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99designs is the best thing to happen to the design industry

Before you launch into a series of hate emails, let me explain.

While developing my Selling design value workshop I spent a lot of time thinking about where our industry has come from and where it’s going. I wanted to offer a solution to the problem that seems to be dramatically changing the industry – I see this as the growth of transactional design.

Let me explain.

When the Mac began to have an impact on the design industry in Australia I had a number of colleagues who saw it as commoditising design. They missed the point. The computer commoditised the production process that wraps around design. The creative act of designing is still a relatively scarce resource. The Mac began the process of make design more transactional by commoditising the production process.

When Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, editors at Wired Magazine, coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2005, they were acknowledging that the process of getting jobs done had become commoditised.

The side effect of crowdsourcing design is that it has made a clear distinction between transactional design and relational design.

So what are transactional design and relational design?

99designs is a prime example of transactional design.

From the 99designs website

Instantly hire thousands of quality designers from around the world – an affordable way to get better, more creative ideas.

401,721 Designers compete to make your graphics

103 Designs created for you to choose from

This has turned the design sourcing process into a transaction without any relationship.

Here’s how Andrew Allemann of domainnamewire describes his use of 99designs for logo development.

“I opted for the $499 silver package. The sales pitch is that this package will result in more designers and designs. The designers get paid more, so the better ones will be attracted to your contest. 99Designs suggests you’ll get 30 designs with the $299 package and 60 with the $499 package. There’s also a $799 Gold package. 99Designs pitches that as giving you access to the best designers and a dedicated account manager.

113 designers created 489 different logos for me.”

All of the discussion is about money and quantity.

This is commonly seen in design briefs that are extremely prescriptive. The client describes exactly what is expected, how they will assess the design, when they want it and how much they will pay.

This type of design forms the ‘bread and butter’ work of many design studios. The designs are usually aesthetically pleasing and also often please the client.

I know of some studios that have very good SEO on their websites and they get a steady stream of enquiries for logo design and web design at a prescribed price – a packaged approach. They have a system in place to handle the enquiries and a process to produce the work. And it’s solid, aesthetically pleasing transactional design.

Generally speaking, transactional design has minimal client contact. When it does occur it’s usually by email.

On the other hand relational design is about the client and designer developing a relationship that allows them to understand each other and produce results that integrate into the business strategy.

This type of project usually starts with a phone call from the client or a phone call to the client by the designer. This is a clear expression that the client and designer want a relationship.

This type of client will often get the designer in before a brief has been prepared. They will co-create the brief. It will have timelines and budgets but they are set after the co-creation of the brief. They are determined by the design and production needs of the project.

The designer who develops relationship design has a good understanding of the client. They may have prepared an empathy map to help them understand the pains that the client has. The designer understand the gains the client wants from the project. The pains and gains are matched with services that the designer offers and a solution is proposed.

This can’t be done for $499!

In my investigation for the Selling design value workshop I found that studios who are developing this relationship approach are growing. Studios relying on transactional design are finding their work decreasing.

So why do I think that 99designs is good for our industry.

99designs has done a good job of promoting the use of graphic design, albeit at a low price.

They have undoubtedly increased the overall expenditure on design.

They have pointed out that transactional design can be sold enmasse to small business owners.

They have forced many studios to examine what it is they do and how they do it in order to compete with them.

I am finding that these studios are now concentrating on clients where they have a relationship. The design studio is happier with the work they’re doing and it’s more profitable.


99designs has realised the disconnect that occurs with transactional design and they are now changing their business model to help designers make connection with clients and develop relationships.

If you want to learn more about how to develop client relationships and sell design value take a look at the Selling design value workshop.



99 designs good for design