Colored smoke

If you’re unfamiliar with the practice of crowdsourcing design work, check out this post and then zip on back.

Since first reading Sean Johnson’s excellent post on how to crowdsource designs last April, I’ve had the experience of running several design contests. 99designs has been my preferred venue, but there are others out there such as crowdSPRING and

So what has my experience taught me? Here I share:

1. Talent hub. If you need an ongoing designer, crowdsourcing is a great a way to identify global talent. Most of the contest participants are freelancers or small design companies.

2. Not the best-of-the-best, though. Don’t open up a contest thinking that the world’s top designers are going to participate. By in large, top designers don’t need sites like 99designs to serve as an income funnel. Positive word-of-mouth keeps these folks so busy they sometimes have to walk away from work.

3. Exceptions to #2. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a top designer who is competing for pride or self-improvement, or using the site as an initial marketing tool to showcase his or her work. Often times top designers from international locations will compete for the mighty U.S. dollar, but that’s not always what you want…

4. Careful with cultural differences. If your website, for example, targets a national segment of the world, such as the U.S. sports market, non-national designers might not be able to capture the cultural subtleties that are critical to creating a unique, relevant user experience. Can you overcome these barriers? Assuming language isn’t an issue, yes you can, but be prepared for serious overhead. If you’re confident that you know the best way to implement design concepts down to the pixel, and are willing to sacrifice your time (the monetized value of which might be recouped by lower cost of labor, however), then by all means.

5. Actively recruit designers from the community. Because the talent pool can be limited, carve out some time each day over the course of your contest period and talent-search designers from other contests. Send an invite to the those that look good, especially ones competing in the same design category as your contest and who possess a high contest award win rate. (A good win rate is anything above 15%.). Expect about a 20% invite-conversion rate; although, that gets even lower the later you are in your contest period. Designers usually need a few days to submit a design; they’re probably vying in multiple contests.

6. Money attracts, unfortunately. No getting around the laws of economics. If you want the best designers and a lot of them within the community, jack up that prize amount. Be forewarned, though, that you still might not get what you expect.

7. Group think. One of the touted benefits of crowdsourcing is diversity of thought and, thus, creativity. The problem you can run into is that multiple designers quickly start to converge on a single concept. There may be ways to hide the design submissions, but I’m unaware.

8. Solitary flashes of creative genius are rare. The best and most-creative designs usually result from one person’s creativity feeding off of another’s. Asynchronous feedback mechanisms stifle this magical process. I’m not aware of any sites that offer live communication with the designer.

9. Tendency to downselect. Anytime you crowdsource from the damn world you’re going to get a lot of results. This can be more of a curse than a blessing. The best design results are teased out through continuous 1-on-1 feedback. That takes serious time. Consequently, your lazy inclinations quickly force you to pick one or two favorites and just focus on them. And because you end up investing so much time into a couple, and they into you, you feel obligated to pick one of your “initial favs,” even if a slightly better designer arrives late in the contest. (Or maybe I’m just a softy?) There’s a second consequence to downselecting. Designers downselect buyers — they bail early if they don’t get feedback. Why participate if you don’t pay attention? The problem is that I’ve seen designers whose initial submissions were hideous. And, then, later on absolutely submit a prize-worthy gem. Good design work is like good writing — it’s “80% editing.” You’re the red pen.

10. Avoid holiday contests. Maybe I was the opposite of smart on this occasion, but don’t open up contests over a major holiday period. *Tumbleweed*

The upshot? Sometimes the traditional route to acquiring your design needs is the best way to go.

Image credit: arcoss / iStockphoto