There are tons of free options for graphic design on the web. I love using everything from Hipster Logo Generator to Canva to Stencil to Pixlr. But when it comes to website or blog logo design – or really anything related to graphic design that makes your blog stand out – you’ll need expertise.
And professional graphic design expertise isn’t cheap. So how can you make your website or blog really stand out – give it that extra ‘pop’ that it needs without turning hiring a professional graphic designer directly?
One option is crowd-sourced design. It’s a way to help make good graphic design accessible to all budgets, while giving freelance graphic designers a vibrant marketplace.
I’ve used 99designs for a couple of my website projects. I’ve had clients use their design contests feature as well. Based on those experiences, here’s my 99designs review with how it works, along with pros and cons…
*Editor’s Note – this post was originally published in April 2013. It’s been updated and re-published for September 2018.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from any companies mentioned. All data and opinion is based on my experience as a paying customer.
How 99designs Works
99designs is primarily based around design contests.
Design contests are where you submit an request for a design, and dozens to thousands of designers submit ideas for your request, and you get to choose. The bigger your budget – the more your request is sought after (and the more choices you get).
Design contests are 99designs‘ bread and butter. You can run a contest for anything from a blog logo design to a book cover design to a custom WordPress theme design. You set the budget; you get ideas over the next couple days, and then you choose. Simple enough, and it works really well.
Some of my clients have been very happy with the design direction they got from 99designs.
When I originally published this review, I focused on 99designs’ other (and less publicized) offering – Ready-made Logo store. To me it was a gem of an idea for both website owners and graphic designers.
It was literally a store of pre-made logos for every industry imaginable. Each logo could be customized by color and text to fit your company/blog/website. And almost all of them sold for $99 – which was a pretty good deal considering the instant credibility you get from having a pixel perfect logo on your website.
Unfortunately, they closed the ready-made 99designs logo store in early 2016.
But along with closing the ready-made store, 99designs restructured their design contest pricing and reorganized them to focus on specific design elements (including bundled options).
99designs is all design contests. You choose a category, a budget and a design brief. You wait for designs to come in. When they come in, you get a special link to view them. If you like one, you choose it and the designer gets paid.
Pros of 99designs
99designs isn’t for everyone, but it does do a lot of things right. Here’s why I liked about them from the projects that me and my clients have run with them.
Graphic design usually represents the lion-share of any web design budget. While many software tools (such as WordPress) can make building a website cheaper, and premium WordPress themes (such as from ThemeForest or Elegant Themes) makes having a website design affordable – graphic design still isn’t something to can really teach a computer to do.
It’s an art to transform an abstract brand into something visual. You can spend a lot of time & money on that transformation. But for most startups and small businesses – a professional look only goes so far, and it doesn’t make sense to put too much money into a custom brand look.
Instead, you need a service that puts that professional look within reach without too much expense or hassle.
So while 99designs might get criticized by some – the affordability definitely puts professionally designed logos within reach of a lot more businesses. Affordability is the major pro to using 99designs for website or blog logo design.
Choice in Context
There are thousands (if not millions) of designers to choose from on the Internet. But unless you are sold on a specific designer due to portfolio, relationship or desire for a design process – you likely want a choice of designs not designers.
99designs’ contest format provides a wide choice of designs to choose from. Plus – it solves the paradox of choice since all those choices are in context of your design brief.
When you get your special preview link, you have a straightforward screen of choices.
In addition to choice, 99designs’s format allows for fast turnaround time with no hassle. When you submit your brief, you’ll likely receive submissions within 24 to 48 hours. You get a special link to view it – or solicit feedback from colleagues or friends.
Once you choose one, you’re already in the revision phase.
Very little wait for a customized product with a straightforward process.
The beauty of having 99designs run the marketplace is that they are able to guarantee both sides a smooth experience. They hold the money is escrow until you have accepted the final product. There’s no sketchy designer running off with your money or fighting over how many revisions are allowed (or a designer having to deal with a demanding client for that matter).
Additionally, you’re guaranteed to have a design that you love. If you get back a set of bad designs, you don’t pay. That takes a lot of risk out of the equation.
Cons of 99designs
Every company has room for improvement, and 99designs is no exception. Here’s what I would love to change for an even better experience.
Designers need a starting place. Whether you are working with an agency or with 99designs, that means creating a “design brief.” A design brief basically provides in your own words what the design will communicate. You’ll mention colors, examples you like, symbolism, and the general “look” that you want to communicate.
99designs provides guidelines and a template for a good brief. They have all sorts of tools to assess your style and preferences. But writing a good brief is still up to you. And a bad brief will almost always produce bad designs.
On 99designs, it can be especially frustrating since you are likely working with designers who do are not native speakers of your local language. You have to write a very literal brief to communicate abstract ideas.
You can usually solve the situation with more examples (point out what you like about an example) and with more information. But writing a brief can be daunting nonetheless. It’s one reason that I liked browsing their old ready-made logo store – sometimes I would find a design that worked, but that would have never been able to communicate.
Writing briefs are a somewhat necessary evil in design, but it’s something that might make 99designs a bad fit for someone looking to browse concepts or explain complex symbolism.
Part of the expense and expertise of hiring a single graphic designer is that you get to establish a client/agency relationship where they listen to more than a brief or a list of preferences, and actually try to tell the story of your brand with good design.
That relationship, and back and forth can be hard to recreate when running a design contest.
Now, obviously this comparison is very much comparing apples and oranges, but I think it’s a con that should be taken very seriously. Are you trying to go affordable because you must, because you want to, or because you actually think you’ll get a good design?
There is no right answer here, but be cognizant of exactly what 99designs is offering. For a lot of people, it’s exactly what they need. It brings design within budget. For others, not so much. It’s a purposeful con with 99designs, but a con nonetheless.
On Spec & Not Local
To start – this is not a con to me, but it is for a lot of people, so I’ll include it. 99designs is operated out of Australia. It has designers from all over the world. I got one of my designs from a designer in Bulgaria, and another from China. I think that is really cool.
Additionally, an inherent problem with a contest is that the “losing” designers have created something “on spec” – and have essentially worked for no pay. This, again, is not an issue with me since it’s a free platform – and the designers have had to work out processes and business models to make it work. As someone who has freelanced and produced plenty of spec work, it’s just part of the setup.
But others aren’t so cool with it – they’d rather see the money flow into their local economy. They’d rather see designers get paid for work they’ve done. Now, I’d argue that you being able to launch a professional looking business within budget helps your local economy even more, but I totally understand the sentiment. And I’d argue that participating in an contest is not an exploitive form of spec work that you might see elsewhere in the economy. If this is a con for you – cool, if it’s not, then awesome let’s move to a real con of using 99designs.
If you are looking to make your website or blog really pop – you need a little graphic design, especially for you website or blog logo design. Having a custom design is going to be expensive. 99designs puts quality graphic design within reach. Despite a couple drawbacks, I’m a fan – and recommend them.
You should checkout their their Contests page here…
If you are looking for a designer, check out my guide on how to hire a good designer. If you want to work with an affordable designer outside of a contest structure, I’ve had a lot of success with both Fiverr and UpWork.