Posted on July 14, 2010 · Posted in FHSST

The idea of testing crowdsourcing against a more traditional design process came up last year (you can read about it here) and we decided to do an experiment as we needed new covers for the two sets of Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) textbooks.

The crowdsourced covers from 99Designs came in first (featured in this blog post):


Today I sent off the Mathematics series covers and the files to start printing some samples but hadn’t actually posted them for you to compare to the crowdsourced Physical Science covers. To be clear, the Mathematics and Physical Science covers were commissioned with precisely the same total budgets, the Physical Science covers via 99Designs and Mathematics via an agency in Cape Town.

Here are the full sets of covers for you to compare (you can leave your opinions about which win in the comments if you like):

Grade 10

Grade 11

Grade 12


To be honest, I prefer the crowdsourced Physical Science covers but, in the interests of full disclosure, I managed that process. I am quite happy with the Mathematics covers. If we had had different designers as part of either process the results could have been different so this is certainly not a definite test with a control group but a little subjectivity makes for better coffee-time debate.

Obviously, the key thing to an end product you can live with is how you manage the process no matter which route you go. I have discovered I am very bad at working with an individual designer on a single project. I find it difficult to articulate what I want and what it is that I like and don’t like. These things make me a difficult client, although I feel this is mitigated slightly by the fact that I’m aware of it.

99Designs competitions are more tolerant of my choices and I feel that some designers seem to be able to figure wear I’m going based on what I rate designs and what designs I eliminate. I’ve started to standardise my own process for running competitions on 99Designs.


  • The competition benefits from designers competing and feeding off each other – if you run a blind contest (where designers cannot see each others entries) you’ll lose out on the complex feedback between different design ideas and will basically be running about 30 individual design processes, requiring a lot more feedback and time. If you’re a bad client (like myself) that struggles to give good feedback this will really be difficult.
  • For the first 3 days don’t give a rating higher than 3 stars – no matter how much you like the design. Immediately after launching the competition make a comment to this effect otherwise designers will get unhappy. They’ll grumble but live with it if they know it is your policy. If you don’t comment and do it they’ll just think you’re being difficult. You may well find something you really think you like in the first 48 hours but those strong, early contenders have always faded out as the feedback starts to take place.
  • Provide feedback often – everyday – the competition only lasts 7 days but will take a couple of hours a day. If you don’t put effort into getting a design you like why should the designers – they don’t have to live with it.
  • Prepay the contest – then 99Designs holds the money – you can still get it back but many designers won’t even consider participating if the competition isn’t prepaid. If you are serious about getting a design and have a budget then prove it.
  • Once there are a couple of days left AND some designs you could live with – guarantee the contest – this way you can’t get the money back and must choose a winner – but its an added incentive to the designers to get involved. Many of the best seem to wait until the last 48 hours before entering.
  • If designs conflict with the brief – eliminate them – and comment to that effect. Don’t let them hang around. If you hate it – eliminate! The competition feeds on what doesn’t get eliminated and on what gets rated highly.
  • Give designers you rate individual feedback on their design – not in the general comments section. Don’t pick an individual designers idea and ask everyone to work on something like that.
  • Put general feed back or changes to brief in general comments section.
  • Don’t be put out if they moan a bit about your poor design choices, it is your design content after all. If they mail you privately just say that you are following the rules and they should go through the competition page – do NOT argue with them about design, especially not privately. Keep it on the competition page.

Brief (this is for a logo design competition)

Give yourself reasons to eliminate the rubbish easily by including things like:

  • no drop shadows
  • no gradients
  • no 3D effects
  • no stock images
  • no proprietary fonts (otherwise you have to purchase)
  • at most 2 colours (maybe 3 ;)
  • logo must scale down
  • logo must work in B&W
  • should be balanced
  • colour logo must be presented on white background (if they start
    using textured backgrounds to make the logo look good it is hard to
    compare etc.)

Thats all before you even say anything about what you are looking for. You can easily find much more comprehensive lists for rules for logo design competitions with a quick search online.

Then tell them what you want and include:

  • project elevator pitch and link to site or descriptive material if
    you have.

  • icon and/or word together
  • ideas of colours if you have any
  • whether icon should stand on its own
  • ideas of fonts

Make sure you ask for:

  • Colour version
  • B&W version
  • Vector files (I’d ask for .ai and .svg files)

I think that crowdsourcing is also a lot more fun than dealing with a single designer and you really do see a lot of different concepts in a very short space of time. I’m sure there is an argument to be made that a longer process might lead a more mature result but I’m sure a counter-argument exists built on intensity and focus for the person running the competition. Ultimately, as with everything in life, you have to make your own decisions and live with them. Luckily taking a chance on a logo for $500 isn’t very risky and worth a shot. The more you pay the more attention you get but for $500 for a logo design I am barely able to keep up with my day job and the competition.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.