What is 99designs?
99designs allows you to run a contest for logo, webpage, business card, and more designs. Designers can sign up to participate in these contests. We recently ran a logo contest there.
How it works for logo contest runners
You select a prize amount, currently $299, $499, $799, or $1199. They suggest that you will get more and better designers if you offer larger prize amounts. They also say that guaranteeing your prize (i.e. saying you will select a winner and not request a refund) will attract more and better designers, but they didn’t email me that I could do that until halfway through the qualifying round, at which point why bother? Then you write a design brief, for which they give you a lot of great optional fields that could help people looking for designs for a wide variety of purposes.
There is a 4 day qualifying round. Designers submit initial designs with an aim to getting noticed, so look at these mostly for the ideas, basic style, and whether the designers were listening.
Then you select up to 6 finalist designers (not designs). At this point you can no longer request a refund from 99designs.
The final round gives 3 days to work with your finalists on refining designs. Some of them will be more responsive than others, so the design with the most potential at the beginning of this round may not reach its full potential by the end.
Then you have 14 days to select a winning design. You are allowed to create a poll with up to 8 designs and ask anyone to rate them. They are not required to sign in, and they may leave comments. Some comments were quite useful for us, such as how the design looked on a mobile phone.
Once you select a design, there is the formal design handover where they give you the vector graphics files and the rights to them, and you sign off that yes, you really do want to release the money to this designer. You can at this point ask for final tweaks, but I suggest you ask very nicely and be understanding if they push back.
Then you have a shiny new logo!
Quality of submissions: feedback is key
They say to expect about 30 designs for a $299 prize, and 60 for $499. When I perused recent contests, the difference between the $299 and $499 contests seemed negligible to me. Quality of results depended more on writing a clear and evocative brief, so that’s what I did. We got 72 entries from 19 designers for a $299 prize.
I was pleasantly surprised by how few of the submissions looked like they were made by a 13-year-old girl in the 80s. One designer submitted a couple of those that I rejected without comment. All other rejections I made sure to say something nice about the design and then say why it didn’t suit us. A surprising number of those resubmitted.
Most of the initial designs were pretty good (aka better than I could do). They looked, as expected, like they needed refinement. Most designers listened to about half of what I wrote in the design brief, and the rest followed almost all of it. So most of the first round feedback was making sure they stuck to the colors we wanted, didn’t focus too much on one word in the brief at the expense of the important ones, and so on. Most designers were reasonably responsive to feedback.
Issues: conversation threads
Comments on designs were treated as a conversation thread with that designer even when the designer submitted multiple distinct designs. It was impossible to find a thread pertaining to a specific design. You had to squint at the meta-info on each post in the conversation to see if it referred by number to any revision of the picture you wanted to talk about.
Issues: design revisions UI unclear
Designers enter each design separately, with no link to a previous design or comment to indicate that they have addressed your requests regarding a previous design. The revisions do have to be treated as separate designs for the contest, but it would be nice to be able to link it back. When you reject a design your only choices are “off brief”, “not to my taste”, or “not original”; there is no option for “deprecated by later revision”, so you have to eliminate it as “not to my taste” and leave a comment for the designer so they know you didn’t change your mind, but their new version suits you better. For the judge’s sake, it’s nice to be able to see when a new submission from a designer is a revision of an old submission or a completely fresh submission.
Issues: other UI issues
There are confusing generic labels on some UIs. For example, in the design handover there was a text area labeled “Comments” that didn’t make it clear where those comments go. To the designer? To 99designs? Or, conceivably, to all the contest participants? Because the page was called “design handover” and I couldn’t see another obvious way to talk to the designer, I correctly assumed they went to the designer. But there are many places in the UI where any normal person would hesitate and have to reason logically in order to figure out what the widget must do or what three places to look in order to accomplish an action.
There was no ability for contest runners to upload files as part of the design handover. We wanted to ask for a small tweak that was easier to describe visually. I described it in words as well as I could, but the designer decided to give us their email so we could send the sketch.
Issues: inconsistent emails
There was no reminder when selection neared end. This was particularly troublesome because I had been waiting for feedback from my jetsetting business partner when I fell ill for a week. I could have poked him before the contest end if they had emailed me as it neared, but instead the contest expired and I still didn’t receive an email. When I went back I was shocked, as I didn’t realize that much time had passed while I was sick. Fortunately, they allow you to resume for 24 hours in order to select your winner.
At the other end of the spectrum, I received an email from 99designs after the final round ended: “Last week you started a design brief at 99designs. If you’d started your contest then, you’d be picking the winning design today. Don’t leave it another week: launch your contest now, and we’ll feature it, free of charge.” Um…I did start my contest then. You guys should be sending me the email about how the contest just ended, which I never received. Check your email system logic, please!
Conclusion: 99designs does the job, despite non-critical issues
Despite all these issues, I would actually use 99designs again. I submitted some feedback to them on a couple items, but didn’t want to overwhelm with criticism. They’re a startup, so they probably have plans to improve a lot of things already and just don’t have the bandwidth to get it all done rapidly. Regardless, the pool of designers contains some gems, the UI is mostly fine and never broken, and we were satisfied with our logo.