99designs Review: 15 Top Tips for Your Next Contest

Running a successful 99designs contest will help you find and work with a designer for a book cover, logo or other creative projects. This 99designs review explains more.

Are you about to run a 99 designs contest?

I'm not a graphic 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 contest. In this article, I'll explain what 99designers offers and how I ran a 99designs contest for a book cover.

99designs review
Table Of Contents

What is 99designs?

99designs is a design marketplace.

You can either hire a designer directly or run contests. Use it for a design project like:

  • Logos
  • Web page designs
  • Book covers
  • Brochures
  • Posters
  • Magazine covers
  • Landing pages
  • WordPress themes
  • Merchandise and dozens of other types of creative projects.

If you're wondering why pick 99designs, it's a great place to find professional designers for your book, website, blog and more, while working on a budget.

As part of a 99 designs contest, designers compete against each other to win a cash prize (which you provide).

My 99designs Book Cover Contest

Lots of top bloggers recommended 99designs to me. So, I ran a contest 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 crowdsourcing design projects like these.

Here are my 99designs contest tips.

1. Decide On Your Budget for a 99 designs Contest First

Pricing tiers
99 designs has four contest types: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

Expect to pay between €269 to €1099 for a book cover. Other types of contests, like a logo, vary in price. All contest hosts get at least 30 design concepts, a 100% money-back guarantee and full copyright ownership.

I ran a Bronze level contest. I also got a free Powerpack upgrade, for which 99designs showcased my contest to more would-be contestants.

A silver level contest holder get at least 60 concepts. 

A gold contest holder gets access to mid and top-level designers and 90 concepts.

A platinum contest holder gets access to top tier designers and a dedicated account manager.

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.

I received over 247 submissions (that's a lot more than 30 or even 99).

In short:

Pick a contest tier based on your budget, the complexity of your design project and how much money you expect it to earn for you or your business over the long-term.

For example, a new blogger is probably better served by buying a budget WordPress theme than by running a 99designs Platinum contest. On the other hand, an author will get a better book cover they can use for years if they pay more.

2. Write a Specific Design Brief

99designs brief
Prepare your design brief

When you run a competition on 99designs, you have to write a design brief for those competing.

My advice?

Be as specific and detailed as you can. For example, I said,

I want the book cover to feel warm and friendly. It should make the reader feel like the contents of the book are accessible.

I don't like gradients that much. I prefer minimalist flat designs. However, the cover should still stand out on Amazon and other book stores. I need to see the back and the front of you entry.

Several entrants used pencils and typewriters. These images are very common on books to do with writing. Please try for something else if you want to stand

Provide supporting pictures and explaining what you don't want. Several designers still contacted me to ask about the book's physical size and 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. Prepare Copy Beforehand

I researched my book's title 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. If you need a book cover, prepare the title and subtitle in advance as this will impact the look and feel of the cover dramatically.

If you're commissioning a webpage design or landing page, provide web copy you'll use rather than lorem ipsum text. That way, you can see what the results will look like when live.

4. Research Your Niche

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 of designs. I wanted something more original.

Researching these clichés beforehand will save you and the designers time.

Don't expect a designer to read your mind. Prepare a list of links for them to review. Or provide Pinterest board that has examples of logos, book covers, magazine designers, webpage templates and so on that you like.

5. Put Time Aside For Your Design Contest

Make sure you have time for the contest
Make time for the contest

My contest ran for seven days.

I spent 30 minutes each night commenting on the various submission and during the 99designs 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 contest.

My advice?

Run the contest when you know you're available to critique the submissions. Designers need feedback to iterate their work. You also need time to evaluate their submissions. Setting time aside also means you can show concepts to readers, website visitors, people you work with or sell to.

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.

Clicking on a book cover submission and annotating it enables 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 Contest Entrants

I tried to give feedback to everyone who entered my design contest.

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. I'd expect this to be less of an issue with the higher level tiers.

8. Expect 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.

Again, if the quality is an issue and you want a professional designer, consider running a contest at a higher tier or contacting 99designs for advice.

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 contest as they feel they don't have a chance of winning.

Again, this strategy worked as lots of people entered my contest 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 contest.

I learnt some designers watch a contest to see what the standard is like. And then, they make their move.

Although you might get a good design early, don't give in to temptation and pick a winner until the contest 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 contest on various social media sites that I'm active on. And I used Pickfu to test my covers with a real-world audience.

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.

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 Contest 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 Contest 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.

The Winning Design

A Handbook for the Productive Writer
The winning design

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 contest that didn't payout for them.

If you're a writer, author or simply need a design project, it's a great resource for finding a talented designer.

Would you use 99designs? Or do you have questions about my 99designs contest tips?

I've also put together a free checklist to help you run a competition on 99designs.

Subscribe to get your free 99designs book cover competition resource.

Additional Resources For authors

How to Write a Book: A Definitive Guide for Authors

The Real Cost of Self-Publishing a Book

How to Make an Audiobook Listeners Love

FAQs

Is 99designs worth it for designers?

99designs is worth it for new designers who want to gain experience, find clients and build up a portfolio. However, once established, designers are better off working directly with clients.

Which is the best choice for graphic design, 99designs or fiverr?

You get what you pay for. A 99designs contest costs quite a bit more than similar projects on Fiverrr. If you have a bigger budget, invest more in a design that generates a return for you or your business.

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Author

99designs Review: The Final Word

Whatever your project, 99designs is a great resource for finding a talented designer for once-off creative projects like a book cover or a logo design.

Pros

  • A great way of crowdsourcing designs
  • Supports many creative projects from logo designers to book covers
  • Ideal for once-off projects

Cons

  • Design contests take time
  • You may find a designer cheaper elsewhere
  • Less suited for ongoing projects
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