Why I hate crowdsourcing and specifically, 99designs

Recently an old family friend, knowing that I run a branding agency, told me about their cousin setting up a new brand. It was for a new online publication aimed at outdoor enthusiasts, trail runners and adventure racers etc. Fantastic, such creative briefs don’t come along all the time.

They then sent me a link to the brief and it stopped me in my tracks. It was in the form of a contest on 99designs… After my initial outburst, I went home to my husband and began ranting, for what seemed to him to be for an eternity. He said, “you know, this sounds like a great blog”, looking back that was a great tactic to get me to shut up so he could ask what was for dinner!

So here I am, here to expose 99designs and why I hate crowdsourcing design.

Firstly, I just want to mention that this isn’t just a blind rant from a one-sided point of view. I met with the contest owner, Tobias at a family wedding on the weekend. He’s setting up ‘Hard as Trails’, an online adventure magazine for endurance athletes. I have his side of the story and what his experience of 99designs has been as a client too.

To explain, 99designs is like a middleman between brands and designers and by hosting competitions online for logo designs, websites and other creative work they are crowdsourcing. The designers read the brief, submit their work and then hope and pray they win the contest in order to get paid prize money. A menial amount of money I hasten to add.

This is like shopping in Asda, quantity over quality. As the client, after having to write your own brief, you will get subjected to hundreds of logo options and you’ll have to sift through all the submissions in the hope of striking gold.

For the client, this isn’t productive… generally speaking the client will not be versed in good / bad design so choosing logo designs based on what they like is tough. As designers, we don’t just paint pretty pictures for clients, we consider where the logo will be used, how it will be used, will you have to have a car wrapped, a billboard designed etc… there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes so that we can recommend the best design solution, for your brand, now and in the future. The clients using this platform are not getting the full design experience nor are they guaranteed of getting a piece of work that is fit for purpose.

Tobias explained that he found it awkward and difficult to write constructive feedback to the designers individually but that it was also hugely time consuming for him as there were so many submissions. At a time when he’s setting up a new publication, this time could be better spent on the business instead. (Not only that, many of the designs looked the same and some suspiciously looked like vector graphics on Shutterstock and other stock libraries that are available!)

For the designers out there, I find it quite difficult to eloquently explain the risk of speculative work. Quite honestly, you may as well take your rent money, head over to the casino and put it all on red or black. Would you invest time in work with no guarantee of payment? Then why is it ok to ask a designer to do it. We previously wrote about the dangers of speculative work and it’s quite a useful blog to resurrect where we talk about why we no longer do spec work.

In for a penny, in for a pound
The whole concept of crowdsourcing in the design sector to me shows a distinct lack of value for anyone’s time or expertise.

Specifically talking about Tobias, he now has several logo concepts none of which he likes yet he feels obliged to choose a winner so that someone will at least get paid. He still has a deadline and has vehicles are booked in for car wrapping but he is without a decent enough logo. He’s wasted his time and will now have to put a professional design agency under the cosh to get it done and delivered to his original brief.

Crowdsourcing also shows a distinct lack of value towards someone’s expertise. The bottom line is that good people who do good work should get paid good money. As designers, we’ve racked up student loans and years of experience at the coalface to be able to provide ideas, recommendations, solutions and a good end result for our clients. Doesn’t that mean anything anymore?

Don’t get me wrong, there are graduates and work experience students that would jump at the opportunity of working on a live brief just for the experience… and if you don’t have a big budget then the place to go would be to send your brief to your local University and offer it up to the design department. At least someone can get something useful out of it.

In summary if you value your brand/business, then invest in it. The 99designs experience has not been good for Tobias and I am going to guess it’s not been good for the 199 designers who are not getting paid for their time.

From the perspective of a design agency owner, spec work not only puts a strain on your business but your team too. By gambling on spec work and loosing revenue during the process, you put additional pressure on the team and potentially derail other paid projects that are in progress. We’ve honed our process for discovery, research, strategic design and that ensures we create something authentic and fit for purpose.

Let’s stop spec work together!

To find out more on this subject, NO!SPEC is a great website set up to educated designers and clients to share and debate stories about speculative work.