Mystery shopping is a tried and true method of discovering how good or bad a service is without biasing the employees. Traditionally used by corporations and senior management as a metric for meeting quality and timeliness goals, mystery shopping has been detailing what customers experience for over 80 years.
Building on the idea of mystery shopping, we decided to do a bit of investigative journalism to bring you a 99designs review. 99designs is a “global creative platform that makes it easy for designers and clients to work together to create designs they love.” Not only do they connect millions of designers to clients, they offer two avenues to getting your work done: 99designs Contest and Start a Project.
With this option, you can connect with a specific designer or find a freelancer to partner with for your design needs. You can build a relationship with a favorite designer who will learn your brand and deliver ideas you build together.
Design contests are quickly becoming the most popular way to find a design from which to springboard a brand. The premise of a design contest is simple: tell a multitude of designers what you want, receive submissions, choose your favorite and award the winner. With this option, you get a variety of designs to rate and request edits to, so this can be especially useful for a brand who has an idea what they want, but it isn’t fully fleshed out. This is what we chose to do, and it started with choosing what type of contest we wanted to support—for this mystery shop, we selected 99designs logo contest.
Running a Logo Design contest starts at $299 for a Bronze level (basic) and goes up in price from there. Part of that goes to the winning designer and part is kept by 99designs. You can also purchase additional logos or brand components at the beginning and throughout the process. They never stop giving you a chance to upgrade.
You also choose the level and provide a few additional details.
They say, “Start by creating a simple brief to help designers understand your design needs.”
The truth: The brief is fairly comprehensive and in-depth. We wouldn’t necessarily say it is simple or intuitive, but the wizard does a good job of walking you through the process.
Once we selected our project, we were asked to supply a brief. This part was fun because you get to play with colors, personality, and do a little research on what inspires you. 99designs says that if you have a strong brief, there’s a good chance you’ll get better designs, but how do you know if you have a good brief or not? They did provide some examples, and we based our responses on those instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. Below, you can see our brief.
We chose the name Velocity Consulting, a fairly innocuous brand that would be easy to design for, and we described what our pretend organization did. From there, we were able to select color palettes we liked and what style attributes (personality) we would ascribe to our company.
Finally, we we’re given the option to upload some designs we liked as inspiration for the contest.
From there, we entered payment details and started the design contest. There were several other upgraded features along the way, such as hosting a private contest or one that is invite-only, shortening the duration of the contest, and promotion opportunities on the blog or as a feature.
They say, “Open your brief to our entire design community. Designers submit their ideas and you pick your favorite design.”
The Truth: When you start a contest, your brief isn’t opened to the entire community. It is only opened to the designer level you pay for.
99designs manages your expectations by telling you the average number of designs you’ll get based on your price package. We expected around 30. Within 24 hours of starting our contest, we had 27 submissions. One thing that was surprising here was that one artist could submit multiple options, so though we had 27 design entries, there were only a handful of artists submitting at that time.
As entries roll in, you are encouraged to rate them using a star system (one being low, five being high). This can help you filter your favorites for the second round. You can also decline designs and comment on them for refinements.
After a few days of not checking the account, we logged back in to see if the design entries had slowed. We were flabbergasted to discover over 110 submissions! We also had a note from 99designs that it was time to move to Round 2, so we rated all of the designs, and chose some favorites.
They say, “Finalize your design and continue working together. Once you’re happy with your design, you can begin discussing your next project together.”
The Truth: There are two rounds before you choose a winner. In those two rounds, you narrow down the options, then give feedback to finalize the design. You don’t begin discussing a new project with a designer until after you’ve finished the contest and signed the appropriate paperwork to gain ownership of the design.
In Round 2, we were given the opportunity to suggest refinements of the top entries. We narrowed it down originally to 25 options, then gave feedback on 9 of them. Our comments centered around fonts and color choices, which you can see in the images below.
The designers were quick to submit their revisions to their original designs. We heard back within 24 hours from every single one. And they certainly delivered on the comments.
The new additions made it even more difficult to choose, but we eventually settled on one of the originals from designer ck_graphics:
After we chose, we had to sign a contract for copyright ownership to be transferred to us. The designer also signed. Then we were able to download the logo in all of the formats we had chosen at the beginning of the process. 99designs also gave us the chance to buy more logos, had us rank the designer, and added the designer to our favorites so we could reach out if we had more work and wanted this specific designer on the job.
Walking through the process was fairly painless. The wizard guided us every step of the way, and having examples of what had worked in the past was helpful in determining the best way to increase volume of entries. Once the design started, there were many design options to choose from which could help a firm who already has some idea of their aesthetic settle in on one. Further, communication with the designers was opened up immediately, and we could edit our brief at any time if it wasn’t clear enough.
The different packages caused us to pause. They all offered money back guarantees, but the level of support increased with the amount of money spent. The highest package included prioritized support should you need it during the contest and a dedicated manager. Gold and Platinum both claimed to offer mid and top level designers only. We had a few questions crop up when reading through this, and there was no way to learn more to find out the answers.
We were overwhelmed with the response to our query. In fact, having so many options to choose from was somewhat limiting for two reasons. First, going through that many designs was time-consuming. Rating and responding to each designer was difficult without time to do it. For many busy start-up owners, this might be a nearly impossible task—which we assume 99designs anticipated when they provided a dedicated manager on their highest level package.
Second, excessive number of entries only seemed to cause more confusion on what exactly we wanted. There were so many excellent options, that it was tough to narrow the options down. In fact, there were at least 20 more we didn’t choose that we would have wanted. 99designs has again anticipated this by offering you the option to purchase more than one logo for the price of the award (which we think was $249 for the Bronze level). The problem with this is that then you have more than one logo, and understanding your brand—or defining it—is now complicated as you’re in love with more than one option. You can’t further refine a brand if you’re between logo designs because you were inundated with so many that you can’t choose.
Nearly all of the designs were visually similar. Most played on the letter V as the logo and centered it over the name of the company. There was nothing unique to the specific business that showed who we were. None of the logos were horizontal; all of them were vertical. So, although there were over 100 designs, the concept behind the work that you get from an agency was missing. Most of the logos felt generic. They were concepts we've seen dozens of times before.
Back to concept, an incredibly important part of logo design—rationale or thought process for the logos was missing. You just get what you see, and the why is ignored. A traditional agency, or one like Superside, focuses on building a story with clients, better understanding who they are, their personality, and what they want the audience to know. This concept then is translated into a logo. Individualized attention and focus on the brand story is what makes a stellar logo in the end, but with this design contest process, there was no walkthrough of the work. We were left to sort through all of the entries with minute variations that blurred together as opposed to a few stellar, well-thought-out solutions.
Plagiarism is an ugly word, but it is one that is inescapable in design contests. Many designers on these platforms search what graphics are available and then mimic it. Or they will purchase a bunch of stock assets and then assemble them en masse for contests hoping to win one. After a quick search, some of the V logo submissions looked quite familiar to stock we found online.
Your brand is more than just a premade, used-before monogram. With this design contest, it felt like it wasn't.
Running a design contest through 99designs was interesting and exciting. Having the new entries rolling in each day can really fuel motivation to get a distinct brand voice and style. The wizard is fairly straightforward even for a newbie to design, which can be helpful for companies who need that sort of guidance. 99designs has anticipated some needs of companies too, so what you want is right at your fingertips, but everything has a price. Overall the process was simple, but involved. It is best to go into a design contest with something in mind—already knowing your brand colors and personality—but also with a completely open mind on design elements. If you’re looking for something but have no idea what, you may wind up feeling overwhelmed and spend more money on designs than you intended to.
At Superside, we embrace our competition because we know not every solution fits every client. If your company needs a dedicated design team, a quick design brush-up, or an entirely new brand strategy, we’ve got you covered, 24/7 with dedicated project managers and premium design options.
We sat down with Bill Macaitis, former Slack CMO, to chat about what it takes to success with ad design. Hear his tips and more in this Q&A style interview!