How are designers doing in the new economy?

In 2009, the communication design profession experienced the same devastating disruption that hit the economy as a whole. Designers were certainly among the more than eight million Americans to lose their jobs, and that, in turn, has influenced both the demand for labor and compensation patterns. However, by all indications, this downturn in employment for the design profession has been more selective than sweeping.

From anecdotal evidence and industry data, corporate design departments and advertising agencies seem to have suffered the most employment losses. For designers working on a freelance basis, there have been two equally relevant stories: Independent contractors found that either they were in demand because of their ability to work on a more flexible basis—making them cheaper than fulltime employees—or there has not been enough work to sustain them in a stagnant economy. For recent graduates, the opportunities, where available, were often low-paying or unpaid internships, without benefits.

At the same time, the broader discussions about adaptive strategies for corporations determined to grow their way out of this current market slump often hinged on innovation, design and design thinking. Hence, demand for design was not eliminated, and many independent studios remained busy. Those studios were not necessarily hiring, but they were very busy picking up newly outsourced work from corporate departments and other clients seeking competitive differentiation for their products.

The current AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries reveals the implications of these business conditions on individual designers. All professional and associate-level AIGA members will receive a print version of the survey results, while a limited version will be available to everyone. Specifically for students and emerging designers we've included a series of essays offering advice on what skills will be most useful in this changing economy.

In the past year, similar to other sectors of the economy, there has been little real increase in the median compensation for designers. Median compensation increased around three percent for a number of categories and up to nine percent for others; while these increases were not large, the consumer price index actually declined during that period, increasing designers' purchasing power somewhat.

A number of positions increased faster than most: entry-level designers, web designers, print production managers. Principals also experienced a relatively larger increase.

This finding is consistent with what we have heard from design studio heads: They are working harder, but margins are smaller. Hence, the productivity gains that individual employees are contributing are not being rewarded because clients (internal or external) may not be paying for those gains.

The way for individual designers to increase their value and compensation is through consistent training and professional development that allows them to move up in the range of responsibilities they assume.

The AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries features advice from 10 successful designers and educators on how designers can develop their skills, competencies and value as we all face the churning dynamics of an economy adjusting to a new future. It also describes the attributes that are likely to be most critical for designers in the coming years based on AIGA and Adobe's research into “Defining the Designer of 2015.”

The good news is that the Design Leaders Confidence Index for the first quarter of 2010 reflects the strongest confidence yet in an economic recovery. As the economy regains momentum, we hope these resources will benefit members and the design profession at large.

About the Author: Richard Grefé is the director emeritus of AIGA, the professional association for design, the oldest and largest professional association of designers in the United States representing the interests of 27,000 designers working in a variety of communication media and dimensions, ranging from type and book designers to new media and experience designers. AIGA, o ver twenty years under Ric’s aegis, has become a leading advocate for the value of designing, as a way of thinking and as a means of creating strategic value for business, the civic realm and social change. Currently he is teaching “Human-centered designn for social change” at Wesleyan University. Ric earned a BA from Dartmouth College in economics, worked in intelligence in Asia, reported from the Bronx County Courthouse for AP, wrote for Time magazine on business and the economy and then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following an early career in urban design and public policy consulting, Ric managed the association responsible for strategic planning and legislative advocacy for public television and led a think tank on the future of public television and radio in Washington.