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How I Got 96 Album Cover Designs for $145 (and why I'll never do it again)


Quality graphic design is expensive. I paid $500 just to license the cover image for my last album, plus $600 for the rest of the design. That’s fine every couple of years, but now that I’m releasing songs individually, I need a cover design every month or two. I decided to give 99designs a try, and the results far exceeded my expectations. For $145, I got 96 custom designs from 33 different designers. Sure, some were amateur, but a solid half were usable, and a handful were excellent.

Sound too good to be true? Yes, it does. In fact, I hesitated to write this article. More on that later.

Contrary to what you might expect, 99designs doesn’t have an in-house design team. They host a design contest on your behalf, in which anyone can participate. As with any contest, there are winners and losers. That’s right - only the winner gets paid, though you can buy extra designs by selecting multiple winners. In my case, 95 of the 96 designs were done “on spec” i.e. for free. And you thought the music industry was cutthroat.

It takes all of five minutes to launch your own contest:

  1. Choose what you want designed. Prices start at $95 for a Twitter background, all the way up to $495 for a web site. “Print & Packaging Design” starts at $195, but since I only needed one image for digital release, I selected the “Other Graphic Design” category, starting at $145.
  2. Write the design brief. This is where you spell out to the designers exactly what you’re looking for (see mine here). I made it clear that my contest wasn’t intended to be a one-off gig, but the start of a working partnership. Perhaps that’s why I got so many entries.
  3. Set your price. There are three tiers to choose from: gold, silver, and bronze ($595, $295, and $145 respectively in the “Other Graphic Design” category). You can also name your own price, as long as it’s above the bronze package minimum. Presumably, the more money you offer, the better designers you’ll attract.
  4. Choose your preferences. Several other options are available. You can make the contest blind, so that only you can view the entries. You can guarantee the contest, ensuring designers that the prize money will be awarded. If you don’t, you’re free to back out at any time for a full refund. Finally, you can pay extra for a shorter than 7-day contest, or for extra visibility on the site.

Within a few hours, the designs started rolling in. I planned to just kick back and revel in the artistic brilliance, but corresponding with 33 designers quickly turned into a full-time job. Here’s how to keep your contest running smoothly:

  1. Eliminate hopeless causes. Some designers simply aren’t up to par, and though it seems cruel, you’ll be doing them a favor by eliminating them outright. I was seriously racked with guilt over the amount of work people were putting in, and figured the least I could do was provide plenty of feedback. That only encouraged them to try harder, which was ultimately a waste of everyone’s time.
  2. Steer the process. Provide ongoing feedback for all the designers on the main contest page. Believe it or not, I had to remind everyone that album covers are perfectly square (or at least in iTunes). After receiving dozens of entries featuring hands, I declared that theme officially played out. In retrospect, I should have insisted that designers get my approval on rough designs or photos before proceeding.
  3. Check for copyright violations. I used TinEye reverse image search to see if potential contenders matched other images on the web. If you’re the least bit suspicious, ask. If you’re not happy with the answer, eliminate. The best design in the world isn’t worth a lawsuit. Stock photos are acceptable, if clearly presented as such.
  4. Screen the designers. Grab some clues from their 99designs profile and Google away. Do they have a dedicated site hosting their portfolio? Look them up on Flickr, deviantART, Facebook, even Twitter. How responsive are they to your feedback? Is this someone you’d hire again?
  5. Get outside feedback. 99designs has a slick polling feature. You can create as many polls as you want to gather opinions privately, or solicit them publicly on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter. My fans made it abundantly clear which design they wanted, and as luck would have it, I was leaning that way anyway! Even if your mind is pretty much made up, a poll builds awareness of the release and gives fans a chance to participate in the creative process.

99designs poll

Why wouldn’t I do it again? 

Shortly after launching my contest, two graphic designer friends voiced their disapproval, claiming that 99designs and other crowdsourcing sites erode the basic fabric and cost structure of the industry. One thing’s for sure: the format is absurdly inefficient. I shouldn’t be able to pay $1.50 per design, should I? That’s why I hesitated to write this article.

On the other hand, it’s a free market economy. If the risk isn’t worth the reward, don’t enter the contest! How is it different from pitching a song for a tip sheet, or entering a remix contest?

Then there’s the whole outsourcing angle. The winning designer in my contest is from Romania, where $145 is a decent week’s salary (EDIT: turns out they only receive $100, but the point remains). Should I pay four times as much to keep the money here in the US?

Tough questions for sure, but for now, I’ve got no reason to launch another contest. I’m happy to hire the winning designer, or several of the “losing” designers, first. Click on one of the thumbnails here to view their contest entries, and feel free to contact them directly. If you decide to launch your own contest on 99designs, please use my affiliate link.

Brian Hazard is a recording artist with sixteen years of experience promoting his eight Color Theory albums. His Passive Promotion blog emphasizes “set it and forget it” methods of music promotion. Brian is also the head mastering engineer and owner of Resonance Mastering in Huntington Beach, California.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (11)

Another idea is to search around sites like flickr and deviantart and find something you like - and simply ask if you can use it for your album art gratis. We did that with great success for our new EP.

That's what I did for my last four covers, but the designers rightfully wanted to be paid for the exclusive use of their work. I ended up paying $200-$500 per image.

July 25 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

As a graphic designer, sites like 99 designs drive me nuts. They completely devalue quality design and generally take work out of US designers' hands (as you mentioned).

Rather than support a terrible system like 99designs, check out local colleges. There are great designers that are still students who would be absolutely thrilled to get $100 or $150 to work on a project. They help you out with a cool design within your budget, you help them with some cash and a portfolio piece. Hell, I cut friends' bands a break all the time and create CD covers for $100 or so and I've been out of college for seven years – I do it because I love music and design. The person in Romania could probably care less about your project, they just want their $100.

July 25 | Unregistered CommenterTed

I think all of the finalists are laughably amateurish and a real step down from the image you put on your last album. Congrats, you've convinced me that it's worth licensing an image, even if it costs you $500.

July 26 | Unregistered CommenterLo Fi Guy

Ted, that's a great idea, though with students' limited portfolios and experience, there's no guarantee you'll get what you're looking for. One nice thing (for the contest holder, not the designers) is that you don't pay if you're not happy.

Lo Fi Guy, while I wouldn't go that far, I agree that the cover image on my last album was worth every penny (don't forget the $600 for design, so $1100 total). But keep in mind that I had everything a Google search would turn up to choose from. The image wasn't created specifically for the album, and licensing it was time-consuming. That's fine every year or two, not every month.

July 26 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Well, why not outsource the song-writing, the guitar playing, the bass and the drums too, then the final mix - why not outsource yourself too? The whole idea is so obnoxiously bad, actually worse than that. But it does though fit the new generation of 'coupon clippers' - the one's that hold the line forever in a supermarket, only the new generation thinks that's cool and they're actually getting a 'deal' - groupon comes to my mind.....!

A scene needs to be nurtured for crying out loud and we all together are the ones who have to do that! Not some unknown entity, some record company or whatever - no - you and me!

July 26 | Unregistered Commenterkinsast

Since you all love 99designs so much, here are two less corporate variations on the theme:

Creative Allies

July 26 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Ted: the main problem with paying a single designer $100 for a project is that you still aren't guaranteed to get what you want. You can pick one designer and give a vague specification, and then how do you know you'll be satisfied with the result? They can come back to you with some ideas and they might all be bad. Then what? Have them keep reworking it until they finally create something you like? And then have them say you're devaluing their work by having them spend hundreds of hours on a $100 piece?

Systems like 99designs provide a perfect alternative in terms of getting a better design for what you want. If you're not already 100% sure exactly what sort of image you require (and if you are, why not just do it yourself?) then you ideally want lots of ideas, a visual brainstorm of sorts, and to pick the best one. This method lets you do exactly that in a way that opting for a single designer up front could never achieve.

Brian: the format isn't inefficient - low prices are almost the definition of efficiency. More importantly, remember that the designers you don't opt for will get to use their work in future bids. You can be guaranteed that they were using material from past bids for your contest.

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterBen Sizer

@ Ben Sizer:

your arguments don't make sense respectively are totally wrong. By 'talking' to a designer you can and will describe/suggest what you want. Your chance of catching the fish you're looking for is a gazillion times higher than throwing a grenade into the pond. Having them reworking an idea if you're not totally sold? Absofreakinglutely - what's wrong with that. That's how it's done for crying out loud!

If you think 'low price' is 'the definition of efficiency', well that's quite a funny planet you live on - except that it's not funny, just silly.

July 31 | Unregistered Commenterkinsast

Over the years, I've found that I just don't "click" with certain designers, despite being thoroughly impressed with their portfolio. It's not a matter of reworking a design - they just don't get me or my music. So I settle. In my opinion, removing that risk is the top benefit of 99designs.

July 31 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Creative outsourcing has been happening in various industries for decades. I'm torn on it to be honest. On the one hand I understand the benefits of keeping your money in your local economy, on the other hand I think it's great to be able to spend the same amount of money & give someone a month's wages. There's been a huge trend for this in the comics industry with people in the under-developed world drawing a comic for 10% of the price an american would charge & them making a good living in their country. A couple years ago when I was thinking about this I tried to figure out a way to shift my music prices by region so people in countries where the income was half of what it is in the USA would pay half the price for a download, but I never figured out how to do it & just gave up....

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