Inside 99designs: How to run a successful design contest (2023)

We recently provided some advice to help you prepare for a design contest. Today’s post jumps into tips for running the contest itself, so if you still need to complete your design brief be sure to check out part one.

Running a design contest includes everything you’ll do between launching your contest and taking ownership of your new design. As we mentioned in the first post, it helps to think of yourself as the creative director and the contest as a collaboration between yourself and the designers; the best results almost always come from contests where the designers and clients are engaged equally in the process.

Here’s our advice on how to run a successful design contest.

1. Invite designers

The first thing you’ll want to do once you launch your contest is invite some designers.

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In the previous post we showed you how to use Discover to find designers that you love. Once you’ve launched your contest you’ll want to message these designers and invite them to participate in your contest.

To invite a designer to a contest, view their profile then click the “Invite to work” button. From there, you will have an option to send them a message requesting they participate in your contest.

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Make your invites stand out by sending a personalized message. You may even want compliment a specific design of theirs that you like — a little flattery can go a long way.

By doing this, you’re showing the designer that you’ve noticed their talent and have taken the time to specifically reach out to them. You’ll be a much more appealing client to work with than someone who looks like they’ve sent the same invitation to dozens of designers.

2. Know the contest timeframe, but don’t feel pressured by deadlines

Contests run for seven days by default, but if you find it takes a little longer to flesh out ideas, don’t feel pressured by the contest timeframe. If time is running low (or even if time has run out) you can contact our support team to request an extension.

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A standard design contest is divided into these four stages:

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1) Qualifying Round – Runs for four days (six days in a web contest) and any designers can enter.

It often takes a few days before designs start coming in — good design takes time. At the end of the Qualifying Round, if you need more time to get more designs or refine existing ones, make sure to contact the 99designs support team. They’ll be happy to give you a free extension.

2) Select Finalists (Shortlisting) – During the shortlisting stage you can pick up to six of your favorite designers. That means you’ll continue working with them in the final round to polish their designs.

Once you select finalists and move to the final round you won’t be able to refund the contest, so if you’re not quite sold on any designs at this stage we recommend extending the Qualifying Round.

3) Final Round – Runs for three days (five for web) and only involves your shortlisted designers — no new designers can enter.

You should be pretty happy with your finalists at this stage, with the only work left to do being small refinements. The aim is to perfect and polish your existing designs before choosing a winner. You can’t go back to the Qualifying Round from here, though we can extend the Final Round.

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4) Select Winner / Handover – Once you award the winner you’ll agree to the copyright contract and go to the contest “Handover.” After the designer uploads your final files, you have five days to review them before the payment is released to the designer. If the files need further refinement at this stage, let us know ASAP so we can pause the auto-payment and give you more time to work with the designer.

3. Communicate clearly and leave feedback

Leaving feedback for designers throughout the contest is not only considered good manners, it’s also vital to the success of your contest. Feedback is the best way to communicate to your designers what you like and don’t like about their designs and how you’d like to see them changed.

You’ll be assigned a feedback rating that designers can see, which is based on the private feedback you leave to individual designers. Contests with good feedback ratings attract more designers, while contests with low feedback ratings act as red flags for designers. So make sure to communicate clearly and frequently! Hover your cursor over the “You” link on the main page to view your feedback rating.

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Keep in mind that only private feedback counts towards your feedback rating. Click on the speech bubble icon on a design to leave feedback, or simply type your feedback in the field to the right if you are viewing the design at a larger size.

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You can also leave public feedback at the bottom of your contest entries page. This doesn’t count towards your feedback rating, but it’s good to use if you need to communicate messages to everyone participating in the contest.

It’s also worth noting that you can use drawings and photographs to explain things in a visual manner. Use simple programs like Microsoft Paint to make rough sketches on your computer, and websites such as imgur to upload your images and photos to give to the designer as feedback.

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Getting a great design doesn’t happen instantly. Great communication is the way to get there.

4. Use star ratings sensibly

It might be tempting to rate a great design highly if you like what you see right away, but consider for a moment the impact this might have on the contest as a whole. If you rate entries too highly too early on it may:

  • Discourage designers from entering the contest due to a perception that the high rated entries may already have the prize in the bag.
  • Encourage the designer who receives the high rating to rest on their laurels and assume there’s no room for improvement.
  • Result in copycat designs — other designers may take the high rating as a cue on a style you like, and start submitting similar designs.

While it’s impossible to imagine how each individual designer will perceive a star rating, it’s best to avoid giving any design more than three stars in the qualifying round, unless you are so pleased with the design that you would be happy to award it the winner.

This will help keep everyone keen enough to continue working on new designs and make revisions to existing designs. Once you’re in the final round and have your favorite designs, go nuts with the ratings!

5. Attract more designers with a guaranteed contest

All contests become guaranteed once you go through to the Final Round, but one thing you may wish to consider is to guarantee the contest from the start. If you’ve successfully run a contest before, this option will be available from the launch process.

Alternatively, you can guarantee from your contest page itself once you have 10+ entries.

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Choosing to guarantee a contest means you forgo your right to a refund, but in doing so you will attract a lot more designers to the contest.

Need some inspiration for your contest? Check out 99 Days of Design, our program helping 99 businesses around the world transform their brands through the power of design!

So there you have it — a few top tips on how to run a design contest. Now it’s time to launch!


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