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.
“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.