Small Business Web Design: The Power of Crowdsourcing

Wednesday Sep 22nd 2010 by Jennifer Schiff
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Crowdsourcing sites, such as CrowdSpring or 99designs, can be a great choice for small businesses looking for logo or Web designs at a reasonable cost.

Why work with one designer or agency and pay thousands of dollars for a logo or web design, when you can work with hundreds of designers and receive hundreds of great designs -- for less than a thousand dollars? That is the premise -- and promise -- behind CrowdSpring and 99designs, two of the most popular design crowdsourcing sites.

Still, as many small business owners know, more choice or an attractive-sounding price tag doesn't necessarily yield a better small business marketing result. So to find out if crowdsourcing design makes both good design and good economic sense, Small Business Computing spoke with four small businesses that have used CrowdSpring or 99designs to come up with a new logo and/or web design.

How 99designs and CrowdSpring Work

Using 99designs or CrowdSpring is pretty straightforward. You just go to the site and click on the link to “Post a project,” which is prominently displayed on the Home page. And the site walks you through the process -- though you (or someone in your organization) will need to come up with a detailed description of your project -- including examples of designs and styles you like -- to help the designers create a design that fits your needs.

Both sites charge a $39 listing fee, which is non-refundable, as well as a 15 percent service fee. So if, say, you posted an award of $300 for designing a new logo or website for your business, your total cost for that project would be $384. (Note: Both sites also offer upgraded packages, with additional services and features, for an additional fee.)

The length of the design contest depends on you, though the typical length seems to be seven days. During that time, designers from around the world submit their designs, and you rate them and provide feedback until you get the design you are after or the contest ends. And if you are not happy with any of the final designs, both sites will refund you your money, minus the listing fee.

For more information, visit each site before posting your first design project.

Why Use a Design Crowdsourcing Site

If you don’t need a full-time designer in house, or if you don’t think you can afford a design agency, using a design crowdsourcing site makes good business sense.

“What I loved about 99designs was that it was a contest format where you got hundreds of different people’s ideas to choose from, not just one single person,” said Valerie Johnson, the founder and CEO of Big Feet Pajama Company, who has used 99designs to design her logo and website (among other things).

Johnson worked previously with individual designers, and was satisfied with the result. But, she said, “even though that one single person may be über-talented, you only get one idea. What I loved [about crowdsourcing our logo and website design] was getting hundreds of ideas to choose from and ultimately deciding which one to proceed with.”

Sarah Harris, who handles marketing and communications for Norman’s Rare Guitars, had a similar take and experience regarding crowdsourcing the website.

“You’re not tied to one vision,” she replied when asked why she chose to crowdsource. “Crowdsourcing gives you variety and a bunch of different takes on a design project, which is something you [typically] can’t get from one designer.”

When you work with a single designer, “you’re limited to maybe three revisions if you’re not happy with the first design,” she said. Whereas for the Norman’s Rare Guitars website design contest on CrowdSpring, “I think we got back 25 designs,” almost all of them impressive, and delivered in a relatively short period of time. “You can’t beat that.”

Efficiency -- or tighter control over the length of the design process -- is another reason to consider using a site like 99designs or CrowdSpring, especially if you have a tight deadline as well as budget.

At a previous business, Todd Sullivan, the co-founder of Globetrooper.com, said he worked with a professional design team -- and often had to wait days to see a simple revision.

With design crowdsourcing sites, however, because you decide the duration of a contest, you typically have more control -- and the revision process tends to be much faster. Sullivan ran three contests on 99designs for Globetrooper.com’s logo (for a $500 award), Web interface ($1,200) and business card design ($300).

He said the process was so intense and fast, that it was often exhausting -- though ultimately rewarding. Globetrooper.com’s new interface design placed in an Australian design competition against much larger companies with teams of in-house designers.

Get the Most Out of a Design Crowdsourcing Site

Like so many things, with crowdsourcing design what you put into it often dictates what you get out of it. If you provide designers with a vague project description, chances are you are going to wind up with designs that don’t capture what you were after.

If you want a specific color scheme, if you need a specific size, or if you have some other specific element you want, include that in your project description.

For example, Johnson's creative brief stated she was looking for an outdoorsy look complete with a bear. She also included key words and phrases that described Big Feet Pajama Company, because, she said, “the more information you give these people, the better designs you’re going to get.”

Jen Consalvo, the co-founder of Shiny Heart Ventures, who has used CrowdSpring for several design projects, including the logo for Shiny Maine Lobster, agreed.

“I think so much of it comes down to homework and planning,” she said. “Have a sense of what you want and particularly what you don’t want. For example, with Shiny Heart Ventures, we didn’t want a bright red heart in our logo. So be very explicit about those things: the description, the words, the energy, the feel that you want, but also look for visual examples of the design you want.”

For better results, Consalvo recommends that you find designers you like on crowdsourcing sites and invite them to participate in your competition -- a strategy that Globetrooper.com’s Sullivan also used.

And be sure to give designers very specific feedback on a regular basis, so they know if they are on the right track. Similarly, if you think a designer is just not getting it or isn’t right for your project, let him know (politely and professionally), so he doesn’t waste his time.

“The worst thing you can do is not give feedback, because you’re not going to get as many good designs,” said Harris. And if you are not comfortable being in charge of the design effort for your business, find someone who is.

Final Crowdsourcing Advice

Consalvo, Harris, Johnson and Sullivan are all happy with the results of their crowdsourcing contests -- and recommend the process to other small business owners.  They also agree that crowdsourcing might not be right for every small business owner, especially if the business owner doesn’t have the time or desire to work with multiple designers and give critical feedback.

Not sure if crowdsourcing is right for you? Follow Johnson's advice. "Start with a small project. See how you like it, and go from there.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to SmallBusinessComputing.com and writes a blog for and about small businesses.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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