99 designs for designers

99 Designs for Designers: It’s Like Online Gambling

99Designs is an online platform that connects graphic designers with buyers. Buyers simply post a “contest” outlining the work they need done, then, a swarm of designers all get working on the project, investing their valuable time and technical proficiencies in a project they’re most likely not going to be paid for. Once submitted, the buyer chooses the design they like best and only pays for that one. Everyone else that worked on the project? Better luck next time. Needless to say, 99 Designs for designers is a risky proposition.

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99 Designs For Designers: It’s A Contest?

The creators of this platform were tactful in naming it a design contest. “Contest” sounds exciting and promising. When you hear the word contest, you think of possibilities and maybe even wonder what you would do if you were ever so lucky enough to win a contest. It has a very positive connotation.

I think a more appropriate name might be gambling, because, in my opinion, that’s essentially what you’re doing on the site if you’re a designer. The only difference is, instead of gambling with your money, you’re gambling with your time. And unlike most gambling scenarios where you have a chance of winning an enormous cash prize that would drastically change your life, the prize you receive if you happen to win the time gambling game is about what you’d normally be paid for a logo design project.

Doesn’t it reward quality work and punish lousy work, though?

You would think. It certainly seems that way on paper, but that argument doesn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny.

Generally speaking, there really isn’t much of a distinction between good work and poor work. Design work is subjective and ambiguous. Obviously there are those who are unaware of the principles of design and implementing them effectively, but once you have that skill set, it boils down to personal preference.

I really don’t think there is a ranking of designers as far as quality of work is concerned. Every designer has their own style and every client has their own style they prefer, so knowledge and expertise are variables that are hardly involved with whether or not you win the contest, which further reinforces my point about it being gambling. You’re taking a chance that your style of work just so happens to be what the contest holder is looking for.

How Can This Sort Of Thing Exist?

Surely you can’t blame the people who take advantage of this platform and hold design contests instead of hiring an individual freelancer. It’s a great deal from where they’re standing. They  simply post what they need done, dozens of people start working on it, and they only have to pay for what they like, assuming they even want to. Contest holders are usually not obligated to choose and pay for a design (but to be fair, 99Designs does offer guaranteed selection as an option,) so they could simply vanish into cyberspace and leave everyone hanging.

You can’t blame 99Designs themselves either, because what they’ve built is an innovative success. They’ve somehow convinced a large audience of talented professionals with a highly valuable skill set to risk working for free, and with the odds highly stacked against them. And because of that, they’ve been very successful. They’re winners in this too.

The only losers here are the designers – those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t see our time and skills as valuable. I wish more of us did though.

Do you think any accountant would tolerate us holding a “tax preparation contest,” where we ask a bunch of accountants to prepare our tax returns and only pay for whoever produces the best results? What if we were to go to the food court in the mall and tell each and every restaurant that we’re holding a meal contest, and they’ll all be honored with the privilege of preparing a meal for us to eat, and if they do a good enough job, we might pay them for it? We might be escorted out by security if tried that.

Most self-respecting professionals would tolerate this, and we shouldn’t either.

Here’s Another Solution…

Instead of gambling our time away, why don’t we invest that time instead? Invest that time into improving our portfolios, developing a website of our own, learning about marketing our services, and creating valuable content that will rank you in search? It’s one of those things that our future selves will thank us tomorrow for doing today.

I can understand that not everyone has the capacity or interest to learn about marketing and content strategies though. If you’re not interested in rolling your sleeves up and battling in the marketing trenches, you could always use similar platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer. Even Fiverr. Sites like these guarantee that you’ll be compensated for your time and have a strict policy that prohibits working for free.

I know 99Designs presents an opportunity for quick cash, and I know that low hanging fruit is tempting, but it’s not a calculated risk and it’s not going to get you anywhere in the long run. You’re going to find yourself in a position where you’re forced to churn out dozens of half-baked logos every day just to keep the lights on.


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Nick Saporito

Nick Saporito is a Philadelphia-based graphic designer who specializes in branding-specific design.

All stories by: Nick Saporito
  • Deep Cover

    Haha it’s kind of weird actually. I came across your YouTube channel so I could find some inspiration for a contest I’m taking part in.

    I guess the only reason I use 99Designs is because I’ve never been formally trained in graphic design and wanted a way to bring in cash while I look for a job related to my actual degree. I think I’d be insulting actual designers if I set up shop independently. Plus, I’ve created a couple of logos for free, for people I know, so I might as well make some money from it.

    • Nick Saporito

      Nah it wouldn’t be insulting to set up shop independently at all. You should try out Upwork or Freelancer. When I first started out I had no real world experience myself. I was able to land jobs on Upwork (formerly Elance) despite that, and from there my career took off. I think it’s actually a lot easier to land a gig you’ll be guaranteed pay for than it is to win a design contest. Good luck!

  • Ricco Welz

    Hi Nick,

    I’m a student in Germany and last year I got into graphic design through a school project. Then I discovered you and you inspired me a lot! 🙂 I want to do something like you, so do you recommend using 99designs as a platform just to practice/improve my design skills?

    • Nick Saporito

      Hi Ricco, glad my work has inspired you! In principle I would be against using 99Designs, even for practice, because you’re essentially doing free work for companies that can afford to pay for it. I think you’d be better served doing practice work for charities you like, organizations and people you’re passionate about, and so on. I personally went the route of practicing by creating work for fictitious companies I thought of. Whatever you choose to create from your practice work, I would recommend sharing it on Youtube, Facebook, Pinterest, setting up a blog for your work, etc. Getting your name out there with social media will bring you exposure, build a following and a personal brand, and will eventually start to bring you real clients who will pay you for your work. Hope that helps! Thanks for your support!

      • Ricco Welz

        Okay, thanks for your advice Nick! In my town there is a fairtrade campaign and a climate protecion campaign that I already supported with my work and there is still a lot of designs/flyers/logos to create. It also got a relatively big publicity for a students project so it would be clever to stick with it and do more for them, right? 🙂

  • Rod

    You make an excellent observation to call it “gambling” instead of the term “contest” that 99Designs like to use. Using the word “gambling” definitely puts a spin on what’s really happening on these bidding sites like 99Designs. There are many negative implications to this kind of issue. From my perspective, it seems really disrespectful toward designers in taking advantage of them with such a set up. However, it does come down to designers to always evaluate any potential job. And to be prudent when offering their skills, talent, and time. Thank you for shining light on this topic.

    • Nick

      Thanks for the feedback Rod, glad you liked it. If designers decide that design contests (time gambling) is an effective use of their time, then I don’t have a problem with it. It’s really not my place to tell someone else what they should or shouldn’t do. I just wrote this, as you said, to shed some light on it.

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