This is a guest post by Lauren Gard of the controversial 99designs on why should website designers embrace the crowdsourced design contest model. Feel free to discuss it in the comments.

99designs, the most popular online marketplace for crowdsourced design, often launches fun contests to let the creativity and enthusiasm of our global graphic design community fly. (If you’re wondering just how creative and enthusiastic some of our 150,000 designers are, this video should convince you.) Since 99designs got off the ground in 2008 (and yes, we launched a design contest for our logo), we’ve invited designers to fashion a new hairstyle for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, to come up with a new GAP logo after the company’s own new design received a bruising reception, to create a logo in partnership with Occupy.com for a website representing the 99%, and to rethink how the major U.S. political parties represent themselves, among other challenges.

This time around, we’re asking designers to redesign the homepage of our very own website – and we’ve brought some renowned design experts on board to help judge the entries. The 99designs Homepage Redesign Contest launched this week and is accepting entries through May 14. Why should website designers embrace the crowdsourced design contest model – which has attracted its share of controversy – and give this contest, in particular, a go?

We’re so glad you asked!

#1: Build your portfolio and source new clients

Whether you work as a freelancer, for an agency or in-house for a company, you’re no doubt aware that the graphic design industry is undergoing rapid change. For website designers starting out, or looking to expand, opportunities abound since more organizations than ever are recognizing the importance of having a vibrant online presence.

Brick and mortar businesses that have been slow to get online are finding that creating compelling websites takes more than a few hours with a WordPress tutorial and Photoshop, and are seeking outside help. And new businesses are making their websites a priority from day one. Old or new, companies are increasingly realizing that great design can go a long way in lifting them above the competition. They’re being forced to pay attention to – and pay for –design in a way they weren’t even five years ago. There are 27 million small businesses in the U.S. alone, and about half currently have websites, with a big chunk indicating they’re planning to get online. (The U.K. boasts 4.5 million small businesses, and there are 2 million in Australia.) Those are pretty staggering figures. But how can designers nab some of this new business without pounding the pavement or having a ton of connections?

The most successful designers on 99designs don’t just compete to win contests – they do so to build their portfolios and source clients for ongoing work. Designers can pick and choose from thousands of contests and enter those that are the best fit in a host of ways. Want to build a niche in designing for, say, real estate companies? Tech companies? Not-for-profits? Businesses in your city? Or in specific design categories like website, banner ad, icon, button or app design? There’s perhaps no better way. Also, 99designs’ customers often check out other contests when they launch their own – they find designs they like, browse those designers’ profiles and online portfolios, and invite them to participate in their own contests.

The bottom line is that taking part in contests is a great way for designers to get in front of prospects, receive real (and fast) feedback on work, and build relationships that often continue once the contest has ended. (We encourage this, since our point from our very start is to provide opportunities for designers to expand their businesses and make money.) In the case of our Homepage Redesign Contest, your website design could be seen not only by 99designs insiders, but by some of the top names in the design world.

#2: Get your work in front of design world phenoms!

Some graphic design industry insiders criticize our model – we think it’s because they don’t quite understand it – and for this contest we wanted to underscore just how seriously we take good design. We decided to enlist outside judges for the first time, aiming for a variety of experts on our panel who care more about design than pretty much anything else at the end of the day. Who signed on?

Arem Duplessis, Director of Design for The New York Times magazines (and formerly head of design at Spin and GQ, is on board The Pratt Institute grad’s magazines have won nearly every design award under the sun, and he’s also a design instructor at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Heard of Airbnb? Joe Gebbia, the company’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer, studied graphic design at RISD and is a product and web design pro, will also be weighing in. And then there are two superstars in the startup world who know websites inside and out: Eric Ries, who penned the bestseller “The Lean Startup,” co-founded IMVU (his third company) and advises dozens of hot startups; and serial entrepreneur and design guru Mark Harbottle, who has played a huge role in the design and branding of the companies he’s co-founded (including 99designs) and was named 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year by Australia’s top business magazine.

It’s a pretty amazing opportunity for designers to get in front of experts at the top of their games. Finally, there’s the fact that up to three winning designers will get $1,000 each, and 99designs will actually test their designs and potentially implement them. And, of course, if you’re one of the winners, there’s a very real opportunity to secure ongoing work with 99designs.

#3: Learn how the crowdsourced design model works

If you’ve never entered a design contest at 99designs or other sites like ours, but would like to expand as a designer and have the free time, ask yourself this question: why not? If it’s because you consider yourself “anti-crowdsourcing,” or “anti-spec,” this article might give you some good food for thought. (99designs is a “disruptive” company, and we get that not everyone loves us. But that doesn’t make us love design and designers any less!) Poke around the site. Check out other website design contests, and reach out to designers you like through private messaging. Ask questions. Our Facebook page and our Designer Blog – where you’ll hear from, and about, many active designers – will also give you a good idea of how designers use  the site to connect with customers and fellow designers.

So, what do you think? Are you in? You can find more info about the Homepage Redesign Contest here. Think there’s a good reason to avoid the contest, or crowdsourced design more broadly? We want to know your thoughts, whatever they may be – please share them below!