Can You Get a Decent Design With Only a Reference?

A Fiverr Experiment

Here’s how it starts: Fiverr. 5 designers, $5 each, one task — draw a bicycle icon. I did, however, give them each different references.

Most people can discern a BMX from a racing bike, and not only by looking for bruises on their owners’ bodies.

Can this difference be conveyed in an icon? We will see.


  1. No excessive instructions (color, size, etc.). Designers had total freedom of expression.
  2. No revisions, except in one very special case.

Note: You can’t ask much for $5 so I’m not going to criticize these works in terms of their design. However, these examples may benefit both designers and employers. Designers will recognize some thought patterns that accompany good design and potential employers may learn the benefit of precise requirements.


The designer didn’t use the reference but gave me a common portrayal of a bike — 2 wheels and an odd frame. Then he played with the handlebars a bit. Instead of one BMX I got 3 city bikes. Good deal?

A plus here is that the designer tried to make an icon recognizable at small sizes, though I never specified such a requirement.

A BMX bike is all about proportions and its low saddle. Here is an example:

City Bike

To be honest the city bike is a lucky ticket for any designer. By simply tracing the contours you get a decent result, no traps. Yet I must mention a few interesting points about this design. The designer left off the carrier though added a lamp… childhood memories, perhaps?

Folding Bike

If the city bike is the lucky one, this one is the trickiest. I guess that’s why the guy tried to trick me back by giving me a filtered version of my own photo. So I asked for a revision, and got this:

See, it’s not just about following a contour or even pure simplification. The most critical detail here is the joint, which we need to exaggerate:

Racing Bike

There are two critical details that are wrong in this design:

The handlebar. A racer has many miles to cover, so attaching a hot spa stone instead of a curved handlebar to his bicycle would be a very sophisticated form of torture. A curved (or drop) handlebar has many variations but they all look more or less the same in a simplified version — curved.

The seat of a racing bike is usually higher than the handlebars, letting a racer take more horizontal position while riding. Given the fact that the racer is not only steering with a hot spa stone, but also sitting on another one, the whole thing suddenly becomes cruel and possibly even illegal in a few states.

Jokes aside, this is a decent city bike design, but not a racing one. I had to check 3 times if I sent the right reference. Perhaps the guy just sent me one of his old designs and got an easy $5.

Corrected version:

Mountain Bike

This is a heart-warming design. The designer copied the reference, but take a look how — he left out unnecessary details, such as cables and spokes, but nailed the most important one for a mountain bike — the suspension.

Yes, not all mountain bikes have such suspension, yet imagine yourself browsing categories on an internet bike shop. This one really conveys the meaning.

The only thing we could do here is to exaggerate the tire tread and the frame width:

The suspension looks a bit like Harry Potter’s forehead because otherwise it would be unrecognizable at small sizes. An old habit.

It’s not a better version, consider it as a colorless, downsized alternative.


Some designers got luckier with their reference than others. Some designers blindly copied their reference while others tried to create something of their own.

Huge thanks to our designer, Margarita, for the corrected versions

I could easily demand a revision for the BMX (1st) and racing bike (4th) because the references were not followed, but for the sake of a clean experiment I didn’t.

It’s a very common problem when designers take reference too loosely and design things based on their own, sometimes false, perceptions.

The opposite, when designers blindly and thoughtlessly copying reference, is equally not good.

Final Thoughts

The conclusion is quite simple: If you want a good copy — find a good reference and control its execution.

If tiny details are not that important for your project, conveying a common “bicycle” feeling may be enough. Take a look at our bicycle icon. Our only priority was to make the icon recognizable at a wide range of sizes, following iOS and Android guidelines.

The article is not about good or bad designs. You can’t ask too much for $5. Its main idea is simple: photo reference is not enough. Add details, add words. Help the designer to understand what is critical, and, equally important, what is not. Many problems could have been avoided just by asking one good question.

This is my second Fiverr experiment (you can find the first experiment of mine here). It’s getting more obvious to me that the $5 freelance platform, if used wisely, can provide you with decent results . However, to reduce the risk, you’d better take the “thought” part in your hands, leaving only the “execution” to the freelancer.

Do you still think a bike is just handlebars, two wheels, and a chain somewhere in between?

Thanks for reading!

Originally published at

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