99 Designs is a web-based service that provides a place for people to post “contests” in which designers can compete by creating designs for the contest briefs. The contest creator picks the winner, who gets paid for their work. The perceived benefit for the person or business creating a contest is that they get to choose from dozens of possible designs. The supposed benefit for the designers is that they can get their work in front of a bunch of potential clients and get paid. This is what we refer to as “spec work” (speculative work), and professional designers frown upon it. The practice is bad for the people participating and bad for our industry as a whole.
I’ve made it a topic of discussion in my Design Issues class the past few times I’ve taught it. Lately, 99 Designs has been advertising on the TWIT network, and it pains me every time I hear Leo Laporte lauding the benefits. Let’s do a little math.
99 Designs boasts that they have a “community” of 293,556 designers. They also advertise that they made $2,229,376 in payouts to those designers last month. Wow, over two million! This must be a great way for designers to make some dough. Let’s say every one of their designers was equally successful. That would be $7.59 per designer. I don’t think I could live on that for a month. Of course, it’s not paid out equally. Only the designers that win get paid anything. So, what is actually happening is that there are a whole bunch of designers that make absolutely nothing in a month and a relative few that make several hundred dollars. A large project, like a significant website design, may pay a few thousand, but for those, you are competing against over 100 entries. The odds of winning a contest are slim. The odds of consistently winning contests are even slimmer. Any designer is going to end up doing a lot of work that they don’t get paid for in the hopes that the next one will be their lucky day. That’s no way to make a living. It sounds more like a gambling addiction.
So, it’s not so good for the designers. What about the clients? Well, if you are really just looking for something cheap, because you can’t afford to hire a professional, then yes, this will benefit you. But know this: a professional designer is going to work to understand your needs thoroughly and tailor a solution that is specific to you, your organization, your product, etc. If it’s a book cover, they’re going to read the book, not just work off of a couple paragraphs that give a high level overview. If it’s a logo, they are going to work closely with you over the entire course of the project, not just “polish the designs over 7 days”, as is stated on the 99 Designs homepage. They aren’t going to make decisions solely based on what they think you are going to like, but consider all of the variables that will make the artifact being designed more or less successful. When you hire a professional designer, you are going to benefit from a process through which you will develop a meaningful, rewarding designer-client relationship.
Before participating in 99 Designs or one of the similar spec work services, I encourage you to read Grace’s article, How I Quit Working for 99Designs, Crowdspring and Mycroburst. Also, see AIGA’s position on spec work and NO!SPEC, a site devoted to educating the public about spec work.