99designs sucks

Let’s not beat around the bush, 99designs sucks for clients, designers and illustrators.

I’ve been registered on 99designs for a few years but never really participated in anything until recently. My thinking was that it can’t really be ALL bad if people are actually participating. Soon I felt on my own skin how bad this model really is.

Where did 99designs come from?
Equity Media

I’ve heard A LOT about how it sucks in the past but never really read up about it myself. In 2008 99designs was derived from an older contest model named SitePoint. Basically they changed the fact that the client pays up front so the money is guaranteed for the designer, which really isn’t true. The designer can still end up without the money but more on that later.

Their first customer was Equity Media. I couldn’t find anything substantial about the company other than a Wikipedia article. If it indeed is the same company, they went belly up. Better yet they changed the logo before they did.

In 2011 they became the biggest graphic design marketplace in the world.  They started paying out more than 1 million dollars per month on average. Consider they take from 20% – 50% on every commission. I’m assuming that million is the number they actually paid out. Now my math isn’t the best but as far as I calculated they made anywhere from $250.000 to $625.000 per month. And that amount kept growing and growing. Solid business model for them I guess.

Spec work

99designs is speculative work. There is no way around that and nothing the site management or marketing department says can change that. Spec work is creative work that is submitted by artists to clients before they secure their work and equitable fees. There’s normally no contracts between the client and artist because the artist fails to protect himself. Consequently, the artist loses his legal rights to his own work by entering the contest.

Spec work is bad for multiple reasons but the most jarring one is that the artist works for free. In the case of 99 design you basically do the work in the hopes that you will get paid for it, while your chances are usually slim.

There is also the possibility that no one actually wins in the competition. The client deposits money to 99deisngs, collects concepts and ideas then has the money refunded. Why is this bad? Well, they are then free to hire any other designer on the cheap to recreate ideas they saw on the site.

Bad for the design industry

The way 99designs and similar site’s model is built anyone can contribute designs. Consequently, there is flood of inferior designs that drown out the good entries. There is also the problem of stealing and stock designs. A lot of designs on the site are basically stolen. Designers keep pumping out designs fast in the hopes of one winning. So the model is based on quantity not quality. That results in an oversaturation of generic designs.

Even though it’s against 99designs policy to use stock images and vectors, a lot of contributed designs feature them. 99designs has no way of policing for stolen or stock images other than the community reporting these offenders. A lot are reported but a lot slip through the cracks. So the client doesn’t really get a unique design but a design featuring stolen images or images that can be featured in thousands of other designs. I’ve even seen people submitting images with Shutterstock watermarks still on the image.

The client is usually not a design expert (if he would be, he wouldn’t host a design contest) and has no clue what a good design actually is. They judge the design based solely on looks. While the design needs to be visually appealing there is so much more to designing than just making the design look good. So a lot of the time winning designs are visually pleasing (sometimes not even that) but generic or unfitting for the client.

Bad for the entire industry

The way the contests are hosted, there is basically no communication between the client and the designer. Because of the sheer volume of designers participating that would be impossible anyway. The briefs are usually well… brief and not in depth enough.

Sometimes clients have no clue what they want but are determined they want the logo to incorporate certain features even if they make no sense, acting like a creative director.

I tried designing a mascot for a German company. They gave very little information on what they actually need other that they were a company that organizes teambuilding events (they didn’t even post a website link or logo from the start). So after knowing very little I designed a coach like ant character. Why? Ants are really the best example of teamwork. Every ant has its own job to. If everyone contributes the nest thrives. I thought it was a fitting symbol. Some other designers also went with animal themes. Then we got this response:

“Hi, if you look at the proposed designs, no one matches somehow my company. Sorry – We have nothing to do with animals.”

I guess that’s why Nesquik and most cereals use animal mascots. THERE ARE BUNNIES IN MY COCOCA! All joking aside that is the close minded mentality most clients have.

So why is this bad for the entire industry? Well, it means the market is saturated with logos and designs that really do not represent the company in a way they should. While an individually hired designer will meet the client or at least have a video conference to talk about the design, get ALL the information he needs and guide the client through the design process, 99designs model really doesn’t support more than clients sending messages like the one above.


If you own a company and need design work done, be it a logo, mascot, editorial, or any other kind, scout out a designer. Browse that designer’s website and determine if he would be capable to design what you need. Remember, what you want may not always be what you need. Stay clear of contest websites because you will usually get inferior work. If you are short on money it would be good practice to post an offer on a design school’s board and hire a design student. They will work for cheap because they are looking for references but they are qualified enough to do solid work.

I guess there is no harm in participating if you have some spare time but on a whole designers should stop submitting to these sites. They devalue actual design work and clients tend to think they will get a lot of bang for their buck but in reality the good designs rarely get chosen.

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