9 practical steps to getting great outsourced design on 99designs


As I wrote last week, I decided to use the design exchange 99designs for our new logo for Advanced Human Technologies. We received over 140 logo submissions, including many very high quality designs, going through a highly iterative process to get an excellent outcome.

Click here to see the submissions and winner (however quite a few designers have withdrawn their designs so they are no longer visible – the full field was a lot more impressive). The winner of the competition is below, created by designer kn. Note that this is not yet our official logo (that will be when our website is relaunched early next year) and may be tweaked further before it becomes our final logo.


Here are nine lessons we learned on how to get great results on 99designs:

1. Know what you are looking for

The questions asked when you post your contest, in terms of what you do and don’t want, are important to think through. To a certain extent that becomes clearer when you can respond to specific ideas, however the more you know beforehand, the easier it is. In particular for logo designs, you need to be clear on what identity and connotations are associated with your company.

2. Pay a fair price

Always offer more than the average fee. Unless you get good designers to be attracted to the competition, there’s no point. However you don’t have to compete to pay the highest fee. If you can make the project interesting and the competition process engaging, you will still get good designers involved.

3. Provide detailed feedback

We received more submissions than most, hopefully partly because it was an interesting contest, but more importantly because we gave feedback to all the submissions on why they did or didn’t work. Creative people don’t work well in a void, and we saw great response when we gave feedback. Thank people for their submissions and efforts, and be respectful.

4. Focus on the good designers

You can usually instantaneously from a submission whether a designer is competent. It is good to give feedback to all initially, even if it is just to point out to all what is wrong with it. However from the many designers competing, you can clearly see early on which have the capabilities to win. Give them detailed feedback and encouragement. Remember they have many competitions to choose from, and you want them to be putting energy into yours.

5. Use the star rating system and withdraw entries

At a certain point, with well over 100 entries having come in, it was difficult to provide individual comments on every entry. Earlier in the competition providing detailed feedback both encouraged designers, and gave them a better idea of what I was looking for. Later on, it was more important simply to indicate what I did and didn’t like. It takes a moment to give a star rating from 1 to 5, already giving very useful feedback to designers. If it’s clear that designs or designers will never get there, just withdraw them – that’s clear feedback.

6. Take advantage of designers riffing off each other

The first couple of days of the competition saw nothing worthwhile emerge, but as I gave both general comments on what was and wasn’t working, and specific feedback on each entry, better entries emerged. Increasingly my suggestions and ideas to designers were followed by other designers. Designers might not like this, but it is great for a client who can see multiple designers

7. Get multiple opinions as you consider submissions

It can get overwhelming once you’ve looked at over 100 logos, and it’s important to get multiple opinions. I’m not a designer, but I have a strong visual bent and know what I like. However I found it invaluable to get not just opinions but also suggestions from my wife Victoria Buckley (who is a jewellery designer with impeccable taste) and my team. What is being designed will be seen by many people, so you want many opinions.

8. Always select a winner

While it is possible on 99designs not to select a winner, don’t do it. I wanted to use 99designs for my logo design at least as much to find out how it worked as to get a logo. I thought that there was a fair chance that I wouldn’t get what I wanted, but I was definitely going to pay whoever provided the best submission. It’s not fair on the designers if you don’t select a winner, and you won’t get any submissions if you use the service again later.

9. Consider getting the winner to work on it more

At the end of the standard one-week competition process, I had a clear winner, but I thought that it was worth trying some further variations. I offered the winning designer some extra money to do some additional variations on the logo. In the end we went with the original winner, but it was worth exploring a few other possibilities.

From the first time I came across 99designs I thought that it provided an extremely interesting model. Now that I’ve tried it, I see that the promise of the model is already largely fulfilled.

If you hire a designer – whether it is someone local, or one you have selected from an online services exchange such as elance, Guru, or oDesk – you have to go through an iteration process to move towards what you really want. The advantage of 99designs is that you have many designers to iterate with – not just individually but also collectively. The chances are high that you’ll end up with a great result. This is a great addition to other models of delivering online services.

Two essential things need to be in place for this model to work: quality designers competing, and quality feedback to help them refine their suggestions. While 99designs already has many quality designers, hopefully this pool will increase further. One thing I love about this process is that the better the client, the better the result. If you are good at knowing what you want and giving good feedback, you’ll get great results.

Perhaps other start-ups will learn from and evolve this interesting model of getting the best out of talented people around the world.

  • Hi Ross
    Thanks for this posting. I’ve spent the year reading many different books on open source innovation and co-created experiences – including your ‘Living Networks’.
    Through all of this I’ve been trying to formulate ideas around what this means for design practice and education. Until now design hasn’t been part of the creative industries agenda but the most recent ‘manfifesto’ has design squarely located within a social networking rather than art production paradigm. While this is good news (and about time) I have yet to come across anyone who has been able to stitch together design practice, social networking, creative economies and of course, the role of cultural organisations in all of this. Guess I might be busy in 2009.
    So your posting was particularly pertinent, particularly your 9 tips for outsourced designs. As I read through them I couldn’t help thinking that:
    – the design procurer starts to take the role of design lecturer, providing feedback and identifying successes in a public forum. There is a long tradition of this in design education through the design’studio as laboratory’ model and through peer-reviewed public critique at formative stages of a design project.
    The difference is that in our contemporary education environments, points 4,5 and 6 get us hauled up in front of discipline committees!
    – open source design is potentially a very important innovation for young designers in particular. I remember many years ago wondering how I could ‘break into’ the inner circle of small design contracts which always seemed to go to the same designers. Additionally, back in the paper and print days, entering competitions was an expensive proposition. Digital technology does away with that barrier particularly as increasingly, the more specialised software programs are available relatively cheaply or there are open source options.
    – We don’t have the critical mass in Australia to be able to set up truly multidisciplinary design firms. While there are a few, it remains difficult for most designers to collaborate in this way. SMEs are probably at the most disadvantage. In the open source environment there is the potential for the design procurer to take up your 9th point and actually bring designers together to solve different problems and collaborate in ways which would not be possible otherwise.
    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on the process. There are big questions to be asked in design schools around the world re: the impact of open source design on design education and practice. Your post is one of the few I have read that begins to explore the scope of change in practice.

  • Thanks for your excellent comments Angelina!
    I too think this is an extremely exciting time, when many of the constraints of the past can be thrown off by those that have the curiosity and drive to explore new ways of going about design and other creative endeavors.
    I expect this space to change very fast over the next year or two.

  • You paid $414 for the logo.

    How do you expect a graphic designer to pay rent, food, taxes and other expenses with that? How many logos one would have to make (and get selected) to be able to get enough money for a living?

    99designs will make a bunch of people work, but only one person will be paid. A design project is a not contest, it takes time and resources.

    Graphic designers do not go through 4 years of college education to learn how to draw. Innovative graphic designers know how to create businesses, not simple logos. You should read what Tim Brown, from IDEO, has to say about design innovation: http://www.designinnovation.ie/what_innovation_sec1.html

  • Nice Post!!!
    Good points for outsourcing. The points you mentioned are very good in outsourcing world. There are lot of vendors who provide logo design service through outsourcing.
    Good work….

  • I have also just had my first experiment with 99designs and I couldn’t agree more – the range and quality of designs was amazing. And many of the designers were happy to alter existing designs they had posted to change color or font type.