The Startup’s Guide to Budget Design

A recent Hacker News thread pointed out that Stack Overflow used 99Designs to crowdsource their logo. As usual when somebody mentions 99Designs, this prompted a lively debate on the evils of spec work.

But setting morals and ethics aside for a moment, you can’t ignore the appeal of 99Designs’ promise of cheap, good-enough design. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the different options out there when it comes to design that doesn’t break the bank.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • $0: Use a free framework and UI freebies
  • $0-$100: Get a pre-made theme and nice typeface
  • $100-$500: Consider crowdsourcing
  • $500-$1000: Crowdsourcing or freelancers?
  • $1000-$10000: Get a good designer
  • $10000+: Agencies

Read on to get a more detailed overview.


First of all, when it comes to design you can get a lot done for free. Frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation give you a good base to start off and will take care of basic typography and layout choices for you.

The Foundation framework by Zurb

Designers also often share UI elements as freebies, and if you know where to look you can even find some that are already coded. Of course, as usual with freebies you’ll have to pay attention to the license.

I suggest getting in touch with the creator before you use something commercially, but in my experience designers are generally happy to see their work put to use.

UICloud’s UI elements search


If you can invest even just a hundred bucks, a lot more options open up.

First of all, you now have access to sites like Themeforest or Woothemes, which are an amazing resources of pre-made templates for about $50.

Themeforest’s many themes and templates

And don’t think those sites are just for WordPress themes. Themeforest has a huge collection of admin templates that are perfect for skinning a web app.

What if you need a logo, too? You won’t be able to get somebody to create a logo for you for less than $100, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of options.

If you’re ok with a text-only logo, you can simply make it yourself. Path is a classic example of a startup whose logo is simply its name set in a nice font (in this case, Coquette).

Cost of that logo: $29

Sites like MyFonts are a great source of professional fonts, and they let you preview a collection of faces using your own custom text. And buying just one font variant usually costs less than $50.

And if you need a visual logo, sites like GraphicRiver and iStockPhoto are also good sources of potential logo material. Sure, those are stock art sites, meaning you won’t have the exclusive use of your logo. But for cases where you’re just looking to get a landing page out the door, does it really matter?

Note: It turns out using iStockPhoto art as a logo is explicitly forbidden by their terms of service. Although to me, it’s debatable what constitues a “logo” or not. For example, what about using artwork to accompany a wordmark on a single landing page?


If you’re ready to invest a little more (yet don’t want to break the bank), that’s where sites like 99Designs come in.

Now although as a designer I personally don’t like speculative work and the commoditization of design work, even I have to admit that if you only have $500, 99Designs might be your best bet.

99Designs give you multiple options

For that budget it’s going to be hard to get a good designer to work on your project anyway. So at least with 99Designs, you’ll have multiple options out of which you can pick the least bad.

And if you’re not sure what you want, the sheer number of different submissions you’ll receive can also be an asset. In fact, a common strategy is using 99Designs as a kind of crowdsourced moodboard to help you narrow down a concept, before hiring a more experienced designer to create the final version.

BrandCrowd: part crowdsourcing, part stock art

Then again, 99Designs is not the only option in that range. For example, BrandCrowd lets you buy pre-made logos that are generally of a much higher quality than what 99Designs can offer.

Note: speaking of 99Designs and cheap logos, watch out for designers who use stock artwork and pass it as their own. Here’s a great example straight from the Hacker News comment thread for this very article.


This is the tricky gray area. Should you still use crowdsourcing services, or make the jump to hiring a freelancer?

Of course it all depends on what kind of job you need done: branding, web design, interaction design…?

While you can get a good logo for under $1000 (and Folyo can help you with that), that budget is probably a little short for a full site. So you can go with a hybrid approach, using Bootstrap or a pre-made template for your site but with a custom-made logo.

That being said, my personal philosophy is to either go with something really cheap, or really expensive, but avoid the mediocre middle ground that’s neither cheap nor great. So you might also want to simply wait until you can afford to spend a little more to reach that next level of design talent.


You can hire good designers on a freelance basis for anywhere between $1000 and $10000 depending on the amount of work, and that’s the budget range where Folyo excels.

Folyo is great at finding good freelance designers

Compared to 99Designs, there are many benefits to hiring a designer on a one-on-one basis. Not only will you (usually) get better quality work, but the designer will also care about your product.

One of the most valuable thing you can get out of a designer is a fresh point of view and new insights into your product and business, and that can only happen with long-term relationships.


This is the domain of big-budget agencies. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to go there, at least not until you’ve got a couple rounds of funding safely in the bank.

Compared to hiring a single freelancer, the main difference is that agencies can throw more people at the problem, leading to more point of views and (maybe) better solutions.

But I personally don’t have enough experience dealing with agencies to say if their services are really worth the expense. In any case, most of the startups I know prefer dealing directly with individual designers rather than going through agencies.


As we’ve seen, there’s a lot that can be done for very, very cheap, or even free. There’s also a lot of options available when you have a sizeable budget.

Where startups often struggle is in that ambiguous middle ground. Crowdsourcing services might seem like an attractive option, but remember that they’re not without risks, and sometimes the best choice is just saving up a little more.

Now I want to hear back from you. What is your design budget like? Have you used any of the options mentioned here? Let me know in the comments or over at Hacker News.

And by the way, if you’d like to learn more about average budgets for various jobs, check out these freelance design pricing survey results.

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  • Vimarsh

    Cool compilation..

  • Justin Marsan

    One thing you seemed to have forgotten is the possibility to get started with a cheap/free option (UI kit or a theme), move on to other things you have to do and slowly get designers involved to perfect it to suit your needs.

    Wouldn’t cost much to a business that’s slowly starting to grow to invest in the designing of a homepage or a landing page, get immediate results from that (in terms of new clients/members/subscribers/visitors/whatever) which means money you can invest again later to slowly switch from a ready-to-use solution to something customized to your needs over time.

    Sure you can have a “business is business” approach and go with crowdsourcing solutions, but since you’re not able to get the design done correctly yourself, you’re probably unable to see the quality of the work being proposed to you and you very well may make bad uninformed choices…

    Hurtful for the design industry, potentially hurtful for you… Can’t seem to see any actual benefit to that.

    • Sacha Greif

      Why do you say I’ve forgotten that? That’s exactly what I say:

      “…you might also want to simply wait until you can afford to spend a little more to reach that next level of design talent.”

  • Daniel

    I would add that the last level is “hiring a UI / UX / Graphic Designer” full-time. Perhaps more valuable than going the agency route, having a dedicated graphics designer for most web startups is a valuable asset to continue to build and iterate upon your site’s design and user flow as you get more information from your customers about what works and doesn’t. They will also care THE MOST about your design.

    • Sacha Greif

      Good point, that’s true!

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  • Shlomo Freund

    I want to give fiverr as an option as well. You can defiantly make a logo for $5..

    • Sacha Greif

      I’m sorry but you have to draw a line somewhere. 99Designs might be a gray area, but this is clearly ridiculous. The logos on there are either horrible, or outright copies of other people’s work.

  • Philip

    Very nice article! With my latest project I’ve taken the “text logo” and theme forest design approach, hoping that if it takes off I can get a freelancer for a design. Logo, I might still go with the crowdsourcing options just for the reasons you said, you get more options which I think is good!

  • Jason VanLue

    I appreciate your summary and effort in putting this post together. But the problem with this whole topic, and frankly articles like this (that make their way to clients, potential clients, and aspiring designers), is that the only factor you consider is cost. A brand costs something because of the experience, expertise, problem solving, business knowledge, market knowledge, research, vision, goals, and strategy that goes into creating it. It’s an investment.

    The problem with sites like 99Designs is not that they design logos on the cheap. It’s that (among other concerns) they only focus on one small element of creating a brand — the visual look and feel. It’s the tip of the iceberg. And only a professional designer or brand consultant can uncover the rest of that iceberg to create lasting and effective brands for businesses.

    By categorizing ‘how to get your logo designed’ only by the cost factor, you effectively minimize all of the other more important elements. A brand is so much more than a logo, and companies large and small need to realize this.

    • Sacha Greif

      I think you’re misinterpreting the point of this article. I’m not trying to steer people towards one solution or another, I’m simply pointing out what you can get for a given amount of money.

      Will you get a better job by spending $5000 than $500? One would hope so, and nobody’s disputing that.

      But the fact remains that most people can’t magically add a zero to their design budget. Unless you’re willing to cut your rates in half to match 99Designs’ prices, the fact that you or me would do a better job than 99Designs is not really relevant to the average 99Designs customer…

      • Robert Williams

        That’s interesting. However, I think someone with a $100-$500 budget for creating a logo would be better served investing that money in other areas (not design). Honestly, I feel there is too much importance in logo’s and graphic design in the early stages of starting a company/side business. I feel like the only way a logo or web design will provide a justified value is if the said startup has already proven that the idea is valuable first. And by proven I mean generating enough income to have a decent budget for branding.

        • Sacha Greif

          Agreed 100%!

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  • Brett Hardin

    Great breakdown of where and how to spend money on a design budget. I highly recommend using a cheap theme and modifying it as necessary. We paid a design firm to develop a theme for us which we eventually abandoned for a cheap theme.

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  • jonathanjaeger

    I think if you want a great user experience and a great interface as well as top-notch design, you really have to shell out $5-$10K for a qualified freelancer that fits your aesthetic.

    For a logo, however, on 99Designs you can offer $300-500 for great work. Having 30 designers take a stab at a logo for anywhere from 1-4 hours of work might not get you the best logo in the history of logos, but just having all those chances at a good design and iterations made after your comments can yield a great result. For a full website while taking into consideration useability, user stories, and all the other small details, you’ll want to invest a lot more money (unless you just want to throw up a template and call it a day). Not all sites makes sense with templates.

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