My 99Designs Experience

When I began to seriously consider self-publishing, I started doing research and quickly came upon a number of great podcasts on the topic. Now in my regular rotations are: The Self Publishing PodcastThe Creative PennThe Sell More Books ShowRocking Self PublishingDIY Author, and Writing Excuses (which is not a self-publishing podcast, but a great listen for writers of fantasy & sci-fi).

At least three of those shows are (as of this writing) sponsored by I literally couldn’t get away from hearing about that site.

Spec Work

As someone who makes websites for a living, I’m philosophically opposed to spec work. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s basically “Do the work first, and if I like it, I’ll pay you.” Ah, no thanks. That’s not really how professionals operate, and it’s inherently unfair.

When artists do spec work, it’s really hard to make a living, and they kind of make it bad for everyone else. A client will say, “well so-and-so did a few mockups before I hired them, so why can’t you do the same thing?” Those kind of expectations are bad for the industry.

But eventually I caved and gave the site a try. Why did I forego my strongly held principles you may ask? Well,

  1. The ad reads on the above mentioned podcasts totally worked. Damn you infectious and inescapable marketing copy!
  2. I’d worked with a couple of graphic designers on various author related things and found myself micromanaging them until I wasn’t 100% happy with the results. I figured seeing a bunch of options would help with my control issues
  3. After doing some research on designers’ personal experiences with these types of contest sites, I agreed that it was probably a good way for beginning designers to gain experience so they wouldn’t have to be stuck doing spec work forever
  4. I like trying things. Sue me.

The project was the logo for my publishing company, Heartspell Media. As I said, I’d already tried  working one-on-one with a talented designer for this logo, and I really do blame myself for giving too much feedback and being too specific and thus ending up with something that I thought I liked, but upon further reflection, really didn’t.

So I signed up for a contest, created my design brief, keeping it short and sweet – I hoped. I uploaded a few examples of designs I liked and submitted. Within a few hours I had the designs pouring in.

Review & Feedback

My contest lasted 7 days. The site encourages contest holders to give feedback on the designs in the opening round, but advises not to rate anything too high so that you don’t discourage other designers from entering. Me being a very literal person concluded that I couldn’t give anything higher than a 3 out of 5 rating for the first few days.

I liked some of the initial design directions, but there were a lot, a LOT, of shall we say detritus. Really bad designs from people who I can only assume are legally blind. I rated and commented on each one. This was incredibly time-consuming. I ended up spending 2+ hours every day leaving feedback on the designs.

The other down side to giving high ratings to certain designs was that you would then receive a deluge of slight variations on what you indicated that you liked. At least one designer claimed that someone had copied him. Honestly, this seemed like whining to me and I wanted to tell him to man up and stop crying but that would have been rude. It seemed that everyone was copying off of each other. He was hardly unique.

The Final Round

After the first few days, I had to choose up to 6 designers to continue to the final round. I was still spending a considerable amount of time each day reviewing and rating, and trying to coax the designers into giving me something I liked.

Some of the designers are very talented. Few seem to speak English as a first language. Sometimes I wondered if the language barrier was affecting communication of feedback.

In the end, I agonized over the choice. At heart I’m a softie and I know that most of the designers had worked really hard. Some had been super responsive, sending me design after design in response to my feedback. After going around and around it felt really detritusy for me to not award the designer I perceived the be the hardest working one the prize.

Of course you can award more than one person the award, but you have to pay double (or triple if you’re really indecisive). So as much as I felt bad about it, I know I was only going to pick one. Also, I had to live with this logo. It was going to be printed on my books. I wanted to love it.

I sent the top candidates to my brain trust: the husband, bestie, mom, and brother who I run things by and then ignore and do what I want to do anyway. Or sometimes, you know, listen to. The results of polling them were inconclusive.

Two logos were calling to me and neither were really what I thought I’d wanted in the beginning. At the end of the day, I went with my gut, made the choice, closed my eyes, clicked the button and killed the dreams of the five losers. Or maybe that’s just my inflated sense of self-worth.

All told, I received 411 entries from 94 designers. Maybe 15-20% of them were what I considered to be really good.

I do love the logo, and I think the price was reasonable for the amount of quality designs I received.  But now that I’ve tried 99Designs, I don’t think I’d use them again. It’s all too stressful. The time involved. The heartache of not paying people who did lots of work. It was just more than I want to go through again.

And now I can listen to my podcasts, hear the ads and blissfully ignore them. 🙂


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