Are you about to run a 99 designs competition?
I did just that.
I'm not a designer, and I recently self-published a book on Amazon. So, I needed a book cover.
My design skills being what they are – non-existent – meant I decided to run a 99designs book cover competition.
What is 99designs?
99designs is a design contest marketplace where you can run competitions for: logos, web designs and book covers amongst other things.
As part of a 99 designs competition, designers complete against each other to win a cash prize (which you provide).
Lots of top bloggers recommended 99designs to me. So in July, I ran a competition for a book cover on this website.
My 99designs book cover competition lasted for seven days, and there were two rounds.
The first round was open to everyone, and it lasted four days.
At the end of this round, I picked eight finalists, and I worked with these for a further three days on their designs.
Then, I picked a winner.
I made some mistakes, and I learnt some 15 hard lessons about crowd-sourcing design projects like these.
Here they are:
1. Decide On Your Budget for a 99 designs Competition First
99 designs has four competition types, and you can pay up to EUR909. I didn't pay that much, as I had to be realistic about the budget.
I ran a Bronze level competition that costs EUR229. I also got a free Powerpack upgrade worth EUR75, for which 99designs showcased my competition to more would-be contestants.
99designs offers a 100% money back guarantee if you're not happy with the submissions. However, I guaranteed my prize, as I read this encourages more designers to enter.
And it did; I received over 247 submissions (that's a lot more than 99).
2. Write a Specific Design Brief
When you run a competition on 99designs, you have to write a design brief for those competing.
Be as specific and detailed as you can. You can read my brief here.
Provide supporting pictures and explaining what you don't want. Several designers still contacted me to ask about the physical size of the book and also if I was going to print my book (no, I'm not).
I didn't consider these questions until I received them.
So, I drew a mockup of a book cover with Photoshop (you don't have to do this).
I also included links to other book covers that I liked in my brief. This helped me get over the language barrier (more on that below.)
3. Finalise Your Copy Beforehand
I spent time researching the title of my book and writing the copy for the book cover before running this competition.
Then, I made some minor changes to the copy during the competition, which slowed the process somewhat.
The competition itself took a lot of time to run, so it's best to know exactly what you want before you start one.
4. Do Your Research
Lots of designers submitted book covers with pencils, typewriters and pens.
Halfway through, I updated my brief to ask people to stop submitting these types designs. I wanted something more original.
Researching these clichés beforehand will save you and the designers time.
5. Put Time Aside For Your Design Competition
My competition ran for seven days.
I spent 30 minutes each night commenting on the various submission and during the final round (which ran for three days), I spent an hour each day providing feedback to designers.
I knew from talking to other users of 99designs that I'd need this much time to get the most from the competition.
Run the competition when you know you're available to critique the submissions.
6. Learn the 99designs UI
It took me time to figure out how comments, annotations and the submissions process works.
And initially, I wasn't sure about difference between eliminating a design and requesting a modified version of a design.
I also learnt clicking on a book cover submission and annotating it makes for better communications with designers as you can be specific about what you want.
That said, 99designs offers support and you can even ring them (I didn't).
7. Give Feedback to your 99designs Competition Entrants
I tried to give feedback to everyone who entered my design competition.
However, I received over 80 initial submissions, and this made it difficult to give every designer fair feedback.
To save time, I updated my design brief and posted global comments that every designers could see.
There was just one problem.
Several designers spoke bad English. As I only speak English (and Gaeilge), we had trouble communicating. This caused at least one designer to question what I meant.
8. Expect Book Cover Designs of All Standards
I received five excellent designs that I was happy with.
I also received at least two dozens average book covers, and I received another dozen submissions which were either off-brief or of poor quality.
The great book covers surpassed my expectations, but the poor quality book covers weren't any better than anything I could have created.
9. Give Low Ratings (At First)
This surprised me as I'm uncomfortable criticising someone's work, but 99designs recommended I rate the initial entrants with one or two stars instead of four or five.
More than two stars during the first round discourages people entering a design competition as they feel they don't have a chance of winning.
Again, this strategy worked as lots of people entered my competition close to the various deadlines.
10. Don't Pick Winners Till The Deadline Expires
During my design contest, the most original book covers were submitted close to the deadline.
And the winning designer submitted his book cover an hour before the deadline of the entire competition.
I learnt some designers watch a competition to see what the standard is like. And then, they make their move.
Don't give into temptation and pick a winner until the competition closes.
Let the deadline of each round elapse before you pick a winning design.
11. Run a Poll
You can create a free poll of your favourite designs and share this online.
I contacted people on my mailing list, and I asked them to complete my poll (thanks everyone!).
I also shared my poll about my design competition on various social media sites that I'm active on.
If you want to do the same, I recommend sharing your poll like on the Google+ Authors, Publishers and Entrepreneurs community.
The members of this group provided me with lots of feedback.
12. Get Help
Two friends have a background in design. They helped me eliminate off-brief designs and provide more constructive feedback to the finalists.
I also used Pickfu to test my covers with a real-world audience.
This is a premium service where you can get real customer feedback in minutes. I use this service to A/B test various covers and to pick my finalists.
I know Tim Ferris did something similar to pick a cover and a title for his book The Four Hour Work Week.
13. Be Prepared for Negative Feedback
One designer contacted me to ask why his design was eliminated. Another designer complained the winning design looked similar to his entry.
I wasn't prepared for negative feedback, and I felt bad for both designers. This did make me question about the fairness of 99designs for those competing.
14. The Final Competition Round is the Most Important
During the final round I offered to contact the finalists on Skype. I also provided detailed feedback on their submissions.
I wanted to be helpful but one designer said I provided too much feedback. He may have a point, but this felt like the only way I could get a suitable design.
The next time I use 99designs, I'm going to offer less feedback to designers of covers that I don't like because it feels more respectful of their time.
15. You May Have to Pay More Once the 99designs Competition Ends
After I picked my winning 99designs graphic design, I had to pay an extra EUR20 for stock images, which the designer used.
This wasn't a significant amount, but be prepared for these kind of expenses. If you're worried, ask your favourite partner or designer to clarify costs before you pick him or her.
99 designs is great for writers like me.
I just don't have the skills or the time to create a book cover.
I received at least three designs that I would be happy to pay for, and I'm delighted with the winning design.
I'm less sure about the value of 99designs for design professionals. I felt guilty about those designers who put hours of work into a design competition that didn't pay out for them.
If you're curious about the entries to my competition, here are the various book covers.
If you want to run a competition, 99designs is offering a power pack upgrade for all new competition holders.
Would you use 99designs?
Do you have a question about my competition?
Please let me know in the comments section below.
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