View Full Version : 99designs.com

Alessandra Kelley
08-02-2012, 09:39 PM
On another thread someone brought up 99designs.com. I had never heard of them, so I looked into things.

Wow. Holy cow.

Run away and don't look back.

99designs, for those unfamiliar with it, is a crowdsourcing illustration and design middleman based in Australia. It charges clients who wish a design or illustration a fee -- the lowest is $149 but they go up, way, way up -- to set up a "contest." Designers from around the world submit finished designs and artwork, and the client chooses which one to pay for.

The client gets all copyrights and intellectual property rights (which is itself worrisome, more about that below) and a piece of cheap artwork. 99designs gets a good chunk of money. The lone winning designer gets paid some lesser amount than the contest's price.

And every artist who submitted anything that didn't win is hosed.

This is wrong on many levels, but let's start with "spec work." (http://www.no-spec.com/faq/)

Spec work is when a designer does work without being paid for it. It is unethical (http://www.creativelatitude.com/articles/article_0804_habib.html) and has long been condemned (http://www.gdc.net/business/purchasing_resources/articles/43) in the industry. Designers' work and time is as valuable as anybody else's, and to ask them to provide work without pay is as outrageous as asking any professional to provide work for free.

Even asking a designer to provide preliminary sketches without pay is a violation of ethics. But 99designs requires every artist to provide finished, camera-ready artworks. That's a huge amount of work to gamble on the hope of being paid.

AIGA (http://www.aiga.org/position-spec-work/) (the American Institute of Graphic Arts) is firmly against the practice of spec work. As they say, "Just consider the response if you were to ask a dozen lawyers to write a brief for you, from which you would then choose which one to pay!"

Robin on Book Cover Blog in "Why I Hate 99 Designs" (http://bookcoverblog.com/2011/12/why-i-hate-99-designs/) put spec work in writers' terms:

"Let’s say that self-pub is not available to you at all. And let’s say that you have an agent, and that agent has a publisher, and (remember this is mythical) that publisher wants you to write a certain, very specific type of book for a niche market held only by that publisher. There is no advance and no contract. So you work hard on this book and you finish it and present it to the publisher. Only to find that the publisher has also solicited 10 other authors to write that same book, and he likes that other person’s book better than yours. And even worse, because of the way that book is written, you cannot sell that book to anyone else, because its niche was so specific that you can’t rework it. You have to just trash it. All those hours down the drain."

What's worse is how this is being sold as somehow a favor to artists and designers.

I have found many people online cheering 99designs and saying how wonderful it is. There is a huge social pressure for it and against designers, who if they point out its flaws are treated as "whiners" who haven't got enough talent to "win" 99designs' contests. Many of its customers -- the people who get cheap designs, I mean, seem really happy.

But as Kyle Racki, on "99designs: Hacks and Cheapskates unite!" (http://headspacedesign.ca/index.php/blog/entry/99designs-hacks-and-cheapskates-unite/) says (in the comments after his post):

"As a customer, I would think it’s a pretty good deal to go to a restaurant that has 50 chefs competing to get paid and they have to each create me a dish, and I get to taste from the hundreds of dishes they get made, and whatever one I like best, I have to pay $5.00 for, knowing full well the chefs that ‘lost’ the competition made nothing. But as a person, I would pity the chefs, because obviously they are giving away their work day in and day out without payment because they have no other options, there is no restaurant that will pay them for their work."

While I have found many clients chortling and crowing about their good fortune at getting something so cheap, I have seen little evidence of artists who are happy with 99designs. There have been anonymous commenters on blogs claiming to be artists who have made generous incomes from 99designs enabling them to travel the world, but there is no more reason to assume them to be reliable than the testimonials at PublishAmerica.

99designs' copyright policy is also problematic. The "winning" designer loses all rights to the artwork forever. That means that they are claiming that this is "work-for-hire," (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_for_hire) which means that the artist is not even legally entitled to recognition that he or she made the work.

What about copyright violations? Many of these contests are open for all to see, so designs can easily be stolen. 99designs' policy on copyright violation is a particularly bad one. They essentially wash their hands of all responsibility. Anyone who has been infringed is told (http://99designs.com/help/copyright) to PM the violator and keep it private. Any public mention of copyright infringement, it says in severe legal language, will be "dealt with." A long and stern warning about false allegations ends with "Keep in mind that you'll be liable for damages, including costs and lawyers or attorneys fees, if you materially misrepresent that an activity is infringing your copyright." They then link to a severely worded legal document any complainant must sign.

In other words, their official policy is to sweep all copyright violations under the carpet and throw hurdles in front of anyone who wishes to stand up for their rights.

On Graphic Push (http://graphicpush.com/99designs-bullshit-20) , a rather cranky and profane but clear-eyed blog, the author says

"To summarize: you’re doing spec work for third-world prices with no option for copyright retention. Everyone wins! Oh wait, except you. At the core, 99design’s business model is as evil as any oil company’s — it relies totally on the ignorance and desperation of its constituents."

more good links:

Forbes Magazine, "Why Designers Hate Crowdsourcing," (http://www.forbes.com/2010/07/09/99designs-spec-graphic-technology-future-design-crowdsourcing.html) by Mike Isaac.

Gale Haut
08-03-2012, 06:36 AM
If you think 99designs is bad, your eyes will poo at the sight of crowdSPRING. I'm not going to grace them with a link, but it is essentially the precursor to sites like 99 and similar in many ways except that it's kind of extremely successful.

Alessandra Kelley
08-03-2012, 02:34 PM
(I've included a response from another thread here because it brings up some good points.)

I still don't understand. Should I put my confusion in this thread or in the other one? The main thing I don't understand is there is no misrepresentation, that I am aware of, on the part of 99designs and there is no coercion to get people to create contests or enter them. As a contest creator I can choose to make the contest open where all designs are viewable or closed. And no design that is not the winner would be permitted to be stolen by anyone. If an artist doesn't want to participate in an open contest and have their design viewable, then let them search on only closed contests and choose one of them to enter.

Yes, I understand absolutely why 99designs would be a website many artists would run away from. But I can also see artists for whom it makes sense. As I said, if you are just getting started and don't have many pieces in your portfolio, have the time and see a contest that intrigues you, why not?

I still don't understand your condemning all involved. To me a category such as "Writers Beware" or "Artists Beware" where you posted is warning about a situation that is different than it appears to be. From everything I've seen 99designs is what it says it is. And participation is voluntary.

In terms of the fees, if I create a contest for $199 winning design, the winner gets $199. I pay more than $199 since I pay an additional fee to 99designs when I create the contest. I do so willingly because they are providing me with a service.

Again, I do not understand your condemning the site or using it.

Bookmama, I'm not blaming you for using the site. It's just that there are some serious concerns with 99designs.com that may not be obvious to the general public.

Salesmanship can make lots of things look good, and artists, just like writers, don't always know about copyright and how to avoid sites that exploit them.

People need to be educated about sites like 99designs.com and why they're bad for both visual artists and for their clients.

There is no artist for whom 99designs makes sense.

And misrepresentation is not the only way to take advantage of people. 99designs is not misrepresenting itself; it is doing exactly what it says it is doing. But what it is doing is damaging to designers, their livelihoods, and ultimately to all clients of theirs.

A restaurant (to take one of the metaphors I found on the web) which makes it clear that all of its chefs will create meals for you and you only have to pay for the one you choose is not misrepresenting its actions. One could argue that the chefs have voluntarily taken up this job.

Indeed, the argument that workers freely choose to take up jobs comes up remarkably often when workers are being exploited. But it does not make their exploitation a moral act.

As for no design being permitted to be stolen, that is not guaranteed. 99designs' copyright policy (https://99designs.com/help/copyright) is to lay all burden of proof onto the person complaining, with a heavy dollop of legal threats on top. 99designs leaves large-sized files of the winning entries on its site, and these are at risk of being stolen and resubmitted to other contests (http://www.thelogofactory.com/logo-design-articles/logo-design-contests/). As the Logo Factory rather sardonically put it (http://www.thelogofactory.com/logo_blog/index.php/more-logo-design-contest-nonsens/), "once the contest is completed, site site owners will leave a really, really big version of the logo on their server, so that others can find it, copy it, and enter it into other contests that require" the image.

It would seem that unscrupulous people commonly plagiarize artworks in the hopes of winning design contests with little effort. The Logo Factory has a sobering article of many 99design contest entries (http://www.thelogofactory.com/logo-design-articles/logo-design-contests/) which were blatantly ripped off from their work. Thanks to 99designs' hands-off policy (which evidently won't even consider removing art unless it is an exact, point-for-point copy), all liability for that falls on the clients who unwittingly selected the plagiarised designs. Which means that clients can find themselves sued for copyright violations.

99designs does not seem to care about these violations. It certainly does not police them. And why should it care, when it is the clients who will get hit with the infringement lawsuits?

99designs does not make sense for any artists, not even beginning ones who might need to fill out their portfolios.

Spec work makes for terrible portfolio pieces. Many companies refuse to allow their names or copy to be shown to others, so those spec pieces cannot be shown at all. When spec work is used in a portfolio, many potential clients treat it as a sign that something is wrong with the artist, who clearly wasn't chosen. Spec work is frequently a liability in a portfolio,

Many pros suggest that pro bono work is a better way for new designers to build up a portfolio than spec work; working with a charity one cares about, with a proper contract at the beginning and invoice at the end for the mutual benefit of both produces much better pieces than spec work.

And for a final word on portfolios, graphic artist Jeremy Tuber said (http://beingastarvingartistsucks.typepad.com/basas/2011/01/specwork.html) "last I checked I couldn't pay the mortgage by building my portfolio."

A further problem with design contest sites like 99designs.com is that they cut off the communication between designer and client that is necessary to get a good idea of the client's exact needs to produce the most useful design. In a proper design relationship, the client and the designer talk and work together, going over ideas and developing them. Professional designers understand marketing and branding; they have an intimate knowledge of the field, of what works and what has been tried. They can provide variations and improvements based on the clients' information.

In the contests, none of that happens. The client describes their needs as they understand them. The artists submit finished designs. There is no give and take, there is no especial communication, there is no business relationship.

It was unclear whether 99designs took its fee out of the contest total or on top of it. Their site is remarkably coy about the details, and I was unwilling to sign up in order to learn them. Thank you for clarifying.

I think the important point is that 99designs makes a hefty profit on every contest. That is its purpose.

02-06-2016, 02:52 AM
Thanks for this. I had been seriously looking at 99Designs for a long time, but their pricing seemed too good to be true, especially compared to others. Now I know the deal. There should be a "preditors and editors" style sticky at the top of this page listing common shops and posts related to them (or general feedback or what have you)

03-01-2016, 01:30 AM
I gave it a shot once, spent a few hours doing what I thought was a decent design, and in the end the person putting out the spec didn't even bother to return to the site to choose a winner. I decided after that, that it wasn't worth the effort or time.

03-01-2016, 02:04 AM
I am not sure I see any value for the buyer. From a quick look the price starts at $299. Right now I am getting a custom cover from a good designer with a proven track record in my genre and a great portfolio for $175.

08-05-2016, 03:04 PM
This sounds like any bidding site, really. In most cases, as a designer, you will bid for a job and often get undercut by under-qualified pseudo-designers who can charge much less. Similarly, most of these sites take a big cut from your final payment so you end up with much less than you thought. As a rule, for both designers and those seeking designers/artists, I'd steer clear of bidding sites (elance, peopleperhour, fiver, etc) and do your due diligence and go straight to the source. It might take a little longer, but you'll get much better work, and you're always better off having a real dialogue with creatives - you're more likely to get things cheaper that way anyway.

James Beth
01-30-2018, 12:37 AM
It's not really a bidding site, though: you're not just saying how much you'd charge for the cover, but instead actually creating a cover and hoping to get paid a set amount. As bad as bidding sites are, at least on those you're not expected to do the work in advance regardless of whether or not you're going to actually get paid.

02-03-2018, 01:11 PM
James Beth hit the nail on the head there; the problem is that it's not a bidding site, but "spec work", or as I prefer to call it, art slavery. Work for free in the hope that you may get paid–and don't think you can get away with a sketch to win the contest holder's heart. I got banned for submitting a sketch. :) I can however, get my membership back if I do contests to win back my membership.


I do some work on bidding sites, primarily Upwork. It's not great, but at least you're not expected to work for nothing. The only unpaid work I do is writing sales pitches and consultations.