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The Startup’s Guide to Budget Design

By Sacha Greif

Did you know that Stack Overflow used 99Designs to crowdsource their logo for only $512?

And at the other end of the spectrum, rebranding a major company or institution can often cost upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. This just goes to show that when it comes to design, you can find something at any price.

So I thought it would be interesting to explore the different alternatives out there when it comes to design, from options that don’t break the bank to offerings that will set you back a little more.

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ll cover:

  • Free ($0): Use a free framework and UI freebies
  • Dirt Cheap ($0-$100): Get a pre-made theme and nice typeface
  • Cheap ($100-$500): Consider crowdsourcing
  • Mid-Range ($500-$1000): Crowdsourcing or freelancers?
  • Good ($1000-$10000): Get a good designer
  • Expensive ($10000+): Agencies

Read on to get a more detailed overview. But first, a word of warning: no matter which price point you end up selecting, remember that you generally get what you pay for!

Free ($0)

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

The Foundation framework

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

UICloud’s UI elements search

Dirt Cheap ($0-$100)

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.

Admin templates on Themeforest.

Admin templates on Themeforest.

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.

Creative Market is another good place for templates.

Creative Market is another good place for templates.

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).

You could get the same logo for $29.

You could get the same logo for $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?

Cheap ($100-$500)

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 a couple hundred dollars, 99Designs might be your best bet.

99Designs give you multiple options

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

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.

The Startup Design Framework

The Startup Design Framework

There’s also DesignModo’s Startup Design Framework, a complete set of homepage and UI elements for $249.

Note: speaking of 99Designs and cheap logos, watch out for designers who use stock artwork and pass it as their own. You can use reverse image search engines such as TinEye to make sure the design you’re receiving is truly unique.

Mid-Range ($500-$1000)

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.

Good ($1000-$10000)

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.

Posting a project on Folyo

Posting a project on Folyo

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.

Expensive ($10000+)

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.

Hire the agency who came up with the Facebook logo.

Hire the agency who came up with the Facebook logo.

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, until they’re able to just get in-house talent.


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 sizable 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!

Note: this article was originally published on October 31, 2012.

About Sacha Greif...

Folyo's original founder. Now working on Sidebar and VulcanJS.