MikeKirby spent years working in the creative industry as a creative director at a small design studio. But when he moved on to pursue his own projects during the recession, 99designs helped him source clients outside of his local network and maintain a steady stream of income while he focused on building out his own mobile game.

Read on to find out how MikeKirby was able to leverage his design skills to pursue his dreams.


Name: Michael Kirby
Location: United Kingdom
99designs handle: MikeKirby
Projects won: 44

How did you get started in design?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in design. My earliest memory being the first day of primary school, when my parents were called in after we were tasked with making cards. I chose to make a complex pop-up card with a terrifying witch inside. I think they were concerned, but I was just expressing my creativity.

Throughout my earlier education, I was very focused on fine art, with a penchant for surrealism and big installation pieces. I always had dreams of being a renowned artist in that sense. I had a few reasonable exhibits and sold a little bit of work, but as I grew a little older, more mature and my field of studies diversified a little, my view began to change.

Instead, I got myself a graphics tablet and started making things on the computer, pretty much exclusively, and must say I haven’t looked back since. I chose to do a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Games Design. It was a fledgling course at the time, only available in one University in the country.

Following my degree, I formed a small design studio with some friends. I was a creative director for 5 years before we decided to close up shop and move onto different and better things. This gave me time to hone my skills, develop good client-based communication and cement my abilities in all manners of design.

Mike Kirby App Design

Describe your design style.

I can’t say I’ve ever had to describe my style before. It’s certainly distinctive and recognizable, but evolved somewhat over the years, as have the tools I use to make my work. It was often described as being very “Tim Burton”, which makes sense, as during the development of my earlier work, Tim Burton and Salvador Dali were big influences. However as my style has evolved, it has become much broader in its appeal.

My work and style are always improving. I’m often my own worst critic. Whatever I am doing, I always ensure I maintain an exceptionally high standard of quality with many passes before I am happy with handing over a design. This often entails that I maintain good communication with my clients to be able to effectively deliver my vision of their needs and to respond promptly to their feedback.

These days I make all of my work in Vector Shapes and Layer Styles in Photoshop, which ensures a certain distinct “look”. In short, my current style would be described as: rich, highly detailed (often textured) and highly polished. My iOS icons are also often designed as Skeuomorphs, utilizing the shape of the ios icon to make it look like an actual object.

Mike Kirby App Design 2

What led you to start using 99designs?

Years spent exploring many facets of design was key to leading to where I am today. It wasn’t until leaving my old studio that I had the opportunity or need to specialize. Alongside my client work, I am fortunate to have several superb colleagues who I am currently working with on various exciting products, including apps and my main design passion – games. This keeps me busy, so I wanted to find a way to focus my client work into a single niche market to keep life manageable. I chose to specialize in icon design, which I find particularly enjoyable.

However, even with contacts from my old studio, I was moving into freelancing in a time of recession in an old industrial town in the north of England. Many of the government support schemes which supported the digital industry in the north were either heavily retracted or stopped entirely. The billions of pounds that were being fed to companies – many of whom developed interactive products and would hire freelance designers like myself to help them – were now gone. So finding any local work was a challenge, nevermind sustainable regular work in an extremely niche market.

So whilst exploring options I decided to “revisit” 99designs. I previously tried and discounted it during its early days, but found it had improved quite a lot and allowed me to utilize my speciality in their icon design category.

I wasn’t sure what to expect after my previous attempt with the site years ago, but I won my first contest for $350 and had the cash in my account by the end of the week. This was refreshing in itself, having become somewhat used to chasing invoices for months on end. So I tried more and found I could consistently win between a third to half the contests I entered.

The time investment and win ratio was pretty much on a par with the time investment and signing of work from traditional networking and pitch writing, but a lot more enjoyable (I despise writing documents). Even if I lost contests, I would have made assets that could prove handy in the future, improved my skills and typically enjoyed the work and the challenge it presented. I also actively engage and strive to build a working relationship with the clients, so even if I do not win they remember me and occasionally contact me for commissions.

Of those that I do win, between half and two thirds contact me for additional work. This is, of course, priced at normal design rates – which is where 99designs has proved exceptionally useful. It allows me to build a reputation, portfolio and client base around my chosen niche. Which has led to a pretty decent income to support my own product development.

The clients I gained from the contests have proved to be superb. All of them are prompt payers, usually within hours (which is unheard among my local peers), courteous and also, for the most part, fully aware of the expected difference in cost between contests and commissions. That was an initial worry and I know is one of the concerns leveled by those who feel crowdsourcing devalues the design community. But in my experience, it is certainly not the case.

I have spoken to a couple of great designers on the site, some of whom I would be happy to hire for my own products, should they prove successful and I have too much to do myself. 😉 I’ve also been contacted by several of the younger designers on here who are still training and looking to better themselves. I have always been happy to offer my advice or pointers where needed.

Mike Kirby App Design 3

What do you think is the most important part of the design process?

I wouldn’t really pick one, so I will say good communication and creativity. By this I mean absorb the brief as best you can, engage actively with the client to best understand their needs. Then be creative in your interpretation of the brief whilst staying true to what they need the end product to convey. If this goes wrong then no amount of polish or iterations will get your design where it should or could be.

How this relates to 99designs and clients: if any clients are reading this, then make sure you engage with designers and leave regular feedback with a detailed description of what your product actually does. This is far and above the best and often the only way to get the end result you are looking for.

Mike Kirby App Design 4

In your opinion, what are the key differences that separate great design from poor or mediocre design?

A good design is created with a decent understanding of the message it needs to convey and what emotion it needs to induce. A great design takes these strong foundations, explores them in original and creative ways and has gone through many iterations and levels of polish, where the designer has constantly strived to find ways to make further improvement until finally, upon reflection, they are satisfied that no further improvement is either possible or reasonable.

It’s rare I feel something is 100%, but we all need to know when to stop – otherwise everything would take forever and cost a fortune.

How would you sum up graphic design in one sentence?

Creatively conveying thoughts and concepts in an expressive visual medium.

Mike Kirby App Design 5

What is a hobby that you enjoy doing outside of design?

My list of hobbies has dwindled drastically as I have grown older. Design is probably the thing I enjoy the most, but I also enjoy the typical flood of high quality US TV shows, have always had a passion for gaming from the days of the Amstrad and Spectrum.

This passion extends to participating and occasionally being involved on the organisational/running side of Game Jams, where I act as a mentor, which has taken me as far as Bangkok with the British Council. I have also more recently been enjoying the occasional game of poker or attendance at my local gentleman’s club.

Any thing else you’d like to add?

I think given the thorough nature of my other comments I will keep this short…other than to say, if you would like to know what I am up to I can be found on twitter @I_Make_Icons.

And to all designers on 99designs who are still in training, keep up the good work, keep competing and keep improving. When I was in training, there was certainly never an environment as good as this in which to compete and hone your skills, and in time you will be giving us all a run for our money.

Learn how MikeKirby designed a top-tier mobile game for the Apple Store here.