Why 99 Designs is bad for everyone (except the guy who owns 99 Designs)

branding melbourne

The Big Changes in Branding.

In my time working in the design and branding industry (some 25 years) the internet has been the single greatest thing we’ve seen. At the start of my career Apple launched their first Mac computer, the first step in a revolution for our industry. However, that revolution still pales into second place when compared to the many amazing advantages the web has delivered for business and those of us who work with or buy from them – which is just about everyone.

One of the benefits of the web is the opening up of marketplaces to the world, and this plays-out in professional services as much as it does in other categories. This global marketplace has created some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to access the best talent from anywhere, to provide inspiration and information, reference and research simply and efficiently. The global marketplace has also brought price tension into virtually every category it has touched, and those few who have remained immune will likely find the clock ticking for them in the near future also.

In the ‘Branding’ industry we have seen the introduction and growth of web sites like 99 Designs (think Airtasker for graphic designers). On the surface these offers seem like a win/win, democratising graphic design services for clients and designers alike, cutting out the ‘fat cat’ middle men for the benefit of all. However, after a decade of watching this trend with interest, the jury has been out,deliberated, come back in with a verdict, but no-one is listening.

With few exceptions, the 99 Designs offer is a bad deal for everyone involved, and here’s why:

Design is not Branding

Whilst the last decade has seen the growth of the Branding Industry as more and more businesses have woken-up-to and and begun leveraging the power of brand. However, at just as fast-a-rate, the graphic design industry has blurred the line, intentionally muddying the waters to create confusion in the market between visual identity/logo design and branding. The ability of designers to mimic the web sites and proposal language of branding agencies, but fall short on delivering any acceptable level of specialised advice, definition and direction of brand strategy has done nothing to further the reputation of design or branding. The online marketplace of sites like 99 Designs have done nothing to educate clients on the different benefits of branding and identity design. It is to their benefit to keep the client confused, leaving them either unhappy with the result of the ‘branding process’, or happy with their logo, but unsure where or what the branding value is.

Unhappy Clients

Which leads us to clients and the results they are being served-up. There have always been two kinds of clients – those who are happy and those who aren’t. The change we have seen are that those clients working with this type of service are happy or unhappy in a new way. Those who have been lead to believe their branding should cost $500 and be completed in two weeks without ever sitting face-to-face with their designer are often unhappy with the result. The process failed to point out the shortcomings of working with designers who live in a different country, have no knowledge of the market or customer and have never asked a single, insightful question in order to set the right brand strategy. The heady proposition of paying peanuts no longer raises a red flag in the new world of internet value. We regularly have conversations with clients who fess-up to having blown $500 (their whole branding budget) on a process they now understand to be woefully inadequate. Through no fault of their own they are now having to re-set expectations and budgets as they get their head around approaching the task of branding properly.

Happy Clients

But worse still are the new crop of happy clients. Call me ‘old school’ but a happy client for me has always been one for whom we have built a brand that attracts more customers, more sales, more loyalty and higher margins. This is no easy feat, driven by market insights, solid brand strategy and inspiring brand design crafted from 25 years experience. This is a happiness born from hard won client trust and commercial results. However, the happy 99 Designs client is another fish completely. The 99 Designs model puts the client as the sole and ultimate decision maker – no insights, no brand strategy, no consultation, no design rationale. This might be an unpopular statement but the client is rarely the right person to be making a decision on the best logo concept to represent their brand. Having worked with more than a thousand clients on their branding, there are a minority with the perspective, experience and temperament to understand the myriad of factors in making the right branding decisions, and without exception these clients were directed by market insights and brand strategy. This is not to say clients don’t understand their businesses, their products and their clients and customers – of course they do – they eat, sleep and breath them. But understanding is not the same skill-set as setting aside personal preference and translating that gut feel for business into brand clarity. The end result is a happy client who has run a design competition, selected a winner, placed it on everything from web site to mouse mats with no long term, positive commercial benefit. Call me crazy, but in my book this is a bad result.

Unhappy Designers

Many years ago at school we read a classic piece of American literature called Grapes of Wrath. I don’t remember much from the book, but I do remember the description of desperately poor fruit pickers, literally fighting each other for the right to pick fruit for less and less money, until they were working from dusk ’til dawn for a moldy potato. This analogy is frighteningly relevant to the 99 Designs model. Despite saying they represent a community of happy, successful and passionate designers, the numbers tell a different story. The name 99 Designs is based on a claim that on average each design brief receives 99 submitted designs. Even if a designer submits four concepts for each brief, that still represents 25 designers pitching for work. Inevitably, only one of those 25 designers can win the competition and the other 24 will have invested their time for no return. The time required to develop four concepts of a professional quality to presentation stage is anywhere from fifteen to thirty hours. With an average budget of around US$400 per project, the winning designer will have worked for US$13-$26 an hour – which isn’t the end of the world. At least it’s not until you realize that they will only win one project in 25. That makes the hourly rate more like US0.52c-$1.04. In some parts of the world this might be enough to make a living, but from a client perspective it’s not a recipe for successfully building a platform of professional, strategic branding services on which to build your business. From a designer’s perspective, this version of a third world sweatshop feels a whole lot like Grapes of Wrath.

Price Vs Value

The challenge here is that the argument of price equals value will always be louder than value equals value. This is especially true on the web where price is king. And whilst there are more aspiring designers than there are design projects, there will always be a willing supply of workers prepared to pick fruit for next to nothing. But when everyone loses – unhappy clients + happy clients + graphic designers + branding consultants, the impetus and motivation is there to change things. The new world should in some ways reflect the old world – Clients, branding experts and designers having open and honest commercial conversations about business and brand, price and value. The result will be a win for everyone (except the guy who owns 99 Designs).

Dave Ansett
David is the founder of Truly Deeply, a brand agency with 25 years experience working with brands to position them for growth. His deep expertise is in the creation of high engagement brands that attract the attention of their audience and stand out from their competitors. David has extensive experience working with corporate, retail, food & beverage and entrepreneurial clients. Find out more here

David does not know or has never met the guy who owns 99 Designs. David did spend a few weeks playing around on 99 Designs as part of his research for this rant, but didn’t win any design competitions. This is David’s view alone and as always is open to anyone’s alternative view – but more open to those who agree with him.

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