Taking a look at 99designs’ recent (and startling) announcements about prize money payouts and ‘design community’ size. It involves 850,000 designers, $80 million bucks & a whole bunch of grey people.

99-designs-the-borgWe haven’t used our 99designs Borg graphic in a while but this seems like a pretty good time to roll it out again. Here’s the skinny – a couple of days ago, PR websites and mainstream media were all aflutter about what 99designs were calling a “new milestone” – the doling out of over $80 million totes in prize money (works out to an average of around $250 in prize money per contest.) Though all the mentions track back to one press release, the number’s certainly nothing to sneeze at (puts their total design contest revenue somewhere in the neighborhood of $131,147,540.98 give or take a few million) and shows there’s an awful lot of money to be had when your supposedly skilled workforce doesn’t expect a paycheck, but you can still offer their services to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card. Anyhoo, along with that gigantic claim, the flurry of press also mentioned something else that caught my eye – 99designs boasting that that their “design community” was now at a staggering 850,000.

Yep, an 8, followed by a 5 and four 0s (Heysus!)

Eight hundred and fifty thousand people, all competing like happy beavers for a potential slice of the design contest pie. That’s an awful lot, especially for a group that collectively refer to themselves as “designers” and it doesn’t square with the stat thingamajig on 99designs’ home page back in early-summer, when the tally was slowing growing around 300k before zooming overnight to 850,000.
99designs 850000 300000
Regardless, the nice folks at 99designs teased this “milestone” through their Twitter feed:

The link in that Tweet leads to 99designs’ blog, the salient part of which is this:
99designs 850000 80millionYep. The claim, or rather the making of it, is legit. Doesn’t make much sense really; at time-of-writing, 99designs say they’ve hosted around 320,000 contests. That’s an impressive number too, but it means there’s nowhere near enough contests to go around at all, especially if you’d like to eventually get paid something (anything) by 99designs’ contest holders.

What it actually boils down to is this:

Each little grey guy represents 10,000 designers who simply cannot have won a single, solitary contest while working on 99designs. Put another way, at least half a million people who never made a thin red dime, nor will they ever – a pretty grim scenario from a designer’s point of view (not so bad from an investor’s I guess, where an unpaid workforce of 850,00 – and a 40% slice of the total paid by contest holders – would be very attractive indeed.) We’ve been on this rodeo before, truth-snarking 99designs (and others) a few years back about inflating their designer numbers when apparently a simple “mistake” led to wonky claims.

Can’t really see them making that “mistake” again.

The number Rubicon

I don’t get the point of the exercise (unless it really is to appeal to investors.) The design contest avenue is competitive, rather than collaborative, so that ginormous number would turn me off as a designer. Way too hard to grab somebody’s attention in that mess and I’d favor smaller, more intimate venues. It would also be irrelevant to me as a client. What would happen if only 10% of 99designs community showed up at my contest? That would be preposterous 85,000 logo proposals to slog through. 5% would be 42,500. 1% would be 8,500. And so on. Once you’ve crossed some Rubicon of numbers, it really doesn’t matter anymore how many people are on this or that platform. Would any would be contest holder, wanting to go this route for their new logo, be swayed by a claim of 850,000 designers, as opposed to, oh I dunno, 300,000?

As that would represent the complete & utter removal of design from the equation, I certainly hope not.