A view of 99designs from the contest holder’s perspective

Alex Bigman

On this blog, we love to showcase the ways in which 99designs is a place of growth, opportunity and fun. However, we are also well aware of the occasional frustrations that are inherent to the contest model.

As site administrators, we have the unique ability to consider the designer’s experience on the one hand and the customer’s experience on the other, and work to develop a site that will serve both as best as possible. We realized that many designers do not have access to such an enlightening dual perspective.

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This app was designed by Jodyboom for a contest holder who runs many contests on 99designs.

So for this post, we’re going to do something unusual: showcase the contest holder’s perspective of the 99designs experience, as seen through a handful of blog posts written by contest holders on their own blogs. We think after reading through real contest holders’ perhaps unexpected advice about matters like briefing, feedback, elimination and building relationships, you’ll be able to look at things with fresh eyes and perhaps adjust your current strategies for success.

The brief

As a designer, it is obnoxious to find a vague, ambivalent, sparse or even empty brief. But keep in mind contest holders are often not visually minded. You might not realize that what looks like an obviously bad brief to you may look perfectly adequate to someone not familiar with design. Wildlife photographer Elliott Neep discusses how he realized and then corrected his mistake:

“First you need to decide on the brief: What name do you want displayed? Is there a slogan or strap line? What does the business do and what is the target audience? What kind of logos do you like? (submit examples if you want) State the company’s values, preferred colours and where the logo will be used.

“It is fairly comprehensive. But this is the most important step. I rushed through this, only to return and alter the brief once I started seeing the designs coming through – adding more detail on what not to submit, my target audience and my personal preference for non-fussy sleek designs.” — Elliott Neep

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Neep’s winning logo was designed by Keepcalm.

A frequent contest holder, Trevor McKendrick, had a more clear idea of what he wanted but still found the brief building process way more difficult than he was expecting:

“Do your own mockup. Creating a very rough idea of what you want will go a long way towards getting what you want. I like doing mockups with pencil/paper by hand and scanning them in but just make sure you do it. Showing designers a rough sketch gives them a starting point.

“Finding examples of things you like helps establish the look and feel for the designer. It also helps force you to understand designs that you like. You’ll be surprised by how much work this takes.” — McKendrick

Creativity and copying

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Design by sony

Obviously we place an extremely high value on originality and unique content, here at 99designs. Nevertheless, we frequently hear rebuttals from designers that they are forced to create generic work because contest holders want it. These two contest holder perspectives prove that this is a myth.

Neep quickly realized that high rankings were resulting in copying, so he found a solution:

“Second, make the contest blind. This is something I originally missed but then corrected later. If the contest is open, then all the designers can see each other’s submitted designs and copy. Eventually, creativity falls through the floor and the designs converge. If you are awarding 4-5 stars to some designs, later entrants will simply look at these and submit something similar. So, make it ‘blind’ to encourage creativity.” — Elliott Neep

Marketing specialist Jeff Korhan, on the other hand, was satisfied with the designs submitted to his contest, yet still felt something was lacking by the end. It turns out he was waiting for a designer to challenge his own instructions and act on his or her own aesthetic opinion:

“Almost immediately I began receiving some nice quality designs, many of which would have worked out fine. However, what tipped the scales toward one designer in particular was a comment I made on the day before the seven-day contest expired. Just as a coach asks his players to finish strong, so did I — by simply asking everyone to stop looking at the work that had already been created — and maybe even some of my comments as well, and draw on their unique capabilities.

“I was really hoping someone would break out of the pack. Sure enough, one did. This is an amazing example of what happens when you listen to your customers and apply your expertise to give them what they don’t even know is possible.” — Jeff Korhan

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Peper Pascual stepped up to Korhan’s challenge to draw from his own skills and sensibilities rather than just make what he thought the contest holder would want to see.

Feedback

Not enough feedback: it’s far and away the number one complaint we receive from the community. And yes, it sucks not to get feedback. But imagine you are the contest holder, faced with a constant stream of designs flowing in from all over the world.

Perfect and timely feedback is ideal but not always practical. Here are how 2 contest holders approached the conundrum.

This contest holder saw both the importance and burden of leaving feedback:

“I had 4 days to choose the finalists(max 6 finalists) in this ‘qualifying’ round. I ended up needing more time and 99designs was happy to give me the 3 extra days I asked for. Through the entire design process I kept in contact with all the designers through ‘private’ messaging. Response time varied from immediately to several hours because of different time zones. Communication was critical working with the designers and time-consuming.” — from The Fastline Forum

McKendrick was also feeling overwhelmed, but came up with a strategy for dealing with time zone differences and communicating in the most effective, least time-consuming manner.

“You’re going to get a lot of designs. My logo contest ended up with 245 separate designs! My least favorite part is opening my email and seeing 20+ designers all awaiting feedback on their work. Ugh.

“The way to manage this is to give feedback twice a day. Log in at say, around lunch, then before you go to bed (you want space between so designers can make changes). Then you can get through them quickly and in bulk. It’s much more efficient than handling them one at a time. Don’t procrastinate this though. The contest is only 7 days. To get a lot of iterations you can’t have a long turnover.

“Giving concrete feedback is even harder, but equally important.

“In addition to giving individual designers feedback you can make general announcements that everyone sees. Once I’ve seen enough designs to know what I’m looking for I’ll let everyone know. While some designers will look at all the individual feedback you give, you can’t assume they will. It’s your job to do the heavy lifting of communicating what you want.” — McKendrick

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Design by Cristian Luca

Elimination

Getting eliminated stings. Not surprisingly, contest holders don’t like having to do it either. However, for many contest holders it soon becomes clear that it is really the best policy for both parties.

“If you don’t like something, eliminate it. I used to make the mistake of keeping designs around that I didn’t like. This sometimes led the designer to believe that I was still interested in that piece of work, which often wasn’t the case. By eliminating the design you’ll send a strong message that they need to work in a new direction.” — Trevor McKendrick

Even though 99designs allows six finalists to enter the final round, this contest holder goes so far as to suggest only selecting two. That way, fewer designers’ time is wasted and feedback can be more focused.

“After the first 6 days of the contest are over you need to select your finalists. Try to narrow down your finalists to 2–4 MAX. If you can stomach going with 2 you’ll be better off. First off it’s easier to manage from this point out. And secondly working closely with just a couple of designers get’s you closer to your ultimate design. You get EXACTLY what you want.” — Offervault

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Design by <<legen…dary>>

Relationships

Many people have the misconception that contest holders are 99designs are just looking for a single design — a one-off solution to a quick project. In fact, many or most contest holders are rather looking for a designer, who they can continue working with on future projects for the long-term.

Blogger Alexis Grant describes how she first approached a local designer, but the relationship didn’t work out. She turned to 99designs and, though many of the individual designs submitted to the contest were subpar, one designer showed up who turned out to be a good match as a longterm partner.

“I looked around for a while trying to find a designer I wanted to work with. But anyone who has gone through this process knows it’s not easy to choose a designer. There are so many out there, but how do you know they do good work? How do you know they’re right for you?

“When I looked through designer portfolios, I often liked some of their projects but not others, and after my first failed attempt at a designer marriage, I was hesitant to throw myself into a relationship again.

“[99designs] promises you dozens of designs to choose from, but in all honesty, a lot of them are crap. Still, all it takes is ONE design you love, ONE designer who gets what you’re going for — and that person entered my contest! I walked away with a design I absolutely loved and a designer who was pleasant to work with.” — Alexis Grant

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D1 Dezign turned out to be a good fit for Alexis Grant, who was looking for a designer for the long haul

McKendrick talks about two ways to approach a contest: pushing through toward a single result, or, more productively, building many relationships along the way:

“With so many people vying for your attention it can be very easy to dismiss people and “push” your way through a contest. Kind of like a bully. Someone doesn’t make sense? Just eliminate them.

“But by acting that way you’ll probably lose out on future opportunities. Instead I’ve learned it’s better to take a long-term view on your potential designers.

“So treat everyone you interact with like a potential partner. You never know you might mind end up working with again.” — McKendrick

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Weather app screen design by Jared.C

Do you have any other productive insight into the contest holder perspective?

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