There is a great benefit to having a regular designer do all your graphics work: album covers, concert posters, T-shirts, ads, Web objects, illustrations, or whatever. If you’ve got good relationship with a designer, you have certain efficiencies. That designer will know the typefaces, layout preferences, templates, culture, and other consistent details of your preferences and house style. Issues of communication get worked out, over time. If such a relationship is possible (and developing a good one can be difficult), there are many advantages.
Sometimes, though, there can be a benefit in bringing fresh eyes into a project, and I’m currently enamored with the site www.99designs.com as a way to supplement our usual talent. It uses a crowd-sourcing model for design.
Here’s how it works. The person in need of a design (let’s call that person the “art director”) hosts a design competition on the excellent 99Designs site. The contest begins with a posted design specification and prize amount. For example:
“We need an album cover; here’s our band name, the album name, and this logo must go on the bottom-right corner. It should have a dark, wistful feel, and a reference to New Orleans and/or Absinthe would be great. It should be 4 3/4″ L X 5 1/2″ W, plus a quarter-inch bleed. 4C. ”
Then, designers from all over the world submit competing designs. At the end of the contest, usually a week, you choose a winner. They get paid, you get the graphics files, and you’re done. All the other designers who participated get nothing. The costs are cheaper than commercial design work, particularly in major U.S. cities. Many of the participating designers are from overseas. If no design is good enough, you don’t have to pay.
I’ve done this twice. The first time, I got over 200 submissions for a logo competition (for my wife’s company). This time, halfway through, I’m at about 80 designs for a Berklee Press book cover. So, you get a lot to choose from, in these contests! As the designs come in, you can give feedback, rank them, and provide general direction and refinements to your original spec. You only have to pay if you wind up with a usable design. And you can host a poll for your team (band, friends, fans, etc.) friends to vote on which design they like best.
While it is a good way to ultimately get some good ideas to choose from, there are some downsides. First, providing feedback and direction can take some time, as you’re starting from scratch. You get a lot of “B quality” work, and also a lot of work submitted that is way, way off the mark. But you also wind up with some viable ideas. There’s also something a little wasteful about inspiring so much work that won’t get used. Clearly, some of participants are in fairly significant need of the prize money, and in the end, “there can be only one” winner of the competition. So, the process can leave you feeling a little gross. It can have an “online sweatshop in China” vibe. That said, it gives designers an opportunity to get work, based entirely on their merit. New designers, fresh out of school, can gain experience and professional credentials for their portfolio, and professional designers anywhere in the wide world can use it as a potential income stream. Because it is so impersonal, designers gain real-world insight into the effectiveness of their work, without needing to translate the polite feedback and tacet acceptance (sometimes needed among permanent team members for an organization to survive) into truly actionable direction towards improving their craft.
Nobody is forced to participate, and I’ve never heard from a designer there who resented anything about the process. The only complaints I’ve heard have been from graphic designers who are concerned that this type of model will put them out of work. It won’t, though, because it is such an inefficient process, from a management perspective. It’s good for generating new ideas, but definitely a second choice, compared to a productive regular relationship with a skilled designer.
The crowd-sourcing model for design seems best used sparingly. To me, it makes the most sense when you have really no idea of what you want, or the communication with the current designer isn’t going well, for a project. That happens now and then even with really excellent designers. For whatever reason, they just aren’t coming up with what’s needed. Rather than descend into a rabbit hole of forcing them to churn out endless designs that don’t quite work and driving them bonkers, hosting one of these contest with anonymous designers can shake things up and bring in some fresh perspectives. Then, with the final design in hand, a house designer might take over, and make the final refinements, to make it truly usable. Take a look at a logo competition I held for my wife’s company, and then look at the design it evolved into at this site. Our regular designer took the good ideas from the winning design and made just the right adjustments to make it work for us and integrate it into our larger graphical context.
Some tips for getting good design work:
- Be explicit and thorough in listing all of your criteria. Specifying “The album name needs to be bigger and higher than the band name” could save everyone a lot of time.
- In the beginning, try to get many different ideas, rather than spending too much time refining ideas that have already been stated. Quick and a little rough is fine for a start. Refine them later, as the strongest concepts emerge.
- Be upfront about your preferences, even if they are a little silly. Saying “I don’t like orange” is important for the designer to consider.
- Provide samples of designs you like and designs you hate, and say exactly why.
- Try not to micro-manage, particularly at the early conceptual stage. Give the designer room to create.
- Bring other reviewers into the mix, but understand where they are coming from and how much to weigh their input. Surveys can be helpful, but their results aren’t always easy to interpret. I’ll give some details on that in a future post.
- Be kind and supportive in your feedback. Don’t say “This sucks, do it over, you moron.” Say, ‘This font is too ornate, and the graphic is too busy, crowding the text. Can we simplify it?”
- Understand that not every designer is right for every project. Sometimes, it’s just a bad fit, and it’s better to shake things up than to try to force something that is probably a doomed process.
- In the end, try to make the decision objectively, from a business context, rather than a personal preference one. Hopefully, you’ll have multiple options that you personally really like. But give a cold-hearted marketing expert weigh in heavily on the ultimate choice, to give the product its best chance for success.
Graphic design can be critically important to a product’s sales success. It’s important to depersonalize the process and try to get it right. Crowd-sourcing can be a helpful dimension of the process, and it can actually benefit your relationship with your usual designer.