For those who don’t know, 99Designs is a “design crowdsourcing” service. You post a contest in one of several design categories, with a specified monetary prize for the winner. Designers submit designs, which you rate and comment on, and based on the feedback they may submit updated designs. At the end of the contest period (a week, by default) you pick a winner. They get the money, and you get the rights to their design.
Getting my contest started was straightforward enough, although they could have provided some more examples of how to write a good spec.
For the first couple of days I saw zero entries. This was a nerve-wracking period – I was wondering if I had committed some 99Designs faux pas, or if it normally took a while for designs to appear. They would do well to add some kind of notice for contest holders saying “Don’t panic! Designers are working on their submissions“. Or maybe even provide a way for designers to indicate that they are interested and working on an initial submission.
Eventually designs started trickling in. Around the 4th day I saw a design that was good enough that I felt confident switching to “guaranteed payment”—in which it is guaranteed that someone will get the prize. After that submissions came at a steady clip. At the end I had a remarkable 93 submissions, all for a $145 “Bronze” level prize.
The design of the feedback system is simply awful. As a contest holder, you have (at least) three avenues of communication. There’s an “Inbox” – which never has anything in it. There’s contest-level message board (which doesn’t feed into your Inbox). And then every designer to submit to your contest gets their own contest/designer-specific message boards, which have no connection to the main contest message board or your “Inbox”. If you leave feedback on a design, you leave it on the designer-specific message board. If they reply, you are not notified in any way. That means that if 20 designers submit designs, in order to keep up with responses to your feedback you must remember to check 20 different message boards manually. In addition, it is apparently impossible for designers to private-message the contest-holder. For an otherwise well laid-out site, the communication UX is a disaster.
Apart from that my experience was good. There were a lot of just plain low-quality designs, yes; but there were enough good ones to choose from at the end of the contest that I felt like my $145 (actually $100, I had a coupon) was well-spent.
The really nice part, for me, was that it enabled me to not think too hard about the design. This particular design was something that I wanted to look good, but apart from that I wasn’t very particular. 99Designs let me get a lot of different design perspectives on it without having to spend a ton of time working with a designer to hash out ideas.
Bottom line, I would use them again.
EDIT: Something I forgot to write about. One thing I noticed about the designs was that a lot of the designers seemed to be cuing off of previous designs more than the actual design spec. For instance, a designer would add a subtitle which was not part of the spec, and then subsequent designers would copy the subtitle word-for-word. This was a little annoying.