Mat Dolphin's Tom Actman tells potential clients why they should avoid 99designs

Tech Advisor | 30 November 12

On Thursday, our sister site PC Advisor published an article about 'crowdsourced' design market 99designs. We tweeted this to the design community for response, and Tom Actman, creative director at London-based design company, Mat Dolphin, contacted PC Advisor directly, wanting to set the record straight. We've republished Tom's piece here – which was written for the general public rather than just the design community we serve – though it's a very good read for next time you need to explain to a client why your services are worth what you're charging.

UPDATE 4/12/12: Following the reply from 99designs's Jason Aiken in the comments below, we invited 99designs to debate the issues raised here with Tom in a traditional 'back-and-forth' article. They declined.

"How to hire a graphic-design pro on the cheap" – I think it's fair to say you now know 10 words that when used together will rile every graphic designer across the land and make them all shifty and uncomfortable on an otherwise cold and brisk Friday morning. What I wanted to try and offer was a balanced response as to why every creative is currently hunched like a sinister cat, snarling in your general direction.

I came across the article and shared it via our @MatDolphin twitter account, knowing full well the witch-hunt that would ensue. Us creatives are well versed in this topic of conversation as it's something that keeps cropping up in the industry. Crowdsourcing sites have been popping up since the recession kicked in because demand equaled supply. People wanted what they felt was a safer and cheaper solution in looking the part, and as your article pointed out, the preconception is that 'pro' designers are expensive, and not always right. There's a bit more to it, and as always two sides to every tale.

At the beginning of the year we were thinking the end was near, spotting a company offering to create a logo for $42. And that included x2 rounds of amends! To get a better understanding of what a logo company like 99designs might deliver, we dug deep and coughed up the cash and commissioned one of them. We wanted to find out what the end result might be and what we'd get for our hard earned cash. In our 'How LO can you GO' review we covered our findings and the results. We never expected the result to be amazing, because what really can you expect to get for £25? Our findings were fairly obvious. The results weren't great; they'd missed some of our feedback; and we wouldn't have been able to use the files they supplied as they hadn't supplied them correctly. But we had a logo. And for some people that would have been fine.

Having been through the mill we stopped panicking as we knew this situation wasn't a problem we needed to worry about. Any designer of their worth reading your 'cheap' article would have, and should have just brushed it off. Anyone with any creative talent isn't in competition with 99designs and the like, because let's be frank, if they are then they may want to reconsider whether they're doing what they're best at. The same too can probably said for clients and we shouldn't be fearful of their eyes getting sidetracked by low cost offerings. Clients who value and realise the benefits of great design and communication won't be calling this type of service. They already know design is an investment for them and their customers.

Looking back at your article, the points which probably got everyone's backs up were the suggestions that using crowdsourced type services is a win win situation for the client and designer/s, and the fact that you can get pro skills 'on the cheap'. I won't even comment on 'such is the artist's life' that doing work and not getting paid for it is to be expected, as we're not talking about artists – we're talking about designers who provide a service. Overall the article was a damming view of our industry at a time we're supposed to be nurturing home grown talent and investing in our country's future.

If you want value, you have to pay money

The only thing us designers are really selling is our time and creativity. Time to think of great ideas and the know-how to execute them beautifully. The ability to use this time effectively requires some resources – an appropriate place to do the thinking/executing and the tools to assist the process. These things need to be paid for and we – the people doing it – need to live in paid-for accommodation, wear clothes, eat and occasionally sleep. So alongside the mechanics of the job itself, there are external factors we need to consider. However much we consider these factors, the truth of the matter is that most of the time, people want to pay less. And why wouldn't they? I want to pay less for things because, frankly, I want to keep as much of my own money as possible to spend on other things which I find too expensive.

We've long used the phrase: 'Good, fast or cheap. Pick any two.' Far from an ultimatum, this simple message conveys a few important things. Our time is one of our most valuable commodities. Our creativity is one of the reasons people choose to work with us. There may be certain compromises which have to be made on both sides of the designer/client relationship. We have a number of clients who all deserve our attention and we need a reason to allow 'queue jumping'. Much more than a witty soundbite that allows us to charge more money (because it certainly doesn't do that), the phrase is an incredibly useful tool in explaining the value of what we're selling.

At the end of the day (and when it comes to design and all manner of things in life) you get out what you put in. And that goes for investment or interest. Design is a collaboration. A collaboration to solve a problem visually. How can you best do that if you don't ever meet the person you're working with? How can you expect a designer to solve something correctly unless you let them immerse themselves into your world? Free pitching and the idea of working for a common goal just goes out the window if you let designers compete for your money.

Cheap logo services will always exist, because someone will always want a cheap logo. But if you want the job done properly, and to have a lasting working relationship with a creative individual who understands your needs and business, and is trained in solving a problem that you can't, then it's time to invest a little deeper and work out what value you put on the problem. You get what you pay for. If you're a creative then the thing to remember is concentrate on what you're doing and producing outstanding work. Cream always rises to the top, and you and your work will always get noticed.

'Finding a qualified designer was a huge chore" — and well it should be. Because when you find the right one you'll never want to let them go. Especially on cold mornings.


Trevia Baltimore said: Well said! *claps hands*

Jerzy Kurowski said: >designers use 99designs[...]to try and win business, >rather than try and build relationships.Actually it works both ways. Also from designer's point of view one of most important gains is ability to choose design challenges. From Quenn of Jordan website or King of Denmark visit (business) card to utterly crazy ones.>– but what happens to the thousands of hours > spent on logo designs by designers > whose work doesn't get chosen? loosing contests is tough, for many people too tough. But competition is part of this job, like it or not. On platforms like 99designs at least rules are clear. In so called "real life" quite often they are not.

Comment Zilla said: My college once paid something like 100k dollars for a new branding logo/slogan. No way it was worth that much.

Stillwell said: This is a great article. Touched a lot of great points. It's unfortunate that this is where creative industry has gone. I'm a music producer and know all too well how much time goes into something only to have your songs ripped off and your music made to be worth nothing. Your time literally becomes worth less than a penny for every hour you work sometimes. This type of job sourcing is happening in every industry. So were all feeling it.For me I just heard of, this was after trying to work with multiple graphic designers friends and professionals. But in the end I felt that none were professional at all. Yes they had good skills but zero professionalism. I always put the money out there first to get people working and they still didn't produce. So based on my experiences, I had lost faith in all the designers I had met in person. So because of the local designers in LA, SD and SF where I tried to get work done. I searched elsewhere. When on 99designs at no point did I see any logo pricing as low as £25. And you right what can you expect for that low of a price. However there cheapest logo design starts at $299 and I went for the $1000 dollars for a logo. I had a great response and was super satisfied with the result.I was able to link with an artist professionally without wasting anytime. The project was done in a week. They were hungry for the cash and it showed. The other submissions were awesome too, it does suck that they spent time and didn't make money out of it. But that was there choice and they knew exactly what they were getting into. So many people call themselves pro's just because they do quality work. For me I need someone that is quick. That I don't have to waste time meeting in person. Because I've done that 9 times in a year and never got anything out of it. I realize that's not the whole community. But when you go out of your way to find artists. And there consistently this hard to get to produce, you sometimes have to try new methods. So I didn't go there looking for cheap work. I went there because I knew they could work with deadlines and produce quality pieces. Plus all the management of the transaction was handled by a professional company. That was my experience.The site that really undercuts artists is FIVERR by far.

Omar Muhammad said: After reading Tom's comments and 99design's reply, I was reminded of the saying (and I'm paraphrasing) 'Everyone knows the price of Everything and the Value of Nothing.'I understand Jason's business model - it is squarely established on demand and ignorance. Both the designer and the client have needs based upon their own ignorance.The designer is ignorant of the true worth of their craft. Furthermore, he has yet to learn that the cost of doing business as a professional graphic designer cannot be sustained doing work for clients who don't want to pay the price for your professionalism. Last I checked, Adobe's CS suite is still the entry level software necessary to produce work that anyone would take seriously. And that software has to run on a decent computer. And that computer has to be plugged into some wall with power. So the Math question the designer has to ask is: How many 99 Design jobs do I need to 'Win' before I can actually afford to do business professionally? And once I 'Win', the client that I Won has ZERO incentive to actually pay MORE money for my great work in the future. I would love to see a single testimonial from any of the 'Thousands' of designers that actually were paid MORE money for their services and skills by that same client that chose their design.The Client is ignorant of why other business pay serious money for a professional designer in the first place. And thus all that client sees is Price, because they don't understand the Value of design as it relates to their industry. And in the off chance that they actually do understand it and appreciate it, it's simply not a factor in their decision making. Price rules. And the cheapest price for for what they perceive as the same results will always win.Now Jason may not articulate his business model in these crude terms, but at bottom it is what it is. And it works. I can't fault him for offering a service that steps into the gap and answers a need in the market. Just like I don't fault Steve Jobs for creating iTunes. Did it help suck millions out of the music industry? Absolutely. Is it his fault. Nope. Just like the person who buys a song for a buck or finds it 'Free' on the net - they make appreciate the value of the song and the immense effort it took to produce it. Hell, it may be what they need to hear everyday just to get by. But the Value of it simply did not factor into their decision making. Cost was King.I've actually lost business to 99 Designs. The Client and I met face to face, I presented him with an overview of the work and he let me know that he would be going the crowd-sourcing route for his logo. And the end result looks like clip art. But he's happy. So what can you do?Value is created when demand is high for something that is scarce. Unfortunately, the perception of our craft is that our skills are ubiquitous which creates a buyer's market – Price Rules.The truth is that there is no easy fix. The days when a boutique might be able to lure a client away from the Leo Burnetts of the world and score the same rates may remain a history as opposed to a future. As long as you have designers ignorant of their true worth, there will always be someone out there equally ignorant to take advantage of it.My advice? Don't argue with the Ignorant.

Jonathan Stevens said: Saying you got your logo from 99 Designs is a bit like saying you got a suit in Primark. It'll do in certain circles, but it simply won't fly if you want to get to a higher level.Obviously any designer with an ounce of self respect will give 99 Designs a miss in the same way any client will graduate from them when they have the budget to do so, so it's not really a problem. Only problem would be if you never rise above that level, in which case you probably shouldn't be in the game to begin with ;)

Tom Actman said: Thank you for your reply Jason.Your business model exists because there's a requirement. But unless there's a negative result or end product, it's the client (and one designer) who win.It's worth noting that you win every time.You mention that thousands of designers have great testimonials – but what happens to the thousands of hours spent on logo designs by designers whose work doesn't get chosen? The odds don't stack up for creatives, and from what I've seen from the results, they don't stack up either.From my understanding designers use 99designs (and the like — I don't want to keep singling you guys out) to try and win business, rather than try and build relationships. Combine that with my other concern, the cherry-picking solutions nature of crowdsourcing websites, and creating the right solution for a problem and audience just seems too disparate.Like you say, there's two different business models here, and it could well be the case that never the twain shall meet, or see eye to eye. Only a individual can know what is right for them.Regards,Tom Actman

Natalie6285 said: I disagree. These sites have value for jobless designers looking for whatever money they can get, but as a whole I agree with Tom. I have a couple reasons for saying this, for one, how do clients even know that the work they are getting is good or bad? I know some designers that are ok, and find freelance work, but overall their design quality is low. The trouble is, a lot of small time clients don't know the difference between good and bad design unless a good designer tells them or they see it. And if you are good, you probably aren't spending a lot of your time on websites like these because your busy doing real work for real clients (and getting paid real money). Also, as far as I can tell there isn't any way to tell if the work given to you has violated any copyright laws, and that could cause real trouble for the client later on. Some fonts you can't use without buying, and some of the 'logo' elements could have been pulled from the internet somewhere and 1,000 other business could already be using it, but how would the client know? If a real designer wants to get themselves out there, there are other ways to do it. Either they aren't intelligent enough to figure out those other ways or they're just bored.

Shaughn McGurk said: Eloquently articulated Tom.

jaiken said: Hi Tom,I know what you've written comes from a place of genuine care for your craft. However, it's clear there is a deep misunderstanding around our model, our place in the market and the profound impact we have on the lives and careers of designers around the world.The reality is clients and designers EACH get tremendous value out of 99designs - this is not an opinion but rather a fact evidenced by the thousands who use the service every single day.You shouldn't underestimate that people are able to connect on 99designs in the real and genuine ways necessary to a good design process simply because it's a little bit different from how you may work, and frankly it's not fair to suggest that those who choose to engage with us do not understand or value great design and communication.Here are some testimonials left by clients directly on each designer's individual profile on 99designs:"Scott did a fantastic job of creating a branded set of logos for us. He easily adapted his original logo design into a brand by making a smaller logo from the original. They fit well together and can be used for different purposes. He understood our concept and brought it to life. Scott was incredibly responsive to feedback and didn't require detailed direction to get results. He was very easy to work with and extremely professional. We'll definitely seek additional work with Scott in the future.""Nicholas is an amazing designer! Very creative and original. Great eye for balance and aesthetics. Very responsive and quick. Will definitely use him again (soon)!""Just a quick glance through scribe's portfolio told me this is the caliber designer I wanted working on my logo. Dean's first submission confirmed his incredible talent. He put considerable thought into the design, responded very quickly and was very open to suggestions. I really appreciate the effort he's put into my logo and brand!"These are not direct testimonials for 99designs but rather testimonials for the individual designers each client met at 99designs. Thousands of designers have similar testimonials on their 99designs profiles as a result of the relationships they have built using the service.Now that's really the key here... these designers are using 99designs BECAUSE it's a great way to earn money and build client relationships. You may have decided our model is not a good fit for you - which is absolutely fine. But I think those who bristle at 99designs and deride it as SPEC work perhaps misunderstand the speculative nature inherent in most activities employed to gain client opportunity like advertising, attending conferences/networking events, going door to door, pro bono work etc... There is no such thing as 100% direct and immediate ROI. At best you can put as many irons in the fire as possible, collect the ones that get hot, and hopefully over time build a great reputation and referral network.99designs may not be the perfect fit for every designer or every client nor do we try to be but if you take a look at our designer blog you might get a better picture of what we do and value we provide.Respectfully,Jason Aiken99designs

Kevin Walsh said: awesome article and well written, hopefully this will put a few people straight.