Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.


Posted on 29 March 2011 29 comments

Article illustration for Clueless

To state that the UK government is clueless hardly requires a blog post, but in this particular instance, I refer to startupbritain.org: a site purportedly dispensing advice to entrepreneurs who are looking to start a new business. Besides the fact that the content is essentially one big list of links, some of the advice given is not only poor, it’s also potentially damaging to our industry.

And all this from a site whose aim is ‘to celebrate, inspire and accelerate enterprise in the UK.’

I take issue with many, many elements of this website, and The Post Desk wrote a great article on why startupbritain.org is essentially nothing more than a government-backed link farm, but here I shall focus on just one: the recommendation to ‘create a logo cheaply’. While it is entirely understandable that a new business should seek to optimise expenditure during its formation, and while I freely accept that — as an individual who makes money from branding projects — my opinion is naturally biased, the government’s explicit recommendation made to young businesses that it is acceptable to source brand design on the cheap is entirely wrong.

Visit the site and you’ll see that the ‘create a logo’ tip is a direct link to 99 Designs, a service that works by encouraging multiple designers to come up with a response to a client’s brief. [Update, 30.03.2011: As some commenters have pointed out, it looks like they have removed this link from the site.] The client picks the design they are happiest with, and the ‘winning’ designer gets paid. The losing designers receive nothing. And if the client is unhappy with all of the submissions, no-one gets paid. Imagine you commissioning a bespoke suit to be made: something unique that fit only you, crafted exactly to your own specifications. Now imagine you invite multiple tailors to create this suit for you, and after all of their effort, you pay only one of them. Or perhaps none of them. A tailor would not form a business on this spec work based model, so why should a designer?

In this situation, it seems like the client wins either way, but the truth is radically different. Take a look at BusinessWeek’s special report into the value of design. Or, for a more web-centric view, be sure to read articles by Jeffrey Zeldman or Mark Boulton on the subject.

My issue here is not with the particular specific service that startupbritain.org recommends; my problem is that it is utterly ridiculous for this government-endorsed campaign to claim its support for fledgling businesses and yet undermine the value of our entrepreneur-led design industry in the same fell swoop. The advice it gives sets up those new business for potential failure; that is the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that they succeed in business but do so without an understanding of — and respect for — the creative process, the client-designer relationship, and the true value of crafting a meaningful, appropriate, and long-lasting brand identity.

And that sounds pretty damaging to our industry if you ask me.


[Thanks to Jon Tan for contributing some feedback on this post.]


  1. Mark McCorkell

    Mark McCorkell

    29 March 2011 @ 01:32PM #

    It’s so disappointing that the Government is this ignorant to the design industry!

  2. Steve Kirtley

    Steve Kirtley

    29 March 2011 @ 01:39PM #

    Completely agree here Elliot.

    As if the idea of encouraging speculative work is not enough – the fact the site in question is US based (and primarily targeting the US market) also suggests the site is recommending off-shoring even this budget branding exercise.

    The process suggested is wrong full stop, the importance of branding as a skill is undermined.

    I’m also willing to bet that the startupbritain site itself did not count the pennies on branding, nor use any such crowdsourcing service.

  3. Sumoshoes


    29 March 2011 @ 01:39PM #

    As a start up design business how does this favour me? its almost in more literal terms the government is saying there is no value in design, and is not recognising the amount of work creatives put in to creating something new and fresh, which will only ever add value to there company. This stance by the government is only ever going to de-value design in all aspects and just dilute the market with every photoshop wielding youth becoming a graphic designer. I mean its fair game to everyone and i guess its just pushes us all as designers to kick on and try and show the real value in our work, at every opportunity we get.

  4. Ian P

    Ian P

    29 March 2011 @ 01:50PM #

    You’d think that a government that was so heavily composed of PR people would understand this a bit better.

  5. Kat Durrant

    Kat Durrant

    29 March 2011 @ 01:50PM #

    I fully agree with your point here Elliot. It makes me really angry that a government who pass out information in order to help new startups would quash the others.

    I started WildFire last year after working for other agencies for nearly 12 years. I had been made redundant and had gotten tired of making others rich. It angers me that as a new business I have to tackle the “cost vs quality” every day and because i’m starting out it makes it very hard to show shining examples of work.

    Now, not only do the government make it hard for you to start up a business in the first place (the job centre “supposedly” gives you grants etc to help) but they also seem to be holding companies back by suggesting that they get a cheap service over something that worthwhile.

    Startups should be working together. We strategically work with Blue Orchid to help startups gain an understanding of how to build and market their brand to get the most out of the precious pennies they spend. I think it is stupendous to suggest that a logo or website from something such as 99designs would cut the mustard.

    It has its place, I get that, if you are in a college band or want to sell your knitted scarves on etsy and need a logo for £20, fair play. But if you want to become a reputable business then perhaps turn to other startups trying to run the same race.

  6. Kat Durrant

    Kat Durrant

    29 March 2011 @ 01:55PM #

    For the record “it is stupid” not stupendous – autocomplete does not rock my world

  7. Robert Clowes

    Robert Clowes

    29 March 2011 @ 01:59PM #

    Oh god, as if I needed more reason to leave this country. Cherry. Icing. Cake. Top.

  8. Jamie Brightmore

    Jamie Brightmore

    29 March 2011 @ 02:06PM #

    I was appalled by this news yesterday and quickly sent an email to the website registering my views.

    The website states that it’s a start up company itself. Well, it has got-off to a pretty bad start in terms of alienating the UK design industry by actively promoting several companies based outside of the UK with questionable ethics (99designs, Crowdspring, and fiverr) – how ironic.

  9. Steve Lorek

    Steve Lorek

    29 March 2011 @ 02:07PM #

    Unfortunately there are many designers out there who are prepared to do this type of work. They are the ones “damaging” the industry.

    On the other side of the fence, as someone who has started businesses in the past on a shoestring, this kind of service would be very appealing to entrepreneurs, to help reduce their risk and costs. There’s many dodgy businesses offering logo design and other related services of really poor quality.

    Really, a logo is typically one of the first things a business needs before it has any revenue at all. Let the cowboys do this work and concentrate on tailored design services.

  10. Ben Knowles

    Ben Knowles

    29 March 2011 @ 02:09PM #

    I agree they shouldn’t be linking to 99Designs. Startups should seek out a local designer to work with.

    This aside I think Startup Britain is a worthwhile scheme and I would hope they amend the site and remove 99Designs.

  11. Simon Foster

    Simon Foster

    29 March 2011 @ 02:16PM #

    Well said Elliot, couldn’t have put it better myself. That site is so poorly concieved, which is a shame because if done proerly it could of been of some use to a lot of people. It really is a glorified link-farm. Shame.

  12. Daniel Blundell

    Daniel Blundell

    29 March 2011 @ 02:27PM #

    Couldn’t agree more, aside from our own industry implications there’s quite an irony in the government’s approach to the ‘Start Up Britain’ idea that is essentially flawed. ‘Support start up businesses by encouraging prospective start ups to use already established brands.’ That in itself does not make sense.

    Without delving too much into the debate of ‘mates rates’ and such, there is still a strong argument for supporting fellow start ups while simultaneously establishing your own brand.

    Equally, I can’t understand why the first recommendation isn’t ‘contact anyone you can find starting up a design studio.’ If the focus is local and new businesses surely there should be more emphasis on finding start up support on a community basis?

    Surely government advice should be more general anyway? You wouldn’t find the electoral commission recommending which way to vote in an election so why can they recommend one company or method over another?

    I’m off for a calm down cuppa’.

  13. Adam Lang

    Adam Lang

    29 March 2011 @ 02:20PM #

    I think your point about many suit tailors making a suit perfectly tailored to your exact specification is a little bit exaggerated here, as the cost at which these suits would be made only to be turned down by the client isn’t going to justify the risk to them losing out on so much money should the client decide not to choose theirs.

    Whilst I do agree with your overall view on this, as do many others, I don’t think the government are going to ‘damage’ the design industry in their recommendations. Taking the example in question with the 99designs logo design process, people using this service are generally only going to be start up businesses who cannot afford to pay a big price for a well designed, well thought out logo when the chances of them surviving in this struggling economy is so slim.

    Should their business take off and pick up, they will come to the more reputable, knowledgable designers like ourselves who will be able to provide them with something to give a strong sense of brand that they’ll no doubt by then be looking for.

    You make the assumption that us professional designers will be using the 99designs service as a reliable method of income and padding out our portfolio, although if this was really the case then more fool those who do! The simple solution is for those who pride themselves on the quality of work they’re able to produce just to boycott these ‘recommended by government’ sites and make them not worthy of anything but a cheap, nasty solution. Only then will we maintain our reputation and flow of professional design worthy of our services.

  14. Chris


    29 March 2011 @ 03:54PM #

    I am utterly appalled by the ‘bidding’ model regardless of industry.

    Developers have similar sites undermining their industry also and it only works to drive down the value of development and in this case design.

    I do agree with Steve Lorek’s point however and that is that the designers willing to work within this model are as-much to blame as the site operators.

  15. Van Sedita

    Van Sedita

    29 March 2011 @ 04:33PM #

    Yeah, the bidding model is a huge negative to our industry. In my more over dramatic comparisons, I have compared it to prostitution: It satisfies a need, but there’s no “love” involved.

    If a business starts-up and uses a crowd sourced logo, there is no real connection made between the company’s objectives and the designer’s vision, there’s no relationship, so the work that develops, at least that I’ve seen, seems empty and uninformed.

    Ultimately, the start-up shoots themselves in the foot by not visually speaking to consumers in a way that’s universal and simple, possibly resulting in a garbled message, product and identity.

  16. Pete


    29 March 2011 @ 05:29PM #

    I don’t entirely disagree with your point Elliot but truth be told there is need for people to churn out low cost, perhaps not great logos rather than well conceived and rationalised long lasting brands.

    Say I’m an entrepreneur with a plan to produce widgets. I’m on an absolute shoe-string budget and really can only spare a couple of hundred pounds from that budget to get some sort of identity sorted.

    A “proper” branding project would be an order of magnitude more expensive than the couple of hundred I’ve got to spend. So do I just say, “oh well” and give up? If I can’t afford to develop a brand then I should’t bother even starting?

    Key word there is “develop”. You have to start somewhere and if you only have a few pounds then you have to make the best of that – that’s what being an entrepreneur is about after all. There’s this small computer firm that started out with a rather terrible logo drawn by a friend just to get them going, replacing that fairly quickly with a graphic representation of an apple. I believe this company have done rather well and, arguably, fully understand “brand” better than anyone right now.

    What should then happen, of course, is that over time my business grows and I can afford to spend some of my profits on a full branding exercise and “do it properly”.

    So, besides the startupbritain site linking to non-UK services (is there a UK equivalent of 99designs?) what they should be doing is accompanying that link with some information on the importance of developing a brand identity and that it isn’t cheap but, if done well, worth every penny.

    The final point is, I would wager that the majority of the people who go to 99designs would;
    i) NEVER spend a lot of money on a logo
    ii) NEVER understand the difference between a brand and a logo
    iii) Disappear after 12 months as their business fails regardless of where the logo came from
    iv) Be a right pain in the arse for a “proper” designer to deal with.

  17. Matt Riopelle

    Matt Riopelle

    29 March 2011 @ 06:00PM #

    You Brits are not alone. Mashable had a interview with Garry Tan from Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley startup funder, purportedly to help startups find good designers: http://on.mash.to/fXXIlD However, the gist of the advice was to focus on where designers live, work, and cost. Granted, the interviewer focused him on peripheral issues, but it saddens me that in the ever crowded web and mobile startup space, this passes as good advice.

  18. Gary Aston

    Gary Aston

    29 March 2011 @ 06:53PM #

    If you can’t explain to a client why your offering has more value than the fodder on 99designs et al you probably shouldn’t be in this industry. Compete on cost alone and you were doomed long before startupbritain was conceived.

  19. Stoic


    29 March 2011 @ 07:33PM #

    When this topic comes up I always imagine a bunch of plumbers in a homeowner’s front yard working on toilets and fitting pipes in hopes of winning the opportunity to replace the plumbing in the homeowner’s house for, say, 200 bucks. Never in a million years would a plumber do this and no one would expect them to do this, but apparently this is expected of designers. Would the UK government encourage this type of thing with plumbers? Doubtful.

    But let me play devil’s advocate and explain the benefit of 99Designs: there will always be clients who don’t, nor ever will, understand the value of design whether it is a logo or a website. No matter how profound an explanation you give them they’ll still think a logo is worth 50 bucks and a website is worth about 250 bucks — just visit the design jobs section of craigslist.com if you’re not entirely convinced. “I need a website like facebook — I’ve got 300 dollars and a bag of dog food I can trade.” Not only is it really difficult trying to squeeze money out of these people, it’s almost impossible trying to explain to them why they can’t have a site like facebook. I’d rather not deal with these types of clients… ever. This is where a site like 99Designs comes in. There’s legions of these bad clients and they need a place to go so we don’t have to deal with them.

    Having said that, it is a shame that the UK government is promoting this — there’s the potential for good clients who appreciate the value of design being encourage to pursue this type of cheap solution.

  20. Gary Aston

    Gary Aston

    29 March 2011 @ 08:14PM #

    @stoic, spot on about 99designs and the same point I’ve been making all day to anyone that will listen.

    I keep hearing people say two things about SUB:

    1. It devalues what we as designers do — rubbish. Designers willing to do a job for less than it’s worth are the real culprits there.

    2. Our government doesn’t understand the value of design — nonsense. You only have to look at how much has been spent on branding and advertising over the years, especially by Thatcher’s conservatives.

    Just 6 years ago, the Tories paid £40k to rebrand (it’s already been altered): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5348630.stm

    And just yesterday rumours were flying around that Nick Clegg is to rebrand the Lib Dems (wonder if he’ll plump for a 99Designs logo?)

  21. Stoic


    29 March 2011 @ 08:44PM #

    @Gary Aston — thanks for the articles. Interesting to contemplate the disparity between the Tories paying £40k to re-brand and the UK Government suggesting 99Designs.

  22. Josh King

    Josh King

    29 March 2011 @ 04:34PM #

    Unfortunately, I feel that sites like 99Designs will become more and more popular. Out of the box website development, multiple CMS engines with hundreds of themes developed by art students just trying to get noticed and the like. The next generation of designers (those in high school right now) who are learning web development in their second period sophomore class (i.e. Dreamweaver) will soon hit the streets offering websites for $25 / hour. If you are not convinced that people will take quantity over quality, look at the retail industry (e.g. Walmart). I’ve noticed it in my market recently, and I am scrambling to increase my skill set to somehow stay ahead of this hoard of unskilled labor.

    Sorry to be all gloom and doom. Hopefully I’m wrong about the trends that I’m noticing. I’m just seeing less and less clients who are willing to invest in quality development, and losing more and more contracts to designers who are just happy to be making any money at all, offering their services at a fraction of what I need to feed my family.

  23. Ben Norris

    Ben Norris

    29 March 2011 @ 07:02PM #

    do they elaborate on how they’re backed by the prime minster and the government?

    the site design ‘rings alarm bells’ as soon as you see it .. booo

  24. iamkeir


    29 March 2011 @ 10:31PM #

    “Start up Britain by using businesses from overseas!” Er, I’m sorry, wha?

  25. Trent Walton

    Trent Walton

    30 March 2011 @ 01:24AM #

    What a good post on bad business! I remember seeing on Twitter that at a Typekit event Erik Spiekermann said something along the lines of, “Pick a font and a color and you have your brand.” Part of me wonders that if the budget for a full-blown logo isn’t in place, the most sensible advice to give is to hire a designer to help you make those choices as a foundation.

    Pardon me if I’ve misquoted Mr. Spiekermann. I couldn’t find a link or tweet anywhere.

  26. James McEwan

    James McEwan

    30 March 2011 @ 08:58AM #

    It looks like they’ve quietly switched the link over to the Design Business Association directory. Of course it would be nice if they apologised for recommending 99designs in the first place.

  27. David


    30 March 2011 @ 05:33PM #

    Totally agree with you on this one Elliot, it’s disappointing but not surprising to see our government produce a poorly though out website which is pretty much a PR tool.

  28. Tim


    31 March 2011 @ 08:17AM #

    Oh, joy – there is one for here in the United States as well. Wonderful.


    Although, it doesn’t look like they have their link farm in place yet. I’m sure my tax dollars are paying for this. So, they will hear from me if I see them promoting crowdsourcing.

    Yeah, let’s get businesses hiring again. Well, unless you’re a design business.

  29. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    05 April 2011 @ 08:38AM #

    Thanks so much for all your comments, everyone! There’s always a lot of great discussion whenever this topic is broached.

    @ Pete: You bring up some really good points and you’re complete right to say that there are those on a shoestring budget who need something done for very little money. I agree that it’s all about the education on why branding matters.

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