Criticize spec work, design contests or crowdsourcing sites, and you run the risk of being called a snooty designer, a gatekeeper, a parnoid bedwetter, a high-maintenance whiny art baby. Or worse. Being opposed to designers (mostly younger ones, often from developing nations) working without pay means you are a dinosaur, unwilling, or unable, to adapt to the ‘new reality’ of the graphic design industry. We’re told that crowdsourcing is the future and if we don’t embrace the practice, we might as well pack up our pens, pencils and copies of Illustrator and find another line of work. Fair enough (though it should be pointed out that most of these ‘opinions’ track back to people who make their dough as ‘middle men’ in some sort of spec work enterprise). Maybe I am a dinosaur. A throwback to the old days when graphic design was viewed as a profession. A Luddite who believes that people should get paid for their work and the production of intellectual property. Design contests have been heralded as the ‘future of design’, repackaged as ‘crowdsourcing’, become the darlings of business publications like Forbes, Ad Age and presented to people in the design industry as their new reality. Who am I to stand in the way of this nifty ‘evolution’?

This. Is. How. It. Is.

At first blush, it’s hard to argue with the sheer numbers featured on the home pages of sites like Crowdspring and 99designs. “The World’s best designer community” one exclaims. “47,000+ designers ready to help“. Another asks us “Need a designer?” and then tells us that their “community” is over 150,000 “strong”.

My, those ARE impressive numbers.

Just two so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ sites and we’ve already established that over 200,000 designers are happily working on spec, submitting design after design to design contests, despite an ongoing pushback from the graphic design community about how bad these things are for clients and designers alike. But that’s the point of making such a big deal of the numbers in the first place isn’t it? 47,000 designers working “on” Crowdspring would indicate a level of acceptance by the design community at large. 150,000 designers on 99designs would seem to indicate that the spec vs. no spec argument is over but the crying. Designers by and large have embraced design contests and crowdsourcing, and the opposition (from old and snooty designers like yours truly) are some fringe element, disconnected from How. It. Is.

What if I were to tell you that most of the numbers featured on design contest sites are bunk? That the vast majority of people included in the raw numbers are registrations only (and a large number of those registrations are actually spam bots who’ve found the registration pages). What if I were to tell you that the vast majority of ‘designers’ on crowdsourcing sites sign up and then don’t enter anything? How about if I told you that the next biggest group on design contest sites enter between 1 to 5 contests and then bail? That most crowdsourcing sites are supported by a fraction of the numbers claimed on the front page? Okay. I will.

The numbers

Let’s first take a look at Crowdspring who proudly boast 47,000+ designers ‘ready to help’ on their home page (co-founder Mike Samson tells us in the comment section of this blog post that “We have almost 50,000 Creatives working on the site“). Today (January 12) Crowdspring boasts a total of 61045 under their ‘browse creatives‘ tab (turns out that this also includes contest holders, a strange definition of the phrase ‘creative’ and something that skews the total number substantially. To work out our figures, I’m only going to use the 47,000 claim on the home page). The Crowdspring database can be sorted by the number of projects a ‘creative’ has entered, so if we drill down the pages, we can find a ‘tipping point’ where the activity stops. Today, the activity stops here at 15,161 (it will change rater quickly so I’ve put a screen grab below).

The number of designers who’ve actually submitted at least one design to a Crowdspring contest since the website launch is 15,161. That’s STILL a fairly impressive number, but it’ a long, long way from the 47,000+ designers claimed on the front page. What does it mean? It means, that at time of writing, at least 32,000 designers, almost 60% of the number claimed on Crowdspring’s home page, have yet to submit a single entry to a single Crowdspring contest. And judging by their ‘last seen’ date, or registration dates, most never will.

The majority of ‘designers’ registered on crowdsourcing sites never enter a single contest

If we continue to rummage around in the stats, we can come up with more interesting numbers. Out of the 15,161 designers who have participated, approx 2,400 designers have only ever submitted 1 design to 1 project. Again, judging from the ‘last seen’ and ‘registration’ dates, that’s about all they ever will submit. The number of designers who have entered 2 designs (most entering multiple entries into 1 contest) is (as of today) is approximately 1,500. The number of designers who have entered 3 designs (most into multiple contests) is about 1,200. And so on. Again, judging by the last seen and registration dates, a majority of these designers will not be entering a Crowdspring contest again. There’s not much else we can garner from the numbers unless we take some rather unscientific liberties. So we won’t (we’ll leave those fun conclusions for discussion in the comments). What we can surmise is that a majority of people who sign up for Crowdspring do so without ever entering a contest. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Since Crowdspring doesn’t perform any vetting of the anonymous people who register as ‘creatives’, it’s impossible for them to ascertain who is or isn’t a designer, let alone how talented they are. Anyone can click on a check box that claims “I am a creative”. Accordingly, the “47,000+ designers” bit on their home page is a stretch (especially when we factor in the number of spam bots that seem to have registered unmolested). As the next biggest block of people is ‘creatives’ who enter between 1 to 5 contests and then bail on the entire enterprise, it’s safe to say that Mike Samson is entirely accurate when he opines that spec work “isn’t for everybody”. It might be more accurate to say that spec work isn’t for most people. The majority of people (let’s assume they’re designers) investigate Crowdspring and find It. Isn’t. How. It. Is. At all.

Lest it appear that I’m picking on Crowdspring (I’m not, Crowdspring are the most ‘transparent’ and up front of all contest sites so their numbers are easier to research), let’s take a look at how their nemesis, 99designs, handle this whole numbers thing. 99designs upped the ante significantly mid-December as their ‘community’ numbers lept from 50,000 to over 140,000 overnight. No small feat that. While the Australian based contest site doesn’t make it too easy to find out anything about their claims (their designer directory has disappeared from their site, no doubt to prevent folks from checking these numbers), we can put together some unscientific statistics using various bits and pieces found elsewhere. On their various press releases, 99designs claims a ‘community’ of 50,000 designers. Yet on their home page (as of today) they claim 153,163. So where does that number come from? You got me. Why don’t I ask?

So I did, and Jason Aiken, 99designs’s US-based marketing dude on Twitter, told me that the 150,000 number doesn’t ‘reflect designers’ but includes ‘registered users’ and those who ‘haven’t launched a contest’. In other words, people who are not designers. Oddly, the 99designs Twitter profile claims otherwise, boasting a “Community of 150,000+ designers competing to fulfill your design needs.” So which is it?

Well, we also have this December 11 interview with founder Mark Horbottle, in which he not only tells us how many designers 99designs is claiming to represent, but how they define that number (comment section).

“The designer numbers we quote on the site currently (54,000) are actual users who have signed up to 99designs and uploaded at least one design. Our actual member numbers are way higher than that, well past the 150,000 mark.”

Guess a couple of days later, Horbottle and crew decided to let it all hang out and viola, a ‘community’ of 150,000. Here’s the funny thing – in the interview, Horbottle actually admits that almost 66% of the designers claimed on the 99designs website home page have never submitted a design to a single contest. Worth noting that this percentage is pretty close to the one we ascertained by rummaging through Crowdspring. It’s probably safe to bet that the bail rates are on par as well. Also worth noting that Harbottle wants to point out that the 99designs’ designer tally is the “real deal”, not “clones” or “marketing BS”. Hmm. Looks like design contest sites are hip to each other inflating ‘community’ numbers.

Another logo design contest site is the oddly named Logo Tournament. Their designer stats are a little off (some participants with entries seem to rank less than those that don’t have any) but we can find a tipping point here as of today (above). Going by their stats we can approximate that out of approximately 7,500 listed designers, over 3,500 have signed up and never submitted anything. Over at, another upstart logo design contest site, they list a total of 2,675 designers, while 1,050 have signed up without ever submitting a solitary design. And the statistics of designers bailing after submitting entries to several contests also seems to hold true.

Why the inflated numbers?

So why all the hype about the size of ‘communities’ and the number of participants? Several reasons. The first is an ongoing ‘my dick is bigger than yours’ battle between the various spec sites. most noticeably Crowdspring and 99designs. A ‘we’ve’ got more designers than you (nyah, nyah) kinda thing. When 99designs jacked their numbers from 50,000 to over 140,00 mid-December, Crowdspring actually removed the designer tally from their home page for a few weeks, no doubt figuring there was no point in continuing the charade (luckily, they put it back as this article neared completion). The large numbers are also used as a come on to other designers, as some form of barometer of how in vogue crowdsourcing really is (“if 50,000 of my compatriots are okay with this, why shouldn’t I be?”).

Design contest sites need a constant influx of new ‘recruits’

Here’s a rather cynical theory; as the turnover and burn rates on these sites (designers entering 1 to 5 contests before bailing to greener, paid gig pastures) is astonishingly high, they require a constant influx of new blood, naively hopeful that they will beat the 4% – 10% win rate, to keep things rolling along. The designers who bail, need to be replaced by new folks who haven’t figured out what a giant waste of time these sites usually are. Which most seem to do, after entering 1 to 5 contests. To that end, it’s important for designers to believe that design contests and crowdsourcing sites are more accepted than they are, in order to continue the ‘evolution’ that we’re all supposed to be embracing.

What does it mean for buyers and contest holders?

With so many design contest sites being primarily concerned about the size of their communities – the number of designers claimed on their home pages – they have zero concern for the type, age, experience, etc of the people who sign up to be counted in those totals. Most crowdsourcing sites don’t even perform a perfunctory check on who’s signing up or have a clue whether the registrant has ever designed, well, anything. It would be akin to me putting a sign on The Logo Factory shop door, advising anyone that was interested to go upstairs into the production studio, grab an open work-station and start cranking out logos for our clients. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the work produced wouldn’t be stellar. Or original. Goes a long way to explaining why design contest sites are rife with so many hacks, copiers, rip-off artists and even in some cases, underage kids. Someone likened design contest sites as the “Mose Eisley of graphic design”. For those of you who don’t get the Star Wars metaphor, that’s the town in which Luke and Obiwan meet Hans Solo for the first time. It is a place that’s described as being full of pirates, thieves and scoundrels. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s an apt comparison.

While not exactly lying about the numbers of people participating (what defines a ‘community’ in the first place?) design contest sites are, being charitable (and holding tongue here), disingenuous, about the total number of designers happily working on spec through their services. And even then, it would appear that the vast majority of designers who DO sign up, either never enter a contest, or bail shortly after they do. Which is why so-called crowdsourcing sites need to convince new designers that this new model is. How. It. Is.

Post note: As if by divine intervention, this blog post and related Twitter message popped up which further illustrates why the numbers game is a very big deal to those who keep pushing them. The 47,000+ designers claim is also mentioned several times in the comments section as evidence of the acceptance level.

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