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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11 Comments

  1. Pete Simpkins

    I’m with ya David. But I’d like to make another point: the whole world of ’99 Designs’ opened up because first-world clients didn’t feel they were receiving value for their $10,000 logo. This is the fault of the design industry. There are too many (as perceived by the buyer) low-quality, first-world, online-only designers charging first-world prices for crap. So of course a client is going to go the 3rd world solution: they simply can’t differentiate the value. I don’t hold out much hope for 1st world designers who don’t have real human relationships with their clients. They’ll still be competing with people willing to charge 10% of the cost. One example: local designers who don’t listen, or listen then ignore the client. This behavior is rampant, and just encourages more clients to give 99 Designs a go. Can the industry sort this out? Not while there are so many second rate ‘designers’ in places like Australia, with Mickey Mouse (no offence) attitudes to deadlines, firm scoping and client relationships!

    • Pete, you are correct! Places like 99 Design can help inspire clients who often don’t know what they want in design until they see “something” that speaks to them. Small LLC’s and such often don’t have the resources to invest thousands of dollars into branding and design companies that don’t measure up, in all honesty. As a writer, this situation reminds me of the papermills that pay a few cents on the dollar for writers. You know, that’s been going on for years (unfortunately) and I never heard/read designers speaking out against it in favor of the writers. Back then, designers were still often more highly valued on projects than writers (sad but true) so while they were getting paid fairly and writers were getting used, there was no out cry from our fellow creatives. Hopefully, creative business folks will begin to stick together and demand more all around.

  2. Pete Simpkins

    David, let’s talk solutions. The problem at source is that client’s don’t understand the value of quality branding. But there’s no onus on them to fix this problem: it all falls to the designers, who need to en-masse keep convincing the world that good design takes time, requires skilled knowledge, and costs more than $20. The 3rd world is offering a ‘logo’, and given that’s what so many clients think is a brand, the 3rd worlder can make a buck every now and then. Sometimes businesses just want a logo, and no more: and that can be fine too: their communications strategy (whether written down or not) can make up for a full branding strategy. These clients are suitable for 99 Designs. But no-one else: branding is a sophisticated concept, and most clients who shop for a logo on 99 Designs will never get it anyway. Perhaps just leave each market segment to itself?

    • Thanks for your thoughts Pete. We’re on the same page with many of your points. There are few businesses whose sales could not be increased by good branding. The challenge is to educate the business sector on the ability of good branding to do that, and then on what makes good branding Vs poor design. We find when we sit down with clients and talk about the outcomes of improving their brand in increased sales, and margin on those sales, for many businesses the value is then self evident. Unfortunately for most business owners this logic isn’t self evident. They will happily spend $10,000-$50,000 every year on marketing, sales team wages and digital without stopping for a moment to consider whether their brand is hindering or helping the effectiveness of that spend.

  3. If ‘branding’ agencies (lets face it, that is just another name for a design agency which I imagine has been incorporated by brick and mortar agencies to adapt to the threat of these marketplaces) are suffering because of these marketplaces then perhaps they need to evolve. I personally think 99 designs is great and in an online world where so many areas of a business can be done online it was inevitable that this would eventuate. Its a no brainer. Its not like this was a problem that required a solution but its just a great example of a system upgrade to the design service industry.

    Many of the customers on 99 designs don’t have $10,000 to allocate to a ‘branding agency’ (there I go using that term again). Why would a new law firm, courier business or a carpet cleaner need a design agency to come up with a brand? Its not like they are different to any other competitor in their industry and if they are they should have the foresight to hire a MARKETING expert to think brand and strategy. Not a design agency with a different name.

    Brick and mortar design agencies are going to have to succumb to the fact that they have lost a good portion of their market. And this is only the beginning, 99 designs and designcrowd aren’t going to be the only ones that have a monopoly on this forever. Just like brick and mortar these online contest marketplaces will be plentyful which means more advertising coming from them and soon it will become the norm. I don’t mean to be all pessimistic but look around you: Uber, Airbnb, 99designs, fiverr… the world IS changing and it won’t stop because the old way feels threatened. People want value and convenience. Where do you think it is going to be headed once all these millennials are the heads of global companies? Not only that, the emergence of blockchain dominance is on its way which means there will be more demand for less intermediaries.

    I say all this not to piss you off but to prepare you perhaps for the inevitable. No amount of time and money spent on the SEO of this article (to get it to number 3 in natural search rankings when I googled 99designs) will hold it back forever. Its just another industry that has been disrupted by technology, just like the automobile and just like computers did. This is the internet doing what the internet does. Making everything accessible at the fingertips.

    • Hi Blake, thanks for taking the time to write such a considered response to our article. In many ways we are on the same page, embracing the new world order of business disruption. I’m a huge fan of Airbnb, Uber, airtasker, etc. In all those cases the consumer knows what they need and the disruptor offers a better service. The concern I have with 99 Designs and the like is that the client does not usually understand the difference between a good branding solution and a poor branding solution. This is an example where a business truly does need specialist expertise and advice, but the disruptors are unable to provide a better product.
      I invite you to spend some time reading through our articles in which we share our experience and IP to help clients to understand that brand strategy and design is not just another name for a design studio.
      We love change – when it is for the better. We talk to numerous business owners every month who have spent their budget on 99 Designs and similar and are now asking us to advise on why their products and services are not selling. What they have discovered is that these services are not equipped to provide them with what they and their brands need. Accessibility to cheap design does not equate to good (or even effective) branding – a reality the likes of 99 Designs would prefer to blur.

  4. Hey Blake,

    I hate to single you out because I see a lot of people on this thread who are just trying to justify the existence of a service that has made them a lot of money at a low cost. But you’re really just making excuses in an effort to deflect any guilt.

    Now, imagine if you wanted a house, and instead of taking a chance with one contractor who might do an unfavorable job, you offer every contractor in the area the opportunity to build you a house, and you call it a “contest”. At the end of the “contest” you pay one of the contractors, then you move into the house that you like, and every other contractor gets nothing.

    I know that 99 designs has probably made you a lot of money (or saved you a lot of money) — but the more that people use this service — the more that design jobs and money from the United States are going to make it into third-world markets where designers are willing to work for pennies.

    Once again, I don’t blame you for trying to justify your actions and your preferences — it can’t be easy coming to terms with the fact that you’re essentially a 21st-century slave trader.

    Getting people to work for free might yield great results, especially when you only give credit to one person at the end of the process — but that doesn’t mean the people you’re “employing” aren’t being exploited. Time to man up, do some research, and contract a legitimate artist. Part of being an adult is learning the value of the things we purchase, and accepting the fact that some investments are better than others.

    Lol and 10,000?!?! Someone who uses 99 designs and pays 400 dollars for a logo has never even considered dropping that kind of money. But thanks for using bullshit figures to try to substantiate your lofty argument.

    And I know I was just being facetious, but I can’t stress enough that your attitude toward the internet and the future of productivity is so myopic, that you can’t even see how problematic that approach is. It’s so problematic that you, a decent human being who’s capable of empathy and love, has become an advocate for slave labor, just because it saved you a few hundred bucks.

    The IT industry has literally been destroyed by outsourcing. Don’t let Graphic Design become the next industry that belongs to the Middle East because you’re a cheap bastard who doesn’t want to do his research.

    https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0312/4-ways-outsourcing-damages-industry.aspx

  5. It is never a good idea to have people work for nothing, that should really show you that those are not professionals. If you paid for an education in design, you will not want to work for free… Logo design and packaging design are not easy jobs, so clients should get a bit educated about the work involved, that’s why we tried to describe process in our articles: https://www.creativebydefinition.com/what-is-packaging-design.html

  6. You’re absolutely correct, furthermore 99design is fraudulent. Whenever you get to final round, you get an email about your account suspension. This happened to me as well as some other people i know several times. Supposedly, design doesn’t follow the “standards” of 99design despite being positively rated by clients and making into final round. The whole thing is staged and winners are picked by site administrators and are most likely colluding in sharing profit.

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