Why I Advocate for 99designs

Last week, Jeremy from Wildfire Marketing Group commented on my post about local internet marketing.  I had written that local business owners had no excuse for having an ugly site when great designs could be had from 99designs for less than $1,000.  As a web designer, Jeremy took extreme exception to that and understandly so.  I owned Unmatched Style for a long time, and the “no spec” issue is one that I became very familiar with.

Jeremy is a good friend, and someone you should be doing business with, so I wanted to expand on what I said.  He and I may still be on opposite sites when I’m done, but I totally respect and understand his position and want him, and you, to know where I’m coming from.

No Spec

“Spec work” in the web design world is when you ask one or more designers to spend time creating designs for you with no guarantee that they’ll ever get paid.  The problems with that should be obvious.  Why would anyone in their right mind work without knowing if they’ll ever get paid?

The NO!SPEC website goes into much more detail, and I definitely encourage you to spend some time there becoming familiar with the argument against spec work.

Two Different Types of Customers

The other thing that is critical to understand is that I separate web design customers into two basic categories.

70 to 80% of website owners just need a basic design.  That’s it.  The other 20 to 30%, though, need a full brand identity development and execution that extends throughout their entire business, and/or they need something beyond just a basic web design.  The two are very different, and I would never, ever advocate 99designs for anything other than a basic design.  (There are obviously varying degrees within each category, but this is the basic breakdown I use for this particular topic.)

Why 99designs is the Responsible Choice

For most in the 70 to 80% who only need a basic design, I believe 99designs is the only responsible choice.  I don’t say that lightly at all.  It’s an opinion I’ve developed over almost 15 years working online.  I know how deeply personal this issue is for designers (again, understandably so), and the “no spec” argument is very strong.  I also know that I may become a lightning rod for saying it.

However, I think it’s important to see why 99designs is thriving.

99% of Web Designers Aren’t Good

I’ve had zero-dollar budgets, virtually unlimited budgets, and everything in between, but for more than 11 years I had never found a designer who consistently created very good work.  It’s absolutely maddening how many people can make a living doing web design without actually being good at it.  Most of the work that we paid for (often well into five figures) simply wasn’t good.

In 2006, Mark Otto was the first designer I had ever met who could consistently turn out good work.  I’m not sure that I’ve contracted with another designer since then.

These “designers” are absolutely ruining things for true designers like Mark, Wildfire Marketing, Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain and PlainJoe Studios.  (I’ve never worked with the last three, but I’ve seen their work.)  I hear it over and over and over again from everyone I talk to.  They think all designers are bad, because the numbers are just so stacked in that direction.

99designs eliminates this problem by allowing the designs to speak for themselves.

99.9% of Web Designers Live in a Different Time Structure

I’ve never worked with a designer who treated deadlines and schedules with the seriousness that business owners do.  Ever.  Even the good ones.  I can make it absolutely crystal clear that something needs to be done by a specific date, but not only will the designer very often miss the date by a substantial margin, but he’ll also not seem to understand why that’s a big deal.  It’s not intentional or deliberate; it just seems like they truly see time much differently than others do.

This is the number one complaint I hear from business owners who have worked with designers, and it’s actually enough of a problem to have made many of them stop their web plans altogether.

99designs eliminates this problem by forcing designers to stick to a schedule that is absolutely fixed.

Why It Isn’t

Obviously 99designs isn’t perfect, though, and there are cons to go with the pros.  For me, these are definitely outweighed by the positives above.  For others, though, these may be insurmountable hurdles.

Many People Have No Eye for Design

I was in a meeting not too long ago where we showed two different sites — one with a design that hurt to look at and one with a design that instantly inspired confidence in the site.  It would have been hard for the quality to have been more different, yet 2 of the 7 people in the room honestly saw no difference.  I was amazed.

How can you run a design contest when you don’t know what’s good and what’s not?

Even More are not Skilled in Usability

I’ve seen plenty of gorgeous designs that were nevertheless completely inadequate for actually accomplishing the goals of the site.  Hopefully the winning designer will incorporate good usability, but if they don’t and the business owner doesn’t understand usability, it’s money down the drain.

Who Will Actually Code the Design?

Designing a site and converting that design to HTML and CSS are two very different skillsets.  99designs isn’t designed to help with the coding part (though most designers are willing to do the coding, too).

Why “No Spec” Ultimately Will Fail

There are very solid arguments on both sides of this issue, but there are three reasons that I believe they ultimately won’t matter.

Low-End Design is Already Commoditized

Jeremy mentions in his comment that this industry is quickly becoming commoditized.  I think it already has been at the low end, and I don’t think that will ever change.  There are just too many good designers willing to work for too little.  How can designers in high-income countries compete with designers in countries where $1,000 is a very healthy monthly income?  These designers will never hold out for higher wages, and there are way too many of them.

And the Internet makes geography largely irrelevant.  I’ve had high-quality designs done by designers in Malaysia, Croatia and Argentina, and there was very little difference from working with someone in the U.S.

99designs Satisfied a Market, They Didn’t Create It

If 99designs and every other site like it went away today, a new one would spring up tomorrow.  There’s just way too much demand in the market for this way of commissioning designs, and it will never go away.

Fairness Won’t Matter

For me, the number one argument against spec work is that it’s not fair to the designer.  I totally agree.  These designers deserve to get paid.

However, is it fair that the average teacher gets paid a tenth of what the lowest paid NBA player gets?  (The average U.S. teacher makes about $41,000 per year, and the NBA league minimum is $412,718.)  What if we compared that to the average NBA salary of $5,356,000.  A normal person could live a lifetime on just one year of NBA salary.  How is that fair?

And how about firefighters?  Doctors?  Police officers?  Nurses?  How are their incomes fair?  There are any number of professions where you either have to do it for reasons other than money or find some way to differentiate yourself.  I believe web design falls into the same category.


I’ve closed comments on this post to keep this from devolving into a screaming match on both sides, but Jeremy and I will be continuing the discussion in the comments.  You’re also welcome to leave a trackback from a post on your own site.


  • Jeremy L. Knauff

    July 7, 2009
    at 11:17 am

    You do present some logical and valid points in favor of spec (speculative) work, however, in my opinion, there are just as many logical and valid points opposing it.

    Before we get into the pros and cons though, I think it’s important that people understand where the concept of spec work came from.

    Advertising agencies competing for clients would present their concepts to a potential advertiser, showcasing their creativity and ability to represent the advertiser to their target market. Generally, this particular type of relationship would consist of a potential client and a small handful of qualified ad agencies. Meeting would take place, criteria and expectations would be set, and both the potential client and the agency would discuss creative direction in depth.

    These agencies weren’t competing for the ability to get paid for the spec work that they did though; they were competing for control of the advertisers budget. We’re not talking about small budgets here; we’re talking about companies investing hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars in their advertising campaigns. The typical agency commission is 15% of an advertising budget, so the potential payoff could be huge.

    The spec work we see today is much different. Instead of seeking out a few qualified designers to see if there is even a fit, some companies just take the shotgun approach and ask as many designers as they can reach to take a shot. There is rarely any objective criteria set, little to no discussion on creative direction and the designers are competing to be paid for the very work they are doing.

    I think business owners would be better suited doing their homework to find a few designers that they feel they can work with, looking over their portfolios and spending some time talking to them. In the end, the client gets a better design that is tailored to their specific needs, the designer gets paid for their work and everyone wins.


  • Shane

    July 7, 2009
    at 11:29 am

    That’s really the problem we run into though: finding a good designer. It’s easy to say, but it’s excruciating to actually do. The field is just so flooded with poor ones that finding a good one is a nightmare.

    As a small business owner, I could spend a week of my time interviewing candidates or I could go to 99designs and have a design completed in that amount of time. You just can’t expect someone for whom money and time are extremely scarce resources to spend 4 weeks or more (maybe much more) from search to project completion — especially when the cost is also at least double.

    That said, you’re a fool if you use 99designs for anything more than just a basic site design. If your site is critical to your business, and you don’t have a good grasp of design and usability, you could do yourself way more harm than good. The web is littered with sites that look fantastic, but that are almost useless for the customer.


  • Jeremy L. Knauff

    July 9, 2009
    at 1:59 pm

    The irony of that particular point of view (stating that business owners don’t have the time to properly interview and choose a designer) is that you are asking the designers to give up their time as if it is somehow less valuable than any other business owner. How would that play out in any other situation? If you’re too busy to interview and select the right secretary, could you just bring in everyone that wanted to apply for the job and then after they’ve worked for a few days, decided who you’re going to pay?

    You get what you pay for, and generally, the designers who are willing to compete for spec work aren’t true professionals so you won’t receive the level of quality you’re probably looking for. That may be ok for a hobby site, but as you mentioned, it’s a poor choice for any serious business. A professional designer should be able to create a website that not only looks stunning while conveying the right image, but also presents information in a clear and concise manner, motivates visitors to take a particular action, displays properly across a range of browsers and screen resolutions. When you just hire a Photoshop jockey, you’re not going to get that.

    Another thing to consider is that because the profit margins on competing in contests such as 99designs are often very low, some less than ethical designers will simply copy someone else’s work. I’ve seen it happen time and time again on sites like that.


  • Shane

    July 9, 2009
    at 2:14 pm

    Absolutely. If I had the option of trialing everyone I hired, I would totally do that — as would most others. It’s just that no one is willing to do that in most fields. I’m not arguing that it’s fair, just that it’s the way things work. No spec’s only hope is to get all decent designers to band together and stop doing spec work.

    As for the quality, my personal experience and what I’ve heard 100% from everyone I’ve ever talked to is that the quality of work from local designers we’ve worked with is barely comparable to the quality from 99designs. I’ve run 3 or 4 competitions on 99designs, and every single winner (and some of the losers) was far better than 99% of the design work I’ve had done in 15 years online. Now, granted, 99% of the submissions overall are just utterly terrible, but it only takes 1.

    You are absolutely right about people stealing work, though. I’ve even had designers steal work from someone’s design for the same contest. What are they thinking? Thankfully the other designers police that pretty well (I had another one turn someone in on one of my contests), but it’s definitely a threat. Of course, who’s to say that my local designer won’t do the same thing, betting on the fact that I’ll never find out — or at least when I do that it will be far too late and/or far too costly to do anything about it.

  • […] spent well less than $2,000 on 99designs and have so far reaped improvements approaching $100,000.  Nothing else changed other than the […]


  • Jeremy L. Knauff

    July 27, 2009
    at 4:40 pm

    I agree that it (graphic design) is one of the only industries where people are willing to do spec work. That being said, my personal opinion is that the fact that spec work even exists is largely the fault of the designers who participate in it. Even if all decent designers banded together, spec would still exist because there will always be clients who only care about the price and designers willing to do anything for a chance at a project. Also, our global economy and the Internet makes it easy and cost effective for people in other countries to do business with clients anywhere. It may not make financial sense for a US-based designer to design a website on spec, but for someone in another country with a lower average income, it may be more lucrative. $1,000 (USD) carries a lot more buying power in certain countries than it does here.

    You mentioned not finding the quality you were looking for in some of the local design firms. This is the case in any industry though; there are ineffective lawyers, doctors, and if the news is any indication lately, train conductors. It’s a process of finding the right fit. One of the biggest benefits to working with a firm that you’ve taken the time to select as the right fit for your needs is that there is a pretty good chance that they will still be around for your next project, and the longer that you work together, the more synergy will be developed between both parties. With a designer working on spec, there is a good chance that they won’t be around in a year.


  • Andres Sanchez

    July 8, 2010
    at 6:34 pm

    Nice article! The problem with the design industry is that anyone with a copy of Photoshop calls himself a designer. That’s why you are having a hard time finding good designers. Designer as other professions requires appropriate training, I know design school is not easy and I’m having hard time imagining a Designer with a University degree creating bad design.

    At the end of the day you get what you pay for. The only designers contests attract are high schools students and uneducated designers playing with Photoshop. Is that the person you want to brand your business?

    If you want a professional designer you won’t find it at design contests.


  • Shane

    July 30, 2010
    at 2:23 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Andres. The problem is that having a Design degree doesn’t make a great designer any more than having an Art degree makes a great artist. Design training teaches you the science behind the art, but science alone won’t make you a great designer.

    And your categorization of the participants in design contests is only partially true. Yes, there are many terrible designers who submit designs — I run out of ways of telling people they just don’t have a shot — but the small number of very talented designers makes putting up with the others more than worthwhile.

    Let me make sure I’m very clear too: I would never recommend a site like 99designs for a business looking to develop their brand. There are too many other elements that go into that besides just being to create something that looks nice. 99designs is perfect for people like me, though, who just need a site that stands out among all the rest but that isn’t competing against major brands. They definitely fill a very sizeable niche.


  • Kiril

    October 14, 2011
    at 5:51 pm

    I generally think about this situation: if there was no 99designs.com I would have to do something to prevent myself from getting burned with a bad designer. Generally, if I work with a designer and they don’t deliver anything good and I don’t end up using any of his/her designs, then it’s a waste of both of our times. Furthermore, I wouldn’t feel obligated to pay them a single penny, since they didn’t deliver anything of value for me.

    Suppose I needed a logo, so to protect myself from such situations I would do the following:

    1. Find 20 designers that have good portfolios.
    2. Spend about 1 hour with each one of them to tell them about my company and see which ones ask me good questions to help them understand what my company is about (kinda subjective).
    3. I would try to narrow down the list to about 4 designers that REALLY catch my attention (based on their portfolio and the way they were communicating with me).
    4. I would ask each designers to spend 1 hour and create a logo spec for me (for which I will reimburse them for the work, but I would expect them to deduct it from the cost if they get hired).
    5. I would then select the designer that made the best spec and ask them to do the logo.

    So let’s throw in some figures: if a designer gets paid $50 an hour (kinda arbitrary figure) and it takes him/her 15 hours to do all the design magic and come up with a fancy design, then it will cost me $750 to get a logo. Reimbursing the other 3 would cost me $150 (for a total of $900).

    If a few of the other 16 designers feel like they could have done a much better job at providing a spec design and think that it would have swayed me to choose them, then I would be happy to get their specs, but I simply wouldn’t be able to reimburse them. If I had to reimburse all 16, it would cost me an additional $800. So suppose a few do decide to give me a free spec and I do end up liking them better than the other people, I would feel quite comfortable hiring them instead of the other designers.

    Now fast forward to 99designs.com: the minimum cost for a logo is about $300. I received about 30 designs from about a dozen designers and all of them were spec level: most submit one design and a couple of variations of that design (I wouldn’t think they spent more than 2 hours doing that). They didn’t have to spend hours of research and analysis to come up with a brand, a message or anything fancy, they just made a spec.

    So let’s look at the value of the logo now: a spec level logo is something like Google, Twitter or Nike. Google’s logo was designed by a professional designer (the price is undisclosed, but rumored to be free), Twitter’s logo cost around $15 and Nike’s logo cost about $35 in 1971 (or about $200 in today’s money). So think about if the logo makes any difference to the customer: if had to choose a search engine between Yahoo, Bing and Google, how big of a factor would be their logo to you? I’ll make an educated guess and probably say that it’s not very important, all you’ll care about is that you get the high quality search results. Google didn’t come on top of the market because they had a better logo than Yahoo, MSN Search or Altavista, they came out on top because they had a better product. Of course, their logo identifies them now, but they made the logo valuable, it wasn’t the other way around.

    Nike is different, because at this stage their product is their brand (i.e. their logo). However, 99% of the people out there are not “selling” a brand but a product, much like Google and Twitter do. As such, those people really just need a spec and at $300+ a pop for no more than 2 hours worth of work, the risk that the designer takes is justified. A designer can produce 8 separate designs for 8 separate competitions in the time it took him to design one brand for a single customer (15-16 hours). If he wins 2 of those, then he would be making slightly less than what he would have made if he just had one customer. It’s quite possible that he could make more specs and win more competitions, or if he enters the more expensive competitions then he could make more money. Given all of these things, I think that the 99design.com model makes sense for the customer and for the designer.