It's really hard to find a top designer. There's a lot of mediocrity out there. Budgets are a concern. Aside from 99designs, is there an alternative? What strategies have you used?
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I have to say, 99 designs was an amazing decision. We paid for the cheapest plan (when it was already on sale), and then put effort in to message top-grade designers to 'come down to our low level competition' and we ended up getting over 120 designs paying the minimum package price (guaranteeing like 30).
But, your question seems to point towards other avenues. I think you should definitely start with your network. For me, I know a lot of people from college who are excellent designers, and sometimes it's just a favor you need to try and get from someone.
In general, I would say that designing something like a logo can be done rather quickly, given you have the concept. But remember -- designing a website or application design layer (which i don't think you are speaking towards) is extremely complex and time consuming (and is on a whole different level).
For alternatives, there are a lot of crowd-sourcing design competition websites out there (here's one of the best rated ones, although I loved 99designs), but I think you were looking at alternatives.
Other than crowd-sourcing, which I think is the best option, I would recommend:
Again, I realize that you're looking to find a designer, but the reality is, if your budget is low, and you are having troubles with 99designs (maybe this is because of the budget), then you should just remember that it's not unheard of for startups to bootstrap by doing some of these tasks themselves. I still would recommend 99 designs or DesignCrowd any day.
There's no shortage of design talent, but there's a serious shortage of talented customers.
So first, you need to decide, am I willing to invest the time it takes to become a great customer?
If you are, then all the usual crowdsourced design sites, plus all the usual design and art showcase sites, plus all the people you can bump into in your area, are great. My only advice to great buyers using these sites for the first time is, break down the work into small chunks, and set out expecting to pay for some work you don't use. To put it another way, if you're asking people to invest time in your project, make it either a small amount of time, or ask just a small handful of people whose work you've seen and like.
If you aren't, then go with the grain of the sites you use. If it's a logo site, ask for a logo. If the questions you're asked in building a brief don't make sense to you, then don't use that site because you're likely to be disappointed. Or if it's a site oriented to hiring freelancers by the hour or by the project, don't hire a designer who you're not able to manage, start by hiring a project manager.
Good luck. I can't tell you which is the right choice for you, but it's good to spend time working out your best choice before you wade into the market.
I find the designer with the best reputation and ask him for costs of his services. If they are fine, I match him with the client.
Of course you should not trust these site ultimately, but good grade is an indicator that other clients marked this individual as a good contractor.
So if you are not underpaying/wanting a mountain for a penny, then there are high chances that you will be satisfied.
The best method depends on a massive number of factors.
If it is a single small/smallish design I'd suggest Freelancer.
If it is a whole scheme of designs - like a header and logo etc. then what I would suggest would be set up a minor contest for the smallest with basically no entry barriers and state that it is to find a designer you like working with for more work.
One spot you can post that would be your local Craigslist; also depending on your location it might be adviseable to post the same in a larger CL region - like New York NY USA, LA Ca USA, Toronto ON Canada or Vancouver BC Canada all have high volumes of that kind of readers unlike for example Victoria BC Canada. This has the benefit of being 100% free for your search and gives you a large volume of potential.