[UPDATED] A Word of Caution for 99Designs Designers

March 17, 2015

UPDATE: On 3/30/15, someone from 99designs contacted me to apologize for the way my case was handled after having read this blog post. The stolen winning design was removed, action was taken against the designer's account, and I received (reasonable!) compensation on 4/13/15. Huzzah!

Similarities include the light blue BACKGROUND, the color/sizing/arrangement of the TITLE, the use/color sampling of the RIBBON displaying "the super short guide," and the color sampling/spacing of the AUTHOR'S NAME in relation to the ribbon's width.

So just to clarify, this isn't a debate over which cover looks better. What it is, unfortunately, is me calling out a blatant rip-off that the designer got away with (and a $450 prize to boot) because 99designs looked the other way.

For the un-initiated, standard 99designs contests have two rounds. Any designer can submit entries during the first round, and only the six Finalists the Contest Holder (CH) chose can submit designs during the second round.

In the first round of this particular 99designs contest, entry #46 was the very first iteration of my blue-background design. I created this design after receiving feedback from the CH on my initial submission.

One of my subsequent entries that had the book's title in blue received the only five-star rating the CH awarded throughout the entirely of the contest. (This is noteworthy because it supports other evidence for a Concept Originality violation.)

Throughout the initial round, this particular designer's submissions appeared to be original (so no complaints there). Some examples:

(#74: The first appearance of the red ribbon/light blue background in their designs! Foreshadowing things to come...)

It was late into the second round where I believe they violated the 99designs Concept Originality policy.

Dalim—Design #289

Things start getting fishy around design #285. What I suspect happened is that the CH asked them to make their design more like mine, just as the CH asked me to try using a car with cans on the back. Sadly, this designer decided to abandon their own aesthetic and latch wholeheartedly onto mine. (Remember, I first introduced this particular 'look' in the first round with entry #46 and continued to revise it per CH's feedback throughout the contest.)

Winning Design #289 vs. #177 (only 5-star rated entry in entire contest).

The winning entry (#289) was clearly "inspired" by my own design, and the way 99designs handled (or rather, didn't handle) this situation just boggles my mind.  I don't enjoy calling anyone out on their shit, but this is just unacceptable.

As follows is the utterly aggravating response I received from 99designs on 12/15/14 regarding my original complaint, which I submitted after the winner was announced. (99designs doesn't send a confirmation email upon receiving a complaint or include your original message with their response, so I don't have a copy of what I sent for my initial complaint—suffice it to say that the message essentially contained all of the information I bolded in my follow-up message to 99designs below.)

Hi KM Writing & Design, 
We've reviewed the design you reported (#289) in the contest Create punchy book cover for a book about writing your own wedding/commitment ceremony and, after consideration of the designers comments and yours, we've found that the design is an acceptable entry. 
Here's why we approved the design: 
The overall implementation is distinguishable enough. The use of the red ribbon element to separate parts of cover page or to highlight some text element is a common practice. You can find a similar idea in various book cover designs such as: 
2. http://backcountrymysteries.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/wolf-photo-6.jpg  
3. http://creativeroots.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/History-of-the-world-illustration.jpg  
4. http://wcdn1.dataknet.com/static/common/img/set3/vecbg-21_1D96BD6D.jpg  
5. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/a8/97/25/a897255d4d4273622f380d47c7cd433e.jpg  
This design is allowed. Thanks for helping make 99designs a better community. 
99designs Community Team

Like I said, this shit is unacceptable.

I sent a follow-up email complete with a fancy graphic detailing the designer's specific offenses on 12/19/14—and I even saved a copy of it this time.

Hi there. I'm concerned that 99design's ruling on a design I reported focused unfairly on one small aspect of my complaint and failed to address the undeniable and blatant similarities between the designs in question. 
The similarities I am about to specify would not be problematic on their own (which is why the "the use of the red ribbon element to separate parts of cover page or to highlight some text element is a common practice" statement from the "Design Deemed Acceptable" email I received is unacceptable). It's the fact that there are *multiple* elements which, when used in combination, make dalim's design too closely resemble my own. 
These similarities include the light blue BACKGROUND, the color/sizing/arrangement of the TITLE, the use/color sampling of the RIBBON displaying "the super short guide," and the color sampling/spacing of the AUTHOR'S NAME in relation to the ribbon's width. Given the *combination* of all of the aforementioned design elements, I strongly believe the dalim's design violates the following aspect of 99design's Concept Originality policy: 
"Designers must create their own unique implementations, and must not merely attempt to replicate the decisions made by designers who receive high star ratings." 
The first iteration of my blue-background design was entry #46, and it's around entry #285 (i.e. the end of the final round) where dalim's designs began adopting the qualities mentioned above. Although #290 also embodies those same qualities, #289—the winning design—is the entry to which I particularly have an objection. 
I ask that you please re-evaluate the originality of design #289 and focus not on the use of a ribbon, but on the combined use of the aforementioned elements to create designs that were clearly inspired by my own. 
Dalim's winning design (#289): http://99designs.com/contests-fullscreen/431220/entries/42870825 
Dalim's design (#290): http://99designs.com/contests-fullscreen/431220/entries/42870842 
My design (#177; used in comparison image attached to this message): http://99designs.com/contests-fullscreen/431220/entries/42595801 
My design (#46; first iteration of this design): http://99designs.com/contests-fullscreen/431220/entries/42512015



And guess what? They never sent a response. My design was ripped off and 99designs, despite all their talk about Concept Originality and Designer Codes of Conduct, refused to do anything about it.

Anyway, it's now 3/17/15—my window of opportunity is likely nailed shut. There's nothing I can do at this point but warn future 99designs designers about what they're getting themselves into. (Well, and to bitch about what happened. Bitching's good for the soul, right?)

Although I was tempted, I haven't entered any more of 99designs' contests because it's the principle of the matter. Hell—I guess I was naive for thinking 99designs would ever value its spec-work designers enough to occasionally put ethics above profit. *thumbs down*

So a word of caution: that designer swooped in with a copy-cat design at the last second and won $450 while 99designs looked the other way and didn't enforce their own policies. That, unfortunately, is a risk you're going to run if you enter a 99designs contest. I'm not going to suggest boycotting/avoiding their contests—they're a great way to gain experience with the revision process and to build a portfolio—but should you one day find yourself in this situation, just know that the verdict will most likely not be in your favor.


  1. 99designs support is getting worst as years pass. I've been designing there for 5 years now. Recently I went back to locked contest I've been. To my shock, one of these contest used my entry for their public site solid2fa.com. The prize total was around $1800. What's worst about 99design support, the one who was attending the issue is clueless, doesn't know about what a public website is. But after some exchange of messages, the site was taken down. No compensation or whatsoever. The contest was made last year and I don't know how many months it went up after this.

    Anyway, I'm glad you got paid. You deserve it. As for me, I don't know where else to go, so 99designs is still my go-to right now.

  2. wow this is terrible! i randomly got here from google... looking or tips on how to give feedback as a contest holder. i clicked on this because i thought maybe it helps to see a designers perspective on 99designs. Although its not at all what I was looking for, it seemed like an interesting read. Yikes, id never think it was okay to show (not even tell) one designer what the other one did. I was thinking of showing one a tiny snippet of an entry which i had instantly declined to help me explain something. its a mascot logo design contest and its about a mouth that is basically just a wavy black line, i didnt even mean to have the designer copy it, it was just to help me explain what i mean. I didnt do it, i decided its wrong and went on google to find something similar to it. Wish there was a way to financially punish the contest holder too if they "break the rules".

  3. So frustrating! my blood boils when I read this...I had a similar experience - well not really..but my design was reported by other designers in the pool for not containing links to stock imagery - I rebutted the violation, but my design was still removed by 99designs. It was even more frustrating because every other design in the contest was using some form of stock imagery, but they are ok?
    Geez, its frustrating when your case isn't heard by the support team, and I'm very sorry for your loss to a cheap, dirty, plagiarizer...


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