How to Find the Right Designer (at the Right Price) for Any Project

Finding the right designer depends on your goals. Do you need the best or can you try your luck with something cheap?

As covered in other posts, picking the right person or company to do your design work is significantly influenced by your budget.

As you might have read on other places in the blog, I highly recommend getting started for as cheaply as possible. It doesn’t make sense to make something expensive if you don’t know whether anyone’s even going to buy it!

So my goal would be to get a design that’s just good enough to test the market.

How do you do that?

Enter 99designs.

For the unfamiliar, 99designs is a marketplace of designers and clients. You, the client, write out a design brief describing what you want and the 99design community creates dozens of designs to compete for your contest.

The entire process lasts 7 days, at which point you pick a winner.

Contests start at $200 and can go as high as you’re willing to pay. Of course the more you pay the more people contribute work to your contest. Here are some designs I’ve received, all of which were $300 or less.

The person I found did the entire quote app for $250. Pretty remarkable.

If you manage the process right there’s no doubt in my mind you can get great work from 99designs.

How I use 99designs
To get the best possible work out of 99designs I recommend the following:

Show examples of what you like
Finding examples of things you like helps establish the look and feel for the designer. It also helps force you to understand designs that you like. You’ll be surprised by how much work this takes.

Do your own (very) rough mockup
What I mean by a “rough mockup” is something that shows each screen of the app, where each button goes, where the button should take the user, etc.

Creating a very rough idea of what you want will go a long way towards getting what you want. I like doing mockups with pencil/paper by hand and scanning them in, some people like using software… it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you do it.

If you absolutely have no idea what you want that’s okay too. In the job description let the designers know you’re open to a lot of things and will have a better idea of what you want once you’ve seen a few mockups.

For my logo contest I gave these logos as examples:

And my logo ended up turning into:

Give concrete feedback, quickly
You’re going to get a lot of designs. My logo contest ended up with 245 separate designs! My least favorite part is opening my email and seeing dozens of designers all awaiting feedback on their work. Ugh.

The way to manage this is to give feedback twice a day.

Log in at say, around lunch, then before you go to bed (you want space between so designers can make changes). Then you can get through them quickly and in bulk. This is much more efficient than handling them one at a time. Don’t procrastinate this though. The contest is only 7 days. To get a lot of iterations you need to avoid a long turnover.

Giving concrete feedback is even harder, but equally important.

Here’s a heirarchy of feedback if you were making, for example, a logo:

Bad: The logo’s okay (being nice because you don’t want to hurt their feelings)

Good: I don’t like the logo

Better: I don’t like the lighting of the logo

Best: I don’t like the lighting of the logo because it makes it makes our brand appear too dark. We need to appear more light-hearted and happier.

Giving the designer the “why” behind your opinion gives them context. Instead of guessing on their next try they have a better idea of what will make you happy.

For my logo contest here’s an example design with feedback that I gave:

“One of my favorites. I like that both “s” ’s are lowercase. And the font is subtle. I’m not sure I love the symbol. It’s not bad, but could you play around with it? Positioning, colors, size, etc?”

I didn’t end up going with the lowercase “s” as you can see. And my feedback wasn’t perfect, e.g. I could have told him what colors and symbol types I was looking for and why I wanted them.

But it was good enough so that he knew exactly what I did and didn’t like and he could continue to make progress.

Make all feedback public
This is my favorite part of 99designs. By making all feedback public every designer can learn about your preferences through the feedback you give to other designs.

You’d be amazed how quickly this will move your design in the right direction. Usually the first dozen or more designs are terrible! I hate them all. But I give specific feedback and indicate why I don’t like them. The next round is always better, and it continues that way until I find a winner.

Broadcast announcements
In addition to giving individual designers feedback you can make general announcements that everyone sees. Once I’ve seen enough designs to know what I’m looking for I’ll let everyone know. While some designers will look at all the individual feedback you give, you can’t assume they will. It’s your job to do the heavy lifting of communciating what you want.

Use the polls (when it makes sense)
99designs lets you make shareable polls that let your friends vote and give feedback on their favorite designs. These can help reveal design preferences that you didn’t previously notice.

That said, be careful. It’s likely your friends are not your target demographic, so don’t automatically go with what they say.

If you don’t like something, eliminate it
I used to make the mistake of keeping designs around that I didn’t like. This sometimes led the designer to believe that I was still interested in that piece of work, which often wasn’t the case.

By eliminating the design you’ll send the right message that they need to work in a new direction.

Build relationships
With so many people vying for your attention it can be very easy to dismiss people and “push” your way through a contest. Kind of like a bully. Someone doesn’t make sense? Just eliminate them.

But by acting that way you’ll probably lose out on future opportunities. Instead I’ve learned it’s better to take a long-term view on your potential designers.

I’ve developed relationships with a few designers from 99designs that I’ve gone on to work with more later. Aditya Chhatrala who I mentioned earlier is one of them.

People like Derek Anderson of Startup Grind have even found business partners.

So treat everyone you interact with like a potential partner. You never know you might mind end up working with again.

Graduating to dribbble
If you have a larger budget and want to work one-on-one with a great designer you can also turn to dribbble. These talented people will do more of the thinking for you if you’re not exactly sure what you want. is like Pinterest for designers. Designers put up examples of their work to give you a flavor of their style. Then for $20 a year dribbble lets you talk to and work with designers on the site.

There’s a lot of talent on dribbble. You might not know where to start when you’re there.

I found my current designer there, Vu Hoang Anh of CSS Hat and abdoc. He’s awesome and worth every cent. This is some of the work he’s done for me:

This is all I did to find him:

Pay your $20
It costs $20 a year to talk to people in dribbble’s database. If you can’t afford $20 to look for a designer you probably shouldn’t be trying to build an app.

Find ~5 people you like
I found 5 or 6 designers whose work I really liked. It took a long time because you have to make sure you love their work. Assume that what they put on dribbble is their absolute best, so if you don’t love it right now you’re likely not going to be happy with whatever they make for you. [Keep looking. Don’t settle.]

Create stock email
Using TextExpander I created a stock email that I sent to my top 5. Feel free to copy mine:

Hi (Designer Name),

I need to hire a designer for an app that I’m currently rebuilding.

It’s basically a book store that customers download for free. They can take notes, highlight favorite sections, search globally, etc. And of course they can purchase additional content.

I have a budget of $2,000 that would include all screens for iPhone and iPad. My developer is ready to go so I’d like to get a designer on board quickly.

I have 95% of my screens mocked up, but am also open to your input.

If this sounds interesting to you please email me to discuss more details.



Three important notes on dribbble
1. I was specific about my budget to get their attention. $2,000 wasn’t enough for a few of them, but at least it gives both parties an idea of where you stand. With no number you don’t have a place to start talking seriously.

2. I mentioned I already had a developer on board and that 95% of the screens were mocked up with paper/pencil. Again this lets them know you’re serious. They need to feel that if they take the trouble to respond they’re not wasting their time.

3. I was open to his input. I wanted him to know that while yes I had a solid idea in mind I was still hoping he’d provide some of his expertise and offer suggestions on how to improve what I’d thought of.

Finalize scope/price/payment schedule
This is simply to establish clear expectations on both ends. They have to know what they’re providing you, at what times, and when they’ll get paid. You need to know exactly what you’re getting. Don’t get lazy and treat this lightly; you’ll likely regret it later when you disagree on whether a particular deliverable was in scope.

How To Choose a Profitable Niche

When I was considering building my Spanish Bible app I wanted to be as sure as possible that people were going to be able to find it & buy it. With that in mind I came up with the idea of the ideal target niche.

What’s the ideal niche?

The ideal niche:
1. Is profitable

2. Can be found via App Store search

3. Has crappy competitors

Let’s start with #1.

#1: Is the niche profitable?

Step 1. Find an app that ranks #25 Paid
I found two apps in the Business category that have a history of ranking around #25 Paid. You can see their historical Paid rankings below via AppFigures:

PDF ExpertDocuments

Why #25 Paid? See step 2.

Step 2. Calculate the apps’ daily revenue using Distimo
Last year I asked the nice folks at Distimo to analyze how many downloads it takes an app to rank #25 Paid by category.

Gert Jan Spriensma, a Distimo analyst at the time, was nice enough to respond with this post which got picked up by TechCrunch.

You don’t even need to read the whole post, just this one chart:

This means our two example apps are being downloaded roughly 90 times a day. We can estimate their daily revenue by multiplying their prices by 90.

Step 3. Look up Gross Ranking
Easy with AppFigures:

Eyeballing the charts it looks like their average Gross Ranks are #13 and #50, respectively.

Step 4. Plot the Data
This is what we’ve collected:

Plotting it we get this:

This gives us an estimate on how much apps in the Business category make.

#2: Will Customers find you via Search?

You need to find something that can be found with a frequently searched keyword that doesn’t have a lot of competitors.

This is a tough one because Apple doesn’t release keyword data. While there do exist tools now that approximate keyword search frequency, I didn’t know about them when I picked my niche.

One in particular that I’ve started using lately is I’ve talked to the cofounder and he calls it the first “Google Keyword Tool” for App Stores. The interface isn’t very good yet, but the data he’s collecting is remarkable. It’ll tell you how often a term is searched and how many competitors also appear in the App Store Search Results (ASSRs).

Do it Yourself
But I’d also recommend doing your own tried and true research. I did the following before most any App Store optimzation tools went mainstream:

For each niche I brainstormed a bunch of keywords/phrases. I plugged those words into the Google Keyword Tool and clicked the “mobile only” option.

From there I selected the top 30 or so keywords. And I plugged those into the search bar of the App Store.

Then I go through the ASSRs.

For the top 5 or 10 results for each keyword I consider a few metrics:

  • Does the app have a lot of reviews? How recent are the reviews?
  • When did the developer last update the app?
  • Are there any apps that make good money and only rank high in the ASSRs for a few KW’s?

In an ideal world you’d find an app that has lots of reviews and that ranks well in the ASSRs for one keyword phrase, and of course is making money. That means the phrase is likely to be something users are searching for.

If a profitable app ranks well for a few keywords look at the other apps in the ASSRs. Do they appear to be making money, too? Generally, the more money the top results are making, the more likely the keyword is searched by users.

You do have to be careful here though: some apps will rank well for many KWs and it requires much more detective work to figure out which KWs are the ones users are actually searching.

Is the keyword competitive?
Simply look at the # of apps in the ASSRs for the KW phrases research above.

E.g. below are the # of results for different KW’s with the word “calculator”:

“calculator” = 10,930
“tip calculator” = 777
“scientific calculator” = 336
“graphing calculator” = 81

I consider anything less than 100 to be great. Anything over 500 is probably too much.

Again, the App Stores are great because they give public reviews. You already know what user do and don’t like about your competitors. If you decide to get into that niche, you know where the improvements need to be made.

Also subjectively look at competitors: does it appear the developer is putting time/care/love into the product? Maybe she’s become apathetic because she has so little competition and users can’t find anything else. That’s exactly how the landscape looked with Spanish Bibles (It’s worth noting that since then the competition has picked up significantly.)

If it looks like the competition isn’t trying very hard but they’re still making money, it’s likely you’ve found a niche worth investing some more time in.

Talk to me more on Twitter.