When you need design work done, you have a few options to consider. The best way for you to have graphics designed depends on a few key factors:

  • Your budget
  • Your timeline
  • The scope of the project
  • How much an idea you have fleshed out for the project
illustration of a color wheel
Even when your options look similar, there’s subtle differences that can impact your project in big ways. Via Internet Archive Book Images

You could design the graphics yourself with a logo maker or a program like Photoshop. But if you’re shopping for a graphic designer, you probably don’t have the time, skills or desire to do that. To find the best graphic designer for the job, determine whether your best route is to work directly with a freelancer, to host a design contest or to work with a creative agency.

Freelancers vs. design contests vs. agencies at a glance

Freelancer

Design Contest

Agency

Cost
  • $75 – $100/hr average. Can be as low as $25/hr or as high as $300/hr.
  • Varies. On 99designs, logo contests cost $299 to $1,299. Others, like app design, cost closer to $2,000.
  • Varies. A relatively simple project can cost around $10,000. A complex project can cost $50,000 or more.
Timeline
  • A few weeks or a few months. Time-wise, working directly with a freelancer is the most variable option.
  • 7 days to choose a winner, up to 12 days to get your final files for 99designs contests. Contests on other sites can vary.
  • Your project will probably take a month or longer to complete. You might have an option to pay a rush fee to have an agency finish your project sooner.
What it’s best for
  • Efficiency. When you already have a good idea of what you want, you pay for exactly what you need.
  • Getting lots of options for your design and seeing many different perspectives, possibly ones you’d never considered.
  • “Big picture” stuff, like when you need to develop an entire brand around a concept.
Biggest drawback
  •  You have to vet freelancers yourself. A freelancer could be great, or they could be less than great.
  •  The process can be time-consuming. In order to get great results you need to be pretty active and hands-on in giving feedback.
  • Price. Working with an agency is the most expensive option.

Want lots of options? Then a contest is the way to go

When you launch a contest on 99designs or another contest site, you fill out a design brief that lets entrants know your ideas and branding requirements. Then, you receive multiple submissions, have the opportunity to give feedback and ultimately choose the design you you like best as the winner.

A contest gives you options. Logo by budi
by Raya Rr

A design contest can get you multiple perspectives on your design. When you only work with one designer, you’re limited by their perspective and style. Sure, you can work with them to revise a design into something that’s closer to your vision, but you won’t get to see multiple interpretations of the same concept like you do when you host a design contest.

Design contests are also a great way to find inspiration for your project. We don’t all have an eye for design, and if you weren’t blessed with one, don’t fret. Host a design contest to have talented designers bring you their best bids.

All that being said, design contests are better for some types of projects, typically those that have a single deliverable (like a logo, t-shirt or book cover design). They can also be great if you are trying to find the look and feel of a larger project, and have the resources to finish that project on your own (e.g. if you own a web development business, you can source design ideas from multiple designers, then apply that look and style to all parts of your client’s website).

When going into a design contest, do be prepared to spend some time each day giving feedback.

With a freelancer, you could meet your perfect match

While a design contest is great for when you want a lot of options to choose from, it’s not the best idea for a project that has multiple components. We recommend design contests when you only need one specific image, like a graphic for a t-shirt or a logo for your small business.

illustration of a woman clutching her arm in an empowered way, with the text “it’s our time” above her head
Freelancers aren’t constricted by office hours. This often means getting your deliverable faster. By st_martin

But let’s say your graphic design needs include a logo, infographics, images for multiple pages and headers and footers for each of them. Sure, you could host a contest for each item, but that’s gonna get expensive real fast, and unless you choose the same designer every single time, you’re not gonna get cohesive branding. With a project like this, you’re better off working with a freelancer.

Other types of project we think you’re best off working with a freelancer on are book layouts, illustration projects and app designs. Basically, anything where you’ve got a lot of moving parts.

Working directly with a freelancer is the course of action with the most variables. That’s because every freelance designer works a little bit differently. You’ll want to make sure you understand how many revisions of a design you get, and the best way to communicate so you get what you want. There’s also no standard way that freelancers bill: some need to be paid up front. Others send an invoice when they’re finished working. A lot of freelancers get paid “in between” these two styles, with some establishing payment plans for clients and others taking a deposit up front, then invoicing for the remainder of the project when it’s finished.

illustration of graphic designer
Character desgin by Daria V.

One thing to think about is using a service (like 99designs or Upwork) that acts as an intermediary. They take payment up front, but don’t distribute it until the project is finished, making billing easy for both parties. They also offer great ways to search for designers and are there for you when something goes wrong or if you get frustrated along the way.

And just because it has to be said: if you think you can get away with paying your graphic designer in exposure, think again. Best case scenario, you rip off a hardworking newbie designer who doesn’t know their worth. Probable scenario, you get subpar work.

Get all that you pay for with a design agency

When you have a comprehensive graphic design project on your hands and the budget to pay for it, go with an agency. Working with an agency is the right choice when:

  • You have ongoing work and you need to guarantee your designer’s available to do it
  • You need a full branding or marketing strategy, rather than just a few images
  • You need quality work and you need it according to an exact timeline
London Design Biennial 2018 design
Agencies are full services. For London’s Design Biennial, Pentagram created a logo, marketing campaign and commissioned an artist to create masks.

Working with an agency is the most structured way to go. An agency’s usually the most expensive option, and like they say, you get what you pay for. With an agency, you’re paying for somebody else to handle the logistics of your project, somebody else to manage the designer or group of designers working on your project, somebody else to ensure that you’re getting quality work and somebody else to take over and provide ideas that’ll benefit your business. When you need a full rebrand or a multifaceted marketing campaign, an agency’s the way to go.

Agencies typically keep 9-5 office hours and because of their work volume and corporate structure, can take some time to deliver a finished product. Expect your project to take a few weeks or even a few months to finish when you work with an agency.

Not sure which is the right choice for getting your design? We can help.

t-shirt showing a man with long, twisted limbs reaching over his head toward a lightbulb, a pencil in one hand and a pen in the other.
There’s more than one path to great graphic design. By Asael Veras

Head over to our categories page to see what we recommend for your specific project. Certain types of projects lend themselves well to design contests, like t-shirt and business card designs. Others, like apps or full websites, are better suited to working directly with a designer. Of course, the choice is yours. Get started on your project with our database of awesome graphic designers today.

And don’t be afraid to mix it up! Get creative with how you source graphic design. Although a contest might suit you today, you might find yourself opting to work with a freelancer directly for your ongoing design needs. Hey, maybe you’ll even find your ideal long-term freelancer by hosting a contest. Or maybe you offer design services, and you want to offer your client multiple creative directions for their design: host a contest. There’s no “perfect” way to get graphic design, just a way that’s perfect for your design needs right now.

What do you need designed?
Search through our categories and see what your options are