneeb Ahmad says:

    Well I have never really used these sites before as I’m new to this industry but I have heard mostly negative things about them and after reading your posts I am glad I have thus far avoided it all. It sounds like graphics-design slave labour. All those people working away for nothing. Only 1 person out of 1500 will get that chance of being paid. Why bother when the chances of winning get smaller and smaller?

  2. John Beatty says:

    Thanks for another great post, Grace! Hopefully you might consider fleshing them out a bit more and when you get 50 or more, put together an eBook of your best posts?

    If there were only time to do a full “inside crowd-sourcing” expose!

    That could be interesting to see how the numbers worked over a years time! And what an educational book that would be…especially to ‘newbies’ to freelancing.

  3. Grace Oris says:

    Good to hear that you haven’t tried contest sites. It does seem like slave labor and designers usually aren’t treated very well by contest holders.

  4. Grace Oris says:

    Hey John. That’s actually an idea I’ve been playing around with. Sort of my contribution to the campaign against spec and how to keep new designers from getting involved in these contests and convincing those inside to get out. I’m still trying to work out the details on how to go about it.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Muneeb Ahmad says:

    Let us know if you decide to follow through, I wouldn’t mind helping out! 🙂

  6. Grace Oris says:

    Sure thing, and thank you!

  7. Brandon Moore says:

    when i was a student i won 2 contest on 99designs. the little bit of money that i made then helped a lot at the time. it even led to future work with the clients.

    i havnt been to that site in at least a year now though. i do participate in contest from time to time at crowdspring. the reason is frankly, im desperate, lol. if work slows down to where i have nothing to do and no money coming in, i take a chance. it feels like sinning, but a couple hundred bucks helps sometimes.

  8. Richard Bird says:

    The discussions here on the worlds of design crowd sourcing have started me thinking.

    I mean, why should any R.BIRD client pay $5-figures or even $6-figures for development of a brand when hundreds, if not thousands, of concepts could be seen for free?

    I’m considering *including* a crowd sourcing phase in one of our new client proposals. You know, just to “get it out of the way.”

    In other words, “Here’s what you could have seen for $150. Now, here’s what we’ve done for you at 100 times that amount. We think you’ll realize the value.”

    Compelling thought.

    The only downside to that idea is that it continues to support the crowd sourcing world with yet another contest.

  9. Kevin Powell says:

    People don’t think of how slim their chances are when they take part in these things (I know, I was one of them once). You go in thinking “I’m a good designer, I can win!” and then come up with a whole bunch of uninspired crap because, while you want to win, and think you can win, you don’t want to devote too much time just in case you don’t win.

    Overall the product the client gets sucks, the designers get shafted and the site itself rakes in tons of cash… sigh.

  10. Des Igner says:

    “1500 hours of unpaid work”


  11. Jen Lombardi says:

    Did you see the article today that 99 Designs is getting $35 million to ramp up their marketing efforts? Makes me sick.

    I recently wrote a blog post about the dangers of spec work. Check it out if you’re interested in the cause:

  12. Goldfine says:

    You should spend your time and efforts in good old fashioned marketing, sales and self promotion. Doing a self promotion piece is fun, creative, expressive and you learn a lot about yourself in the process.

    Or better- buy lotteries on a weekly basis, from what I understand, your chances are better.

  13. Goldfine says:

    I’m with you all the way! In fact I’m going to dedicate my next class to this disturbing phenomenon. Students should be wary of these lottery type contests at an early stage. I’ll be happy to contribute to your efforts.

  14. anonymouse says:

    best tweet from today on the topic :

    @jaycrimes: 99designs paid out $20mil to designers over 3 yrs & 6.5mil logos have been submitted. *Yep, $3.07 per logo

  15. Grace Oris says:

    Thank you, Goldfine. Making students aware of the damage that these contests do is a great help in the anti-spec campaign. It may sound easy winning contests when new in the field but the hard work of building a portfolio and getting experience “from scratch” will still pay better in the end.

  16. Grace Oris says:

    Now that’s a big downside 🙂 Richard, thanks for dropping by.

  17. Grace Oris says:

    Hi Jen. Yes I saw that too. It’s really frustrating. Checking out your post now.

  18. As much as I hate to say it, I think there’s a place for crowd sourcing in logo design, but it has to come with some kind of industry agreement.

    1. There is no place for a professional designer to take part in any competition. There are quite a few that do participate which keeps the quality on some comps high enough to justify the bombardment of bad entries.

    2. The ‘designers’ entering are full aware of their rights, ownership & expected payout (30% off the advertised price is ludicrous to not mention).

    3. Participants should be aware of the impact of their participation on the industry. It wasn’t until it was explained how detrimental my actions were (even as a hack designer) that I ceased participating.

    I myself started in the realm of spec (before the days it was publicly shunned) but on a much more legitimate site than 99d’s. I learn a lot about design trends which allowed me to better present my underlying concepts, at the same time as learning the software.

  19. Grace Oris says:

    Brandon, I know the feeling. Winning would make me feel good but losing always made me think I could have used my time better. I finally decided to spend any free time studying and learning new things instead.

  20. Grace Oris says:

    Thank you for commenting Nathan although I disagree. If ever crowdsourcing were positively received in the industry, the only acceptable agreement would be that ALL participants each be paid reasonable fees.

  21. Grace Oris says:

    Well said, Kevin. That’s exactly how I felt, every time.

  22. Nagaraj says:

    I agree all above comments. But It’s a good place to experiment your skills. You get to work with real projects, understand client requirements. If you win GREAT! or else try to understand your skill and improve it. So got some portfolio. It might click to some other client, who know.

  23. Faiz says:

    Most of the contest that I’m participating with are webdesigns,
    I used to only do illustrations on 99designs, but why waste my time for a 100 dollar that is not even guarantee.

    And recently what I noticed is that most of these webdesign contest are now being locked or refunded.
    While in the meantime, the designers submissions become less then what it was used to be on 99sweatshop.

    My conclusion here for is that the current designers are now fully aware, more cautious and dissatisfied with the services of unpaid slave labor and the treatments of these cheapskates “Contest Holders”
    “Contest Holders” are now also getting worse.
    They are now lazier and extremely slow with their feed backs, with their unreasonable ratings, never ending demands, bad taste and their PRINCESS attitudes.
    While they still expect people to work and churn out 50 or 100 + designs for their contest, just so they can go home, feel important to tell everyone about their rich experience in crowd sourcing.
    And when they don’t reach their expected numbers of submissions they just ask for more extensions and finally a refunds since they don’t get what they want and hey, it’s what 99designs promised them anyway.

    LOL, and so with more extensions you piss off most of the designers, they become more cautious with who they are dealing with
    and with more refunds, you’ll get more dissatisfied designers
    and with more unpaid designers, you’ll get more less submissions.

    and here’s an example of an internet drama between a butthurt “Contest Holder” and a designer

    and here’s a five star rating of bad taste THAT you should see, come quick before Jason Aiken comes here to brag and locks it.

  24. Grace Oris says:

    Nagaraj — Thanks for your visit. Yes, it can be a place to experiment and learn but that’s at the cost of devaluing both the client and yourself. You’re still better off learning from working with clients one-on-one. If you need a portfolio, do some personal projects and look for charities you can help out. Contests also tend to influence designers into creating trendy logos, not solid iconic designs that could last decades.

    Faiz — It’s always good to hear that more and more designers on these sweatshops are beginning to realize that they aren’t being treated well at all. Here’s hoping the whole contest thing dies out. Thanks for the commens and the links. Lovely discussion 🙂

  25. david angstead says:

    Hi there,
    I have also participated in a number of these,and I will say it has given me more practice-but I do see the issues in this type of website.
    It tends to feed bad design taste and make it all about the money.

    My best work has come from just being inspired and making something for my portfolio.


  26. Grace Oris says:

    Hi David. Yes, there are much better ways to learn and practice. I like your site’s name! Thanks for stopping by.

  27. Jan Monsanto says:

    Hi Grace!

    Great article by the way!

    I myself am a filipino participating on 99designs..

    Was wondering, how many contests have you entered and won there?

    Thank You

  28. Grace Oris says:

    Hi Jan,

    Thanks for stopping by. I think I entered almost 400 and won about 20 or so.

    I hope the article gets you thinking about stopping :).

  29. Karen Ayers says:

    Thank you for posting about 99 designs. I just lost another contest to a really bad design after the contest holder emailed me saying what a great job I did.

    You put everything in perspective.


  30. Grace Oris says:

    Hi Karen,

    I used to get those messages too, makes one think you were going to win. On sites like these, you really can’t get clients to trust you as a professional on what design works best for them. There’s just too many designs and designers.

  31. david delali says:

    hi Grace
    first off love your site logo and your insight… there is a lot of ranting out there but you guys seem more constructive here. Seen stuff like 1200 design for a $1000 is one of the things that made me think twice about entering such contests, although am still puzzled about how to quickly build a portfolio if you are a beginner with little connections. I think totally ruling out contests might be unreasonable since it restricts the exposure of young designers. therefore my question: Do you think there is a way to improve such websites in terms of quality for both the designer and the contest holder at all? for instance
    – change the percentage values stolen by the website to a fixed amount regardless of the reward amount say $5 or 10 from the contest holder and the winner
    – increase the minimum price a design can take in order to attract better designers (that might be a hard figure to pick)
    – fix the number of contestants and design per contest (say n randomly chosen designers where each would have a M maximum designs to submit) that way everyone will give his best shot and avoid “logo spam” etc
    – find a better way of making contest holder pay and participate regardless of them choosing a clear winner.
    I am new to this world so forgive my “limited understanding” but surely there must be a better way of doing this stuff
    ps: in dire need of cash, created an accnt on 99design but too worried of the issues around it so I don’t know which will give in first (common sense or my need of cash)

  32. Grace Oris says:

    Thanks David.

    As to your question about improving such sites, I will not venture any suggestions because I am against the basic premise of the model itself. Even if you had fewer designers vying for the prize, it’s still unpaid work for those who don’t win. The clients still won’t get the best work they can as compared to choosing to work with only one designer.

    I suggest rather that you create a portfolio from non-spec sources and it will be worth your time. Even if you were desperate for cash, chances of winning aren’t really all that good and usually turn out to be a waste of time.

    I hope this helps some 🙂

  33. Kim says:

    I have to admit I was one of the just-out-of-school designers who tried 99desigs. A little thought, and more than a few lost contests (and hours of work) later, I realized how bad the system is for everyone involved.
    Designers are out time and effort that could have been better spent elsewhere, and clients are out the great experience and product that comes from working with a single good designer. While I can’t fault 99designs for running a business, I have made it sort of a personal mission to warn other designers away from sites like it.

  34. jarbin says:

    Hi. I’m trying to become a graphic designer, but I have no idea where to begin. Any help?

  35. Grace Oris says:

    Kim, good for you!

    Jarbin, if you can, take some design courses or better yet, get a degree. Or with discipline, you can teach yourself. Read design books and practice a lot. But first, get a good grip on the basic principles. Just feel free to contact me if you want me to get into specifics 🙂

  36. Jack Rins says:

    This is like saying “Hey, don’t join American Idol – what are your chances of winning?” Or don’t join any type of contest. 99designs is a contest site so what do you expect?

    99designs can be a way of improving your skills. Think before entering or creating a design for a contest. Read the brief, can you do it, be wise.

    I enter at least 4-5 contest a month with 2-3 contest winnings – that’s every month, and earning at least $2000-$3000, sometimes additional work opportunity for me needed by the contest holder.

  37. John Beatty says:

    That’s a great win ratio, Jack.

    You definitely are beating the odds game of winning these contests.

    Care to share some of your winning designs from what you entered and where they are being used? A link to your portfolio or something? (I did google your name to see if you already had a site of work, but didn’t find a hit.)

    Sounds like you should be able to walk away and get work from clients seeking you without taking shots in the dark with your enter/win percent, and charge what you want, not what the contest might pay.

  38. Ngadi says:

    Hi Grace,
    I haven’t read all the comments on this post, but did read most on the post entitled “How I quit working for 99Designs …”. That post made me stop and think …as a client.

    I was researching reviews on some of the crowd design sites when I came across your blog and saw the validity of your argument against these sites. As a result I’m choosing not to use their services but seek out a designer/client relationship instead.

    Thank you for enlightening me and I wish you and other professional designers best of luck in turning this trend around.


  39. B.Chung says:

    I agreed some of the points all your guys mentioned from above, there are pros and cons from 99designs. I played a couple times, doing for days to design in hope the chances for winning, but it turned out the organizer choose the crappy one to put in the final list.
    Secondly, what ignored me the most is organizer didn’t provide detail of what they want, and they want to involve their ideas and order you what to do.
    ” ok, I want my new design similar to XYZ restaurant”, and attached a pdf of XYZ restaurant’s design in design brief. It turns out designers are tend to copy XYZ design just because the organizer want to look like that. Let be honest, some organizer’s ideas already tell you, that particular design and color they want is not going to work well for public eyes, but they still want to.
    The positive side, I use 99 designs only to bring my motivations or let myself accept some challenges. If you look at the winner’s submission and winning list, it is about ratio between 1:6.

  40. Todd says:

    I use them all the time as a designer. Its the american way. Im lazy so I post projects on my clients behalf and get free cheap labor and ideas and do none of the work myself.. Its the american way to farm out overseas for cheap labor.. right ?? I charge my clients 300 to 1K and I only pay 100 for the designs .. its a gold mine ..