A Designer in Support of Design Contests


15 years ago, you couldn’t even BEGIN to look for a house without a real estate agent (who takes 6-7% of the purchase price from the buyer). Today, the internet has changed that. 10 years ago, someone starting a small business had to eat a cost of thousands of dollars to get a solid looking logo– often more if they didn’t want to roll the dice on just using a solo designer (of if their first designer didn’t create something that they loved). Today, a small business can get dozens of designers working in a public forum for $500. I think that’s AWESOME. But like real estate, there are casualties. And, like real estate, there is anger. But to me, “transactional design” (the kind of design that can take a few hours to net a good product and doesn’t require a lot of consultation) is an inevitable casualty of the global economy and the evolution of the internet (see 99Designs).

It’s a Global Village Now

I was in India for 3 weeks last year and was STUNNED at the cost of labor. We rode in taxis for the entire trip and spent less on them than the 1 way trip home from the airport in Seattle. Talented tailors would throw in manpower of tailoring a shirt if you just bought the cloth. If it’s unfair to pay $500 for a logo, was it unfair for me to pay Indian market rates for a taxi ride (usually less than a buck or two)?

The $300 bounty for a winning logo design is a kings ransom for a young designer in most of India (and the rest of the world). Guess what, Western world? You’ve got to compete– and Walmart has taught us over and over again that consumers aren’t going to pay 10% more (much less the 1000% more that an onshore hourly designer would cost) just so they can feel good. Some of them will- but most of them won’t. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle here. You’re better off trying to find creative ways to compete than bemoaning the unfairness of it all– it’s like a cottage seamstress complaining about the existence of the new textile factory down the road– technology changes markets.

For a rural Indian designer, entering 10 contests per week and winning one for $500 might be a huge win (and he doesn’t have to write a single proposal!). And that designer might be damned talented. How different is this than a services business investing $500k in sales effort on 10 different $10m RFPs and ultimately winning one? In fact, isn’t this just a different sales investment/risk than costly networking, proposal writing, advertising, etc., etc? Heck, the designer doesn’t even have to issue a Net-30 invoice– 99Designs drops the money to the winner pretty instantly.

So I’m assuming that the gripe with design contests isn’t that people are getting paid LESS than they used to, but rather that they could get paid NOTHING even after expending the time and effort of producing a logo. Which brings me to my next point:

Whether you are a Business or Freelancer – getting paid requires that you risk time and money.

If you want paying work without spending time/money or taking risks, you should go find a job with a paycheck.

My first business (a technology consultancy) was CONSTANTLY investing staggering amounts of money and time to get customers…. We had sales guys, who made healthy base salaries and some commissions. We went to networking events to establish relationships with people who could be customers someday. We took existing clients to lunch to chat about projects on the horizon. We sent out custom holiday cards to every client every year to keep us visible. We built and maintained a web site with a rich and updated portfolio. We had snazzy business cards that had to be kept up to date. We had really nice business clothes for the clients that cared about such things. We cooked up gorgeous custom proposal documents for customers– and these proposals required considerable analysis work and consultation with the customer (spec work!). We even responded to RFPs sometimes (rarely). All of these efforts can come up empty, of course. Many of them did, but in aggregate, my business grew like gangbusters. Software is no different. I heard that Salesforce.com spends 60-70% of their topline on sales/marketing. Much of that is probably wasted, but I’m sure they are in a constant state of making their marketing spend more efficient (just like 99Design entrants are probably in a constant state of gauging the kinds of contests that will net them the most bang for their effort).

In short, getting paying work cost TONS of time, money, and risks (how many freelancers do you know who average 100% billability in a 40 hour work week over a year?).

If you are a fresh-off-the-boat designer (or a rural one), you should expect your costs and risk here to be higher than if you’re not. You’ll have to invest more and get less as you build up relationships, your skills, and a portfolio. If there are too many designers eager for work (as I believe there are right now– the design world is NOT growing as fast as were churning out design grads), the market is going to make this harder for you. Don’t like markets? Get a paycheck-job or go learn Ruby on Rails (then you can fall out of bed and land on 2-3 lucrative freelance offers).

The nature of design

The best work general comes from seasoned professionals who engage in a deep discovery process, run through a lot of iterations, and work closely with the client. That being said, you can see flashes of brilliance without all of this, especially in the world of “transactional design”. Some of the stuff on 99Designs is GOOD. For a logo, book cover, or smallish web site design (especially for a smallish business) the difference in value received between a $30,000 engagement and a $500 contest is not worth $29,500. In fact, the contest might (on some occasions) yield better results faster. Even if it doesn’t, it’s CERTAINLY faster and can help with brainstorming. From a purely economic point of view, rolling the dice with a contest is a quick experiment to run that might yield exceptional results. I could design a good from-the-hip book cover in a few hours and it MIGHT be great… Design can be random and certain design tasks are 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration rather than the inverse. The bigger the design project, the less this is true, obviously. Again, I think logos (for small businesses) is the sweet spot.

Supply & Demand

As a business, we try to be as fair as possible with vendors, but we’re in business to be profitable. If I look at the winning designs on 99Designs and I generally like them more as much as any designer’s portfolio, is eschewing the cheaper option really the way to go? Paying bottom dollar prices CAN mean that someone somewhere is being exploited. I’ve seen no evidence that the 99Designs designers are exploited however, though it’s obvious that there are designers with higher costs of living in the US who simply can’t compete on transactional design services.

If you answered “yes, as a matter of principal” to the last question, how do you feel about internships (unpaid or crappy pay)? How do you feel about buying sneakers that were made in a Chinese factory with awful working conditions (check your feet, please)? How do you feel about the fact that the average Google employee generates over $1m per year in revenue but gets paid less than 10% of that #? Shopping for the best dollar-to-value ratio generally means that someone gets a disproportionate cut of the wealth in the transaction (even just a little bit)… Though are Google employees really getting screwed? Is an Indian designer getting screwed if she’s pulling down $20k year on 99Designs? And where is the outrage about things like iStockPhoto? Or 99Designs’ Logo Store? Is responding to a clear need in a design contests for a speculative chance at pay really that different from a photographer tossing up a speculative photo on iStockPhoto and hoping that someone might eventually buy it? The ones that have great photos make a ton of money. The ones that suck probably need to take photography classes. Heck, is it really that much different from my startup, where I spent a big (expensive) chunk of my live to launch something hoping that someone would want to buy it? Isn’t a startup in the “spec-work” category?

Design contests are a meritocracy in the extreme– good designers can probably make good money and (with a track record of winning and a great portfolio), eventually graduating to less-speculative lead generation if they so desire (though I bet GREAT designers could net thousands a day on 99Designs). Bad ones don’t and have to seek other marketing avenues or other lines of work. Again, welcome to business. Given the huge number of designers that enter contests OVER AND OVER again, clearly many have decided that they’d rather roll those dice than roll the dice associated with RFPs, Adwords, hiring salesfolks and other lead-generation efforts.

These are just some thoughts. As a designer, I’ve never done spec work (unless proposals count– they probably should). As a business, I’ve never asked for it… But from either side of the table, I’m not sure I have an ethical problem with it. So from one (admittedly kinda mediocre) designer to the rest of you– how are design contests “damaging” designers beyond the way that Google News is “damaging” newspapers?

About the author


  • Definitely agree with the post. As a believer in markets in general, people who try and prevent market conditions from evolving are just delaying the inevitable. Every day as technology changes the landscape it's going to be harder and harder for people set in the old mindsets to adapt to the new markets. They'd be better served improving their skillsets or marketing themselves than complaining about encroaching undercutters. Let their work speak for itself.

    By the way, there was definitely outrage in the old-guard photography industry around iStock and the bunch.

  • Glad to see this discussion/debate continue. I think better business models will leverage the forces behind crowdsourcing in more sustainable (and less concerning) ways… A few thoughts on the matter in this BusinessWeek op-ed that I would add to the debate: http://bit.ly/a5fnlQ

  • Hey Scott– Great article! Thanks for passing it on. I'd LOVE to see the
    survey you mentioned sent to 99Designs' designers to get some richer data.
    I think you probably surveyed your userbase (who I imagine are the cream of
    the crop, professionally speaking).

    (big fan of Behance, by the way!)

    I'd be interested to know if you think a logo design contest with a $100k
    prize would be “exploitive”. If not, then I think we need to look at the
    economics for the people who are participating here (which I'm guessing are
    aspiring designers and low-end designers in places where a $500 bounty is a
    ton of money). To me, whether it's spending $10,000 of worth of time and
    money whipping up a great proposal for a shot at a huge project or spending
    2 hours tossing a logo together for a $500 contest, the ethics of it come
    down the the risk/reward. Are design contests imposing too much painful
    risk on a population of people who have no choice but to endure it? I just
    don't think that's the case outside of the (very rich) western countries.

    Regardless, I've only met happy customers who've used 99Designs for
    “transactional” work (like logos or small, discrete projects). And clearly
    they have a steadily growing base of participating designers. When you have
    satisfied workers and happy customers, the genie isn't going back into the
    bottle. It's sad for the US, but a big win for the rest of the world and
    (of course) the people who need to buy transactional stuff like this and are
    on a tight budget. I think the place where pro designers can offer the most
    value (broader campaigns, rich/full identity packages, and of course
    interactive stuff) will probably be relatively unscathed.

    Tony Wright, founder of http://rescuetime.com

    http://blog.rescuetime.com (company blog)
    http://tonywright.com (personal blog)

  • “The forces that enable crowdsourcing are being used to get thousands of people to do work for free, with a chance of getting paid only if their work is selected for use.”

    I don't understand this argument. What makes freelance designers think they're entitled to be paid on a per design or per hour basis rather than a spec basis?

    Plenty of other businesses operate on business models where they do a bunch of work and only get paid some of the time. I don't understand the mentality of exceptionalism held by designers that makes them think they're different.

    The bottom line is that the difference between a business owner and an employee is that the employee gets paid no matter what, while the owner risks doing a bunch of work and not getting paid. Freelance designers, who are basically business owners, insisting on getting paid no matter what want to have their cake and eat it too.

  • Hi Tony,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. However, I would add that the design market is growing in sophistication and there is growth at the middle and the top end. Designers, especially in the US, need to elevate their game and clearly demonstrate value in order to justify the higher cost.

    UI/UX design is a great example of design that is not particularly transactional, is in great demand and ultimately for the savvy businesses that are seriously thinking about it – is worth the spend.


  • That point (the sophistication point) is a GREAT one.

    This isn't going to kill the design market any more than off-shoring is
    going to kill the need for developers. But it is going to require designers
    to up their game as the transactional stuff moves offshore. Need a quick
    logo for a new business? 99Designs is the answer. Need a WordPress.com
    blog set up? eLance.com might be the answer.

    But much of design and coding is iterative, ongoing, and requires a deep
    discovery process. That's VERY hard to offshore.

  • That point (the sophistication point) is a GREAT one.

    This isn't going to kill the design market any more than off-shoring is
    going to kill the need for developers. But it is going to require designers
    to up their game as the transactional stuff moves offshore. Need a quick
    logo for a new business? 99Designs is the answer. Need a WordPress.com
    blog set up? eLance.com might be the answer.

    But much of design and coding is iterative, ongoing, and requires a deep
    discovery process. That's VERY hard to offshore.

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