Designer from 99designs tackles the spec work debate

Whether you’re starting a new business or looking to revamp your current online look, design contests are one of the best options out there in terms of value. You get quality, diversity and a great bang for your buck.

Some people, though, don’t agree with this model and go as far as to say it actually hurts both the designer and the client. I’d like to address spec work from a designer’s point of view — I’ll be talking from my years of experience as a web designer on 99designs. Let’s get right into it and take it step-by-step.

Myth 1: Designers will undervalue their work

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This is one of the most prominent arguments against 99designs. Naysayers assert that 99designers are willing to work for less money, thus jeopardizing their financial well-being as well as lowering business owners’ expectations. The truth is, when you get started in this field you’ll most likely work for free in order to build up a decent portfolio and develop your skills. You might work for a friend of a friend, a family acquaintance or just about anybody. And if you can squeeze a few bucks out of the project, then that’s a bonus, but not a requirement on your agenda.

99designs offers a large, diversified platform where you get to pick and choose your projects. Here you can jump-start your client networking and earn considerably more than what your uncle might pay for his project. Plus, you don’t have to negotiate anything because the price is very clear, and there are certain packages offered in order to achieve a good balance of work versus reward. So you don’t get overworked, you get paid through a secure channel and you accelerate your learning process.

What you don’t see from the outside: you enter a $200 logo contest and create a client connection. Sometimes clients have a really hard time choosing just one design due but even if you lose, you’d be surprised how many times the client reaches out to offer you subsequent work.

Again from an outsider’s perspective, you may say a $200 prize for a logo contest is hardly worth the effort. But as I’ve written in How to get follow-on work through 99designs, you can easily double or triple your winnings by offering your services for that client. A new logo has to be attached to a new design, a business card, a T-shirt, an app icon and so forth. So when you win a $200 contest, you usually have an opportunity to earn up to 10 times that amount by doing follow-on work. Is this a promise? No, not at all. But from my personal experience, I can say that 1 out of 3 clients needs additional work in the next 1 to 3 months. As an example, I won $595 for a 2-page website contest. After I was awarded, I was contracted to do three more pages of the same profile which brought me a little over $2,000. That means I actually won three times as much as my public profile shows for that particular contest.

Myth 2: Design contests lower the industry quote expectations

Myth2

Let’s talk about how designers on 99designs lower the industry fees. I see a clear distinction between agency clients and design contest clients. Apparently, some people don’t realize there is a market for every budget. The people buying $35 templates won’t ever pay a big creative agency their requested 5-figure quote. Nor will they expect that level of quality or attention to detail from their template.

Design contests constitute a market of its own, with its own rules, level of quality and dynamics. It has a place for certain business owners within a certain budget range. If a client tells you he can get the same job done at a fraction of a cost on a design contest platform, that means your services or marketing aren’t up to par.

So the argument is that a beginner designer can drive down quotes by offering a lower price — to a completely different type of client in a completely different environment? That’s very hard to believe. Sure, we’re in the same market as the agencies and high-end independent designers, but our audience is so different that it shouldn’t be an issue at all.

Myth 3: Design contests promote copyright infringement

Myth 3

To those who ask: Couldn’t someone easily win a contest with a stolen design and get away with it? In short, no. We are a community and a vigilant one at that. We monitor everything and constantly check up on our competitors whether we publicly recognize it or not. When a copy-cat is detected, site administrators take action against him or her immediately.

Also note there is a fine line between stealing ideas and drawing inspiration. Those who are still new in this field might not recognize the difference at first, but with the help of the community, they’ll be gently or abruptly guided on the right track. The power to maintain originality lies in the quality of its community, and we are some of the most attentive users out there.

Myth 4: Design contests produce poor quality designs

Myth 4

The preconceived notion is that design contests produce template-y designs you can buy from just about any stock site. The reality is very different. I encourage you to check out Top 9 at 99 candidates and see the amazing level of quality these designers produce. I bet if you were to mix them in a pile of big design agency work, you wouldn’t be able to tell which is which. So it’s safe to say 99designs offers great quality for good prices. Of course there are expections, but most of them occur due to poor communication, or a badly written brief.

Let’s not forget 99designs is the biggest design platform out there featuring designers from all over the world. As a designer, in order to stay relevant in such a competitive field, you need to constantly improve your skills and produce top-notch designs. This is not optional, it is a must because otherwise you simply won’t win. That’s how 99designs maintains a very high standard of quality.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the quantity vs quality. While design contests may incentivize designers to produce work in higher volume, that is not to say it must be at the expense of quality. To the contrary, this is a highly competitive platform and if you don’t put your best forward, you’re going to be left behind. All designers constantly adapt. They have to in order to obtain clients’ attention.

Truth 1: Design contests are a learning catalyst

Truth 1

Where else do you have the opportunity to work for clients from so many fields and jump from project-to-project? Consider the alternative of being a normal freelancer. You have a network of clients set up that result in you designing about 12 to 15 websites a year. On 99designs, you can design 12 to 15 websites in just a few weeks. Consider what that does to your skill level, not to mention your design portfolio.

And you can become great at it through hard work, dedication and a strong interest in developing your skills. I look at 99designs as a design gym where I can set my own training program, adjust it to fit my needs, constantly find the right equipment and grow as a designer. And grow I have. Two years ago, I was invited to New York to work in-house for a company. I was promised big projects that featured high level names, yet after discussing the details and thinking it through, I realized I enjoyed the freelancing world better. Due to my experience on 99designs, I was making more money than they were offering, not to mention I had endless creative freedom and control over my projects.

Truth 2: Design contests are a gold mine for your bank account

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My experience on 99designs is documented in this infographic. Here’s the short scoop: you can easily earn a constant amount of money through 99designs. This might not seem like a stable income, but if you’ve worked on 99designs, you’ll see that with hard work and a decent work regiment, this is as stable as it gets for a freelancer.

Another great benefit is the amount of money you earn is all up to you. If you work in a design agency you may earn a certain salary, and that depends on their marketing department, their investments in advertising and so on. Here on 99designs, you only need to focus on developing your skills and becoming the best that you can be. Money will surely follow and your efforts are in direct relation to it. Work more, earn more.

Some freelancers have asked, “You never know when you’re going to win the next contest. It might be a few days or it may be a few months! What do you do then?” From my experience, I’ve made close to $4,000 in two weeks on 99designs. Then, I took time off and got back in the game by winning a $1,500 contest within a month. I opened a savings at my bank and never rely on quickly winning a contest to pay my rent. This is not because I’m an amazing designer (especially in the beginning). It’s because I worked hard, I put the time in and if you do that, you can surely win more than enough to grow your bank account.

Truth 3: Design contests are an opportunity

Truth 3

Through 99designs, I’ve been able to change my life in all matters — and trust me, I’m not the only one. I’ve been interviewed by Adobe Romania representatives, asked to work at a big design agency in New York, established client connections all over the world, and worked as a web designer for one of the best web hosting companies in the UK. I’ve also been invited to Dribbble, moved out of my parent’s house, drive a nice Lexus, and all of it is due to my hard work and dedication on 99designs.

This platform allows you to meet awesome people and create lasting relationships. You never know who your next client might be. It could be a local business owner getting started on his small ice cream shop, or a big corporate client looking for a great designer to hire full-time. It’s obvious relationship building is the norm on 99designs, who created an additional platform called 1-to-1 Projects. It’s a workspace where designers can invoice clients, upload design files, receive feedback, and get securely paid all in one place. But from an outsiders perspective, all of this opportunity is something you don’t see — what really happens after a contest win.

Conclusion

I strongly believe 99designs is a great tool for businesses looking for a good level of value for their money. I also think it’s a stepping stone for any designer who wants to quickly develop his or her skills.

Of course, it’s not a perfect place. There are ups and downs as with everything, but when you take a step back and see what you can achieve with this amazing marketplace, you’ll surely recognize its vast potential.

What has your experience been like on 99designs?

The author

Barin Cristian Doru
Barin Cristian Doru

Barin Cristian Doru aka 'thislooksgreat' is an experienced web designer and proud member of the 99designs community: http://99designs.com/people/thislooksgreat Besides creating awesome website designs, he is also an entrepreneur, an Android App Developer and a content creator. His work ranges from freebie PSD files to small tips & tricks in Photoshop, all the way to a premium 16 hour long course on how to succeed on 99designs.

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