99designs scam explained: Why ‘design contests’ don’t generate effective design.

On the surface, it’s easy to understand why design contests can seem like a good bargain for business owners. They offer a unique opportunity to receive designs from (potentially) dozens of different contestants, all motivated by a single cash prize. However, there’s a reason that ’99designs scam’ is something that people often Google before they launch a design contest. It’s not just the threat of tricks, ripoffs, or fraud involved that makes people hesitate when it comes to design contests. Many prospective clients I speak with want to know if a design contest is a good fit for their needs. Do they produce good results, or are they too good to be true?

Many people seeking design expect that for the right person, with the right expectations and skills, a design contest can work. But after I explain the pros and cons of running a design contest, the majority of people I speak with choose to go with a more traditional solution instead of a design contest.

The 99designs Scam

The 99designs scam isn’t limited to the threat of being robbed by an anonymous online stranger. There are many issues that prevent design contest websites from generating the ‘good design’ that they claim to produce. If you start a design contest with the expectation of getting a great design, prepare to be scammed. Poor communication between contest holders and contestants, language and cultural barriers, and low overall quality of work (at times even outright intellectual property theft) all play a role. Let’s dive in and paint a nice, clear picture of the 99designs scam in action, and why it’s better to work with a reputable design agency like (shameless plug) Ripley Studios.

I: Communication Issues

The hardest part of my job isn’t sketching logo comps, wire-framing out websites, or coding CSS. Most of the challenge in being a great designer lies in the expertise that it takes to translate a client’s needs into a well-positioned brand that will resonate with the right audience. To do that takes an exceptional understanding of the business in question, the market that business competes in, and the audience that business is trying to engage with. I ask a lot of questions throughout the design process. Great design takes great communication, and asking the right questions is a huge part of creating a great brand.

99designs Scam #1: Weak communication tools.
The communication options on most design contest websites are limited at best.

On design contest websites, options for communication are extremely limited. Usually, a contest holder will have space to give a brief overview of what they’re looking for, and that’s about it. There’s no medium for two-way communication to take place, so there’s no way for contestants to ask questions or collaborate with the contest holder. Any mutual understanding between designers and their clients is impossible in a design contest, so creating effective design work is impossible as well.

Language & Cultural Barriers

If a lack of proper communication tools isn’t enough, consider that design contest websites draw contestants from all over the world. While most business seek to target a local audience, contestants from places like India, Indonesia, and Pakistan do not have a good understanding of American or Western culture. Many speak only limited amounts of English, and turn to Google Translate to help, which can produce mixed results.

This leads to a multitude of issues, from smaller mistakes like misspelled content (I’ve even seen logos with misspelled brand names come out of design contests!) to a complete misinterpretation of the project (think asking for apples and getting bananas instead). To build a successful brand, a designer must understand the context that brand will be viewed in. Such an understanding is not possible without a deep knowledge of the culture that brand will be a part of.

II: Design Misconceptions & Missteps

Many of my clients are experts in highly specialized fields. When someone launches a design contest, they stray away from their area of expertise, and take on the roll of creative director in charge of the contest. Design contest websites assume that contest holders know exactly what they’re looking for, and exactly how to get it through highly effective creative direction. The problem here is, contest holders are experts in their highly specialized fields, but not in branding or design! I mentioned earlier that translating a client’s needs into a well-positioned brand is the hardest part of my job. It is my highly specialized field. On a design contest website, you’re the one in charge of that part of the job. I can speak from experience when I say that most of my clients aren’t ready to take on that role. They appreciate my guidance and expertise when it comes to branding for exactly that reason.

99designs Scam #2: ineffective design.
Which of these logo options is right to represent the “Miss Oops” brand? I would suggest that none of them are, and that “Miss Oops” is not a great naming choice either.

“All we need is X.”

Another common misconception that design contest websites spread is that a company’s needs can be filled by many different designers in piecemeal fashion. This is not only a 99designs scam, but is common outside design contest websites as well. Designers often hear “All we need is a logo,” or “All we need is a postcard design,” from their prospective clients. Sometimes, it really is true, and all a business needs is X. More often than not though, a company will need X, Y, Z, W, and V to connect with their target audience effectively. Great brands aren’t built on just a logo or just a postcard design, they’re the result of a great brand identity system. It isn’t always obvious, but a single element like a logo represents only one part of the way your brand is perceived by your audience. Design contest websites want you to believe otherwise. They know that creating a great brand takes great communication, expertise, and planning, and they know that isn’t something that they can provide.

III: Poor Quality, Legal Issues, and Fraud

The design contest business model is built on the premise of choice. And in some ways, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Design contests do get a lot of entries, it’s just that those entries aren’t always the most original, or even aesthetically pleasing, let alone effective.

While it’s true that there are a lot of people that enter design contests, I wouldn’t necessarily call those people designers. The word design means, “A process of creative customization that is driven by purpose, planning, and intention.” The fact that someone can operate Photoshop at a basic level does not make them a designer. But that won’t stop them from entering a design contest. Taking a ‘shotgun’ approach and submitting the same design to contest after contest does not make someone a designer. But, it does happen every day at design contest websites. Someone’s ability to rip off someone else’s work and pass it off as their own does not make that person a designer. That’s fraud, not to mention illegal. And, due to the way most design contest websites’ copyright agreements are written, your business will be the one on the hook for damages, not the ‘designer’ (read: thief). These are all too common examples of the low-quality piece of the 99designs scam in action. They are the clearest reasons why you should stay away design contest websites.

If design contests don’t work, what does?

The bottom line is, real, professional designers don’t participate in design contests. Professional designers know all about the 99designs scam, and they know that contests don’t work. If you’re looking for great design, a better solution is to hire an experienced, reputable design agency. Professional designers are experts who love what we do. We are ready to answer your questions, and we want to make your design project easy, rewarding, and successful. If that sounds good to you, skip the design contest, and give Ripley Studios a call. We can’t wait to hear from you, whether you just need some free advice, or a whole new brand.

About the Author

Nathan Ripley's portrait

Nathan Ripley is owner and creative director of Ripley Studios, a Lakewood, Colorado graphic design agency. He has a B.A. in graphic design from Carthage College, and has more than five years experience working in the field. Ripley Studios is available for hire by companies seeking to disrupt, outcompete, and increase revenue through exceptional design.

8 comments on “99designs scam explained: Why ‘design contests’ don’t generate effective design.”

  • Renato Pires
    says:

    On August 4, 2015

    “There aren’t a whole lot of real, professional designers that participate in design contests. If you’re looking for a professional level of design, you’re going to (at best) have a tough time finding it on a site like 99designs.”

    There are lot’s of crap in 99designs… that is for shure! But they usually clean that ones after a period.
    Why are freelance designers (like you) a great choice?!?! there are lot’s of freelancers that are really bad!! that is not only in 99designs! A great designer is a great designer and there are lot’s of them in 99designs.
    I agree with all the things that you have written, except that part!
    I agree that 99designs is not the best way to communicate, and design is all about communication, and know client’s needs, but for some tasks, that is a great choice! 🙂

    Regards

    • On October 8, 2015

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      You’re right that there are a few good designers on contest sites, as well as many bad ones. So what gives a good independent designer or agency an advantage over a good designer on a contest site? I would put a lot of stock into the idea that effective design takes communication and planning. While you may end up with work that is aesthetically pleasing from a design contest, it isn’t going to be very effective, because that crucial communication and planning can’t take place.

      Also worth mentioning is that it takes a lot of effort to implement design. Contest websites doesn’t offer the kind of working relationship between designers and clients that is necessary for proper implementation of major projects. For some businesses, that isn’t a problem, particularly if all they’re looking for is something quick and simple. For others, it’s another dealbreaker that they don’t necessarily know about until it’s too late!

    • Damien
      says:

      On December 10, 2015

      You are insane, The best designers don’t participate in 99designs.

      • On December 10, 2015

        Well, you said it, not me!

        I will agree with Renato that there are a few talented (but misguided) artists on 99designs. That said, they usually don’t last long. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the 99designs scam in action and head for higher ground. Professional designers do not compete in design contests!

      • Gregory
        says:

        On December 17, 2015

        This is true.
        Firstly, I was curious about having my logo designed on 99desings, but after going through some reviews I backed off.
        This blog posts opened my eyes, in combination with http://logoinsider.com/. Thank you for sharing the truth, insted of praising the damn site for affiliate commissions. I can not express express enough the value you provide for readers!

        • On December 17, 2015

          You’re very welcome, I’m glad I could help.

  • "designer
    says:

    On March 21, 2016

    why should not design professionals compete in contests? are they affraid of losing.
    look mate you should calculate that maybe a good designer lives in a third world country and 200$ prize is the salary of 2 months for him
    by your judgement artists get payed high and if not theyre not artists.
    cmon dude even artists should earn for living their life and trust me i have seen plenty of artists on design contest sites like 99designs.
    if you say these sites should e more selective on who they accept as a designer i might agree with you but for the rest
    its complete bs. sorry for being that honest

    • On March 22, 2016

      Of course we compete! Design firms compete against each other on the open market every day. A prospective client will work with whatever design firm they see the most value in. I think the fact that we’ve been in business for over 5 years speaks for itself in that regard. To distill my argument against 99designs down into one sentence: “Effective design takes more communication, understanding, and research than a platform like 99designs can provide.”

      The message behind this post isn’t about “being scared to compete,” the competition is much tougher out in the wild than it is at 99designs. And it isn’t about blaming artists like you for doing what you’re doing either, because if I were in your shoes, I would probably do the same thing. What I’m saying here is that 99designs and the ‘design contest’ model itself is not conducive to creating good design. It just doesn’t work, and that’s not your fault, it’s theirs.

      And about that $200 prize you mentioned—99designs charges a contest holder a minimum of $300 for their lowest level contest. They take that extra $100 out of your pocket and put it in theirs, and a lot more of that money should be yours for the disproportionate amount of work you’re doing. They’re a bad place for business looking for effective design, but believe me, they’re even worse for designers looking to make a living.

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