99designs: Hacks and Cheapskates unite!

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99designs: Hacks and Cheapskates unite!

So recently, a rather bold individual walked into our offices and proclaimed how 99designs has made our jobs obsolete, and now any company can get top-quality designs at bargain basement pricing. How true is his claim?

For those who don’t know, 99designs works this way:

  • You the client have a project. You upload your brief and your budget to 99designs (your budget may not even be enough to rent a motel room for a night)
  • Thousands of designers can compete, uploading designs for you to review
  • You choose from a bunch of entries, maybe even hundreds, possibly thousands, and provide feedback
  • You pick whichever one you like best, and pay the designer

Sounds great doesn’t it? Finally, a way to avoid shelling out thousands of dollars to a designer or firm, and a way to get exactly what you want.

Why it’s bad for designers

For ethical and sustainability reasons, spec work is bad for the design industry. Designers do not sell products, they sell their time creating products. In other words, the service of designing. This is similar to how lawyers do not sell successfully won cases, they sell their time preparing and consulting with their client with the hopes of winning said case.

To ask a designer, who would normally charge money by the hour or by the project, to give away free design work “competing” to win a project is like asking a carpenter to build you a chair with the hopes of getting paid if you like it. Would you pull 8 hours of shift work with the hopes that you would get paid if your employer is pleased with your performance?

99designs is bad for the design industry as a whole because it cheapens the profession, literally and figuratively. It perpetrates the notion that graphic design (web design etc.) is easy, and all you need is the right software and a ‘good eye’ to be able to do it effectively. The fact of the matter is, good design is not easy. More than just making nice-looking graphics, it requires problem solving ability, strategic thinking, knowledge of business, communication skills, knowledge of art history and popular culture to name a few skills. Good designers require years of training and work-experience to hone their craft and be able to deliver strong, effective design.

Therefore, to poison a clients’ mind with the idea that it is simply a matter of splashing digital paint on a computer screen and letting them decide which option they want to pay for destroys the credibility and profitability of our profession. By the way, did I mention that the budgets on 99designs are horrendously low? If a professional designer were to actually take the proper amount of time to work on any given project, at these prices, they would make more money flipping burgers.

You may ask why so many designers even bother if there is no money in it. I will explain that next.

Why it’s bad for clients

One might say that it is the designers’ choice whether or not he wants to take part in a design competition website like 99designs, and so you can hardly fault the clients for wanting cheap work if there is a professional designer out there willing to give it away.

Let me explain this with a question; What would your initial feeling be if you were to walk in a pawn shop and see what appears to be a high-quality item priced for less than 1% of what it would cost in a store? If you said you would think it’s stolen or counterfeit, then my point has been made.

So who are these people out there giving away their services for free in the hopes of getting paid, and how can they afford to feed themselves canned chick peas, let alone enjoy a comfortable living? I would put them in the following categories, and keep in mind, the term ‘designer’ is used loosely:

1) The Kid

A whiz with Photoshop and Corel Draw, this mid-pubescent designer works in the safe comfort of his parents basement and uses the competitions as a way to kill time between rounds of Unreal Tournament, and hone his understanding of lens flare effects. He’s using the 99designs projects in his portfolio to apply for design college where he will actually learn about graphic design. Is this who you want designing your corporate identity?

2) The Mass Producer

This designer believes it’s all a numbers game. She has built up such a massive library of design templates over the years, that to submit for a competition is like pulling out 2 year old Halloween candy from a barrel and dumping a handful into a new treat bag. There is no strategy, uniqueness or customized problem solving here. Just stock icons, textures and illustrations with “YOUR NAME HERE” replaced with… your actual company name. So much for “the best possible design to meet your needs”, as stated on the 99designs website.

3) The Hack

This designer just plain sucks. Having a slight understanding of design software but no understanding of design, this guy makes countless amateur mistakes like squished-type or vertically stacked words, and overused 3-D effects like drop shadows, reflections and lens flare. To him, typography is a study of maps, kerning has something to do with corn on the cob, and Paul Rand makes a brand of guitars or something. This designer needs 99designs because frankly, he couldn’t get a job designing popsicle-stand signs for the neighborhood kids even if he was paid in frozen Kool-aid. The children would just point and mock.

4) The Thief

This designer knows what good design is, but just doesn’t have the skill or patience to actually do it himself. So he finds good examples of design and rips it off. From awards galleries to Wordpress Themes, no lovely design is safe from his money-grubbing hands. What you think is an amazing design for your company brand is actually already in use by someone else, maybe even your competitor. You may not find out right away, but your customers sure will. You’ve just paid for counterfeit goods.

Okay, while I’ve clearly had too much fun writing these description, I think the point should be clearly evident; Just because in your opinion, the designs look professional on 99designs, it does not mean it is. Anyone who told you that 99designs is the same as hiring a design company or professional freelancer is simply wrong.

Professionals take time to understand your business problem. They research, they brainstorm, they get inspired, they concept and sketch before they even open Photoshop. Their finished work is not just attractive - it is original, it’s customized for you, and it strategically communicates your message to your target audience in a way that will make them remember you and buy from you. They may actually create work that you do not personally like, but unbeknown to you is precisely on target and will be effective. In fact, a professional designer could, and should challenge your perception of what good is.

Closing arguments

In many ways, I don’t envy clients. When shopping for design, they are being asked to spend money before they’ve seen a finished piece. They are buying in faith that the finished product will be good. Sure 99designs is tempting because it gives you multiple design options quickly and cheaply. Don’t be fooled. You’re better off going to a local design school (community or private college) and at least giving the students some experience. The results will probably even be better.

Especially if you are a company with a proper amount of marketing money, don’t be cheap. Hire a reputable designer or firm who will work with you. Pay them for their work. Remember that most successful companies—from Fortune 500’s to locally-owned private companies—have used good design to get to where they are. Rest assured, they did not use 99designs.