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In Praise of Crowdsourced Graphic Design

by | Oct 16, 2013 | Lead Generation | 0 comments

If yours is a medium-size or, like mine, a small business, you probably rely on either a very small in-house group – or a trusted freelancer or two – for your graphic design needs.

But what if a project comes up that none of your regular designers has time for? Or maybe you just want something that’s “different” from what they normally provide? In either case, hiring an outsider you’ve never worked with before adds a significant amount of uncertainty.

I faced that situation recently. I needed a cover design for a new special report I was about to roll out. But rather than trust my project to one new designer, I decided to spread my risk over a number of them.

I tried crowdsourcing.

On a tip from a colleague, I went to I was pleasantly surprised by the process and very pleased with the results. So I wanted to share my experience with you today, and reveal a few things that aren’t immediately obvious about this service.

See before you buy.

When you post a job on – and similar sites like DesignCrowd and crowdSPRING – you’re not posting a “request for proposal.” You’re launching a design contest offering a fixed cash prize.

Once you do, you’ll immediately start getting entries from any number of 99designs’ more than 200,000 active designers. Then, by providing feedback to those designers and refining your specification, you’ll get better and better designs… until you get exactly what you want.

And you don’t pay until you do. If you don’t see anything you like during the preliminary design round (open to all designers), you can get a full refund of your prize money.

Not just students and starving artists.

Although there are a lot of those, 99designs also attracts many experienced professionals. They may be trying to earn a little extra on the side, or broadening their portfolios before opening their own studio.

Among those contributing designs to my contest were a senior graphic designer for a high-end advertising agency, a 3D designer in architecture, a book cover specialist, and a advertising designer with experience in the fashion, beauty and publishing industries.

You’ll see lots of designs.

You really will.

This was a reservation I had. Higher prize levels tend to attract more designers. I didn’t want to spend more than I had to, but I was afraid that if I didn’t up the ante, I might not attract many entries.

I needn’t have worried. Despite choosing the minimum prize level, I received 87 designs during the preliminary (open) round, and an additional 23 designs from the six designers I invited to my final round.

Of course, many of these designs were refinements of previous entries. But at the end, I would have been happy with five or six of the designs I received, not just the one I ultimately selected.

Refine your spec on the fly.

Seeing many designs – and providing feedback to their designers – helps you quickly hone in on what you really want.

Reviewing the designs I received gave me a better idea of what types of visuals would complement the theme of my report and resonate with my target audience. That helped me give better feedback: I could refer designers to designs that were more on-target. Which, in turn, got me more on-target designs.

Get a quick second opinion.

99designs has a great polling feature you can use to gather opinions from friends and colleagues. Just send out a link to your poll and it will automatically compile their ratings and comments, and a composite ranking of up to eight designs.

I had already picked my winner by the end of my final round – you can see my contest here – but I was curious to get some feedback from colleagues and my target audience. The polling feature made it easy.

Get it done fast.

The process is quick:

  • Four days for the preliminary round
  • Up to four days to review preliminary designs and choose up to six finalists
  • Three days for the final round
  • Up to 14 days to choose a winner
  • Up to 4 days to complete handover of the winning design.

Only the preliminary and final design rounds are fixed length – more details here – so you can easily have your completed design in your hands in less than two weeks, as I did.

The Potential Downside.

All that said, crowdsourcing is not without some drawbacks, including some potential risks (as the American Institute of Graphic Arts and many high-end designers are quick to point out – see this article from Wired for a contrasting opinion). Here are a few…

No time for research. Initially, since the work has to be done quickly, the designer just has to take a stab based on what’s in the spec. Many preliminary designs will miss the mark.

Originality won’t be the highest. Except for logo designs, most 99designs designers make use of stock images. For me, this wasn’t a concern. I simply wanted a professional-looking cover with and arresting image that would grab attention.

Due diligence is a must. Since prices are low and the work is speculative, designers have to churn out a lot of designs quickly to make money. So, there’s always a temptation to “copy” or “borrow” from other designers. To avoid legal hassles, you need to be sure you’re not buying stolen intellectual property.

And 99designs supports that. They request designers to declare whether their designs contained licensed elements. They point you to tools for verifying the originality of designs. They encourage you to ask designers what licensed elements they’ve used and how to obtain licenses for them. They even provide a facility for designers to report copyright infringements by other designers.

I had one designer withdraw a design, because it was reported. She had previously informed me that she was seeking permission for the image she had used, and promptly informed me again when she was reported. She later submitted an alternative design with a different image.


Sure, there are some risks, and the design won’t be award-winning. But if you need serviceable design on a tight budget, crowdsourcing is a great way to get it.

Take-Away Points

Here are the major pluses and minuses of crowdsourced graphic design:


  • Budget-conscious price
  • See many, many designs before you buy
  • Easy to work with many designers and refine designs through feedback
  • Poll facility makes it easy to get help with your buying decision
  • Process is very fast


  • Many preliminary designs will miss the mark
  • Originality won’t be the highest
  • Need to perform due diligence

Need compelling copy to go with that eye-catching graphic? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at

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