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.




Related Posts

  1. Children designers on design contest & crowdsourcing sites?
  2. The grim realities of spec work and crowdsourcing
  3. The dirty little secret that most spec, design contest & crowdsourcing sites don’t want designers to know
  4. Snippets: The crowdsourcing, writing on spec & design contest follies edition
  5. Creative crowdsourcing & design contests. Hype or reality? Contest holder & buyer’s edition

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27 Comments to “Numbers – The ever-shifting realities of crowdsourcing and design contest sites.”

  1. Jay Baer says:

    Steve – This is a hell of a post. Incredibly good job researching it and putting it all together. As you know, we don’t fully agree on this issue, but I have a lot of respect for your opinion, your passion, and your willingness to go beyond the rant to include the data. Next time I need “professional” design work, you’re on the call list, and I won’t hesitate to tell others about you and your work.

    • Steve Douglas says:

      Thanks Jay. I was working on the piece when your blog was published (hence my comment). Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  2. Andrew Hyde says:

    One thing to add it the flatline of traffic of 99d and crowdspring… No growth in the past year. Designers, as a group, are rejecting it in mass.

    It seems like the pool of designers to exploit is smaller than they thought (and yes, if you are asking for completed work for the small chance of payment, that is exploitation, lets just call it what it is).

  3. Michel says:

    So well said! Thumbs up!

    (And re-tweeted!;-)

  4. Hi Steve,

    Great article and ditto on the research!

    I’ve also seen these websites and when you see just the numbers you’ve presented in your article, knowing there are tons of sites like these, then probably a third of the world’s population (infants included) is a potential logo or graphic designer!?

    It’s just a marketing trick’ poping huge numbers in your face!

    I’ve the same general opinion as ‘the graphic design community’ about these sites: You can’t deliver a memorable, timeless, versatile and appropriate logo in just 1 or 2 days.

    And for the amount of 99-250 USD per logo you will probably get some clip-art and no (type, color, target audience, etc.) research at all!

    Cheers & Ciao …

  5. David Airey says:

    Telling discoveries, Steve. Heck of a post, and another that shows spec design sites as they actually are.

  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by robertanthonyp: “66% of designers on @99designs have never submitted to a single contest.” (RT @DavidAirey) #NoSpec…

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ☞ David Airey, Ross Kimbarovsky, Logo Factory, Michel Bozgounov, Preston Lee and others. Preston Lee said: WOW… RT @DavidAirey: "66% of designers on @99designs have never submitted to a single contest." [...]

  8. Dany says:

    Another important part for those big numbers on 99design is that after you sign up there is no way in hell they let you close the account, even if you signed up when you had no idea what this site was in the begining like in my case, I think not letting you close your account says a lot about the people who runs this buisness.

  9. Jason Aiken says:

    Hi Steve,

    I know you are a fair guy and to answer your question – the 150,000 number reflects our community members, not designers who have submitted – which is somewhere around 55,000.

    The 99designs twitter bio which you screen captured was a mistake that has since been corrected.


  10. Dan says:

    Brilliant post!!!

    Places like 99designs sicken me.

  11. Just exactly what I needed – sites for logo design and stuff. Thanks for sharing! Bookmarked just in case I’ll be needing this in the future.

  12. Tyler Quinn says:

    At LogoTournament we’ve had the following:
    *7482 designer accounts sign up
    *Approximately 2500 are “active”. (Logged in during the last month)

    I’d personally like to nuke our designer count to something that reflects active designers instead of just signups, but I think it would be unwise with how all the other sites compare themselves.

    I agree with you that many design contest sites don’t give a hoot about who they let in, however LogoTournament is very different. In August of 2009 I locked the doors to new designers until December 2009. I estimate our designer count would be around 20-25K by now had I not done this. I did this to hunt down and eliminate the small “Mose Eisley” portion of our community and to make sure that they couldn’t get back in. I couldn’t imagine any of the above mentioned sites doing this, as their goal is pure size. There are many benefits to a smaller, quality, well policed community that I won’t go into here.

    To become a LogoTournament designer there are a series of requirements:
    -Pass a brief quiz on site rules
    -Submit their 3 best logos
    -Online portfolio with at least 10 logos
    -Answer a series of design & ethics related questions
    -Pass a community vote & scrutiny
    -Final approval by staff member (who have design skills)
    -Technical checks to make sure they were not a previous account holder

    Currently 60-65% of applicants are denied access to our site.

    We currently have 146 open projects, while an above mentioned competitor has 142. They claim just under 50K “designers” VS our 7.5K “designers”, and their total forum post count is 13,719 while ours is 59,612. Although we are a fraction of their “size”, our level of designer site participation is much, much higher.

    • RevMex says:

      The problems that Logo Tournament has include the following:
      1. Contests that go many months without designers getting paid.
      2. Volunteer moderators who enjoy their jobs so much that they look for reasons to kill off other designers instead of paid staff who don’t have motiviation to axe others so they can move up.
      3. Nasty nasty nasty community of designers who are out to kill each other and endless whining and infighting in forums.
      4. Unresponsive support for designers esp. on weekends.

      • Anna says:

        Here is another problem with Logo Tournament. Even if you win a contest you may have lots of trouble getting paid because all they take is Pay Pal.

        You can loose almost all of your winnings if you live outside the U.S. paying fees and exchanges. We have begged for changes and other methods like moneybookers, but Tyler never does anything about it.

  13. Steve,

    It’s unlikely that you and I will ever agree about the role of speculative work in the design industry. That’s OK. As I’ve said, I always listen to critics (but not haters) because critics typically take the time to offer constructive feedback. I think you’ve done so here as it concerns crowdSPRING (I speak for my company only – not for other “contest” sites).

    You are correct that we don’t vet our users – we believe that open competition in projects – where only talent is relevant – speaks louder than a resume or a portfolio. The fact that a creative hasn’t participated in a project doesn’t mean they’re not a creative (the conclusion you’ve drawn). When a user signs up for crowdSPRING, we ask whether they’re a buyer or creative. When we disclose the number of creatives in our community, that number reflects the exact number of users who’ve expressly told us they are a creative.

    Now – as I’ve said above – I can speak only for crowdSPRING. As you know (and wrote in your post), we do our best to be transparent about our marketplace and community. To that end, I want to thank you. Your article pointed out an inconsistency that we hadn’t noticed – the number of “creatives” on our BROWSE tab didn’t correlate to the number of “creatives” in our stats published on our homepage. In our BROWSE tab, we were counting “creatives” and “buyers”. After I read your article, I asked our dev team to correct this error and we did so today. I hope this continues to prove to you that crowdSPRING not only listens to constructive feedback, but we HEAR it too.

    Incidentally, we removed for a few weeks the number of creatives shown on our homepage when we migrated to our new code in mid-December (you mention this in your article). When we audited our migrated site, we found some discrepancies in our user tables and did not want to misrepresent the numbers until we were able to understand the discrepancies. We again began publishing the number earlier this week when we were able to confirm to our satisfaction that the number was accurate.

    Ironically, since we’re talking about numbers, your article inspired me to revisit other calculations on our homepage and I found one other mistake. When we calculated the averages entries per project, we were mistakenly calculating that number (which had been ~ 84 for the past few weeks) based on open projects (including projects just posted with zero entries). We’ve changed the calculation and now calculate based on projects that have ended (that average is 111 at the moment). I owe you a few rounds of beer for this find!


    Ross Kimbarovsky

  14. George Ryan says:

    Hi Steve,
    Good job on the number crunching, I had wondered at the huge jump in 99d numbers, thanks for clearing that up.

    The reason why the numbers don’t really matter is that what keeps each crowdsourcing site going isn’t the total number of designers (as you pointed out) or even the designers who log in and submit something at least once a month, but a small, core group of designers on each site who contribute the majority of the artwork (on Hatchwise I think the number is around 500) to each contest, some of these “super users” contribute thousands of designs each year and they are the ones who are the sites real users.
    In my experience, these designers are generally the more talented ones too, as it’s the ones that know what they’re doing that generally win the contests, and the winners tend to stick around.

    Just my two cents…

    George Ryan

  15. Somoboy2003 says:

    I see no harm in designers being too young or too old I see no problem in that we could think that these sites are mere a training or something for these kids to have some fun after all they aren’t gonna win the competition unless they are good and I don’t think that at age of eleven or 12 you could reach the level that gets you to win a competition at any of these logo sites or design sites.

    the only case I will agree with you is the too much supply in this competition will by time decrease quality of logos by time

    and I think we need to distinguish between real graphic designers and people who use computer programs to make logos/etc.

  16. [...] vraiment une base de plus de 50 000 designers sur ces sites? Pas si sûr, comme le démontre Steve Douglas. Ces affirmations semblent plutôt verser dans la fausse représentation. Et ce n’est pas [...]

  17. Cindy Morris says:

    If crowdsourcing designs is so bad then why are Fortune 500 companies doing it? Many Fortune 500 companies have had logos designed by crowdsourcing websites. What’s the big deal?

    • Steve Douglas says:

      Using what Fortune 500 companies are doing as a barometer of ethics, fair play and equitable pay? Not sure that’s a road I would go down. What’s the big deal? None really Just carping on my blog.

  18. Where does it say ‘active users’? How active do you have to be to be considered a ‘user’. Every site has ‘super users’. Typically 20 % are responsible for 80 % of the activity. It is just marketing talk. Nothing particularly specific to crowdsourcing websites. Live and let live.

    • Steve Douglas says:

      “Typically 20 % are responsible for 80 % of the activity”

      Ahm, yeah. That’s kinda the point of the entire article.

      “It is just marketing talk.”

      That’s kinda the point too.

  19. That was exactly my point. Nothing new under the sun.

  20. Said Hamideh says:

    This article is one big snapshot in time. It says nothing about trends or the trajectory of crowdsourcing.

    Also, a lot of number crunching to prove that websites are overstating their member numbers. So what? Aren’t there other more important questions to investigate related to the economics and quality of crowdsourced design?

    • Steve Douglas says:

      @Said – Thanks for dropping by, Sure, the post upstairs is a ‘snapshot in time’ (January 12th to be exact) but if we were to perform the same exercise today, we’d see the trends still hold true. And when the number of participants is used as both a selling point, and as a barometer of the traction that ‘crowdsourcing’ has achieved, then surely those numbers are important enough to take a cursory look at?

      In terms of other websites “overstating their member numbers” that’s neither here nor there. Unless we were writing a blog post about their particular niche, then I suppose they might be of interest.

      As for there being “other more important questions to investigate related to the economics and quality of crowdsourced design”, I’ve always been queasy about discussing the ‘quality’ of ‘crowdsourced design’ – good design vs. bad design – due to the subjective nature of the topic. Generally speaking, and while I do have my opinion, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, and I’m not much for bagging on young, often experienced designers, nor criticizing their work specifically. On the other hand, I’ve never been shy about pointing out the sometimes startling lack of originality of work entered, especially when it comes to logo design, and you can find many posts that do tackle the issue from that angle. I think the two examples posted yesterday (here and here) illustrate that point of view quite clearly.

      I’ve always felt that this ties directly into the economics of crowdsourcing too. With only a slight chance of being remunerated for their efforts, many participants reduce those efforts as much as possible, even to the point of re-purposing other designers’ work. Having dealt with this issue for years now, and long before design contests were repackaged as ‘crowdsourcing’, I’ve seen little to refute this POV.

      Other than that, what other ‘important questions’ did you have in mind?