Crowd-Sourcing Design: The Last Frontier

The need for extremely smart design has increased as businesses go global and consumers become more design savvy – at least that is the theory. Graphic designers have also become more sophisticated when it comes to conceiving integrated strategies for business. More importantly, they have become integral and valued collaborators. Designers are sitting around the proverbial boardroom table – at least some of them.

But not at 99 Designs: Design Done Differently, which as its model lassos the work of 100 designers or so at a time for a “competition” following a mail-in brief, and presents 100 or so designs to a client so that one can be selected.

But what happens when you dine at an “all you can eat” restaurant? You still can only consume what your stomach will hold or your gluttonous behavior has consequence. That this smorgasbord of good, bad and indifferent work is “crowd-sourced” to provide more options probably makes it even more difficult discern good from bad. Never does a designer meet a client to discuss needs and wants. Since the designer’s intelligence is replaced by a critical mass, the client has no way of comprehending or appreciating the design process. It is as mundane as selecting clothes at a big box store.

Whether 99 Designs is good or bad for clients is irrelevant. It takes design a step or three down from being a profession to being a pure service. The process of crowd-sourcing creative talent and strategic skill is not the best way to get exemplary work. Competitions do not separate the chaff from the wheat – often its the other way around.

Of course, for some clients, there are supposed advantages, as these testimonials attest:

“When you hire one designer you’re stuck with their aesthetic and their concept. With 99designs, you get ideas from many different people.”

“We have a designer, but he can’t do everything himself. [With 99designs] we got ten times the results for a fraction of the cost.”

Yet for most designers this is not good business, nor good design. See for yourself here.

35 thoughts on “Crowd-Sourcing Design: The Last Frontier

  1. Emily

    Interesting write-up. Personally, I am quite on the fence regarding the use of a crowdsourcing site for a logo design. It is still a touchy issue for most designers who said that crowdsourcing is a no-no for obtaining a logo design. I have tried crowdsourcing before and I know the risks involved but it comes within the territory. But there are other no-frills logo design websites online such as,,, etc. which are actually great in getting a professional logo design at a fraction of the price and minus the risks of crowdsourcing (plagiarism is one of them). Seeing that there are no consultation services, the price is significantly lower than that of conventional design firms. For instance, I have tried and the experience was indeed a positive one. I managed to get my business logo design at an affordable price and the turnaround time was great as well. Highly recommended. Although crowdsourcing for logo designs could be a bane for some, many find it to be a viable alternative to get a fast logo on the cheap. It all depends on the individual actually.

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  6. urbaneGypsy

    To quote the last Batman movie: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” This is the main reason I’m still a “struggling artist.” Too many hacks out there are willing to put out an inferior product for slave wages in exchange for a big title and the promise of future payoff which probably will never come. Because the client owns the finished product. Thanks to fine print. We may be in one of the worst recessions of our times, but it still doesn’t excuse dead-beat clients to abuse those with skill and talent. But again, I’m just a whiny creative in their eyes.

  7. Rachel

    I have been waiting forever for this post. This is like a buffet of bad design. I didn’t spend 50 grand on art school in NY so that I can open up a one stop shop. The bad thing is my fellow good designers are reading this article by Steven because it’s a design mag and the people who should be seeing this info probably won’t.

  8. Chris

    What I find interesting is that an overwhelmingly large percentage of crowd source designs are rip-off’s from Logo-Lounge, CA and many other Design Annuals.  We need some sort of patrol for these types.

  9. Mindy

    I would never feel very comfortable trying to offer my design because I know I may not win and earn money. It’s not a “permanent” job to me or anything like that at all. I’ve never tried crowd-sourcing and after reading this article and all of your comments, I am really glad I never tried!

  10. Dylan

    As much as I frown upon spec work, In some cases I see it in a different light. It’s almost as if websites like this create an outlet for people who would otherwise not take the time to become interested in design. It’s a place for the amateurs to gain experience and hone their craft in the hopes that once they have developed they will better understand why this is a poor method for design. While being a poor process for design, I do believe it helps these wannabe designers develop, and get experience in a proffesion which is otherwise difficult to create enough credibility to maintain your own clients. While I would never succumb to evils of spec work, I think it has it’s place among the minor leaguers of design.

  11. Terra Gillespie

    I think the target this hits most are students.
    It sucks because many schools don’t address this issue, and they don’t explain how it hurts and the fact that most professional designers clearly look down on crowdsourcing/spec work.
    I think crowdsourcing work on a serious designers resume, is the equivalent to an aspiring actor/actress doing porn work to get ahead.

  12. Rick

    I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments.  This is an interesting topic, and one that I’m afraid is not going away anytime soon.  One thing I’ll add is that I don’t think any good designers need to worry about this hurting their own business or their profession.  The value that you offer your clients goes so far beyond what a site like this offers, and any client worth having recognizes that.  I don’t believe that anyone ordering a logo from this website really thinks they’re getting a brand.  They want a $400 logo, and that’s what they’re getting.  Many people don’t recognize the value that a graphic designer has to offer — and if they don’t, then you don’t want them as a client anyways.  They’ll get what they pay for.  Worrying about this is like an architect worrying that people’s ability to buy off-the-shelf house plans will hurt them — the value of an architect goes so much deeper than that.  Don’t worry folks, it’ll be ok.

  13. Dwayne Cogdill

    Collaboration is NOT the same as crowd sourcing. Crowd sourcing devalues and erodes our profession. It undermines the value of design and distorts the business community’s understanding of the intelligent and strategic role designers play in business. Crowd sourcing is clearly spec work which AIGA has declared to be unethical. We as a community need to be united in maintaining our pricing standards and our ethics.

  14. Sharon Podsada

    Crowdsourcing, the concept and the actual practice, just makes my hair stand on end. However, in the end I don’t believe that this will be a sustainable practice. One of the younger designers in my office used 99 Designs as a way of garnering some extra freelance work and quickly became disenchanted with the site. What was happening was that designer’s (both talented and untalented) work was being displayed online along with everyone else’s. As the “competition” went on the work of the more talented artist’s works were being copied and slightly changed by others. Sheer and blatant piracy of work. So, in the end, the client ended up with basically a bastardized version of a logo that was copied, “tweaked” and then copied again. A nightmare. My young colleague has never been back to that site.
    I can only sincerely hope that young (actually all) designer’s will eventually just take the same stand and refuse to participate. Eventually leaving only the hacks and wanna-bes on crowdsourcing sites, with the true designers working one on one with saavy clients. Could be the best and maybe only way to crush this practice out of existence.

  15. Eric

    Crowdsourcing is bad for everybody involved.
    For the designers:
    Crowd sourcing severely undervalues the work of any designer who participates. Essentially the designer is doing unpaid labor in hopes of being paid less than minimum wage for the time he/she SHOULD have put into the logo. It is nice to win the competition but they are never guaranteed to win (and most people who submit don’t, after all it is a contest) thus most of the work done was done for nothing. I can’t stress enough how much it undervalues the designer and the work. Essentially these websites are saying that a designers time isn’t valuable (I say this because majority of submissions don’t earn any compensation), only the resulting product has value (however low that value is). My day job doesn’t decide whether or not to pay me at the end of the day; I don’t understand why other designers put up with that.
    Crowd sourcing changes design into something it is not. Design is not a product. Design is a process and you can’t market that.
    Also, for the designers, they are limited by no interaction with the client. Because there is no interaction, the design will never be as effective as it could potentially be. 
    For the companies:
    You are getting a half-assed product for a couple of reasons. You aren’t getting a brand, you’re getting a place holder image. You can’t order a brand off a crowd sourcing website and seriously expect the designers to understand and create a logo reflecting who you are, what you want to portray, and what you do well. You also will never get consistency across the brand if you crowd source each application of the brand as you see fit.
    Also, the timeframe provided by the crowdsourcing is all wrong. You can’t order a logo in 10 days (or less) and expect it to both be done and a strong brand. Design takes time. Design takes understanding. Design takes communication. The medium of crowd sourcing websites like 99designs and crowdspring severely limits these factors.
    There is no risk involved. This should be a red flag for businesses. There has never been a good business model that doesn’t involve risk. The lack of is bad because the businesses aren’t invested in the project at all. 
    Because there is no designer directly involved, the business will (most likely) eventually misuse the mark. I’ve seen this countless times, especially at local businesses. Bad sizing, bad application, wrong proportion, ever altering the mark. Branding isn’t something that most people innately understand and most of the time, unless they have experience, they will misuse the brand.
    Crowdsourcing is bad for everybody involved.

  16. kym norris

    Spec work, crowdsourcing… the whole idea that this is still happening, makes my blood boil. However, I wanted to add to the conversation, from a so-called “client” side of this. The November 4th edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, has an article titled “Nonprofits Turn to Web Sites to Solicit Marketing Designs and Save Money”.
    The article highlights the United Way the Alberta Capital Region, in Edmonton, who describes the process “The United Way posted a description of what it wanted, along with text and photographs for the artists to use. Less than two weeks later, the United Way had 46 brochure possibilities from which to choose. Andbecause the Web site lets customers name their own price—$700 in this case—the United Way saved a good chunk of money it would have spent if it had worked directly with a designer. I have several problems with this… but the article continues…
    A nonprofit chapter leader is quoted as saying “she argues that the process gives artists who participate a chance to practice their craft, and that they are free to reuse unsuccessful work for other projects.”
    Besides stomping on my copy of the newspaper or lighting it on fire… I thought I see if there is anything that we can learn from their perspective or their reasoning for choosing to crowdsource a project?
    When/how/why is crowdsourcing used? Are there any statistics or data where we can look for usage patterns, etc… 
    I understand times are tough, but is this really just to save a few dollars or could there a larger issue unfolding?

  17. Rick

    Just as microstock sites like iphoto have changed the business for many photographers but not destroyed it, this too changes things a little, but doesn’t destroy the world of design.  In fact, I think it has little impact at all, and that impact might actually be positive.  A site like this where a client can see a bunch of prelim designs and just pick one to go with as a final product can’t replace a proper design process.  But it’ll work for some clients who would never have had the budget to hire a good designer, and they’ll probably be happy with the outcome and they’ll have a design that’ll be much better than if they had tried to create something themselves or tried to find some inexperienced designer to design a logo for a couple hundred bucks.  And if their business is successful they’ll probably realize in a year or two that the logo needs to be redesigned, at which time they might recognize the value in having a real relationship with a designer. 
    Looking at some logo designs posted for current ‘contests’, I’m actually surprised at the quality of the work — some of it is quite good, even though it’s basically a bunch of concepts that haven’t been fully developed, like what most designers might show a client early in the process to get feedback and help steer the project.  And though I’m generally opposed to participating in such schemes, a small part of me is thinking — hmmm, that’d be kind of fun to just take a quick read of a design brief and spend an hour coming up with a few quick designs to post.  Creating those initial concepts is always a fun part of a project, though it’d feel pretty strange to just be done with it at that point and call it a finished product.

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  19. Steven Clark

    Working for free makes me so mad… I think Harlan Ellison’s Pay the Writer rant is spot on… the people who go into spec work are the amateurs making it hard (by undercutting all the time) those people trying to make a living.
    Everybody deserves to be paid for their effort.
    Anyway, I wanted to point out another reason you should never work for free. Ever. Or even undercut to next to zero. It’s because the way money works is it’s not about an individual. Our society needs money to move around… working without moving money means that the local shop won’t sell that extra bread and milk, you won’t buy that video game… and the local shop owner won’t spend those dollars at their suppliers or buy school uniforms etc…It’s all a cycle that relies on us being paid. On everybody being paid for effort. When we choose to work for free we’re ripping off our own neighbourhoods and depriving others down the economic food chain from benefiting from our work indirectly.
    Just some food for thought. Designers, don’t take a piss without getting paid.

  20. Michael Appuhn

    As a student designer (which is to say, completely unestablished), I’m less terrified by “99 designs” itself, than I am by the work model it tries to establish as legitimate—free labor in exchange for a chance of “winning” the job.

  21. Gil Martinez

    Why not start a list of companies that have crowdsourced their graphic design, and then stop doing business with them and their associates? Letting them know why they have lost our business would be a good way to get heard…

  22. David Kendall

    I initially choose the design profession because I love creative problem solving and the craft of design – whether paid or not. Later I realized it was also about creating relationships with people, ensuring profitability and, finally, seeking projects that challenged our office. Oh, and also a bit of play as well. That is, and remains, our benchmark for the kind of work we choose to engage in. There’ll always be those that choose different benchmarks (and ethics!) for the kind of work they engage in. And there’ll always be those that are more than happy to make buck (actually $39 + 15%) off of designers. However, that is not the sandbox we choose to play in.

  23. Ed Lefkowicz

    I’m a professional photographer, and my profession is up against similar pressures. Microstock, hobbyist photographers with decent cameras all have taken part of the photo market. But only a part of the market, primarily at the low end. Working with a client first to uncover real image or design needs and then fulfilling those needs requires time, patience, expertise. And microstock or hobbyist photogs or crowdsourced design can’t do it: can’t spend the time, don’t have the patience, don’t have the expertise. And it’s certainly true that some “clients” just won’t spend the money anyway.

  24. Ric Grefé

    AIGA has commented on this trend, realizing both the dynamics of social media, which are probably irreversible, and the importance of purposeful creative endeavor: “In a world where visual communication is increasingly prevalent, necessary and demanding, the profession’s role should not be to reduce the pursuit of visual creativity by the masses. AIGA, on behalf of the design profession, is committed to improving the visual literacy of business, government and society, and to help them understand the true value of design well executed. The design profession should not position itself against the popular pursuit of creative endeavors. But design is not merely a form of creative expression, and AIGA must also promote the designer’s ability to solve problems, think strategically and make the intangible tangible.” Read more here:

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  26. Jesse Spellman

    im fairly impartial on the subject as i know for a fact that my employer (a mid sized dedicated design house) wouldnt even be bothering with the people that go to these websites looking for design work as their not in the market in which we can make margins and couldn’t afford our services.  
    Having said that, i just watched that steve jobs interview…
    That clip certainly shouldn’t be used to trumpet about how good we are as professional designers. Paul Rand literally says “i will give you what i think you need, not what you want. if you don’t like it, i’m not changing anything, you can rack off and go somewhere else – but you’ll definitely pay me, and pay me well regardless of your view of the finished product.” If anything that video is more an argument for crowdsourcing than against it…. its not a good perception and highlights why crowdsourcing has becoming a massive and successful industry.
    The one thing my Managing Director always talks about is to tell us all that we provide a service, a premium one sure, but a service all the same so we need to do what every other professional service does and make our clients happy and show them the value we provide.
    think about it boys!  🙂

  27. John

    I still don’t quite get why the professional design community is so up in arms about crowdsourcing design. These are clients who were not in the market for professional web or logo design before they went to crowdsourcing. Their design budets simply do not fall within the range that ‘professional designers’ are generally willing to work for. I don’t think that crowdsourcing takes away from design at all, in fact it opens it up to a whole different range of clients and designers. Most clients who crowdsource their startup logo, eventually endup getting it refined by a professional in house designer once they are profitable anyway. 
    What i want to know is how you think services that charge $49 for a logo with 3 concepts and one final version are any better than crowdsourcing?.. Some poor designer must get paid $5 for those 3 concepts while the company takes the rest. How come there aren’t as many articles outlining these practices?..

  28. Curt Shontz

    I’m okay with crowdsourced design because I don’t think it’s a sustainable practice, and even if it were, I’m comfortable competing against them. The designers who take part in these competitions will eventually learn that they can’t win enough competitions to remain profitable. And because most of them are probably just getting their feet wet with logo design, clients will eventually become disatisfied with the logo they selected. I’ll be ready for them!

  29. Bran Dougherty-Johnson

    I agree with Steven. Ignoring the issue will not make it go away. The more credible blog posts that expose each of these sites’ exploitative practice the better. I wouldn’t worry about giving them internet traffic – who cares? But I do worry that naive and hungry designers sign up for these competitions hoping to “win” the business. The more results like this show up in search for crowdspring, 99 designs and the like, the better.

  30. Steven Heller Post author

    Good question. But ignoring the issue does not help either. My understanding is that various young designers are tempted to engage in this service. A critique of the practice is not an open invitation to take part. The idea that even negative publicity draws attention, does not mean it draws positive attention.

  31. swissmiss

    Should we really be dedicating blog posts to sites like this one and therefore sending traffic their way? I have been tempted to write my two cents about sites like this one on swissmiss, but even with my critical comments, feel like we’re doing them a service by sending traffic their way.