99 problems but a design ain't one

99 problems but a design ain't one

Summary: 99designs strengthened its claim as the world's number one purveyor of crowdsourced logo competitions by acquiring German rival 12 Designers, but the quest for global domination has created enemies and taken casualties.

TOPICS: Start-Ups, Australia

Planting 99designs' flag firmly in German soil, Berlin, established a critical European beachhead to execute its mission to democratise design via a contest-driven model — one where practitioners responded to customer briefs by freely submitting fully-developed designs to win a cash prize.

However, some have complained that the company's riches are built on the backs of a design slave trade, because the contest-driven model doesn't suitably remunerate professionals for their work.

The threat that their craft could be commoditised called the industry to arms, resulting in the NoSpec campaign that aims to raise awareness of the problem behind soliciting free designs.

This uprising was noticed by 99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn, who made a move to intellectually engage designers.

A new hybrid competition model, called "gold exclusives", rewards more designers for participating in a competition, and not just the winner. Additionally, a global mentoring network — administered by an in-house team of ten designers — allows the site's top designers to create content to educate the less experienced practitioners.

They will help designers develop their craft as they grow more experienced.

"That's been a big part of us," Llewellyn said, who recently hired a former Apple staffer to reinvent the company's brand. As a designer, "you have your foot in the door, you start meeting people — maybe it wasn't as great as you'd like — but you developed your craft as you got more experienced," he said.

"That's certainly what our designers experience: the transformation from early designers to mid-ranking to consistently winning."

"You see they've improved significantly," he said. "Not just their raw skills, but also just interpreting what the hell the customer is asking for. That's the critical thing."

SWOT analysis


99designs has already secured a US$35m investment from Silicon Valley firm Accel Ventures. It has the first-mover advantage and it is expanding globally.


The model is easily copied, which has resulted in a number of competitors. It couldn't grow organically in Germany and was forced to buy a local competitor.


The contest-driven model has only touched on very simple products, like logos, but there is a significant opportunity to service other areas of design, such as websites and brands. Providing education resources could also generate big rewards.


99designs' model has divided the design community, and further aggravation could alienate users and present an opportunity for new competitors.


Few start-ups have the honour of saying they inspired a rebellion and 99designs' response to the NoSpec movement will determine its success. I believe it has the resources and the desire to navigate the delicate balance of serving designers and customers.

Verdict: BOOM.

Topics: Start-Ups, Australia

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  • Losers All Around

    Unfortunately Mr. Sharma, the likes of 99 designs serves its CEO and investors first and foremost, cheap and never-to-be-successful clients second, and designers third (if even that). There is no delicate balance, and if you or the Chief Exploitation Officer want to believe a free for all competition is servicing the design community by giving designers experience as a bi-product of a flawed system, then you're dead wrong.

    Would 50 doctors anywhere in the world compete against one another to figure out a patient's illness, only to have one of them get paid the $35 co-pay for prescribing the most effective treatment? Would you dare to walk into 10 restaurants on a Friday night, have chefs and bartenders give you a free meal, and you would only be required to pay the restaurant of your choice a measly fee?

    This is exactly why the American Design Awards is educating designers to stop taking part in these "competitions" because its not just the designer who loses, but the hundreds of companies to date who have been on the losing end of copyright infringement lawsuits, for having used competition driven designs. Why? Because when you pay a designer 1/10th of his worth, he or she will cut corners, copy other logos belonging to reputable companies, and not give a hoot about what happens from that point forward.
    American Design Awards
    • Chief unEthical Officer - Shame on You!

      If sweatshops in India, Honduras, and China are ethically and morally unacceptable in the 21st century, then how can 99Designs think its ok to get away with it?

      Shame on 99Designs for devaluing the design process, the design industry, and designers.
      Jennifer McLaughlin