Interview with SpecWatch:
The Naked Truth About Design Contests

“Spec work” stands for speculative work. It’s a term used to refer to any job for which the client expects to see examples with no guarantee of payment.

The Internet has accelerated its growth in the form of “design contest” websites, and these businesses have advertising machines that draw in thousands of unsuspecting designers who think it’s normal to give away their intellectual property for nothing.

With the increasing prominence of “spec work” businesses, we’re witnessing more and more about the downsides of the practice, and there’s one initiative in particular that’s documenting what goes on — SpecWatch.

David Airey, a well respected graphic designer, has approached WDD with this important issue and we felt it was necessary to bring light to this important subject.

Here’s the exclusive interview David conducted with SpecWatch for WDD readers. Designers take note…

Many designers won’t be familiar with SpecWatch. Can you briefly summarize what it is?

One of the hot topics for the design industry is spec work, repackaged onto website forums and software-driven “marketplaces” that use crowd sourcing to host design contests.

Most boast about “transparency”. We decided to take them up on that claim.

How SpecWatch works is this — we monitor design contest sites, blogs and forums for design contests and spec work offerings.

We document some of the more “interesting” finds we make and catalog them in giant spreadsheet files.

At random times, depending on the time zone of who’s lead, we then issue brief summaries of these contests via Twitter, with links back to our website. We don’t editorialize. We generally don’t comment.

People can read our findings and decide for themselves. We’re not about subjective debate on good or bad design. We don’t care if contests are an effective way for buyers to obtain cheap design services.

We’re only about the objective goings on of actual contests. And whether these contests are a good idea for designers to participate in.

Why the anonymity? I’m sure a lot of folks are curious about who’s driving.

We are a group of designers and writers, concerned with the effect of spec work and design contests on the graphic design industry and other creative professions, but we didn’t want this debate to be about us. Nor did we want to become heroes (or villains depending on your perspective).

By making SpecWatch our personally branded project, we would have been criticized for foisting ourselves, or our practices, at the expense of others, a criticism that wouldn’t be without some validity.

Also, by making SpecWatch our own personal soapbox, we might have been seen as promoting ourselves as a better alternative to buyers and we might have had “fair use” complications when it came to using designs and examples from these sites.

When working out the underpinnings of SpecWatch, we also thought about “monetizing” the website through Google Adwords, but decided that wasn’t a particularly ethical approach either.

If we wanted our message to be “pure” we couldn’t benefit from it personally, either financially or for whatever “notoriety” we’d achieve in the design community.

Any expenses incurred comes out of our pockets. Any time spent comes off our clock. After debating the issue for quite a while (some weren’t convinced initially and wanted credit), SpecWatch as an entity is much more important than any of our individual identities and/or business concerns.

Being anonymous also ensures that we can move about design contest sites unmolested and unchallenged, critical to the accuracy of our reporting.

There are also some pragmatic personal security concerns. At present, SpecWatch consists of several designers and writers.

Some of us have day-jobs where our participation in SpecWatch activities might not be appreciated by our employers, especially when we’re challenging some pretty well-financed, high-profile organizations who aren’t opposed to playing rough.

Most design contest sites also have technically proficient people on staff — a concern for a small band of people going up against ALL the design contest sites without their resources.

If people want to attack SpecWatch, they are welcome to challenge anything we post on the Internet. That’s fair game. We’ve established a set of ground rules for ourselves and one of them is not to make this personal with anyone. We remove contest holder names. We remove designers names. We don’t even mention the site that we’re documenting unless it’s absolutely necessary.

We use to remove any potential “Google bomb” effect against the sites themselves. This isn’t personal. This is about an issue that affects the foundations of the entire design industry. We couldn’t count on our adversaries to follow the same rules, so we removed that option as much as we’ve been able.

The people that are volunteering for SpecWatch are doing so on their own volition, and we’re not going to expose anyone to personal attack. This policy may change in the future, but for the moment, there is no SpecWatch.

Did something in particular happen that led you to start the initiative?

If there was one thing in particular that helped formulate SpecWatch, it would be a Forbes article on design crowd sourcing and Crowdspring in which people in the design industry were called “snooty” for no other crime than expressing an opinion that professional designers should be compensated for their time and efforts.

It seemed like a rather adversarial position to take, while the business model was being presented as the new future of design.

We simply took a look at what that “promised future” held for designers, both those practicing now, and those laboring away in various art schools. The company featured claimed that they welcomed the debate. Fair enough. But rather than make SpecWatch about one company, we decided to monitor all design contest sites.

What we found out astonished us. Abandoned contests. No winners in a high percentage. Copied entries, both from other participants, stock sites and unrelated designers.

The amount of abuse heaped on designers by contest holders is breathtaking. The lack of respect towards designer time by the host companies is phenomenal.

So that people understand our bias, let’s get our positions out there — is spec work unethical? Participating as a designer? No.

But we would argue that the companies who are profiting, usually by a percentage of the take, from organized spec work sites are de facto unethical, regardless of what their PR agents tell us via articles and blog posts.

The same goes for buyers that use spec work to take advantage of young, inexperienced or hungry designers in order to obtain cut-rate design services and what one service describes as “Ridiculous Choices”.

We found that the discussion about “ethics” and “morals” often became mired in minutia and carefully scripted challenges. Some of these services have extraordinarily well-nuanced talking points which they’ll use in blog comments and articles.

They’re very, very good at controlling their message. The one argument that was being overlooked — for what we think are obvious reasons — was actually quite simple; “Do design contests work for designers?” Nobody was looking at the actual logistics of logo design contests. We decided to do that.

What’s the reason for publishing updates solely on Twitter? I’ve not seen any other websites do likewise. Have you?

None that we know of. Our methodology evolved quite organically. We originally planned SpecWatch as a Twitter-only initiative. A lot of these crowd sourcing and design contest companies are heavily active on Twitter, so that seemed like a good spot to start.

We originally registered the SpecWatch domain to protect the name — we figured the initiative would become fairly popular and sniping domain names is attractive for spammers or people who’d use the domain to masquerade as us.

Then we realized that 140-odd characters is not enough space to accurately describe what was going on, so the idea of Twitter bulletins linked to website expansions just evolved from there.

The format we’re using now works well in issuing communiqués while still adhering to the strict guidelines we’ve given ourselves.

We thought long and hard about adding a blog, or a forum, and decided that neither would work for us. Unfortunately, many spec work discussions are derailed by pro-spec trolls and bots.

They wish to cloud the discussion with minutia and heart-warming stories of how participating in design contests has been beneficial to them. While these stories may be true, we do not want to debate the benefit for one or two designers winning a design contest as in our opinion, isolated instances are not germane to how this issue effects the entire graphic design industry. Others can have that discussion.

We also don’t want to debate site owners, management or employees, often posing as someone else. Most site owners’ comments are merely cut-and-paste astro-turf talking points that long since ceased adding anything to the debate.

We’re not interested in how good, or bad, the design work obtained through spec work is. Those discussions are occurring right now, on blogs and forums all over the internet. Having the same tired, yet often heated, argument is also a distraction from our primary mission – the objective reporting of what’s actually going on out here.

Cynics will say it’s just “sour grapes” on your behalf. How do you respond to that?

We knew that this would be a criticism right form the start. Design contests, if run as advertised, should be able to stand up to scrutiny and we’d have nothing to write about.

If they don’t stand up to scrutiny, then there is an issue with crowd sourcing and design contests as they pertain to designers.

Simply cataloging a timeline of events in a publicly accessible contest is not picking on anyone or a case of “sour grapes”.

This potential criticism is also one of the main reasons we couldn’t be seen as benefiting personally or financially from SpecWatch. It’s why we took the “no editorializing” approach to our reporting methods. This isn’t about our opinion or “whining”.

But even if SpecWatch IS the largest case of “sour grapes” in history, we defy anyone to take a look at our postings and claim that these design contest sites and the proliferation of spec work is good for designers.

We see designers getting routinely taken advantage of, often promised things that never materialize. One of our “contest watchers” isn’t even a designer but from a related field that’s been placed in the target sights of a high-profile spec work “marketplace”. They’re fearful for their future and can see the parallel with what’s happening with graphic design.

We’d also point out that we’ve even helped designers participating on spec design contests to obtain what they were promised in the first place.

While we were initially cataloguing spec sites, we found lots of abandoned and forgotten contests — even when a prize was supposedly guaranteed according to site TOS — that were very quickly paid out once pointed out by our Twitter communiqués.

At the very least, we made sure that a few participating designers were selected and paid, something which most of the design contests sites neglect to do on a far-too-frequent basis. We’re not trying to sabotage design contest sites, their contests, designers or buyers.

If SpecWatch has had any effect, it’s been to encourage spec site owners, at the very least, to enforce their own rules and promises that have been used to lure designers to their “communities”.

Several have thanked us openly on Twitter for helping them “improve” their business models, and have even commented that they “appreciate” what we’re doing. Designers who are active on design contest sites agree with our basic premise — designers should get paid for their work when that work is being requested by professional entities.

We understand that spec work and design contest sites are here to stay. As competition heats up, more design contest sites will come online, and these services are going to become less beneficial to designers as the services have to charge less, promise more and be less restrictive on what contest holders can get away with, something which they’re quite liberal with as it is.

We’re of the belief that spec design sites, if they’re going to avail themselves of free work from designers, need to be exceptionally good stewards of those efforts. So far they haven’t been. If SpecWatch can help them “see the light”, that’s good. And hardly a case of “sour grapes”.

It seems you know a lot about how designers are treated on “spec websites”. Is there a specific statistic you’ve uncovered that surprises you more than most?

We issued several SpecWatch communiques for which we took actual figures from several spec websites, and performed some basic primary-school arithmetic.

We found the raw numbers astonishing. The amount of unpaid designer labor being submitted to these sites has a real world value that’s in the tens of millions of dollars. And those are conservative estimates.

The number of designers who aren’t making a penny, while entering dozens of contests, is in the tens of thousands, and you just need to look at the astonishing raw numbers for Crowdspring and 99designs to see for yourself. Wasted time, in terms of unpaid designs submitted, is, quite literally, in the hundreds of years. Yes, that’s hundreds.

In terms of overall conclusions, we don’t want to get into specifics, but let’s say there’s several main “spec websites” that we’ve been monitoring for several months. One gives the appearance of trying to do the right thing, at least on the surface.

Trouble is, the scope of their community and the nature of spec work combined with anonymous designers and lack of project management make it impossible for them to do so. Their service is teetering into the usual free-for-all territory.

Another is already a full-blown designer free-for-all, no project management, an incredible amount of design plagiarism and copying.

Things have become so bad that they started “locking” contests. We suspect this isn’t, as claimed, to protect their participants IP property, but instead to cover up the out-of-control nature of their contests, especially what goes on in the comment sections.

They don’t “lock” design contests that end “successfully” and the designers that participated see their work and IP exposed.

Another is breathtakingly dishonest, carrying on in a way that is tantamount to fraud. Another, in start-up, even seems to be hosting bogus contests, with non-existent designers and made-up clients, in order to attract buyers and participants to their new website.

On all the sites we’ve monitored, whatever “protections” that are in place are usually to protect the host company and website themselves, while designers are thrown to the wolves.

The lack of buyer feedback — the only other reason, other than pay, that all design contest sites claim is an advantage to participating — is stunning.

Overall, what truly amazes us is the amount of abuse designers are willing to endure, and the amount of time they’re willing to donate to another company’s bottom line while being cheated, copied and treated like chattel. It’s a sad development in the design industry and community.

While it’s highly unlikely SpecWatch will even make a dent in the rise of spec design sites — a couple are in start-up, there are several in BETA — at the very least we can help shed some light on the dark side to these services, the risks involved and the actual pitfalls of participating. If we can help one designer avoid burning out before having a chance at a decent career in design, our efforts will have been worth it.

David Airey: Those familiar with my own blog posts will know I have a strong stance against spec websites, and the most common explanation I hear from designers who participate is that they want to build their portfolio. How about trying this instead?

Approach local non-profits and offer them your skills, free of charge.

The experience gained will be so much greater than working on a spec website — you’re improving your face-to-face customer skills, giving back to the local community, networking with business owners, and standing a much greater chance of actually seeing your work used (excellent for your portfolio).

You’ll learn about your chosen profession much faster too.

The interview was conducted by David Airey, a graphic designer who runs his own blog and also authors Logo Design Love

What are your thoughts about the proliferation of spec websites? Please share your comments with us…

  • Sanchit Thakur

    This is a really good initiative.
    There needs to be more of us coming out & helping Graphic artists to understand they are not sheeps to be chosen for their Wool.

  • getnorthern

    Great article – thanks.

  • Melody

    I spent a good hour going through their tweets and looking at the different contests/contest entries…it’s absolutely crazy what is listed..

    Design should be in the same regard as every other business. If you enter a restaurant, order the food, then eat the food, you are expected to pay for it–whether it was the best meal you’ve ever had or equal to the quality of a mcdonald’s dollar menu…

    • Josh T.

      SpecWatch should name the contest holders, businesses & individuals behind the abandoned contests — not just the marketplaces they are hosted on.

      I can’t imagine that any of the crowdsourcing marketplaces want to see abandoned projects – it doesn’t do them any good. They are probably as eager as the designers to see a winner awarded and paid out.

      • David Airey

        SpecWatch does this already, Josh, by drawing attention to abandoned contests.

    • mstdesigns

      Totally agree with you! I mean some clients are out of their mind wanting to see the entire design without paying and saying i’ll pay if i like! I mean if it is a big web or app design and they want just a small part before the job for evaluation it is alright but no the complete design! When they are programmers or something i tell them ok i’ll do the design for you for free if you work for me for 10 hours unpaid. Anyone being an active member on sites like logotournament and 99designs should be ashamed of themselves as not only they don’t respect the design field but the clients themselves giving them logos that absolutely don’t work.

  • Christoph

    That`s why I hate contests.. If someone wants a design they ask our company and the second thing we do is preparing the contract… I often had problems when I was younger.. there are always a lot of ripper and cheater… But thats reality.

  • Dirk

    I’m not normally a fan of “TLDR” (Too long, didn’t read) but after reading the first few bits of this entry, I was put off.

    The thing is, I dislike design contests with a passion. My colleague here, sitting right next to me, wound up in a conversation about this topic more than a few times. We agree on the subject though: these contests make designers into the “designing sluts of the internet”.

    Really, we shouldn’t lower ourselves to this kind of practice. You put heart and thought into a design, whether it be a logo, a site or packaging material, and thus you should get paid for it. Period. You put a piece of yourself into it, so you should be getting something in return.

    That said, sorry for not reading but skimming this article.

  • Luis Lopez

    Excellent interview, I’am not completely against this kind of spec contest, because can give the opportunity to the new designers or students, to reach some experience on a difficult field, but at the end I also think, this kind of contest degrade our profession, because the fight between contenders is not really fair, it goes sometimes more on trying to copy designs, or use thing that didn’t work in other contest, and then the proffesion goes down, or for clients not paing for the spec work.
    Options like David said are more interesting then a contest for “the best” design on a X website when you want to build a portfolio, but the newbies try to avoid the client confrontation, and these contest are the best way for them.
    Thanks for the valuable information David

  • Hyder

    Amazing article. I’m glad I never became a part of these contest websites, even when the going was tough.

    Sadly, a lot of new budding designers will still continue to visit these sites egged on by friends, acquaintances and, in this present climate, the tough economic times. Hopefully they read this article before joining any.

  • Dileep k Sharma

    The Bitter Truth :(

  • Jaz

    Asking for a little honesty in the industry can’t be a bad thing. Kudos.

  • The Graphic Post

    Thank you David for adding your weight to this important issue. As a trained, educated graphic designer with over thirty years experience, I weep at the future of my craft. God bless the house-bound housewife with a computer who can fulfill her creative drive, and make her life meaningful with a successful logo design. But she ain’t no Saul Bass, and unfortunately some clients these days can’t tell the difference. This is NOT the future of graphic design. Let’s see crowdsourcing come up with the Melbourne logo. I’m talkin’ to you Portland.

  • David Platt

    Don’t do spec work, don’t do design contests. (design class 101)

    contests/spec work are designed to get free designs from unsuspecting junior designers. Usually the designs they get are just awful anyway, after all, what professional designer would do this kind of work?

    They get what they pay for: Bad design

    Cheers mate -dp

  • Zach Krasner

    Great article, this is all so true… Featured at the Zach Krasner Times today! Keep it up!

  • Sara

    I just want to say that this is the second time today I wanted to digg your article and found NO digg button at the social media section on your blog. Disappointing.

    • Walter

      Hey Sara,

      Thanks for that.

      I realize that many wonderful readers such as yourself want to digg our articles and this is being reviewed, however there are some problems right now with this.


  • Damon

    I’ve personally tried more than a few times to win a contest on a spec site or two… if you enter too early, 20 other designers copy off your work. Enter too late, the buyer is so sick of looking at designs they just disregard anything after a certain point.

    Not to mention the fact that the price of these designs really is minimal compared to what it should be.

    I think SpecWatch is an awesome initiative and I hope it continues to unravel the truths of this type of work.

  • Aram

    Interesting article, thanks

  • Laura Montgomery

    An important read for any graphic or web designer, thank you for bringing the true extent of this vicious industry to light.

    The more designers who realise how unfair the very idea of these design contests are, and who realise that they are worth much more, the better the industry will be in the future.

    Lets hope enough designers boycott these contest sites, and the Hosts (read: business bullies) then learn that if they want great design, they are going to 1, pay for it, and 2, go about it the right way – in other words, not waste millions of hours of design-time.

    The lack of ethics is shocking!

    I shall be watching the progress of Spec Watch very carefully and look forward to seeing the positive impact it makes on the industry!

    Thank you

  • James Devlin

    Fantastic interview, I applaud the work that SpecWatch is doing.

  • Tylor Skory

    Very interesting article! I loved this and have to admit that I was very interested in entering websites into Crowdspring. It seemed like a good way to make easy money but I quickly realized it was not worth my time.

  • http://angel david anuior

    hello i ‘ thin it would be ok i it was massively regulated and limited to a small select group of designers who were at the right level but then again its like communism it works ok on paper t in reality the big dudes want all the power and money and women so david itll be good when you go like you said bliss

    first btw

  • Nicholas Z. Cardot

    What a bunch of corrupt people. How do people get away with holding a contest and not rewarding the recipients. That is outrageous. There’s nothing anyone can do about it?

    • Josh T.

      Maybe SpecWatch can track down the project holders and post their contact information? With a bit of peer pressure and negative publicity, I’m sure we can get them to reward the designers for their work.

      • David Airey

        That sounds like more than a full-time job to me.

  • Lana nice website where you can spend a lot of time making logo and get couple of cents for your sweat…lucky? then you get couple of cents for stealing smb’s else work

  • pnolan

    Great Article, I started following SpecWatch not long out of the gate. Its good to see the view from behind the scenes. Especially good is their concern in presenting the data and not playing the bashing game of what seems is a never ending argument.

    Plus you have to love the almost Fight Club Rule. First Rule of SpecWatch is…

    Nice work David, and thanks to SpecWatch for participating.

  • GoodDog

    I think this is the most interesting topic in design right now. I love the debate that is going on surrounding spec work and I love the fact that there is a “watchdog” group like SpecWatch out there presenting straight facts surrounding the various contests.

    One thought I had was that maybe SpecWatch should also present communiques on some of the contests that end well, for no other reason than to solidify their position as unbiased fact recorders. (maybe they do this already. today is the first day that I am following them)

    Thanks, very much, to David Airey and WDD for this interview.

  • Food Photographer

    Ouch, similar trends have formed in the Photography world. The latest TIME magazine cover was a $30 iStock photo.

    • Josh T.

      So we could say that iStock & Shutterstock have devalued the professional photography business and the photographers that have been selling their photos for thousands of dollars in the past. Seems like that’s the general direction everything is heading in…Stock brokers replaced by eTrade, professional photographers by iStock, Travel agents by Expedia and designers by CS, LogoPond, etc.

  • David Airey

    It’s great to see so many comments on the same wavelength, and thanks to you, Walter, for agreeing to publish the interview.

    • Walter

      This is a really important issue and I’m happy to be able to shed some light here thanks to this interview, thanks David!

  • Stephen Mulvain

    I still think that very often designers who are starting out dont care about the prize I certainly dont/didnt I just needed someone to give me a simple brief and then have others to compare my work with. I understand why some designers would feel like their work was stolen but when I was starting out it was nice to have the freedom of well defined brief.

  • PAL

    SpecWatch and NOSpec! are two groups representing the most visible problem creatives face in an increasingly unethical industry.

    Spec is easy to recognize, easy to understand, and easy to get riled up about. Spec work is, however, only one problem with which professional creatives need to be familiar.

    A year ago, PAL (the Professional Artists League) launched an effort to educate creatives about a practice that is becoming a bigger problem by the day … and one that disguises itself as “legitimate” under Federal Copyright Law. Work-For-Hire.

    Work-for-hire is a far more pervasive and insidious practice that affects nearly everyone in the business. It is also the least understood. That’s where comes in.

    If you have not heard of Work-For-Hire, please stop by and learn how this practice is hurting your livelihoods.

    PAL supports SpecWatch and anyone who is striving to improve our industry for the better. Our hope is to influence enough professionals to take their talents and businesses seriously enough to develop the audacity to say “NO”.

  • Miroslav Nikolov

    My brother is making logos for . Just saw they do not guaranteed the winner even, when holder have prepaid the contest.

  • John G

    Man, we’ve had legitimate businesses come at us for spec work. They put out the call to a bunch of design firms to “generate ideas”. Supposedly they pick the best one and award that firm the contract.

    We told them we get paid for our ideas. They were shocked (honestly shocked, I believe). They just didn’t see the big deal.

    We’ve also had clients literally hand over another firm’s hard work to us and say “this is what they came up with -take it from here”. When we tell them we can’t do that, again, they seem honestly shocked.

    Many need education on this sort of thing. It’s a shame.

  • RoaldA

    Shocking, how low morale some pople have… Keep up the good work specwatch! ;)

  • Daquan Wright

    Design and good design is a great ability to have and usually something you work towards and possibly gain a solid education in it. I don’t see the point in joining any contest because the knowledge you worked for goes down the drain if you aren’t getting money put into your pocket. Not to be a damper, but it’s more important that the bills are paid and if they aren’t you’re the one that’s going to get screwed.

    Respect yourself enough to know you’re valuable and walk away from any pathetic contest ideas. You need to get paid for your work, doing spec work increases the awareness that good design comes cheap but that education you got in it may not have been. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, apply principles from other industries if you must. If you go see a doctor and all he does is prescribe medicine and nothing more they still get their money, why shouldn’t you? Work for yourself or go find a more “solid” business to do free work and gain exposure (real exposure, not rip off promises). I can’t see you respecting yourself if you’re not getting paid for your knowledge. And not getting paid equates to worthless, why do anything if you’re not worth it anyway?

  • E

    I have personally tried 99designs, and given up already after 3 contests. Why? Because nothing stops other designers from copying elements of your design that is praised by the contest holder and using it in their design, which ends up winning the contest.

    Also, with some contests on 99designs, there are contests marked ‘prepaid’, where money has been deposited with 99designs. The problem is here ‘prepaid’ does not guarantee a winner will be chosen and awarded the prize, because contest holders can simply withdraw their contest.

  • Alan Kesselmann

    Great article indeed! I was never aware of something like those design contests. Now that i am, i must ask though – how am i supposed to get good design for my future web sites/logos in a way that i get top notch design, designers get they payment and credit and everybody is happy & satisfied.

    Can Spec Watch write follow up article about how such contest should be held or how things really should work. Perhaps gather different opinions and put them together? What i mean is that i want the best of the best as my logo and one design (or even several) from one person might not be “it”. Obviously paying to 5+ people to get really good job is not very cost effective. So what is the solution – contest?

  • Jason Aiken

    Hello All,

    Jason here from…

    First let me say that we do appreciate SpecWatch in so far that they are helping us make improvements as we continue to develop this new model.

    It’s clear is that they do this out of a genuine desire to educate designers and protect the integrity of their profession and its practitioners. We applaud this…while we may differ in our opinion of the impact of crowdsourced graphic design services on the design industry as a whole…we share this basic genuine desire.

    We also very much appreciate the fact that SpecWatch does not call us names.

    What we do not appreciate is that while they admit on their site that they are biased against services such 99designs they try to play it both ways portraying themselves as simply an an objective observer who does not editorialize.

    From the first section of this Interview:
    “We’re only about the objective goings on of actual contests. And whether these contests are a good idea for designers to participate in.”

    Presenting only one side of the story is “editorializing.”

    Look at the use of bold font and “quotations” on their site and in this interview…that is editorializing.

    GoodDog in comment #23 points out that he appreciates the having a “watchdog” but perhaps SpecWatch would be better served if they showed the positive side of design contests as well.

    There are many positive stories to tell of designers who are using our service well, playing by the rules and getting a lot of value out of it. We have disabled designers using 99designs who have praised us for giving them the opportunity to attract clients without leaving their house.  We have designers who are located in countries our even regions of the USA where local work is either unavailable or has dried up. The vast majority of the projects on the site resolve well with as many as 1/4 to 1/2 of these projects that end well leading to additional follow on work. There are designers in our community earning 100% of their income from 99designs referrals.

    We think of not as the end game (as in you win a contest and get $300
    and it’s all over) but as the start of “sales funnel” for designers. In the same way that design agencies do countless unpaid pitches, attend networking events in their own time or otherwise market themselves, designers on 99designs invest their time designing for the projects listed. Winning designers don’t walk away with $300 they walk away with $300 and a client relationship that they can leverage in the future. 

    Additionally…it is important to note that the 99designs model is not a replacement for all design everywhere. We do use 99designs ourselves and at SitePoint…but we also have designers on staff. We know that at the end of the day you need professional one-on-one personal attention to get the best results. Which feeds back into our point that clients are happy to work directly with designers once trust and relationships have been built via 99designs, and customers have been able to achieve that in a low risk, low cost way.

    Plenty more to say but I will leave it for another time…perhaps WebDesigner Depot will post an interview with us…

    We are listening to the criticisms and working towards improving our service and model.

    Don’t hesitate come by the site check it out and let me know if you have any suggestions or feedback.

    Jason Aiken

  • Carson Shold

    I couldn’t agree more with this! I just wrote a blog about how spec work is killing the graphic design industry, you guys should check it out. (

    There are a few sites (not naming names) that make you pay when you post the job, making payment guaranteed after a contest. This is the best I’ve seen in the contest world, but still leaves the majority of designers doing work without being paid for their time.

    I’m against it, and heavily agree with some of the things David Airey has said in his posts. I’ve posted a link in my blog to one of his articles on a similar issue.


  • Walter

    @Jason Aiken: thanks for including your feedback. You’re welcome to respond to anything that you’d like here, and the same goes for any other sites like yours.

    Just as a clarification, I bolded some words in the interview, so that it’s easier to read and scan for those not reading the whole thing.

    The interview has not been changed or edited and the ‘bold’ was just used to make it easier to read.

    • Jason Aiken

      @Walter thanks for the clarification and the invite.

      We are sincere in our desire to be responsive and improve. As an example…the designers in our community requested that we require all projects to be 100% prepaid…which we implemented several months ago. We also improved the the brief creation process to help make the deliverables more clear and reasonable and we have been providing additional resources and to help better set expectations for client participation. All of these steps has helped reduce the number of abandoned projects.

      We know we have more work to do and we are getting ready to roll out some exciting changes.

      Anyway…cheers to all

      Jason Aiken

  • Josh

    The cases where noone is awared are fair enough. Usage of istock clipart on the other hand are neither here nor there. Anyone can use them and slip them to an unsuspecting client if they see the need to.

    If someone can show me how crowdsourcing sites promote this more than hiring a freelancer then I would love to hear your reasoning.

  • Gaurav M

    gREAT CATCH …. very thrilling experience ..this post is too good

  • Imokon

    @Jason Aiken: If people across the globe are able to win contracts or gigs from this side of town then I have no reason to believe that designers can benefit solely from “design contests” they may or may not win. It just means they might have to look harder or learn how to move business onto the internet. That time laboring over pennies in the long run could be better spent looking up paid internships or investing in writing on a blog or for a magazine.

    • Jason Aiken


      Absolutely agree…we are trying to help people benefit from the Internet. Writing a blog is a great idea for designers, and there are so many designers who really do such a great job with this. Paid Internships are also great…though the pay is often very low…it’s about the experience. We believe that 99designs provides designers with an opportunity to get experience as well.


  • David Airey

    @Jason from 99designs:

    Good of you to stop by and give your thoughts, but I disagree when you say Spec Watch is editorializing. Making comments bold is not editorializing at all. Nor is selecting only comments that prove one’s point — at worst, Spec Watch could be accused of “taking comments out of context”, but even then, their bulletins link back to the original comment threads so readers can make up their own minds.

    You also say that presenting only one side of the story is editorializing.

    It’s not.

    You can report one side of a story and still remain objective. For example, if a newspaper reports on a bank robbery, you won’t find them saying how broke the bank robbers were, or how they grew up in a bad neighbourhood. It’s still objective though, isn’t it?

  • Jason Aiken


    Good to talk to you…

    If a group has a clear stated agenda and they shape their reports in such a way that supports that agenda and omits the parts that do no support that agenda…that is injecting an opinion into a much larger overall story which is the definition of editorializing.

    The story of the bank robbery is an overly simplistic example…it is a different kind of story and it just does not equate.

    In any event…this is not really about semantics…and whether SpecWatch is editorializing or not is really not the issue.

    This is about change…this is about people…and livelihoods. This is about the Internet breaking down barriers and the fact that economies do not function in isolation.

    These are really big issues and we must all take responsibility for shaping our future.
    We are mindful of this…just as you are.

    In that spirit we look forward to ongoing open dialog.


  • David Airey


    I agree. Editorializing is clearly not the point.

    This is about designers having enough respect for their skills not to give it away for free, and, as you say, taking responsibility for their futures.

    Those looking for experience would earn much more of my respect if they took the advice offered in the concluding interview paragraphs. But then, I realise my respect is hardly what others are working towards. And rightly so, too.

  • Daquan Wright

    Musicians can practice for hours by themselves to perfect their songs and music. There isn’t anything wrong with doing things for yourself, just set a goal and schedule to get things done. I don’t believe that is impossible.

  • Roché Compaan


    It seems that your agenda with Spec Watch is to protect unsuspecting designers from doing work for free. I think you are deliberately avoiding common sense here for reasons that I might guess but are not known to me. Designers that participate do this by choice because they see value that you don’t and they *really* are not unsuspecting idiots.

    To me it seems that crowd sourcing creates an entirely new marketplace that does not in any way rob designers of any compensation but puts them in direct touch with real opportunities without having to market themselves. This market didn’t exist before – it wasn’t practical or cost effective for people to outsource design to a designer sitting on the opposite side of the earth.

    It also gives novice designers an opportunity to hone their skills and learn from professional designers.

    Contests do not have to be won to help grow the market for design. Oftentimes contests are the meeting place between designers and customers and long and prosperous relationships of fair exchange follows.

  • David Airey


    I’d appreciate you not insinuating that I called designers on spec websites “idiots”. For if that’s what I thought, I’d hardly be bothered supporting this venture. If you think that working for free is the common sense I’m deliberately avoiding then good luck to you. Each to their own.

  • Roché Compaan


    I’m not insinuating anything, so let me put it more positively: I truly believe that designers can see the value of crowd sourcing.

    The common sense that you seem to avoid is that crowd sourcing is creating an additional marketplace for designers and not replacing the existing one.

  • Divo

    I wonder if tee-shirt contest sites like threadless and design by humans are considered spec work contest by the esteemed people commenting here?

  • Rafi

    @ David, @Rochie, @Jason

    Well, being a designer myself, I actively participated in several contests on different design forums though not directly on individual contest sites . I won some and I lost some.

    When I came across several sites holding contests for design services, I was tempted to participate but having seen the number of projects and contestants flocking to participation on a single piece of work I suddenly cried out: “O’ lol there are several dudes (more than the number of contestants participating in a forum contest) kicking up their butts just designing, redesigning, modifying, tweaking and in between hoping their designs get selected so they will win a sense of win. Do I belong to it?” Then I realized to myself that there is more sense in finding clients (yes, there is a way) and working with them than to throw my designs before the contest holder (client) just so s/he can see, smirk or smile or throw or accept it. Who knows; God knows. After all life of a designer is not a fool thing to play. There’s a life beyond designs that emanates from the endless hunger out of your stomach. And you need money to quench the hunger thrice a day and not with the speculation of acceptance or rejection of your design.

    Another thing I want to insert here is: did anyone notice how some design-related forums are letting designers displace their fellow designers by offering their services for as low as a low-2-digit figure? To make the long story short, I can honestly say that you can get a template for a website / wordpress / landing page design or a logo for as low as $10. And of course this is not a repeat sales of the same item of design. No astonishment. I agree with the fact that the low-2-digit-priced designs do not match the quality from the hands of an experienced and professional designer. Whatever, this is weakening the hope, skills and sense of pride of 100s of 1000s of designers who are up-coming and who have the true desire to establish a name for them but not going in the right direction.

    Having said that, I am not vehemently protesting to stop what’s going on contest sites, because those designers participating in the contests still love to participate. Otherwise, the contest sites wouldn’t become so popular that we have started a topic and discussing on it right now. Designers, like contest holders, have their choices to exercise, and what all the lead or established designer can do is to educate or help designers as well as clients in the right direction so that they can realize their true potential and put it on the right direction.

  • Kaplang

    really good article, thank you :)

  • Semblance

    And if it is not bad enough I just read a blog post where another one is getting promoted… and keeping in the reputation of what happens on spec site… I see a few elements that look familiar.

  • Ben

    Great article! Let’s have more of these and less “900 amazing photos of butterflies” posts!

    • Semblance


  • Lawrence Meckan

    @Jason Aiken,

    I would beg to differ on your couched, softly spoken language to claim 99’s input into this is “open dialog”. Retromoderation of negative rep to 99 and the CH isn’t a good way to show you can deal with diversity, let alone contradictory evidence.

    Specwatch’s history on one project:

    Contest link itself:

    The bit that has been moderated:
    “i get the feeling that this contest was held to get ideas from the designs posted here and get someone locally to incorporate those ideas. just my view.”

    Such is life. It really shows profound credibility for open dialog when the 99 staff are employed to stave off negative rep that Specwatch is tracking. Granted, from a business management perspective, 99’s business structure is a dream come true.

    You’re getting money for people trying to find things, even if they fail (considering how many CH disappear, contests get locked, etc). And people will keep on coming back, because they fail.

    But let’s talk about the positives too..

    The positive side to crowdsourcing “design”: the company that runs the contest site makes easy money off unsuspecting people. Everyone else doesn’t (based on the calculations done at Specwatch regarding design, labour and copyright costs). Perhaps that’s why clone scripts have now starting filtering around the Net, starting at $239 USD.. Other people recognise that 99’s business model may work for them and make likewise attract small business to put up money.

    Functionally, 99 and the rest of the design contest sites are no different to paid “dating”/adult entertainment sites. Sooner or later, the “design” pool will be pushed up with fake profiles, fake testimonials and fake products by fake CH. The designs that “win” by and large are already fake, due to the amount of rampant piracy of stock art present within crowdsourcing sites.

  • Eddie


    I am a designer from India and have been making money from 99designs for the past 4 months. I started working for them once I lost my job. Winning one contest in a month is good enough for me to feed my family. Please respect the tiny amount of money that we make and let us participate in this wonderful world of Internet.

    Eddie (Eknath)

    • http://none Guy


      Perhaps you’d like to go ahead and give up the limited work available in your economy for Americans. The way I see it…American workers are being robbed of potential income, because people in your country do the same work for much cheaper…because our money is worth more in your country. How about we take an entire industry out of India, and hence food out of your families mouth…in order to feed our family.

      Let’s not forget to mention that “designers” from India and Indonesia are the most frequent theives and users of stock vectors as their designs. Sad but true. Most likely this is due to the murky waters of international trade law…not sure what kind of copyright infringement laws you guys have over there.


  • Mark

    I am currently involved in an on-going saga with 99designs. I’m glad this representative showed up so he can comment and show off the way they spin things.

    I had a design in a contest that was not the winner (and it was only a first draft, the contest was poorly run and never got past that point). But when going to the actual website of the site being designed, I found elements – logo, footer logo, and header graphic, had been ripped from my design and placed into their site.

    You can see screenshot of my contest entry, and a screenshot from his site here:

    Consider that the design entry is a jpg, not a web page, and that the graphics taken had to be extracted with Photoshop (etc), and were not individual images themselves that could have been hotlinked or taken without deliberate effort. And the Contest Holder (CH) claimed it was an accident. As far as I can tell, this CH is passing himself off as a web designer, then running contests on 99designs and delivering them to his client(s) as his own work – for significantly more money than he is paying the designers in the contest.

    While 99designs did send him a letter asking him to take it down, and then closed the matter as I informed them I would handle this on my own, they are allowing this contest holder to continue operating on their site. I posted a comment on the latest contest, letting designers know about the rip-off artist, 99designs posted a follow-up comment, making it sound like the CH did nothing wrong. So not only are they aware of what this guy does, they are complicit in his activities, by giving an “official” endorsement to him. The contest is here:

    They are perfectly content letting scam operators run on their website, as long as they can pocket a quick buck with no effort.

    Normally, I wouldn’t post the “rantings of a bitter man” on blog comments, but since 99designs took a shot at Walter (author of this blog) for the way he presented this very important article, I thought it important to give some detailed information on the way 99designs operates – giving an example of something that isn’t from the past, but rather an incident that hasn’t seen its conclusion yet.

  • Jason Aiken

    @ Eddie Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Jason Aiken


    I do not know the particulars of the case that you presented as I was not involved with it…but i can tell you this…we are in NO WAY content in letting people scam or abuse 99designs or the design community in any way.

    We are sincere in our efforts to protect the integrity of the site, the projects and the participants. no way did I intend to take a shot at Walter. He clarified his presentation of the story in his comment and I replied…cordial, professional exchange…


  • Jason Aiken


    I am employed to help make 99designs better and grow the opportunity for designers on the site.

    Our model has raised questions, stirred debate and sparked emotions. My presence here and on other forums is simply to engage, listen, learn and hopefully forge an understanding so we can advance the above stated goals.

    We believe crowdsourced graphic design expands the overall market for graphic design and creates opportunity for designers.

    SpecWatch does not.

    They tell their story and kudos to them… as it helps illustrate where we need to make improvements. But it is important for us to let people know (including them) that we are listening to the critiques and taking steps to improve.


    • Lawrence Meckan


      You’re the new BDM for 99, since May, right? Part of marketing is to help deal with negative rep, and since Ryan, 99’s CSR, seems to going round censoring stuff in order to maintain business credibility for 99 and the various CH’s, that suggests you are the one responsible for giving Ryan the orders to do this.

      Would this be a fair rendering of events? If not, who is giving orders to Ryan to remove evidence that designers are being done over by CH?

      It does seem a profoundly negative “improvement” in terms of marketing/PR to doctor the paper trail after Specwatch has documented it.

      As for your claim that “crowdsourced graphic design expands the overall market for graphic design and creates opportunity for designers.” is viable, let’s consider one of the designers on 99: Eddie.


      Care to share your 99 profile? I find most pro-99 “designers” shirk at the challenge of sharing their portfolio in order to display legitimacy in regards to use of other people’s artwork, microstock and the rest. Yet as a designer, you live and die by your portfolio.

      • Adam Schilling

        Hi Lawrence,

        It’s policy to remove comments on 99designs that could be construed as defamation. Slander and libel are very serious concerns that could prompt criminal penalties. We remove these comments for the user’s own protection. The proper way to report copyright infringements on 99designs (and I imagine on other sites as well, Flickr, for example) is to file a private report.

        At 99designs, we take all reports extremely seriously. Each report is investigated by our support staff as best we are able. Comments are never removed without investigation. Also important: comments are hidden, rather than deleted.

        I hope this answers your query.

        Cheers, Adam.

      • Lawrence Meckan


        There is nothing defamatory in:

        “i get the feeling that this contest was held to get ideas from the designs posted here and get someone locally to incorporate those ideas. just my view.”

        Remember, whoever you just moderated was talking about feelings and their “view”. Of course, the CH could have just responded and shown how their contest was legitimate, instead of censoring it. Censoring it just reinforces the implicit claim that the contest isn’t legit and the idea is just to farm for ideas. Actually, such an idea (which has been censored on 99) is not that far fetched.

        Some contest holders on other blogs talking about crowdsourcing graphic design work from 99 and Crowdspring have openly admitted to this practice.

        Your answer just opens up more questions regarding the legitimacy and credibility of 99’s actions in responding this way to Specwatch, this blog post and various others across the Net regarding the crowdsourced business model.

        From my travels, there’s at least 1200 references across various contests on 99 where people have spoken up about the actions of the CH, or about designs which are leading/have won which were related in part to piracy during the design process. This 1200 figure was done on a quick 5 minute Google search hack across your site, so there should be more instances that just the basic taste I’ve done (as I refine the hack to capture more data off 99).

        So, it not only doesn’t answer my query, it suggest to me that 99 is intentionally censoring whatever Specwatch documents since the moderation is so hit and miss. 1 instance I’ve found out of what.. 1200 (minimum) is 0.08% success rate.

        Care to explain the apparent disparity?

      • Adam Schilling

        Hi Lawrence,

        Apologies for the delay of my reply.

        We are not intentionally censoring contests, regardless of SpecWatch’s interest. We do moderate contests where designers file reports to us and we deem moderation necessary.

        You are correct in that the comment you cited may not be considered defamatory (arguable?). It certainly implies the contest holder was up to no good, but it isn’t a straight up accusation. It should not have been removed. I’ve marked the comment as visible. We do make mistakes from time to time. We’re not opposed to correcting them.

        Our support team is taking your criticism on board and will review its policy on discussion moderation, starting today.

        Thanks for your feedback.

        Cheers, Adam.

  • Semblance

    It came to my attention through the grapevine that 99designs take 11% cut from the contest holder. So, for every $1000 contest, an extra $110 is paid to 99designs!! To me that is pretty steep.

  • Mark

    @Jason Aiken

    The particulars you are not privy to, are right here in this comment area. All you have to do is read. And if that is too much of a hardship, I would imagine it would be a simple matter to walk over to Adam’s desk [99designs employee that handled my “particulars”] and have him relate the information to you, and explain why he is endorsing the contest holder in his new contest – a person reprimanded by you (by Adam, specifically) for copyright infringement.

    This person is running a contest on your site at this very moment. Also, Adam has posted his endorsement in this contest, at this very moment. While you may elect (or pretend) to not look in that direction, it remains true.

    I am also glad for Eddie. I too have won contests at 99designs, and while I live in California and not India, my contest wins pay for a week of gas, rather than feed my family for a month. So when Eddie gets ripped off by a contest holder, such as the one you are allowing to continue to participate right now, food is taken from his family’s mouth for an entire month. It’s a much bigger deal that you protect him, than me. I got lucky. The guy that ripped me off is within easy reach for a lawsuit, as he lives in the same county as me – a short drive away. How does Eddie protect his intellectual properties, when you won’t? Will you pay for his expenses to cover suing in the U.S.?

    Lastly, as you are the one here singing the praises of your company, and informing people that your company does not allow the practices described above to take place, how can you then turn around and claim ignorance of a particular case – not from the past, but occurring at this very moment?

    This contradiction does not speak well of your credibility.

  • Jason Aiken


    I did read what you said…however (at the time I wrote the comment) I could not ask Adam about what he did and why…because while I work out of San Francisco…he works in Melbourne, AU and was asleep.

    I was not about to comment on something that I did not have all the information on…


  • Mark


    It’s not 11%. It’s $39 USD, plus 10%. So it can actually be MORE than 11%, if you are running something that’s – for instance – a $150 logo contest. You pay $150 to the designer, and an additional $54 ($39 + 15) to 99designs. So in this instance, you’d be paying 36% for your contest.


    This is why 99designs is reluctant to ban unscrupulous contest holders. 99designs pockets a good percentage from each contest, regardless of what happens to the designers.

  • Adam Schilling


    I take full responsibility for the comment I left on that contest. I thought I was clearly stating ‘there was an issue, but it had been resolved’. However, a quick poll around the office revealed my comment was ambiguous. Please accept my sincere apologies. My intention was to communicate the matter had been resolved, as the contest holder responded quickly and removed the infringing content within 24 hours. I have done my best to clarify the issue in the contest discussion:

    We make it policy to ban unscrupulous contest holders. However, the contest holder in question was very apologetic and co-operative.

    Cheers, Adam.

  • Eddie

    @ Mark

    Thanks very much for TRYING to understand my point of view but here my friend life is just more then gas, intellectual properties or law suits. Here the life is about being about making sure your kids school fees are paid on time, making sure you have enough food to feed your family, making sure if your old parents can live a little longer if you can buy them meds on time, every time.

    Its not a perfect world we live in. We will have cheaters everywhere not just contest sites. At time time i am willing to take this risk. All I know I am a good designer and my winnings have increased over time.

    The only problems I see the established designers have with this are:

    1 – It hurts them to see struggling designers make money.
    2 – Threatens them as this concept will lower the ave. amount of money everyone makes.
    3 – Do they care about 100’s of families surviving bcos of this?

    And yes if I was a established designer I wont work for contest sites but on the same hand wont stop anyone from doing it. I would feel happy for them as I myself would have gone through the process.

    TC guys and respect everyone’s right to make money.


    • Lawrence Meckan

      And here belies the nature of the problem.

      Eddie, you just admitted that you’re not an established designer. The problem, as expected, is that you’re not willing to be open about the credibility of your own portfolio on . If you were a legitimate designer, you’d have no problem with your portfolio being critiqued. But you’re not, are you?

      You seem to believe that via the contest sites, you have a means to an end. Namely money, paying your monthly wage and feeding your family. You’re doing that to “survive”, but the thing is.. before the contest sites were around, people made means to survive anyway. You’re pitching a fallacy, in order to justify to yourself, that your “design” is legitimate because it helps you “survive”.

      You said elsewhere that you make $300 a month off 99designs. Yet Getty (which run istock and SXC), when suing for breach of intellectual property, sues for a minimum of $1200 USD as a starting figure on a simple duplication of an image. Bastardising their intellectual property into a logo or design will attract more.

      So that’s (bare minimum) 4 months worth of work that disappears out of your pocket (most likely 12 months), not to mention the shame amongst your caste and community when Getty ends up shutting down your entire operation. Now do you understand why, from a business perspective, your claims to design legitimacy remain hollow ? Your business isn’t sustainable.

      Families have survived without contests sites before. They will survive without them long after the contest sites are mass populated with fake profiles, fake CH and fake designers.

      I have no problem with struggling designers making money. I have a problem with people who enter contest sites and claim they are “designers” because they take risks in lifting other people’s work and passing it off as their own or a derivative of their own creative work. You, Eddie, seem to be part of the latter group, since you seem unwilling to have your own design portfolio critiqued by designers who have been in the industry a lot longer than you.

  • BebopDesigner

    WOW! Thanks WDD… this is probably the best post I’ve ever read. (can’t believe it didn’t even had pictures and I read ALL comments)

    Anyways, since I stumbled with 99designs I thought it was a brilliant idea and a very innovative way of doing business.

    I took the time to participate in a couple of contests and I found it to be really fun (as an exercise). Didn’t win, but I didn’t mind… took a chunk of my time, I didn’t mind either… noticed people ripping other people’s ideas, I did mind. It was a turn off.

    I still think 99designs is a brilliant service, but I do feel that there’s a bit of room for improvement in order to find the perfect balance.

    Now that I think of it, I wish I could come up with my own 99designs for Latin America. We don’t have one, you know… Then again, ripping people’s ideas is something that I don’t really enjoy.


  • Eddie


    I also left a comment here which is discussing the same topic


    • Jason Aiken

      Eddie…would love to hear more about your experience with the site.

      If interested…let me know your username and I will contact you.


      Jason Aiken

  • Xavier Martínez

    I work at MUMEDI, the Mexican Museum of Design and I really hate when companies that have the money to pay for professional design services with go on and organize this awful contests trying to get a lot of designers to work for cents.

    At the museum we have contests, but good kind, right now we have a international poster contest called “To Death with a Smile” 2009. As a participant you do not sell your author rights and you get the chance to win great prices, exhibit your work at the museum for at least three months and on the museum’s website for ever. Also if you authorize it, they will sell reproductions of your poster at the museum’s specialized store and you will get royalties for as long as the poster sells.

    Hope you like this information, not all contest are bad!

  • Dave

    Great article…… Many props to SpecWatch.

  • Jason Aiken


    Glad to hear you like the site…we are getting ready to roll out some improvements that will help address your concerns.


  • Catherine Azzarello

    Awesome article and insight into the origins of SpecWatch!

    What a seedy underworld exists in design! I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of holding a contest just to rip off ideas for another project.

    That said, am I the only one suspicious of the veracity of “Eddie” “Ed” Eddee” “Eknath”?

    Think about it: 1) no link–a designer trying to support family w/o a link to portfolio/work? 2) well written and posting in other blogs–how much time does he have to soapbox? 3) wouldn’t bidding on oDesk against fewer competitors for a PAID gig be a more secure way to feed family and buy meds for elders than the crap-shoot of a contest?

    I’m just sayin’…

    Quoting Walter from above: “They wish to cloud the discussion with minutia and heart-warming stories of how participating in design contests has been beneficial to them. While these stories may be true,…”

    • Mark

      I actually don’t doubt Eddie, for one simple reason. He offered a counter argument when I said feeding his family was more important than putting gas in my BMW. I accepted that as a comprehension of English issue, and left it alone, since I have no place to criticize his English, which is far better than my ….Indian? I don’t even know what the name of the language is they speak in India.

    • David Airey

      You’re not the only one, Catherine. I’m automatically skeptical of anyone who links to The black hat SEO that goes on around that website (and others by what I believe to be the same group) is untrue. Whoever owns it has previously ripped my blog content for their own gain, and they’re seemingly more than happy to do so with the content of others.

      • Jason Aiken

        hmmm…good to know.

  • Mark

    Catching up on the day:

    I notice that neither Adam nor Jason chose to respond to Lawrence’s query “Care to explain the apparent disparity?” I can only accept that they have conceded that Lawrence has caught them in something they know to be fraudulent, and are hoping it will just go unnoticed since it’s tucked away in replies which are a little bit hidden.

    While Adam did amend his statement on the contest at, it was a bit lacking. First, he stated that the copyright infringement in question “bore similarities” to my work. Since even a Chimp (one that doesn’t have an Adobe certification in Photoshop) can see that it’s not a similarity, but something that was extracted directly out of my contest entry .jpeg file, calling it a “similarity” is a way of softening the post in favor of the Contest Holder.

    Second, he states that the CH was apologetic and immediately removed the stolen works. While the CH may have kissed up to 99designs, he was far from apologetic about what he had done. He even states in the same comments that Adam posted “What Avant 5 says is 100% untrue”. Does this sound like an apology? Further, he also did not immediately remove the files. My first complaint was in the contest, when he had ONLY stolen the header graphic. Days later, rather than remove the header graphic, he ADDED the logo design I had created, two separate occasions, in the header and the footer. This logo also appears as a watermark in the header graphic that was “similar” to mine.

    They are so clearly intent on collecting the $60 commission from the contest, they won’t do anything that might upset an unscrupulous practitioner, so long as they can continue doing business with him. I’m wondering…if the contest holder decides to pull his contest and gets his money back, will it have been worth the damage to the reputation and credibility of 99designs to protect him?

  • Mark

    Two items about 99designs that you may or may not know about their business practices, but SHOULD:

    1) Withdrawls

    In my particular case, the biggest mistake the CH made was actually paying a winner – which he did probably just to make himself look like he wasn’t running a scam. He had stolen my stuff before he awarded another designer the win, and probably intended to take his money and run, before he got himself noticed.

    If a CH withdraws a contest, everything is wiped clean. The contest page is “locked”. All of the comments vanish into thin air, along with all of the submitted contest entries. So if a CH pulls his contest and then uses a designer’s work, there’s no evidence left behind for the designer to show a judge and say “here is my original work, and you can see the creation date”. The proof is gone. So a CH can cut and run. Take 100% of his money back, and steal designs without anyone able to stop him.

    This is a newer feature at 99designs. It’s not something that existed half a year ago. For some reason, they apparently felt the need to protect the contest holders of a sleazy nature – there seems no other possible reason for hiding these things, especially from the designers.

    2) The Shill.

    99designs has a shill. She is an employee of 99design’s parent organization, SitePoint. She is listed at 99designs as “Sitepoint Community Team Mentor”. She runs around, leaving comments berating contest holders for not offering a high enough prize for the contests, to browbeat them into raising the prizes (and, of course the commission for 99designs).

    This person also ENTERS the contests she shills for, after getting the prices up. While wearing the “SitePoint Community Team Mentor” badge (her signature on all of her posts). Her work is good, but not extraordinary. And yet she wins a very healthy percentage of contests, a good 50% above the average of many better designers.

    How can her position within the company NOT have an effect? It gives her a very unfair advantage over all other designers, and ESPECIALLY over designers from countries where designers have been stigmatized as sub-par at best, or totally untrustworthy at the worst. How does this person’s presence help Eddie, when 99designs says they are trying to level the playing field for all designers globally?

  • Eddie


    I thought someone would say that.

    1 – How much time you, Mark, Lawrence, Jason, David, Adam……..have? You guys are active in forums and blogs. Are you guys fake too?

    2 – Yes I would love to show you my website and have you guys start a campaign against me too.

    3 – Thank you for saying my comment was well written though I feel there are many grammar mistakes after I read it again. I think while you maybe a good graphic designer, please take some English courses too.

    4 – I do participate in oDesk as well like I participate in contest sites.

    Again please respect my choice. I beg you all.


    • Catherine Azzarello

      @ Eddie/Eddee

      1) Part of the point of maintaining an active blog presence is to build one’s visibility & professional credibility. I spend every morning over breakfast maintaining my business: reading/returning emails, viewing subscription feeds, responding, etc. It is a business building task.

      2) I hadn’t noticed any negative campaigns against designers’ work in this thread. In fact, I’ve been impressed by the SpecWatch credo: this isn’t personal. Again, I refer back to point #1…w/o linking your site, you do not increase your SEO. Seems that if you want to increase your income, increased visibility is required.

      3) Yes, you had grammatical errors. I was being generous, assuming English isn’t your native language. Many people write atrociously online–even in their native language. What I noticed about your writing was the ease of phrasing, use of slang, and lack of punctuation. Seemed very American/young adult to me. Just my observation.

      4) Your choice. My point was simply that when it comes down to FEEDING THE FAMILY or not, contests are a pretty iffy income stream. Personally, I invest my (finite) hours into something more dependable for my kids.

      Respect? Sure! You have my respect for you and your choices–IF you really are who/what you claim to be. Go ahead and enter contests. I agree with SpecWatch and NoSPEC, but that’s OK–we agree to disagree.

      HOWEVER, if you’re a plant from CS, 99, or the likes–sorry. I have ZERO respect and nothing civil to say.

  • heungman

    my question is if a corporation going to use a winner’s or any contestant’s design, don’t they have to pay or will get sued for copyright infringement?

    • Jason Aiken

      Yes…they do pay…if they do not…then yes they can get sued.

  • Lawrence Meckan


    You have a profile on 99. That’s all I’m asking for. You say you won some projects. Where’s the proof? Currently you’re someone who claims they aren’t established in the design industry, yet has a portfolio of work on 99 that you remain unwilling to share.

    Unlike you, the Net paper trail regarding portfolios for design work on Mark, myself, and David is extensive. Jason has his own paper trail (it’s how I found out he was recently appointed to this Business Development Marketing role with 99). I know Adam Schilling already through professional contacts outside of 99, prior to him working with them.

    You’re meant to be a designer and you can’t even share the portfolio of design work you’ve supposedly “won” to keep your extended family fed for the last few months?

    A designer lives and dies on their portfolio. You say you have one on 99, but remain unwilling to share it. Ironic, don’t you think?


    Well, the rort is that the withdrawn, “private” and shill contests mean that larger agencies can and do use the creative works to build their own brand stable (i.e. use the crowdsourced work as a start point, or as a direct copy for a client).

    The problem is that the infringement has happened on two levels. 99 has taken the initial money for the “project” / design contest regardless, leaving them aiding and abetting fraud, even before you consider the final CH or any other person’s use of the creative work in question.

    They may get sued, but it becomes incredibly complicated as to who should be sued. The agency for posting a fake contest, 99 for the fraud, the “designers” who copy from each other and other existing microstock / existing artwork?

    That level of complexity is just too hard for most people, especially since it would require between 1 and an unlimited number of lawsuits, which most businesses are adverse to engage in.

  • Jason Aiken


    The idea behind locking the projects was to help prevent project holders from trying to steal designs…Not to hide some great conspiracy. Designers can still see the designs in their portfolio. Currently the comments are also hidden when the contest gets locked…but we are in the process of changing that. conspiracy…just a matter of trying something one way…then learning and adapting.

    We do not have a “Shill.”

    The person I believe you are referring to does not work for SitePoint, 99designs or flippa…they are just a prominent designer in the community who is trying to help clients get good results and help set good expectations for deliverables and pricing. She is just an active and experienced designer in the community.

    @Lawrence and @Catherine…

    @Eddie is not a plant from 99designs…I have also asked for his username so I can chat with him more about his experience. I do not blame him for being cautious given the cynicism that some have expressed here. Secondly…I just don’t think it is fair to to attack this person and make demands. While it is true they Eddie chose to participate and drop in his two cents…he does not owe you anything…and frankly it sounds like he has larger concerns than proving himself here.


    Actually we are moderating because we are trying to cover up the fact the US faked putting a man on the moon. ;)

    There is no conspiracy. We are not trying to “doctor the paper trail.” We are just trying to do what we feel is right. There will always be conflicts and differences of opinion etc…and we are by no means perfect…but we are just trying to create a positive community and expand legitimate opportunity for designers. There was $570,000 in available work on 99designs in July alone. We are proud to be able to provide that amount of opportunity to designers and we spend our time trying to grow that number and make the whole process work better.


    • Catherine Azzarello

      @ Jason:

      I hardly think questioning whether Eddie is or isn’t what he claims qualifies as an “attack”. Without a portfolio link, there’s no validation of what he claims to be.

      No demands.

      Nothing personal.

      He is either what he says he is, or he is not.

      Given the stats from SpecWatch and input from Mark and Lawrence, I am exercising my right to be skeptical.

  • Mark


    I am also an active and experienced designer in the community, and very VERY interested in helping not just contest holders get the best out of their contests, but also seeing that designers do not get ripped off (apparently far more than 99designs do themselves).

    And since this person we speak of is not an employee of 99designs or any related entities, but can sign her comments with an official sounding title – with your permission and blessing – logically, this opportunity is equally available to all designers at 99designs.

    Thank you for this clarification.


    *** Mark – Senior Community Representative

  • Mark

    The Great Conspiracy Conspiracy

    Jason, I must say I love how you’ve attempted to spin people’s legitimate queries and questions into your conspiracy theorist defense.

    First, with all the reams of text committed to this discussion, nobody used the word conspiracy once, until you repeated it three times in your last comment. Nobody suggested a CONSPIRACY or COLLUSION between you and contest holders. The complaints leveled against 99designs have been unilaterally yours, and you have played the political dance around issues you could spin, and completed ignored those you couldn’t. I’m not suggesting The Skull and Crossbones society is behind it. Just you.

    Whether or not Person X is an employee of yours, you allow her to give off the APPEARANCE that she is an employee of yours (or your parent company), and you allow her to help improve your commissions, by using an official sounding stance to coerce contest holders into elevating their prices, and therefore your commissions. That’s what a shill DOES.

    And when someone wears the badge of authority, whether or not it is real, it affords that person a measure of respect. A measure of respect not afforded to anyone else that participates in the contests.

    And since you allow this, and you BENEFIT from this…

    Guess what?

    That’s a conspiracy.

  • Lawrence Meckan


    I see no conspiracy. I deal in facts, backed up by evidence, in this case statistical data matched to human sociology and organisational psychology.

    Neither Adam or yourself have offered a fair explanation as to how the quote that is moderated is defamatory, especially since I can find much more salacious language in the ones your moderation hasn’t removed. Still, from a business perspective, 0.08% success rate is total and catastrophic failure irrespective of what it should be targetting, if you were true to your word.

    So you have a disparity you’re unwilling to explain publically, especially when that disparity is an unexplainable contradiction over apparent moderation and censorship of comments that Specwatch lists. That says a lot for open dialog. You claimed open dialog and have failed to deliver on it.

    Also noted on 99’s Uservoice account is that the top rating issue (consistently, and by a clear margin) is “Designer Protection”; something that is neither planned or yet to be implemented. Again, this is publically available data that shows 99 is not effectively engaging with the design community.

    As a business you are meant to respond to the pressing needs of your users, and leaving the legitimate designers out in the cold in preference for stacking the deck towards the CH shows how much 99 actually cares for the designers. Not a lot. Not much at all. As long as 99 gets its money, the CH are free to abuse designer skills as necessary, pirate, run private contests that get withdrawn when the client has lifted the artwork of designers off 99, etc…

    This does make a mockery of 99’s mantra that “99designs was started by designers for designers”. The reality is that 99 was started by designers because contests were meeting some apparent need. I do remember talking with Kevin Yank a while back in history about how Sitepoint Contests was increasing revenue for them on its own (so great from a residual income generation service perspective), prior to it spawning into 99.

    As for the shill, I do believe she is a statistical abberation, winning on average 15% of contests she enters, whereas most contest winners reach (at best) 1%. How she gets there is anyone’s guess.. but an abberation is still an abberation.

    All I’ve done is take public data available through 99 and present it in a way for people to see the business metrics involved. And no, I’m not Specwatch either (just in case I get yet another conspiracy rumour started up about me)..

  • Jason Aiken


    You have made your point about moderation…which any organization that has an very active open forum or commentary always struggles with. It is never really a cut and dry issue. My point was only to say that we are not moderating for the purpose of covering up any “paper trail” which implies some willful misdeed. We are only trying to make sure that we build and maintain a positive environment for clients and designers to conduct business. In doing so…I am sure we have and we will make mistakes. But I assure you, the intention behind the moderation was to preserve a positive environment. It was a decision…there will always be conflicting viewpoints.

    As far as UserVoice…we are very much engaged there. “Designer Protection” is currently the top thread…but it is not really meaningful for us to mark it categorically as planned or implemented because it is too vague. The thread is filled with a variety of feedback and suggestions. You will notice that we are actively engaging in the conversation and have made it known that we are in the midst of rolling out improvements that will help address many of the issues that have been raised.

    Prior to “Designer Protection”…”making the projects prepaid” was the the number one thread. The idea behind it was that the designers wanted more protection…if a project holder prepaid…they would be more likely to be serious and it would reduce abandoned projects.

    We did implement that change and we able to mark it categorically as planned and then implemented because it was specific.

  • Mark

    In all fairness, I think using the global average of 1% wins is not being honest. There are a great many people entering contests that have no business being there, and the very large numbers of those skew the statistics greatly. I find that most quality designers hover more around 8-10%. And that number represents those better – sometimes FAR better – than myself.

    My own win rate is around 3%, if I remember correctly. I do not run in contests with the aggression of most, tho. If I don’t like my initial feedback, I usually cut and run, or use the design for some other purpose with guaranteed revenue, than to continue slugging through trying to guess what’s on the mind of someone that doesn’t speak ‘design’, and often has no business making their own decisions on purchasing branding products.

    However, while a 5-7% difference doesn’t sound like a huge amount*, that change represents a win rate of 30-60% GREATER average in wins over better designers, and a 900-1,400% greater average over the global participation field.

    * if you don’t think 5-7% is significant, call your bank or credit card company and ask if they’ll adjust your savings/loan rate 7% in your favor…be prepared for a lot of laughter

  • Jason Aiken


    I did talk with Adam about how people represent themselves and we agree with you that we need to be sure to monitor it.

    It is actually part of a larger discussion revolving around community role models and policing…and policing the policing…etc…we are thinking quite a bit about it.

  • Victor

    I join design competitions for the challenge, practice and portfolio pieces, If I were to win that is just a plus.

  • Mark

    A recap.

    Hopefully, this will show up frequently on searches for 99designs, when people are looking to whether or not they can trust that place for contests. And when this debate rages in other forums and blogs, someone will reference this for all to read. So I want to close this down with some final comments.

    Jason stated that 99designs was dedicated to protecting designers. Stated but fell far from displaying this as anything other than rhetoric. He also said that locking withdrawn contests was to protect the designers from contest holders that might steal the designs but the designer can still save the original in his or her portfolio.

    Let’s have a look at this.

    If a designer is unscrupulous and chooses to steal a design they can very easily copy and/or save the design file before withdrawing the contest. They can also simply get it from the designer’s folio, as Jason points out the file can still be viewed there.

    It still remains that the commentary which would explain whether or the withdrawal was legitimate is gone. This leaves future designers easy prey to bad contest holders because designers can no longer point back to past contests as an indicator that the CH is ripping off participants. This used to be a fairly frequent practice, and one that saved me from entering into contests that were repeats of past contests that had been abandoned, sometimes for the exact same project.

    This also hides not only a single design that may be stolen, but individual elements from other designs that might be incorporated into a main design leaving more than just one designer at risk.

    I entered this contest:

    What people wandering in now can see is this contest was extended. It really didn’t need to be extended. The CH already had a 4 star entry she was absolutely “wow’d” by. I cannot quote her exact words because I can no longer get to them. There were a dozen or so very good designs available for her to choose from. And yet, she pulled her contest.

    See my design on there? No. You don’t. Because it is not there anymore. Because the contest is locked and it is no longer visible.

    So I am wondering how I am supposed to add my contest entry to my folio if it is no longer there for me to click the ‘add to folio’ link. So where is this extra protection of my copyrights and interests afforded me by this withdrawl? Designers can no longer see the brief, so if the contest holder doesn’t put the actual name of the site or the URL in the contest title, how are designers supposed to find that person’s website to check if their materials had been used? I found my design for because the contest brief was still showing after I had been ripped off. I cannot do that with this contest.

    Next contest.

    This contest exemplifies the lack of protection for designers at more than any other. It is a guaranteed contest. No refunds. If a winner is not chosen, all designers that participated get a share of the contest money. Absolutely. Positively. Guaranteed. GUARANTEED.

    Or not.

    A winner was not chosen. And the contest is locked. I don’t seem to have collected my share of the prize pool. So something is not right. How is it that a contest that has only two possible outcomes has seemed to have found a third?

    I hope this article gets listed on a lot of social bookmarking sites. And is referenced frequently in forums and other blogs. A lot of times these debates are centered around items from the past. This debate was fortunately taking place while actual infractions were taking place and readers could see what is actually going on, and how 99designs handled these things in real time. Hopefully, the next Crowdsourcing site will learn from this and build a better mousetrap and provide designers with a better environment for practicing their craft without fear of being ripped off – with the help of the Crowdsourcing site.

    Kudos to Walter for sharing this with us, and not complaining about the rants. Make sure you add this article to all of your social bookmarking accounts so Walter can get lots of traffic out of it. Designers need to know about this blog, anyways. It’s a great resource.

    Thanks. It’s been fun.

  • Guy


    Do you believe that Americans do not have a difficult time feeding their families? Do Americans not have a difficult time providing medication for their elderly? As our greedy corporations keep farming out work to your country…for very low rates I might add…we will become a third world country. Will you at that point be interested in whether we have to feed our family? You will likely have about as much interest in me feeding my family as you feeding yours. Far as I can tell you can afford to pay for a computer and the internet…why not sell that…and get a real job?

  • Contest Participant

    @Jason from 99designs

    I personally have participated in several contests. I’ve won one contest…although it required a great deal of work. I will most likely not continue to participate in contests.

    For me it’s kind of like buying scratch tickets. I know I shouldn’t…but that one win keeps me wanting to try…and I need to quit.

    I have a lot of clients outside of contests…clients that pay…some pay well, some pay really well. Sometimes I do so much “real” work for people who allow for no creative control, that it is nice to be able to flex the more creative muscles by just putting stuff out there based on a vague design brief.

    I find that the number of stock images that end up winning is ridiculous. Very ridiculous. I have seen very little effort to diminish that number. I’ve even mentioned to a few contest holders that the design they’re choosing is likely stolen…and they seem hesitant to believe me. I’ve even linked them to the original artwork, and they either didn’t look at the link…or just didn’t care. What happens when the contest holder doesn’t realize that the work is stolen until after the guy from some 3rd would country has already run off with the money? Do you give them their money back? Or do you just tell them “sorry ’bout your luck”?

    Also…isn’t it illegal to hold a contest in which the prize is not guaranteed? You may want to look into this further…as I’m finding more and more about your organization that is really close to illegal. Not to mention that you are allowing for trade between countries that possibly have an embargo preventing them from doing trade with each other. As far as I’m aware…at least in the United States…it is illegal to hold a contest of any kind in which a winner is not provided with a prize. You hold contests in which “no winner” can be declared…but based on what? Is that really a contest? It would seem to me that you are required to guarantee a contest like this. There is also some question as to the requirements to win. What exactly is the contest for? Is it for creating a good design? Is it for creating a design that the contest holder likes? That is also pretty close to illegal…I’m pretty sure that you can’t use “I like it” as a criteria for awarding a prize in a contest. Perhaps the laws are different in New Zealand or wherever it is that 99designs is from…don’t really know where you’re from…don’t really care.

    These are just some concerns I have with the site…the “community” and what not.

  • Contest Participant

    One other question…out of the $570,000 of work available (mentioned earlier)…how much of it was actually paid to designers? How many of the designs that won were stolen stock art? How many were stolen designs from reputable firms, or other designers? I’d love to hear that kind of statistic over these vague “we had this much money available” statistic.

  • 2 Cent’ser

    While Im dumbfounded I read every single comment and reply comment, I felt compelled to chime in with what will probably turn into a long comment. First, I find it very odd that Mr Aiken has spent sooo much time revisiting the site and putting up long explanations. In the famous words of Hamlet – “the lady douth protest too much”. Of course he will come on and defend his income source to death – anyone would – its human nature. But you have to look at motives of people to get to the underlying truth. In many of his comments he keeps saying he’s building opportunities otherwise absent and has the designers best interest at heart. While I dont know a whole lot about 99dimes or whatever they are, I think their representative either whole-heartedly believes they are doing a good service to the design community (however misguided that may be) or he simply is straight up lying to protect his interest and the interest of their business.
    If you really want to develop a community healthy for designers based on this premise, here is your skeleton structure: Basically you build a community online where you can join as a designer. A portfolio submission is an absolute requirement. As a part of the sign up process, the applicant relays which type of service they want to provide vis-a-vie Webdesign, Logo or whatever you are offering as ‘design servies’. Their portfolio must demonstrate their competantcy in the grouping they request to be a part of. Your company- such as this 99 acts as a liason between CHs or “clients” in where they are put in contact with a pool of designers based on their design need and with access to samples of their work. They will know whose style will fit their needs best from that pool. If they are still unsure or caught between several designers, they may privately contact these and request a pro-bono ‘contest’ of sorts specific to their project, but, must supply a retainer to the host as a good faith measure for a final selection. At that point a designer can decide if it is worth their time to create a sample while still retaining intellectual rights to their idea property rather than submitting them into a void, openly exposed for piracy and tainting of contest entries. Once hired for negotiated fee, the site holder can request a “connection fee” of no more than 10%. 5% from the client and 5% from the designer. I mean, is the point to get work and make money?? or just show off for artificial praise from strangers viewing their submissions? If its the later, just put a comment section in your online portfolio. right?
    Personally I would never enter such a contest, as I value my time and work too much to do “freebies”. After all, its the company seeking the work that intends to make money from these designs in the end, so it only appropriate the designer submitting their ideas get their cut in that future profit they are providing their skills to for said company.
    Also as a point to this Eddie/Edee person caught in the fray, I could care less about feeding his family. Not to be cold or heartless sounding, but, while living conditions are abhorant for many Indians and peoples around the globe, I do not operate inside of his world nor live in it or he in mine, so why would I compete on an economic basis with him yet live in a much more inflated economy? This is a form exploitative Globalization in my humble opinion – in both directions. The exchange of artist ideas is wonderful between societies and culture, but not on an economic basis. I have a museum for this experience or artist communities/organizations online and locally. In my world a carton of eggs cost 8 euro, in India its probably 1 euro. Simply stated, his winnings (if even actually paid out) of 350 euro on a logo job, relative to my economic environment, would be the equivalent of me winning 2800 euro. One guy said it best with couple tanks of petrol compared to feeding a family for a month on the same payout. Should his work be devalued? no. If he can get the work, more power to him/her.
    As well, in some countries education is free or next to nothing, I have spent a great deal of finance on my education (100 of thousands) to my own benefit, so why would I just give this away? Particularly in a Capitalist intended environment such as 99.
    With all the freeware and stock-art on the internet, really any monkey with a computer can slap together a ‘design’ these days. I grew up in an age (not long ago actually) where we hand drew Typography in school and learned a discipline to what we do. I think its important groups like Specwatch try to keep some integrity in the design community; not in a WWW Police kind of way but perhaps as they have, but, I also think any designer worth his/her salt, sweat and tears in building his skills and career would never really stoop to some puddle contest of design for end-user profit with no guarantees. If you are a designer and a creative, you shouldn’t need a ‘design brief’ to start creating – thats just pure laziness and you should probably reconsider your career if it take a site like 99 to get your brain and mouse or pencil moving.
    I also know beating a dead horse wont make it more dead or bring it back to life…so Im out. Good luck in this debate, Im sure it will continue on.
    Cést le Tôt

  • 2 Cent’ser

    Amazingly, I found myself reading every comment and reply.
    After doing so, I really couldnt resist anymore to leave a comment. I could probably write a full length dissertation, but Ill just try to keep it to some bullet points. Much has been covered, some may offer a different angle or perspective.

    1.) Mr. Aiken clearly has way too much time writing long responses defending their position to David and hunting the one or 2 cases of the designers being pleased with being able to give away their work for someone else’s profit. In the famous words of Hamlet – “the lady douth protest too much”. Obviously his livelihood is a state and so he will defend this til his last breath. Its human nature. He either whole-heartedly believes he is offering a great service ( as misguided as that may be) or is just straight up lying to protect himself or the company he works for. On the flip side Mr Airey has an angle too. While it doesnt appear sinister and I applaud his/their efforts to keep people informed, obviously he has a vested interested too somewhere along the line. Its simple human nature. Thats the famous eternal question: who stands to gain from this? there you will find your motive.

    1.5) If what Mr Aiken says is true about upholding the design community and providing a place or “service” missing from our world, I have a suggest skeleton business model for you: Create a site where designers can come and register. These designers can choose from which categories they would like to work that are supplied – i.e. webdesign, logo design et al. They must submit an online portfolio attached to their user profile and this portfolio must demonstrate ability in each area of submission. From this “clients” or CH if you will, of the site can log on and view the work of yest established artist or perhaps even a separate section for accomplished professional where these clients can browse the work of the designers and choose visually which work seems to work best for their needs. If caught between several they can contact several designers and hold a pro bono design contest of sorts based around their future project. But, the client must surrender a retainer to the site before the contest can be posted. Then designers contacted can choose whether they want to engage or not. Sites like 99 can make plenty of money in advertising alone to keep the site up and running. If I introduce a girl to a guy friend of mine and they hit it off, I dont come back and ask him $$$ because he is now getting laid and is happy. Its a perverse way of operating and almost as bad as Usary.

    2.) Why in the world would any artist/designer want to be involved in a situation where the other party sets their worth. If I want to go get a new high end suit for a job interview (on the premise of making money), I dont post a site offering $200 for Lagerfeld, Boss, Gucci or whomever to compete for a fractional payment based on what I want to spend. No, prices are set by them and thats that. If you want it, you want it. This process can be applied to any product or service. So why, as designers, would we allow this be done to debase our industry? Besides life saving and life survival necessity industries – I always have to remind my clients their really is no other important aspect in the business environment than the designer (in a theoretical model). Without us an idea remains a lazy cloud in the summer sky. and a lazy cloud needs no CFO, CEO, HR, and so on.

    3.) If you need, as a few suggested, a website like 99dimes or whatever they are to provide you a ‘creative brief’ to sit down and put pencil to paper or mouse to mousepad. You may really want to reconsider your trade.

    4.) With modern technology, online free resources and stock art, these days almost any monkey can physically put together a website or piece of art. I was taught (and not very long ago) to hand draw typography with graph paper and design principles to know why it is I make the choices for clients that are necessary and in good design form. Ive seen many a design on the web, that while it looks initially pretty and would ‘wow’ the average layman, looking twice by someone experienced shows designs rife with inexperience. Why would a professional ever what to compete in a pool of this nature, especially without the concrete promise of getting compensated for their work? The CH certainly plans to make a profit from this.

    5.) This Eddie/Edee guy who seemed to get caught up in the fray. No offense or meaning to seem heartless, but I could care less about feeding his family. While there are many social injustices in India and other place around the globe, why, as a professional, would I want to compete globally in an unbalanced economic environment for the same work. I do not live in his world and he does not live in mine. As someone aptly put it, my 2 or 3 tanks of petrol are equally to feeding his family for a month. Living conditions in a third world are not how I would bargain or set the prices for my design. I paid alot for my education and base it on that value. not on my lifestyle persay. Socio-economically perhaps. Meaning – a carton of eggs cost me 8 euros and for him it probably runs 1 euro. In reverse, his take away (if paid at all in these contest) of say 350 euro for a logo would be like me making 2800 euro based on the inflationary economic environment I live in and what that affords him as the winner. Driving the price down because someone lives in a place where 50 euros lets you live like a King, is simply degrading to the process of design and compensation. I think cultural sharing of ideas and design is excellent. I love to see how others approach life and their art, but, for this I have my local museums, online and local artist/designer communities. Let’s just take these sites for what they are – an opportunity to exploit a very important group in society and make a profit off it off it at the same time.
    This debate will probably rage on though, and hope dies last, so fledgling designers will probably continue to unwittingly support this practice. Kudos to Specwatch for their efforts though to keep the design community informed. knowledge is power!


  • Mark

    This article has been pretty well buried by now, but hopefully other bloggers and writers will reference this article, and designers looking to get into design contests will find this by a Google search.

    99Design ran a very shady “promotion” recently, and I thought it would be good to add this information to this article.

    On October 29, 99designs offered a promotion, if you connected your 99designs account to your Facebook account, they gave you $10. If you read the blog, it stated that the first 1000 people that signed up got the $10. As soon as the plateau of 1000 people were hit, payments would be made to user accounts within 7 days.

    On October 30, the promotion was still running. I connected my Facebook account to my 99designs account.

    November 5th, I questioned in the blog comments why no information had been given. I wrote that it had to be 1000 people signed up by that time, given the amount of traffic on the site, and the number of people like our friend from this discussion “Eddie”, to whom $10 would be a lot of money.

    November 10th, Jason Aiken commented, saying that the blog had been updated on the 4th announcing the 1000 mark had been reached. Honestly, I do not remember any such update. But not having taken a snapshot of the blog page beforehand, I cannot say for sure that update wasn’t there. This seemed odd, given that this announcement came 6 days after they had reached that point, and nobody had said anything about having received money. I hadn’t gotten any notification, or received payment.

    November 13th, one person comments in the blog that they received their $10.

    November 16th and 18th, now 14 days after the close of the promotion I comment that I have received nothing still. Another member comments the same thing on the 18th, thought he doesn’t say at what point he had connected.

    November 19th, a full 15 days after the promotion supposedly ended, and 24 days after I joined, Jason Aiken announces the contest is over and everyone has been paid. I was not one of those people. I added a final comment confirming a previous comment I had left that it seemed like a scam.

    As a web programmer, I know how easy it is for a program that is monitoring entries in a database to count those entries and then to stop displaying advertisements once a specific number has been reached. 99designs has people on staff that could do the same.

    In 6 days, only one person has commented that their money was received. By comparison, people commented en mass thanking 99designs for starting new blind contests with enthusiasm. Where are all of the recipients?

    My guess – they don’t exist.

    Sadly, this is exactly how I expected a promotion run by 99designs to turn out.

  • Mark

    An added note, Jason claimed they do not cover up the paper trail of evidence against them by deleting comments, but they deleted my last post on their blog confirming my previous post stating that I thought it might be a hoax.

    It was not profane, nor offensive. But they (probably Jason, as he’s the only participant I’ve seen communicating on the blog) deleted it all the same.

  • David Airey

    Hi Mark,

    It seems to be a regular occurrence with spec websites—deleting comments that are in any way negative towards what they offer. LogoMyWay are very good at it.

    Did you see the recent Crowdspring blog post with 99 designs in the headline?

    A blatant link-selling ploy similar to the one Google penalised me for. The comments on the post are interesting, too (I suppose we should be grateful that Crowdspring aren’t as heavy-handed with negative press?).

  • Mark

    Hi David. Good to see you’re still keeping up with this.

    I think if it were a company that I was fond of I would be disgusted by what crowdSpring pulled, but at the moment I cannot help but laugh.

    Interesting the lack of response from crowdspring on the accusations. Really if you think about it, they would have been smart to engage the users in that post, if for no other reason than to pump up the keywords. “We in no way meant to try to steal crowdsourcing business away from 99designs” etc. Did you happen to notice that most of those that complained wrote “99designs” or “” in their complaints? That could be why the complaints are not being deleted…they are HELPING.

    I find the $100 article deal more disturbing. Especially since it is offered on a really shaky article. Funny thing, I don’t trust these established companies to honestly manage these promotions, but a “comment to win” contest on blogs by individuals I never doubt. I wouldn’t think for a second that Walter’s birthday giveaway was rigged or dishonest, or similar promotions I’ve seen on other blogs, but my immediate instinct is to be skeptical about a promotion run by 99d.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing that article. It would be nice if ‘spring would send over their own spin doctors to compete here with 99’s, but I doubt that will happen.

  • David Airey

    You’re very welcome, Mark. That’s a good point about the Crowdspring commenters helping with the underlying intention. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • Jason Aiken


    Sorry – You were not one of the first 1000 connections so you did not qualify – simple as that. All of the first 1000 connections have had their accounts credited – as promised.

    David – We encourage feedback on our blog and our user forum – there is a healthy mix of positive and negative. Comment moderation is always a gray area. In Marks case – he made his point, several times, and regardless of how baseless and sour grapes it is…it is still there. However, repeated and persistent commenting that does nothing to share new information, but only serves as deliberate attempt to undermine the community will be moderated.


  • David Airey

    Jason, I just stopped by your site, and had a quick look at your homepage’s featured contest:

    I’m sure you’re aware that you (and contest holder Victors & Spoils) are offering everyone a free download of the Akzidenz Grotesk font family. Is that the same font family that costs $300 for a license?

    And it’s available on 99designs? For free?

    Excuse me if the font family actually is freely available. I just couldn’t find the offer anywhere else, and thought it strange that so many foundries charge hundreds of dollars for a download.

    • Catherine Azzarello

      Wow! Best free-font secret. Ever. ;-)

      (I’m being really upstanding and refraining from signing up just to grab a font!)

  • Jason Aiken


    Thanks for bring that to our attention…it was not originally provided when they launched the project…V&S uploaded it after the fact and must not have been aware of the licensing issues.

    We have removed it and are in the process of contacting V&S.

    Thanks again.


  • Mark


    There’s no ‘sour grapes’. My issue is not with the $10. It’s with your lack of integrity. $10 isn’t enough gas money to get me into San Francisco and back from the North Bay. Include the $4 bridge toll over the Golden Gate, and I would hardly get to Sausilito on the return trip.

    Worse. It’s not even round trip BUS fare, since GGT is over $6 each way.

    But remember your boy Eddie? To him, that $10 would be tremendous. I did a little checking. The average household income in India is somewhere between $66 and $89 per month (US equivalent). The Eddies of the world were the ones really scrambling to get that $10 in their accounts. And would continue to connect to Facebook to earn the money in your promotion, even though your promotion had already been complete.

    The promotion began on Oct 29. I signed up – too late – on Oct 30th. So we know the contest ended on or before Oct 30.

    We know you continued to promote this, and people continued signing up at least until Nov 8th, based on the comments. You finally commented that the promotion was full on the 10th. A full 11 days after the promotion was ended.

    We know you were fully able to make this announcement had you chosen to, because there are blog articles and blog comments on Oct 31st, Nov 1, 3, 5 and 6, and two blog entries on Nov 4th all labeled “Posted by Jason Aiken”. So you were clearly available to tell people they could stop chasing a promotion that had been closed. Why did you elect to not inform people of the truth?

    We know that you announced payments finalized on the 19th. The only known payment was on the 13th. A span of 13-19 days after the close of the promotion, when the promise was payments would be credited to accounts 7 days after.

    We know that your system can instantly recognize when a user has connected their account to Facebook, because it says so in the user’s account panel immediately after. We also know that this connection has been time-stamped, because it would have to be in order for you to determine the first 1000. So, now we write a little code:

    $query = update user_accounts set money = money + 10 where facebook_connect = true order by facebook_connect_date asc limit 1000

    For those that do not speak SQL, this pseudo-code is very simple. It executes payment on the contest. It selects 1000 accounts connected to Facebook in chronological order based on the connect_date, from earliest to latest and adds 10 (dollars) to their “credits” balance. The database fields are (probably) not the same as the ones on 99’s own database, but they should be pretty close.

    The point of this is, it took me less than 15 seconds to write that. Another 15 seconds would be needed to write a snippet of PHP code to detect when 1000 Facebook connects were made. This would be checked every time someone signed up. The instant the 1000 mark was reached, that code would execute, payments would be made, and the promotion announcements could cease. Another 15 seconds of code writing for that to happen.

    It would take me less than a minute, total, to write the code. I doubt a company like 99 hasn’t got someone on staff that has equal or better database programming skill than my own.

    Even if they preferred a manual option, the counter could trigger when the 1000 point was reached, and email the marketing people to let them know. Then those people could manually remove the promotional material, and with a single mouse click, initiate the payments, all 1000 taking less than a second. Literally.

    It’s not a dangerous operation. It’s not transferring money. They can’t blame a bank delay, because it is only adding a number to a number. No more transferring money than if I wrote down “10” on a sheet of paper, then changed it to “20”. It’s just representative data. Someone still has to manually release the withdrawal into your Paypal account, or other chosen withdrawal method.

    So why did it take 11 days to close a closed promotion? Why 19 days to get everyone paid? Why were there no answers when 5 days after the promotion was ended, people wanted to know what was going on, and you were there, and knew the promotion was over, and said nothing?

    You may think of yourself as a Design facilitator, but really you are more of a financial transactions facilitator. You act as an escrow agent between designer and client, taking a cut of money for the transaction. You hold people’s money in “accounts”. You handle incoming and outgoing wire transfers of cash around the world. In an era that includes Enron and AIG and Bernie Madhoff, financial handlers are going to be scrutinized. Such a company cannot have the aura of impropriety, and this Facebook Connect promotion was rife with it.

    Grapes, sour or otherwise, notwithstanding.

  • Eddee

    Yes its good money where I am from.

    Anyways guys this is a loosing battle for you all. Look how fast 99designs and other sites are growing. Business people like this concept. I am sorry to see you all at the loosing end of this. Lets stop crying and look at your process and alter it if you need to. I am sure 99designs will welcome you all.

    I have been busy making money at different crowdsourcing sites. I will not participate here anymore like you guys. I dont have time.

  • Mark


    Growth of the sites is not in question. Quality of growth is.

    When this debate began, I was not against crowdsourcing, I was a participant. I am not, now. And not because of crowdsourcing, but because of the lack of integrity on the part of the hosting company, 99designs. If you remember, I got into this as a platform to discuss a contest holder that has blatantly stolen from me, with no effort to mask the theft, and got the full support of 99designs to continue doing business on their website.

    This debate will never influence the desperate workers. It will only influence those that have the ability and skill set to compete in a market of more profitable business. I have that option, and so walking away from crowdsourcing was easy.

    It will also not steer away people too cheap to pay for quality. And those that do not understand the value of spending money on a branding campaign that helps accentuate their business image, rather than cheapen it. Most of the people running such contests are not qualified to know good design from bad, and frequently make horrible choices.

    I once made an analogy on people that do that. I compared it to that guy – everyone has seen him – overweight, ultra-hairy, walking around the beach in a Speedo, flamboyant with his gold jewelry, well-greased hair….and he thinks he looks beautiful, while everyone at the beach is either laughing or disgusted by him. That’s the business image of an unqualified person picking out a discount design.

    I have seen some contest holders choose outstanding designs, and there are some highly talented designers that roam the halls of the crowdsourcing game. Most of those do not have high winning percentages, because people that shop bargain-basement generally don’t have the eye for quality.

    I am also speaking of experience only at 99designs, because I have not competed elsewhere. I looked at crowdSpring, but found the level of talent significantly higher, and felt I would have much more success at 99designs. I was wrong about success. Perhaps the shoppers at crowdSpring have more discriminating tastes and I would fare better there, but no matter. I’m spending time I would have wasted on contests now marketing my own business, and slowly seeing good results, thanks to blogs like this one that offer good advice to those in the business – that care to learn.

    Growth is not an indication of quality. McDonald’s has more restaurants in the world than any other. Wal Mart is the world’s largest retailer. Not because McDonald’s offers five star gourmet cuisine. Wal Mart did not build itself providing the finest quality goods (although they are changing that gradually). 99designs may continue to grow, and might one day be the world’s largest provider of corporate branding and design products and services. But they will always be the McDonald’s of the design world. And discussions such as this will heighten awareness of consumers, the way the documentary “Supersize Me” brought realization to the world about the garbage McDonald’s was feeding people.

  • Eddee


    I understand your point and respect it. It maybe true for the relationship between you and 99designs. I have started working for other sites as well and feel some maybe better then 99designs.

    Most people would like to eat at five star restaurants but how many can pay for it. Also most restaurant staff would like to work at five star ones(including me) but how many can get into it. I know there can be an argument that better designs can get you better jobs but I am in a small town in south india and want to work for Coke, Pepsi or CNN. Can David help me?

    I would like to say here that yours is the most convincing argument that I have read here. The rest is rubbish.

    • Mark

      Eddee, I too would love to land the design gigs for Coke, Pepsi and/or CNN but I haven’t. And I live right in the middle of everything. Outside of Los Angeles and New York, there are few places more central to the design and programming industries than San Francisco.

      Talent is talent. Most of my clients are outside of my area. Well outside. With the internet, and internet telephony, communication globally allows any one of us to do business anywhere. And you can charge what you are worth.

      I have a friend from Pakistan. He is a permanent resident of the U.S, now. And a software engineer at Google. So I am fully aware that someone from your part of the world can work for a Coke, Pepsi or CNN – if they choose to make the effort to put themselves in the position to do so.

      You had opportunity to improve your business, and your income and the kind of exposure it takes to move towards a high-end corporate gig right here. David asked to see your portfolio. What if David had seen it, and thought your work was GREAT and wanted to hire you to co-op on a job with him, which led to more exposure. Or someone working for a big company was trying to decide whether or not to risk getting ripped off at 99designs, Googled “99designs scam”, came across this thread, saw the link to your portfolio, was stunned by the beauty and elegance of your designs and called to fly you to New York to meet with the vice-president of marketing…

      Except you chose to stay hidden.

      That is a good decision for 99designs, who needs you to stay on the lower tier of this industry, so they can continue running a virtual sweat shop. What good are you to them if you DO end up working for Coke’s marketing department? They can’t feed off you anymore.

      Regardless of the decision you or I make on our career paths, it’s not David’s job to feed us. He’s our competition. What David does promotes higher pay for all designers. There will still be low ballers in the industry. There are people undercutting prices at 99designs. But at least they get paid for every job.

      Your note about people wanting to WORK in five star restaurants is an interesting one. I was thinking solely about success of a business and the relationship to quality. I need to think about that a while.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I’d like to say that once my comment on their blog with critiques wasn’t approved and I had to write to 99designs asking to show it, they did. But being full time 99designs user and quite happy for about a year, untill they introduced blind contest and made really big changes again, I like to say that I don’t trust 99designs.

    I liked this service, I really did for several good reasons, which are became not so good, but the way they treat me as a designer sometimes and changes they make, and claims like “best designers are more likely to enter blind contests” are really dissapointing.

    Feels like they are not listening to their own users, instead they are pushing them around like piece of crap. Bad project? Oh, well. Locked contest, CH dissapeared forever and left the money to 99designs? Oh, well. Let’s burry it deeper. Many unhappy users commenting on post about blind contests? Simple! Let’s create a post about giving people 10$ for connecting their account to facebook (whatever) and write some useless posts to burry that post and tweets deeper in history.

    10$!!! Are you kidding me? Am I supposed to buy myself a candy for this money or what? I’m paying almost that to receive my earned money through Paypal. I’m sorry to say, but for amount like that I would be ashamed to show my Facebook friends that I’m in this. Ridiculous.

    If I’ll continue to use this service because I have to (I probably will for some time), I don’t think I’ll ever be really respecting 99designs because of my experience and will be switching to freelance as soon as possible.

    • Mark

      If it wasn’t for the part about needing to continue doing business with 99 Designs it almost sounds like I wrote this!

  • GB

    I have to say there’s a lot of nonsense talked here.

    No-one is required to enter these contests. Designers, like everyone else, operate in a market place. Your work is only ever worth what people are prepared to pay for it.

    I’ve used 99designs and got a good deal out of it. It was either that or DIY, because I can’t afford the prices most designers charge elsewhere. Last quote I got from a designer was £3000, the price I paid with a contest was £300. It’s a good logo that suits my business just fine.

    If there are specific problems with specific design contest sites then fair enough, point those out. But to rubbish the concept because of a few problems, or because you think your trade has some intrisic value that deserves to buck the market. That’s just a whole lot of nonsense.

    And I don’t mean for one moment to play down the value of design work, I fully appreciate that there’s a lot to it, but nevertheless, if the market says a logo is worth £500, that’s what it’s worth.

    • Mark

      If the market says a logo is worth $300 (I’ll use dollars instead of pounds, here), that’s fine. The designer does not make $300.

      If a designer is winning 10% of his contests (very high), then the designer is making $30 for his work. 3%, a mere $15 for a $3,000 logo (your quoted price).

      Does that sound like a quality market price for the design job? $15? Even 15 quid?

      It’s very fortunate for 99designs that someone that isn’t a designer, managed to find this old article on a blog for designers, read through the entire thing and shared favorable thoughts for them. I can’t imagine myself wandering into a blog for produce managers, reading through a debate on the price of bananas and offering my opinion – but I do buy bananas.

      I hope I can be that lucky today. In fact, I think I’m going to try an experiment at 99, since I’m expecting a slowish weekend. Just for fun!

  • Sergey Epifanov

    Hi, my name is Sergey Epifanov and I am the owner of
    I have always been wondering why people writing such articles never approached me to hear my side of the story? I mean, you are trying to be objective and everything, but you should realize that there is a lot information that is missing in your article and some information is simply incorrect, at least for my website.

  • Eddee


    Sorry man but I just saw your comment here.

    I am scared to show my portfolio or anything that could be linked to me because I truly and honestly think that people like David are out there to simply destroy the only source of decent income I have.

    Sorry again, tc.

    • Mark


      That doesn’t make any sense. You are afraid to market your skills, because David will…what? Contact every single person on Earth that wants to hire a web designer and tell them you really aren’t as good as the designs in your portfolio show?

      If you mean he will shut down 99designs, then you have MORE reason to start marketing yourself, because you’ll need another revenue stream. So your argument is completely upside-down.

      David will not shut down CrowdSourcing any more than Morgan Spurlock will shut down McDonald’s.

      • David Airey

        Well said, Mark.

  • Aslı Güngör Ben De Dahil

    Thanks If it wasn’t for the part about needing to continue doing business with 99 Designs it almost sounds like I wrote this!

  • Eddee

    @Mark…its just not being about a good designer. I can find more then a dozen designers who are better logo designers then David within 99designs or crowdspring he simply has better opportunity. It does seem like the life long purpose of guys like David is to make sure the designers and their kids in under developed countries starve. I am sorry for if guys feel I am trying to be personal but I really really feel insecure.

    BTW I made more then $2000 last month. My father couldnt think of making that in a year.

    • David Airey

      Eddee, far from me having a “life long purpose of making you starve,” (a notion I find quite ridiculous) I actually hope you thrive in your design efforts.

      I strongly believe that the smarter option in your case is to free yourself from a need for a middle-man (a.k.a. the design “contest” website) through the use of a solid sales and marketing plan. I’m also quite confident that once you do, you’ll start to feel a lot less of your insecurities.

      A good way to start? Launch your online portfolio. You won’t regret it.

  • Mark

    Ok, Eddy, a.k.a. Eddie, a.k.a. Eddee. You have used up all your excuses.

    You didn’t have time to participate in this discussion, because you are so poor you must work. Yet you have time to continue this thread, and even visit David’s portfolio.

    You can’t compete in an open marketplace, but you are educated and skilled enough as a designer that you can earn a year’s salary in one month, and knowledgeable enough to be able to say – stated as a matter of fact – that David’s work is inferior to a dozen others that you know.

    But you come up with excuse after excuse why you won’t show your own work, despite now asseting your mastery in the industry, and you claim that you are unable to make it in an open market despite this superiority.

    Not believable. At all. Where I always assumed you were legit, you have now talked me into Catherine’s and David’s camp. I am convinced you are a fake, and nothing more than another marketing tool for 99designs.

    So let’s stop littering Walter’s blog with this nonsense.

  • Gol Videoları

    Thanx very good

  • Noname

    99 has no designer protection,and whats worst-no interest in protecting designers as long as comissions keep comming.They have proven that to me many times..
    crowdspring is no different,sometimes when being informed about spec work going on
    they give intelligence insulting answers like -we used our super robot and he found nothing so its all good.
    …and private contests were deifinitely developed to protect speculators.

  • Justin

    I just want to say, thank you so much for this! I had just recently found out about crowdsourcing sites and thought it be a good way to make some extra cash.

    So far I have spent about 12 hours on these sites before reading this post, so not bad.

    I’m going to give spec work an extra thought before every going into it again. I have heard some people talking about these sites and making good money but for the most part, the news is all bad.

    I also post products on various marketplaces such as graphic river. What do you think about this? Might this hurt a business?

    Again, thanks for the hard work you’re doing for the design community.

  • Mark


    It’s good that you are taking the time to educate yourself about the market. I know I sound very down on the whole thing, but I’m not totally opposed to crowdsourcing and contests. My issues have to do with the people in charge and the unscrupulous way things are run.

    There are opportunities for picking up some extra dollars in your spare time with these avenues, but just be careful where you get yourself into the game. 99designs plays itself up as a protector of designers, and about making things equal for all, yadda yadda, but really they are the greediest company and do the least for the designers of any similar site in the industry.

    You can completely ignore all of the angry back-and-forth banter about the issue above, with all of the opinions rhetoric, and take a simple objective look that puts things in perspective.

    99designs has a logo store, where you can put up logos to sit and be sold for $100, or $300 for exclusive rights. does the same thing, but the minimum price is $250, and you set your own maximum. Sounds like Brandstack is better – higher prices means more money, right?

    That’s not really a strong factor in deciding which company is good or bad. But then look at the commissions.

    Brandstack takes a 15% cut of the sale price off of every logo you sell. Sound heavy? 99designs pockets a whopping 70% off of your creative work on every sale. I think that’s a tad higher than the going agency rate out there.

    99designs is truly the sleazy sweat shop operator of the design industry.

  • Justin


    This is true that 99designs is ripping off the industry… at least from what I’ve seen in my short time in that market.

    I’m on Brandstack and my cheapest logo on there with domain is 1995.00 so we’ll see how long it takes to sell, does really matter though right because it’s just sitting there and when it sells, that’s passive income.

    I was talking about sites like graphic river or any other marketplace run by envato, sure they give you 50-70% of every sell depending on how much you sell but they sell your products for next to nothing. You can buy a pretty good quality wordpress template on there for a mere 20 bucks… is that justice? Grant it if you sell 1000s, which a lot of sellers on there do, then that’s a lot of dough.

    As far as legitimately making money buy bringing in clients the traditional way, I’ve been struggling with that mainly because of my marketing skills.

    I appreciate the work you have been doing in this area but there are other sites of concern too such as Crowdspring and even sites like which have turn these bidding war job boards into a fight for the Middle East to take over everyone by offering there stuff for next to nothing and then not even completing the work. Everything has turned into that… Elance,, Guru and countless others. You can go to donanza and find everything offered at all these crappy place from one big crappy place. inkd is that worse, they give you 20% from every sale! OMG, you put the work into it and they have the gall to give you a mere 20%! Ooooh the nerve and that sad thing is that people do it.

    Are there any good companies like these? Well I like what they’re doing with Upstack so far and it seems that Wes Wilson (Founder of Brandstack/Upstack) hasn’t yet fallen into the profit trap and turned his business into crap… but usually it’s only a matter of time. Poptent seems to be ok, tender 3d and I’m still on the fence about the envato owned sites.

  • Mark

    No, there’s really no good company when it comes to bidding war design sales. They get their cut upfront, usually. It’s not their fault if the design sucks, and the client suffers.

    Most of the problem lies in the customer, not the provider. People that utilize these services are cheap, and generally have no business picking their own designs. They do more harm to their own business than good by not paying a trained professional to do the job. And even frequently those that do, will dispute elements of design by the professional – because anyone that’s sat down with a copy of Photoshop (probably stolen) and made a flyer for their garage sale thinks they know how to design.

    And then after they hire someone in India to do the work at bargain basement prices, they complain about politicians sending all the jobs overseas.

    This is getting off topic, and more of a forum discussion than for this thread, but I have the same problem with self-promotion you do. I solved that by partnering with people that don’t have that problem. Some are designers. Some are programmers. Some just slick talkers. All are good at marketing, and socializing, and convincing people to pay more than I would dare ask for – and all need my skillset to get the checks in hand. My own website has been offline for…I don’t even know how many months. It’s not important. I do almost all of my work as a subcontractor now – working for people that actually understand and appreciate my abilities. Saves a lot of headaches, and fills a hole where I am weak in my business. You might try that route.

  • Justin

    Thanks for the advice. I believe there are certain instances where stock is ok but not to build an overall branding image. Other than that it’s ok.

    As for the crowdsourcing sites, those are just worthless all together from what I can tell.

    Yes I’ll look into being more active in the community so that maybe I can find a trustworthy partner that knows about marketing. My web design firm might be put to a halt soon because of the huge interest I’ve had in this new niche idea I’m working on, so hopefully that takes off and I won’t have to pain myself with these cheap retards who undervalue designers (with 3d artists and animators to be the exception).

    Yep, cgi guys, animators and such seem to be the only respected designers from what I have noticed… hmm.. maybe I’ll get into that industry… lol.

  • boomgoesthedynamite

    Reading through these comments were even more rewarding then finding out about specwatch. I’ve been trying my luck at 99designs, and started to question their business practices/procedures (which I had been from the beginning) of protecting designers and copyrights after seeing copyrighted fonts uploaded by CH’s. I’ve only entered contest that were ending, and tried to speed design which is kinda fun/competitive. I believe I’m a good enough designer to be above the spec work, but as well I fail at marketing myself. I’m also too humble to show most work to even my family, so marketing my skills/talents to prospective employers is a little daunting; increased by the lack of formal education/portfolio. If 99designs is good for anything, that might be it, but with all the negativity surrounding these crowd-sourcing sites I’m second guessing whether I’ll ever post that work anywhere. The type of work I’m looking for is also highly devalued in my state, and I would have to drive 2 hours a day just to get an unpaid internship; doing bitch work at that. I’m passionate enough about this field and to the point where free work is at least doing what I love, but I probably won’t do much more spec work; online anyway. The guy said earlier if you need a brief to put pen to paper you’re just lazy, but in my opinion designing without objective is only artwork. When has art ever landed anyone a job? Usually only after they’re dead. If you’ve got any advice I’m all ears, but reading this has only made me less hopeful.

  • Mark


    Insecurity about your design is natural. I do that. Every time I look at my own website it’s never good enough. Or when it finally is, I find another designer’s site that blows it away, and suddenly it’s ugly and humiliating to be on display. Again.

    Most of your potential customers will think the work you do is amazing. Surf the net a while. When you find a bad looking site, look at the “designed by” link at the bottom. Someone will be proudly displaying their portfolio of ugly work. And people are hiring them.

    Use that as your launching pad. Recognize that you can make money – and possibly a good living – doing this work. Branch out. I also do web and database programming, as well as build desktop applications, and and now starting to work on my first cross-platform (iPhone, Blackberry, Android) mobile app – and already have hires on three jobs in that field in the near future. Last year, I designed one website, and one flyer. That’s all the graphic work I did. The rest was programming. By choice. Now I’m about to get back into making some – as you call it – art, getting my feet web by goofing off at none other than 99designs!

    I am not against crowdsourcing, per se. I think that I’ve come across as that way, and it’s not true. I am against a lot of the crap that goes along with it. I think Specwatch needs to refocus if they want to do any good. They won’t stop crowdsourcing by telling designers about it. If anything, their current methods will help to push the pricing downward, by scaring off the quality designers leaving a void to be filled by the bad ones – ones that will gladly work for less money and can now win because the good designers are sitting home wondering what to do, while the bad ones are sponging up the money in the pool not caring.

    I would like to see Specwatch start going after the faux design firms that sell themselves as web design outfits, but then run private contests on 99D and outsource the work. They are pretty easy to pick out. The contests are low-end on the pricing, and they have to “show these to the client” before offering feedback. These scammers are a bigger issue to the American designers concerned about their money flowing offshore, because the end buyer is not aware of the design contest. They believe they walked into an American web design company office, dropped down thousands of dollars to have someone in Pakistan design their site for $250.

    If Specwatch started informing the site buyers that the company they hired did this, the referrals for these design mills would dry up overnight. My own issue with 99D started over just such a case (if you haven’t read all the above comments). A sleazy operator in Southern California that sold his design “services” to a Los Angeles company, then ran a contest at 99D, then without picking a winner, took my design and converted it into a website for his client – which I caught.

    99D has since taken measures to insure the protection of ripoff artists by closing private contests after the contest ends, and locking down withdrawn contests – so there is no proof the designers are being robbed.

    I’m rambling so I am going to stop, here. My mind is mush after information overload from a conference for mobile app designers this morning. Hope *something* I wrote makes sense – and is helpful.

    • Jason Aiken

      Hey Mark,

      I know you participate in projects from time to time so if you ever find situation where someone runs a project… gets a refund then steals the design – please report it to me.

      I assure you – we do not have private projects or lock contests to protect rip off artists.

      It’s actually quite the contrary…

      We lock contests to protect the designers – if a client is not resolving their contest we lock it which hides the designs so the contest holder can’t access them.

      Regarding private projects…
      Some people want their projects private. One of the most common reasons is search engine rankings. 99designs ranks high in search engines… if someone has a new business they don’t want the first thing to come on google to be their 99designs project – nothing sinister.

      To your point about good designers participating on the site – We have a record number of projects open on the site so I agree we could always use more.


  • Mark


    If a contest holder withdraws a contest and plans to rip off the designers who submitted entries, it will not come as a surprise to him/her. He or she knows this before they withdraw the contest, and most certainly has already saved the files to a computer so they can use the file to cut and modify to their needs.

    This is not an arbitrary conclusion. The CH that stole from me did so before officially ending the contest. He had a live site online using my graphics while still in the process of “making a decision”. Had he been smart as well as sleazy, he could have simply withdrawn the contest and my proof would have gone up in smoke.

    As to letting you know I’m being ripped off – I did. And you continued to allow this person to do business on your site. Even stood up for him publicly when I let other designers (the ones you pretend to be protecting) know that the guy is a thief.

    Further, it hides important factual information from designers. When a contest holder withdraws an entry, designers would like to go back to the previous contest(s) and find out why. Was it legitimate? Were there no good entries? Or did the CH have plenty of good entries, and simply cut and run? We cannot tell – because you hide this information FROM THE DESIGNERS.

    Again, I can speak from personal experience. A contest run by Elite Commission had a dozen or so quality entries. The CH wasn’t happen (enough), despite giving 4 stars to several entries, and extended the contest, inviting a large number of additional designers. The contest bore him at least two dozen quality entries – and then he split, withdrawing the contest – with protection from you to his public reputation. A little research and I came to find the company’s name popped up on forums for affiliate marketing. The company had a reputation for not paying their affiliates money that was owed.

    These are the people you protect.

    I’m sorry. No. In no way does your practice protect the designer. It only protects the unscrupulous contest holder.