On co-creation, contests and crowdsourcing

A portrait of a design contest and what it says about the future of co-creation.

I had decided to update the branding at one of my companies, and that meant re-thinking my logo.

Here’s the old logo:

Original Middleband Group logo

The creative exercise started with a logo design contest posting at 99designs, an online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design.

When it was all done, I had been enveloped by an epic wave of 200 designs from 38 different designers.

It was a flash mob, a virtual meetup constructed for the express purpose of creating a new logo. The system itself was relatively lean, providing just enough “framing” to facilitate rapid iteration, where lots of derivative ideas could be presented, shaped and then re-shaped again.

The bottom line is that based on the primary goal of designing a new logo, I can say without hesitation that the model works.

Not only did the end product manifest as I hoped it would (see below), but the goodness of real-time engagement was intensely stimulating and richly illuminating. At one point, I was maintaining 10 separate conversations with designers spread across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Talk about parallelizing the creative process.

In the end, the project yielded eight worthy logo designs and not one but two contest winners! It was the creative equivalent of a Chakra experience: cathartic, artistic and outcome-driven at the same time.

Co-creation, crowdsourcing and the Maker movement

Part of my draw to try out this crowdsourced model is that I consider myself a Maker and am a serious devotee of co-creation types of projects, where the line between creator, consumer, customer and service provider is inherently gray.

Why do I like this model? Because it facilitates a rich exchange of ideas and skill sets, and is highly collaborative. It’s part of the larger trend of melding of online, offline, events and exchanges into new types of value chains.

It’s a bucket that includes Kickstarter (funding platform for creative projects), Foo Camp (the wiki of conferences), Maker Faire (festival and celebration of the Maker movement) and X PRIZE (radical breakthroughs through contests), to name a few.

Plus, there’s an authenticity to that which is grass roots — that which opens a new economic domain for direct-to-consumer connections, a new modality for handcrafted, and customized offerings, even more so in a world that is tuned for mass-production.

One only has to scan the project listings at Kickstarter or the exhibitor lists at Maker Faire to see the catalytic role this wave is playing for robot makers, artisan bakers, knitted goods purveyors, sculptors, app makers, device builders and do-it-yourself kit creators. In times of stagnant economic growth, it is heartening to see how much leverage there is when you can integrate discovery, engagement, personalization and monetization, as this model does.

It’s the yin to the yang of homogenization, and as such, has promise to ignite real, durable growth across many different market segments in the years ahead.

The good, bad and ugly of crowdsourced design

With crowdsourced design, I experienced two primary pitfalls and one indirect one.

The two primary ones were:

  1. You run the risk that a designer is modifying someone else’s design. In fact, one of the designers of the 38 who submitted designs got kicked out of the competition for just that reason (i.e., non-original work).
  2. Since it’s an all-or-nothing outcome for the participants, some of the designers will diss each other, which led one designer to pull a design that I actually liked.

The indirect pitfall was the cost dynamic. Namely, given the low cost, a lot of the designers are outside the U.S., which means you could be losing out on senior, higher-dollar U.S. designers, unless you materially up the award that you want to commit to (99designs gives you tools so you can guarantee winners, increase award levels, etc.).

That stated, it’s the 80/20 rule in action: 80% of the designs that captivated me the most came from 20% of the designers. Because of the competitive nature of the format, the back-and-forth process was highly iterative.

Choosing a logo (or two …)

Meanwhile, as we got to the last hours of my logo design project, I faced a dilemma.

When I got down to the final 4-5 candidates, there were two designs that really got under my skin, each from a different designer.

Plus, as Middleband is my “umbrella” company through which a bunch of my different ventures get seeded (before being spun off as separate entities), I could see a scenario where having a second logo path in hand would be a great option to have.

Now, the cool thing about a model like 99designs is that I could affordably acquire two designs (the cost was an incremental $245 to award a second contest winner), and it was push-button easy for all parties.

So that’s what I did. Here are the two winners:

Middleband Group winning logos


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  • Phil

    So you comissioned work from 38 designers, but only paid 2 of them, and what was probably a very low hourly rate. How do you cinsider that to be a collaborative, productive business model?

  • A marketplace’s value is judged by its buyers and sellers. Obviously, there WERE 38 designers who considered the value exchange worth their investment in time, and it was certainly worth my time. Who was the loser in this equation?

    • Do you really know who you paid? Did you pay a person who works from home or did you pay a company who hires people for pennies a day to work in a high tech sweatshop. Much like the sweatshops that produce clothing, there are now sweatshops that produce high tech goods. Just look at some of the ‘designer profiles’ at 99 Designs, you will notice some who have competed in more than 3,000 contests in less than a years time, seemingly impossible for a normal person.

      This information isn’t hidden, you can click on any designer and see how many contest they have been in, how many they have won, and how long they have been a designer at 99 Designs. You’ll notice some who have competed in hundreds and won one or two. And some who have won more than 100, but have been in several thousand contests over several years.

      And how do you know that the money you spent for that cheap logo didn’t go to fund terrorists. Do you even know which country the person who won claimed to live in? They have designers in almost 200 countries, that money could have went almost anywhere.

      • I think that you can make the exact same statement every time you shop at Walmart or buy a pair of Nikes, and let the tale of the tape show that plenty of Americans buy Nikes and shop at Walmart.

        In other words, the validity of your question does not change the essential dynamic of online + globalization. You don’t always know WHO the maker is, under WHAT conditions they made it, and HOW MUCH they were paid to do it.

  • Design “contests” are a really heated topic in the design community. A big part of the troubles facing designers is the valuation of their time worked, and the ubiquity of contests are a big part of that problem. A lot of designers are contributing hours of effort, including responding to client feedback and revisions, without being paid for that time. Most in fact aren’t getting paid at all, one got a payment of $299, and one got a payment of $245. No idea what the hours of effort put into those chosen designs would be.

    Logo and branding design is a consulting process as much as a design process. The best agencies and designers work with the client to help them shape their business needs – establishing a firm mission statement and business goals, identifying their strengths,weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and identifying the personas of their target customers or users, and how they will be reached. The end product is more than a logo, it’s a foundation of who the business is, who they want to reach, and how they will meet them. The logo is the culmination of that process, and references the foundation implicitly (but hopefully not overtly). Design contests skip this process, the end result is a logo without the foundation, and typically, a business that hasn’t been forced to state and focus on what their core identity really is.

    That’s not to say the logo isn’t suitable or “good”, I’m not going to venture into that discussion. Obviously the author got exactly what he thought he wanted out of it, but oftentimes the role of the designer is to help a client think through what they want, to establish a clear goal first, and only then to produce something that looks good on a business card.

    • Like any disruptive innovation, there are going to be huge squirm factors any time you try to sort out the segmentation that exists between the the ‘jobs’ where the old model dictates versus those where the new model takes hold.

      On the one hand, if your business is predicated on billing hourly (or tens of thousands of dollars) for something that is accessible for hundreds of dollars in a contest model, ‘value reset’ risk is something that you need to wrap your head around. The segments that the internet has disrupted in this manner are legion (retail and media are two obvious ones).

      On the other hand, as fields as diverse as programming and law tell us, the existence of services like eLance and LegalZoom haven’t disrupted the market for skilled programmers and attorneys.

      In my case, I would have been a ‘non-consumer’ of the agency cost structure (at this point), so I think of this as a low-end entry point that delivers high perceived value for that right kind of job.

      • I wrote a reply to this, but the comment system apparently didn’t post it.

        The basic questions I had were on what the next steps are – do you hire a designer to make your business cards, letterhead, stationary, one-sheets, and direct-mail campaigns? Does the contest winner do that for you? How do you ensure there is consistency across the uses for this logo? In a typical relationship with a designer, the designer would design applications as well as branding guidelines to ensure that no matter who picks up the work following, you are able to maintain consistency to reinforce your business messaging and strategy. Were you informed by the contest winner of what fonts to use along with the logo?

        Did the contest winners provide the logo in multiple sizes and formats (ie vector and raster)? Vector is used for scaling correctly for print applications, from business cards to signage uses, while raster (like JPG) is used for web and screen uses. Did the contest entrants take into account the logo’s use in both color (RGB for screen, CMYK for print) and black and white or is the logo going to degrade if used in any version except for screen? Did you receive color levels to communicate to a printer to ensure it’s reproduced faithfully?

        This is not meant to be critical of your end product or your evaluation. These are things that a designer is in charge of communicating and understanding before beginning work. When evaluating the benefits of a contest model for any business, whether large or small, it seems that there are important elements left out. Even for the smallest business, there is a huge amount of freelance designers that fit every cost structure – I’ve even seen identity packages from designers that end up cheaper than the $300 you paid.

        There’s another part of your experience that you experienced (the stolen designs) that I think does not bode well for the evolution of the contest model. I’ll address that in a separate comment as it’s unrelated to the above.

  • Bern

    I’ve never tried a contest, and never had the budget for a high-level development process as the first commenter describes. So from a completely objective (or may completely ignorant!) POV but it seems to me that both models have value, depending ultimately on what the client wants and can afford. Correct me if I’m wrong but a great many advertising agencies vie for corporate business by investing the time and talent of their employees which may or may not result in a contract. I’m not sure that the contest model differs substantially from that.

    • There is a substantial difference between a client pitch and a “contest” cattle call. For one, the client pitch is a very small sample of what the agency will ultimately provide. More often than not, the pitch is about showing what the agency can do with limited time and knowledge, and the end product is different than what was pitched, or at least has gone through a number of revisions. Secondly, advertising agencies make their money from a percentage of adspend. The relationship is built upon purchasing media buys for the client, and not just about the creative deliverable. The creative staff are paid as members of a full time staff, and presumably, get paid for the time they put into it by the agency, whereas a cattle call process is designers literally working for free on the rare hope of getting paid.

      I’m not aware of a pitch process for straight up design work, or at least I’ve never been part of that process. There’s a lot that goes into the relationship between a designer or design firm and the client beyond the end logo deliverable. When people cite the high costs of logo design it’s conflating the design itself with the application cost. The London Olympics logo effort was expensive, but the applications of that logo were enormous – on buses, websites, interactive, static, moving, variations for every venue, every sponsor use, etc. There are also cost effective freelance designers who will engage in the process that is right for your business and develop a relationship that you can lean on for close to the same cost as these contest models provide.

      Are there other industries that use this contest model? Acting is the only other one I can think of, and even then an actor/actress does not do a substantial part of the work upfront for free, and hope they get paid later. The other models cited in the article don’t apply – Kickstarter is about funding, not about providing products on the hope of getting paid, and X Prize are million dollar contests where teams are typically sponsored, and still own their work after the contest ends I believe (i may be wrong on that though).

  • Corrie Zoll

    What agreements did you enter into with the contest winners regarding copyright and usage?

  • “You run the risk that a designer is modifying someone else’s design. In fact, one of the designers of the 38 who submitted designs got kicked out of the competition for just that reason (i.e., non-original work).”

    From my looking into the contest model, this is what is most worrying to me. As the author said in a comment, the marketplace has determined that there is a value for this type of work, but that also means that a process has evolved to fit that market that ensures its economically viable for the workers. That process is one where designers put in the minimum amount of time possible and enter as many contests as possible in order to maximize their chance of receiving adequate payment. That naturally leads to reusing designs for multiple contests, to wholesale theft of other designs, both from other contest entrants or from established companies and brands. That last one is particularly scary as the client won’t have any idea it’s happened, but then runs the risk of trademark infringement through no fault of their own. It’s simply the implications of a market where the relationship with and knowledge of a designer is devalued.

    Designers often use the question “would you ask a plumber to do work without agreeing to pay them?” when asked about spec work or contest work. I wonder if an equally good question for designers to phrase to clients is “would you do work in the model you are offering to me?” If yes, how did it work? If no, what is unique about the client’s services that doesn’t apply to the designer’s services?

  • Rebecca

    So… Did the “designer” for your logo steal it from this guy, or did this guy steal it from you?


    Oh, lovely “crowdsourcing”, where you have no relationship with the designer, no idea if he actually owned the copyright to this design before he transferred it to you, no insight into his creative process which you would get with an actual designer and would show you the process is organic.

    How do you find out if he is using your logo or if you are using his?

    Through an attorney. $$$$

  • Rebecca

    I found your other logo, too. Sure, the colors have changed but it’s clearly the same logo.


    • Rebecca

      It’s as simple as tracing the image (you don’t even have to buy the original, a screen grab will suffice) and putting a hexagon in the middle.

  • Rebecca

    I wish I could edit comments! You must think I’m spamming your page.

    This issue has bothered me so much because O’Reilly is so respected in the tech community, and the things written here carry a lot of clout.

    You’re talking about the joys of “crowdsourcing” and after a few minutes on google I’ve found enough evidence for you to launch an investigation to find out if your work is original, and if it is, whether it’s being used elsewhere illegally. Admittedly, the second instance could happen even if you hired an actual designer, but if the former is true, and both of your designs are if not outright stolen then at best derivative works (which you won’t have the rights to if your designer didn’t design the original or have rights to derivative works on something designed by someone else himself – which even if he did probably wouldn’t be able to sell them on) then someone out there has the right to sue you.

    You’ve opened yourself up to the possibility of a potentially expensive legal battle, and the chances of this happening with an actual designer are much, much slimmer.

    Is it really worth it to save a few bucks?

    Both of your logos are out there, in one case being used, and in another being sold, and there is nobody to protect you. 99designs won’t touch you and your designer just has to change his email address.

    At least with a real designer, the chances are that someone else is using your logo because you’ll know it was an original work. When you’ve “crowdsourced” there is absolutely no way to tell.

    • Suggesting that a 99designs designer is not a “real designer,” putting aside the tradeoffs, risks and challenges noted in the piece, is: A) akin to the “real artist” dismissal that plays out in a lot of creative communities; and B) why the disrupted get disrupted – they refuse to see macro trends in context of the needs and realities of the larger market.

      In other words, I am sure that the New York Times would love nothing more than a return to the gilded age of newspapers, and I am sure that even more so than with logo design, it’s easy to find LOTS of blog posts that are at best derivative and at worst copy and paste of the original article, but that does not change the larger reality that the Blogosphere IS.

      We can argue whether the train should have left the station, but should not ignore reality as it plays out in the market.

      (btw, you can edit your comments by clicking on the edit field on the lower right side at the bottom of your comment.)

      • The NYTimes/Blog argument is a straw man here. Blogging is built around reposting with attribution, it’s content not product, you didn’t sign a contract with the blog you read, and you as a participant aren’t at risk for getting sued by visiting that blog.

        I’m not saying that these people aren’t or can’t be real designers, but it’s clear to me from both the links Rebecca posted to previous images and the actions taken against the designer) that the winner of this contest is engaging in copyright infringement. You’ve spent money on a product, and now you could end up being sued because you don’t know where this came from. As Rebecca said, this could happen with another designer, but there is a relationship with a designer, and a contract in place that transfers rights to you (including potentially derivative works protection so the designer can’t reuse your logo) and gives you some recourse.

        • My point is that there is the entire spectrum playing out in the continuum between NYT – serious blogger – hack blogger – link baiter. The edge cases are always the ones that scare people away from trying new approaches. Once upon a time the risk of buying over the Internet was that you had no guarantee that they wouldn’t steal your money and steal your identity, right?

          As I mentioned to Rebecca, any of us that consider ourselves to be makers (myself included) struggle with the duality between craft and commodity.

        • Rebecca

          Yeah, that was my point (what Johnny said). You have no way of guaranteeing that the work is original.

          When I design something, I copyright it over at myows.com (I totally recommend them) and then when the contract is finalized I transfer the rights over to the client.

          That way there is always someone to be held accountable and my work, myself and the client are protected. All of this is stipulated in contract signed by both parties before commencement of work.

          Designers aren’t 99designs aren’t held to the same standards.

          Sure, they have to tick a box saying that all work is their own, but this means absolutely nothing when all that is required to enter submissions is an email address. You don’t even have to give your real name.

          99designs have an… Interesting… Way of dealing with copyright.

          “If a designer creates several iterations of a single design, but the contest holder only purchases one of those iterations—then the rights to those other designs remains the property of the designer. The contest holder can, of course, negotiate with the designer for the transfer of rights to multiple designs.”

          So you don’t own the rights to derivative works, and what is essentially your logo – bar a few tweaks – can legally be sold again.

          The “Design Handover” aspect off 99d’s contract is also interesting as it is rendered void if it is discovered that the winning design was stolen – the designer never owned the copyright in the first place so it can’t actually be transferred.

          Reading through the contracts at 99d there are a lot of worrying things. “you must upload the high resolution version of the Design to 99designs.com for delivery to the Customer;” – it isn’t contractual that the design be given to you as a vector image, and a pixel image WILL cause problems down the road.

          An interesting question arises upon reading – “This agreement is governed by, and must be construed in accordance with, the laws of the State of Victoria, Australia and the parties irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of the State of Victoria, Australia and their Courts of Appeal.”

          How do these contracts hold up outside of Victoria, Australia? Copyright laws do vary from country to country and you may not actually be covered by these contracts. How do these contracts hold up on the designer end in different countries? By that I mean, if your designer is from a country where certain things are legal, but they’re not legal where you are, how is that covered and who is held responsible?

          There are a lot of things that stand out to me reading through the contracts (how 99d aren’t responsible for pretty much anything is worthy of note) and I do find them troublesome.

          I guess the real take-away is that no designer can possibly be held responsible (at least, not without a lot of time and money) because all you need to make an account is an email address and a name you can pull out of thin air, and the only people who seem really protected by these contracts are 99designs themselves.

  • Rebecca


    So this is the link to your competition, and I find it incredibly interesting. Most notable is the fact that your winner (the one with the blue cube with the letters, who may or may not have stolen your design from this guy http://golden-bears.ru/about.html in Russia) had ALL of his previous designs removed for breach of conduct (meaning that they were basically stolen) and yet you STILL selected him as the winner.

    The designer in question is clearly “ethically challenged” yet you chose to work with him anyway. This doesn’t bode well for you. If he has no problem stealing (which clearly he doesn’t given the fact that all of his designs had to be removed) how can you feel assured that your logo wasn’t stolen?

    As for your other winner, although I did find the design being sold on another site in different colors, I have no evidence for this one but I’ve personally seen that particular design entered into numerous competitions before yours. Is your new logo just something that was pulled from someone’s “rejected” folder? It’s a personal opinion, but I’d prefer that my brand was unique to me, well researched and well thought out.

    Aside from that, if you just google “cube logo” you’re going to see a lot of designs similar to yours. While this may not necessarily present a copyright issue, it’s hardly a unique brand for your business, and won’t exactly make it stand out. Nintendo GameCube’s logo was/is almost exactly the same!

    There are so many problems when it comes to “crowdsourcing” your brand, and I’m finding a whole host of them in your competition alone. It’s worth a reminder that you wouldn’t be coming across most of these had you hired an actual designer.

    I don’t know if you intend to do anything about any of it, but I do think your experience with “crowdsourcing” or, to call it by it’s more appropriate and realistic name, spec work, and all the problems I’ve pointed out with your new logo is very interesting for people who may consider this route in the future.

    • All good points, but you could just as easily make the same point about HP with their latest line of PC’s that are “inspired” by the iMac:


      HP has professional designers, and the motto is “Invent,” yet they built something highly derivative, some would say a ripoff.

      My point is not to argue against professional designers — I love them and have worked with dozens over the years.

      I just don’t embrace the All or None arguments that some would suggest. Subway isn’t Cheesecake Factory, which isn’t Gary Danko, yet each has a place depending upon budget, timing and circumstance.

      • Rebecca

        How is that not a lawsuit?! lol.

        I’m not saying there are no pros to the spec work method, just that the cons outweigh them for both clients and designers.

        • “Look and feel” was held to be unprotected as a matter of copyright in the landmark Apple v Microsoft case way back when. Hence, Apple shifted their focus to patent.

          Believe me, I respect your position. Any of us that consider ourselves to be makers (myself included) struggle with the duality between craft and commodity.

          • Rebecca

            I could talk about it all day long! It’s so important that clients and (I guess if the commodity thing really takes off) consumers are educated as to why branding efforts are worth the investment. Thankfully, there are hundreds of articles on the internet on the issue for any interested party so I won’t go into it.

            But thanks for responding to my comments, and for enlightening me regarding the Apple vs Microsoft case, that was really good to know about.

    • Hi, i am the design ofr the blue cube logo for the contest that Mark put on 99designs. I can assure you that my design it original and i never steal others’ work. As you can see the size fo the image put on the russian wesite is exactly the same as the size of the cube from the winning entry. What does this mean to you? I was banned from the website because i was pointing clipart ripoffs and this is not the 99cliaprt wants. They don’t five a damn about what people get from there and i was messing their business. You can see some of my work here http://bit.ly/ghost_d so you can get idea what i do and i show my work on different sited realted to logo design. The other logo Mark choosed is clipart and i told him. So next time when you accuse someone in stealing others’ work first make sure you’re right.