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How’s it Going?

Last May Sam wondered about the temperature of the graphic design profession. At that point few seemed very enthusiastic about it, yet there were comments that filled us with some hope for the near-future. Which is now.

Many things have happened since that now-distant May: we’ve been through war; corporate scandals still abound (even if we don’t hear as much of it anymore); Paris Hilton (noted without comment); Holiday spending is apparently up in many markets; Bush’s term being over next year has revitalized people. So things are happening it seems like. Many designers I know (mostly through Speak Up) are busier — a general assumption I am freely making.

In that past discussion I commented/confessed about my weird fetish of job listings (I check them at least once a week). And I have noticed a slight increase in the amount of firms hiring all around the country. Mostly bigger firms, but that is still a notch above the no-hiring status of the past years. It’s also apparent that there is more mobilization, people who were holding on to their jobs (no matter how much they think they sucked) are slowly looking at other options and are actually considering looking for new jobs.

With the end of the year approaching it would be interesting to hear what your experience has been the last few months and what are you expecting for the new year: Are you busier? If you are busier, are you actually getting paid better? What type of work are you doing mostly, have you noticed any trends in what clients are asking for? In short, how you doin’?

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.11.2003 BY Armin
Tan’s comment is:

Our office is really, really busy right now -- interactive is booming, and print is picking up quite nicely too. We have good visibility and healthy projections again. But eventhough work demand is high, margins are low across most projects. Sales are still ultra-competitive between firms. Pricing structures have changed permanently.

The bigger firms in town are hiring -- but everyone's very cautious. We've been quietly but consistently hiring for the last few months.

But the question few can answer is how long this recovery will last, and its strength. Economic indicators are encouraging, but most firms have depleted their reserves, and are unwilling to gamble with optimistic staffing.

On a sadder note, there has been two recent business closings in Seattle that are notable. Both were small firms that have produced solid work for 18-20+ years. They've weathered a number of economic downturns before, but this time, they weren't as lucky. They each had good work, were well known and respected, and had good business practices -- yet couldn't avoid their fate. It's a loss for our design community, and a sobering, cautionary tale for those of us still surviving.

On Dec.11.2003 at 10:36 AM
eric’s comment is:

my design work has picked up steadily since summer and i've a number of projects lined up for january. the people i know in the corporate world have noted a rush of advertising dollars pouring in. friends in Los Angeles are doing a lot more creative projects for entertainment clients. last but not least, the major auctions in New York over the last few weeks have set some records and sold well by percentage... so the art world is doing much better than feared.

wish i had some cash to throw at the stock market.

On Dec.11.2003 at 10:37 AM
timmy’s comment is:

We recently dumped our project manager. Things were a little slow at first, but now there are new clients jumping on board. Our work board is the fullest I've seen in the past five months.

I have seen more jobs posted on the AIGA site, but as previous stated I think a lot of firms are still cautious.

And Paris has enlightened all of our lives...ahhh chakra alignment.

On Dec.11.2003 at 11:14 AM
amanda’s comment is:

My one year anniversary for quitting the corporate design job is coming up at Christmas. Looking back, I remember having feelings of dread - will I get clients? will i get the kind work i want? will this even work?

It totally did. I have supported myself financially and I have been a busy bee. Even with being gone for two months travelling this year, I have made more money than with the day job. I am so suprised, and pleased with how things have turned out. I do lotsa fun, creative work. I have projects lined to keep me semi-busy until spring right now.

So even though my situation is different than a studio/firm (I don't hire employees, don't have a whack of overhead etc) I can certainly see a recovery. I just hope the work keeps coming.

On Dec.11.2003 at 11:24 AM
KM’s comment is:

In the music industry, it appears record labels are looking to hire more designers for packaging, etc. After massive layoffs of in-house art departments it's good news for the rest of us.

On Dec.11.2003 at 12:41 PM
pk’s comment is:

after having survived two solid years of near-nothingness, i am now willing to say it: i work for myself. seems like layoffs are good for that, if nothing else. now i know where my money's comin' from...me.

new business is pouring in, literally a new project every single day last week...50% split between new clientele and agency-based freelance requests. also about a 50% split between online and print-based work. no motion, that market's still dead. illustration is also deadsville. and here's a shocker: my biggest-paying client for december is a weblog publisher. so web-based revenues are indeed growing again.

on the downside, i'm really tired.

On Dec.11.2003 at 01:29 PM
amanda’s comment is:

illustration is not deadsville!

ok it sort of is, but I don't want it to be.

On Dec.11.2003 at 03:23 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Job postings are on the up, and in Seattle the swing is towards interactive (again). Rumor has it that an IDEO office will open in Redmond. They are already in the works to partner with Microsoft on a number of projects. Outside of dirty laundry like that, I subscribe to a number of lists like Coroflot and Afluent. Both have a wide range of positions lately, all of which seem to be located in the California area. But how much can we rely on others to give us work? I have to mirror pk's opinion above. Let me do the work. Let me find the work. There are so many firms and specialists out there, why not identify opportunities on my own? Or better yet, invent them?

My theory is that brand development will fire up again in the very near future, enlisting graphic designers and ad agencies. I'm not stating that we'll be in a startup boom again. Instead, companies will place renewed emphasis on the customer, as a reaction to the economic downturn. If they're smart, they'll address humor and emotion, knowing that these "pathos" speak to a public with a much softer heart.

For those looking at a niche, try health care. The baby boomers are getting old, and will look for ways to invigorate their life/lifestyle. Hospitals, family practitioners, doctors, and online medical services will all need to distinguish themselves more than ever. And on the other hand, we have an audience looking to cheat old age. Healthy foods, vitamin-enriched water, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and exercise equipment overwhelm the environment these days. It feels like the 1980s again, when we had the aerobics fad with Jane Fonda.

In the end, it's best to look outside the industry for work. Am I working? Am I acting on these hunches above? No, right now, I'm just watching.

On Dec.11.2003 at 03:34 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

In addition to the baby boomers getting closer and closer to retirement age, don't forget that there's also a helluva lot of young people out there, too. I've been finding that a lot of clients who were typically more conservative in their messaging are taking an increasingly active interest in targeting, sometimes only indirectly, a younger audience. I don't think "age" is as relevant as it once was, it's more about a fresh mentality and I think that's started to manifest in work created over the past year and I believe it will continue to.

On Dec.11.2003 at 03:53 PM
Brad Knapp’s comment is:

I left Minneapolis nearly 2 years ago now, a few months after the last-wave of the dot com crashes and the first effects on the industry post 9/11. Relocated to the less frantic pace of Green Bay (WI) and am still very happy. Sure, there's still trouble all over, but things are starting to turn around in the smaller markets.

On Dec.11.2003 at 04:56 PM
Val’s comment is:

I work at a magazine and things are looking up compared to last year. Ad spending is slightly better, and there are a lot more commitments from ad agencies and creative firms for upcoming issues in 2004. Advertisers are definitely not as afraid to spend money as they were last year, although they are still cautious, as they should be.

Photographers and illustrators with whom I work seem to be busier too than they have been in a while. The ones I have talked to seem to be getting more agency work.

While the future is looking up, it's still a tough climb back to where magazines were just a few years ago in terms of advertising.

On Dec.11.2003 at 04:57 PM
Aaron’s comment is:

Tan, just out of curiosity what were the two firms that closed in Seattle?

On Dec.11.2003 at 07:01 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I don't want to broadcast their names or openly publicize their business failures here. It's not a secret or anything -- the local trade journals have already covered it. This thread just shouldn't be about firm obituaries.

But I can email it individually to anyone who really wants to know, like you Aaron. Just email me a request.

On Dec.11.2003 at 07:34 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I think we're likely to see more "non-traditional" (and I do use that term loosely, we've seen about everything, or wouldn't be surprised by much) forms of communication, or at the very least, design firms branching out into foreign media. For instance, I had lunch with a guy here who's had a primarily annual report-focused firm for 24 years and he was telling me about how they've started creating radio spots for one client and have explored getting into other formats typically reserved for advertising agencies, or even PR firms. Its not necessarily that he has no other choice but to do other things, its just that he's burned out from the annuals business and wants to explore other options. His clients are open to it because he's proven time and again that he's smart, and there's a real value to raw intelligence.

As it stands, this is something I've noticed for quite awhile now and you can see how its manifested in the CA advertising annual (of course, most of its for MINI...woo hoo). The whole notion that "design can be anywhere!" is catching on, and that means good things. It'll reward the most creative thinking and the most active people. Ideally.

I'm curious to see what magazines look like next year. I thought this year was really cool, although some of the cooler ones were out of the UK or Holland--but still. When you've got W doing 40-page sections purely on Madonna and GQ ballooning up to more than 200 pages, things must be getting better.

On Dec.11.2003 at 08:23 PM
surts’s comment is:

When you've got W doing 40-page sections purely on Madonna and GQ ballooning up to more than 200 pages, things must be getting better.

When I heard Woodward went to GQ a while back, I ran to the my fav mag store to grab the latest copy at the time to see it. Unfortunately I couldn't get any sense of the design due to the monolithic amount of ads. I haven't bought a copy since. One of the reasons why I still subscribe to Esquire is that the type inside has a real uninterrupted rhythm I can see.

On Dec.11.2003 at 09:59 PM
chris’s comment is:

I'm a student about to graduate and I am looking forward to entering the world of graphic design. I think the graphic design industry is picking up because a few friends of mine received numerous job offers and another friend just got a much sought after internship.

On Dec.11.2003 at 10:09 PM
Steven’s comment is:

In the California Bay Area, there are little trickles of things happening here and there; but by-and-large, it's very slow. I check Craigslist, Commarts, and the AIGA job postings almost every day. Most of the jobs are on the low-end, production scale of things or they are very specific and niche oriented. Very few senior-level jobs, (much to my chagrin). Interactive/web is a little more active than print, which is very enemic. Some recent economic studies have said it will be a number of years before the Bay Area market has any sort of vibrancy to it. (Hopefully, it will never get back to those go-go years of the dot-com era.)

As others have indicated, the job market is very cautionary. People are not willing to commit for anything in the long term. Almost all of my recent work has come in the form of short-term contracts. In one instance, I was brought in to give significant help in rebranding the packaging and collateral for a software product launch, a couple of weeks after the corporate office had laid-off all of their internal design staff except for one person. (Yeah, they did this right before a product launch.) I was really happy to have the contract work, but it felt a little weird: like I was some sort of " disfunctional productivity enabler."

This brings me to another observation, that companys and corporations are looking for individuals and very small firms, rather than larger agencies and firms, to do their work. They are not willing to pay top dollar. In a way, it's like the big dinosaur firms are being starved off. Similar to Tan's comment, I've heard that a few big-name established firms in SF are not doing well, too. It seems to indicate a sort of evolution/shift in the fundamentals of our profession. Going forward, I can see how larger design firms and ad agencies will be replaced by networks of individuals and tiny firms.

Having said all of this, I have more potential work right now than I have had in a while. Hopefully most of this will come to fruition. So I am guardedly happy. But, I'm still very concerned about how things are going to be 6 months to a year from now. Geo-politically, thanks to "W" and rest of the Neo-Cons, the US has really over-extended itself with both Afganistan and Iraq, so infrastructure, quality-of-life issues will soon start to deteriorate. And, as much as there has been a lot of hype about the economy, the vaneer, smoke-and-mirror gains in productivity and GDP are not really sustainable over the longrun. And, the exponentially-spiraling national debt and the devaluation of the dollar are going to catch up with us.

In the meantime, I'm just trying to stay reasonably optimistic about myself and my abilities and hang tough during the times of no work. For me, it's really about networking and finding those little inside pockets of work.

On Dec.11.2003 at 10:52 PM
pk’s comment is:

i am actually doing a couple days freelance per week with a small agency in chicago which is nothing but a shell - every single person here is freelance. the agency promotes itself as a marketing agency, but the truth is that none of the principals knows a thing about it.

this is an interesting structure, and one that i'm seeing more of across the board. artisans are roaming from place to place, and very few are actually believing in the idea of a full-time job any more. i personally like it; working full-time generally bores me senseless. it's a nice bit of pickup income when i need to support a quick purchase (hello, new printer).

the downside of this from an agency perspective is that the clientele eventually figures out what's going on and loses faith in their agency's abilities - or they begin calling the artisans directly. this has happened to me a couple of times, once the client had the sense to look to see the web presence behind my domain's email address.

overall, i'm seeing a total breakdown in the business structure of design. almost everyone nowadays knows that management-level marketing wonks are generally not worth much. their knowledge is inherent in anyone who knows the disciplines intimately.

On Dec.12.2003 at 11:46 AM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

I know that we have taken on much much more work as a company as a whole, but the "new Media" department is so set in place that we are not really seeing much of a work-flow change. I like to think that this is because we are all better and faster at what we do by now.

But pay change - no, no not at all. Wish.

And, how YOU doin'? right back at ya!

On Dec.12.2003 at 12:48 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Right, right. Well, we just went through a very busy period, especially right after the conference in Vancouver — not that that had anything to do with it. Lots of repeat-business, no new clients. As the year-end approaches we are getting a bit slow, but that's common over here. We did lots of print this second-half of the year. It just feels better than in January or February.

On Dec.12.2003 at 01:42 PM
Tom’s comment is:

Business is better than ever! More clients, more money, more tax breaks, more vacation time with the family, more plans for growth!!!

Type of work - catalogs, packaging, retail start-up identity, publishing, event promotion, environmental, merchandise(royalties)...

It is so easy to blame an administration for business failures and/or downturns. I thought graphic design and branding was all about optimism and making things better. Do you guys really not believe that? Do you not think that your talents can help a business/industry look at the big picture and help it turn around? What about your firm or career? You, your talent, should be your biggest agent for making things better.

Or do you really believe that we are only decoraters and will only feed off what trickles down from the value adding industries? Blaming a war or Republicans or Democrats or repressive bosses, a down market, etc... is a cop out. Wo is me!!!

We designers, possibly more than any other profession, have the inate ability to look at the situation and change it for the better. We can reveal potential.

On Dec.12.2003 at 04:10 PM
pk’s comment is:

I thought graphic design and branding was all about optimism and making things better. Do you guys really not believe that?

dude, go to a landfill. then tell me how much better we make things.

On Dec.12.2003 at 05:08 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Business is better than ever!

Uh, Tom... Hey, maybe things are overflowing in fabulousness on the planet your living on but it ain't like that here, perky boy.

I'm not blaming Bush & Co. for the economic downturn. That would be ridiculous! I blame the fallout from the dot-com implosion and the overselling of high-tech equipment. And then let's not forget all the fun and games in the stock market and the fabricated CA energy crisis, etc.

But, I don't think that the Republicans haven't done really anything to systemically help the economy. It's all smoke and mirrors. And they are creating an enormous governmental debt.

And tax breaks! Give me a freaking break! I didn't get squat from those tax breaks. That was nothing more than the good ol' boys helpin' each other out.

Now, I think that my design skills help a client to market their products or services better and hopefully help to give them insight and make their company more profitable. Whether or not that company will actually be significantly more profitable has more to do with how the company is run rather than solely the efforts of outside creative. To say that design alone can "change business for the better" is a very sophmoric way of looking at business. You can design the greatest ad campaign or make the coolest, most appropriate and intuitive Web site for a company. But if their sales department doesn't integrate their sales efforts with the timing of the ad, or the company doesn't know what to do with all of the qualified leads generated from the Web site, all of your great design efforts won't amount to hill of beans. We may be able show potential and real value. But it's the client's responsibility to actualize it.

And how dare you imply that I, or anyone else, is defeatist because we're going through a period of economic hardship. Who do you think you are, punk? Times are tough for some of us. Have a little sympathy, fer christ's sake. Moreover, I am, by my very nature, a very upbeat and positive person. If you ever met me, you'd see that immediately. I'm a liberal. I believe in the potential of positive change. I believe in the goodness of people. And, while I may have a few intermittent down moments, I spend the vast majority of my time being happy and acknowledging the love and beauty that the world has to offer. (Nam Myo-ho Renge Kyo!) But I'm not a fool.

The California Bay Area economy is down and companies are not willing to spend a lot of money. That means that marketing efforts (read: design projects) and in-house creative jobs are not all that abundant. And most design firms are just trying to keep thier heads above water, so they're not really eager to add headcount. Log-on to Craigslist or Commarts or the AIGA job posting and look at what's available in California. It's slim and/or crappy, for the most part. And while I'm a pretty damn good designer with 20 years of experience, and a smattering of design awards, my more senior skill-set is not what most people are looking for. So it's a little tough for me. I am slowly rebuilding my career, despite of my environment, but it's a slow process.

And while I can appreciate some of your professional optimism, I really don't need the fatuous moralizing when it comes to how to live my life. Got it?

B'sides, the whole point of this discussion was Armin asking "how's it going?" not "how should you be doing?"

On Dec.13.2003 at 12:42 AM
Tom’s comment is:


After rereading my comments, I can see your points. I was too Frank Capra-ish. Caught up in the moment. PLEASE forgive me.

I was REALLY only trying to encourage, not judge. I've been through hard times for long periods of time myself and can see where my comments above would have rubbed me the wrong way too. Thanks for pointing that out too me.

The political comments were only stated in that there are always going to be situations of good and bad, so make the most/best of it. That's why I hate discussing politics, because intentions are so easily misunderstood.

I totally agree with you that there are many other factors in the succes of a business - again, I was caught up in the moment.

I do believe we can help make changes for the better, whether it is a business, a social challenge, the environment, etc.

I sincerely hope and pray that everyones situation improves. One of my motivations this past year in my unmerited(not really that great) success has been to bring on freelancers/contract employees who have been laid off, have families and need a boost financially and emotionally. Having been there myself and still seeing it happen around Atlanta, I am very sympathetic to that. I was wrong for not considering those feelings of those currently in that position. If I could think of better words to reiterate that point, I would say it over and over.

Again, please forgive me and accept my sincere apology,


On Dec.13.2003 at 08:15 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Just for the record, Tom ain't no punk. I know Tom personally and he is a good friend of mine. He's not a bad guy nor does he mean any evil with this comments.

That's all.

He does like Bush though´┐Ż

On Dec.13.2003 at 09:34 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Hey Tom, apologies very much accepted and appreciated [even though you like Bush ;-) ]. After going off on you, I had to take my dogs for walk to get some fresh air; and I started to feel a little bad that I had perhaps reacted so strongly. See, I really am a good-natured guy.

It was just that you really hit a raw nerve with that "wo is me" comment. I really spend a lot of time trying not to get pulled into feeling depressed about things, because I know that that will really hurt me. It's been a rough two years since being laid off from Macromedia. I've done a whole lot of soul searching and self-examination. And I've even found myself in the sickening position of even having to justify to my wife and friends why I should stay in the design field. But design is what I do. And as cheesy as it sounds, design is an integral part of who I am.

While things are getting slightly better for me, I'm not out of the woods yet. But I know that if I just keep plugging away and moving in a positive direction, things will turn around. It's all about building momentum.

I think it's really admirable that, with the modest amount of success that has come your way, you are trying to help out friends with a little work. That's good karma: what goes around, comes around.

And while I don't believe in absolutism, I do think that designers can have an effect on society. That's precisely why I've been obsessively researching and thinking about my design theory. But, it's just that I feel that things are always more complex and interconnected than what most people believe. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

And hey Armin, sorry for dissing your buddy.

So... Can we all have a virtual group hug? {ooo}

(BTW, my wife works nights as a manager for a restaurant, which is why I am posting this at 2 am; although I am a bit of a night-owl/vampire)

On Dec.14.2003 at 04:09 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> dude, go to a landfill. then tell me how much better we make things.

At the least the landfill will look good pk. To say that this waste is graphic designers' fault is a tad far-fetched.

> And hey Armin, sorry for dissing your buddy.

Steven, by all means diss away. It was just that Tom is so good-natured that I didn't want people to think that being a punk is a common trait of his.

On Dec.14.2003 at 02:30 PM
Tom’s comment is:

Thanks Armin.

Thanks Steven. The "Wo is me" comment was based on my personal experience of too many pitty parties with me as the host and only guest. If Armin would add tone inflection detection to the site, these misunderstandings wouldn't occur! ; )

On Dec.15.2003 at 06:25 AM
firebelly’s comment is:

> To say that this waste is graphic designers' fault is a tad far-fetched.

Wow Armin, I'm surprised to read this. While it's certainly not completely our faults, it's most definitely something we have an effect on. If every project that came through our doors had even a small amount of time spent on thinking about where it's going to end up - the complete lifecycle of whatever it is - we could have a huge impact on the environment. As designers (whatever type you may be) I absolutely feel this is our responsibility.

Do you know that in Switzerland it costs something like $5 per bag of trash you bring to your curb? This is because land is limited and and the Swiss take great pride in the cleanliness of their land. Think of the considerations designers make there. It's unfortunate that this country still hasn't gotten out of the "unlimited disposable resources" mindset.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

BTW - business has been great since the summer. I was just going over the year in review - we've added over 15 new clients - which may not be a lot for a large firm, but we're just 3 people. Feels like a lot to me. I'm feeling pretty good about where things are heading next year.

On Dec.15.2003 at 08:41 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Wow Armin, I'm surprised to read this. While it's certainly not completely our faults, it's most definitely something we have an effect on.

Dawn, the effect we have is rather minuscule sometimes. When you have a project that consists of designing a direct-mail that will be mailed to 10,000 people because some marketing executive said so, what we do is rather inconsequential. Consider that only 2% of those 10,000 pieces will produce a response, that's 9,800 pieces that do nothing and go straight into the proverbial landfill. Sure, I can make it with soy-based inks or whatever is popular these days and I make sure it fits in the company's existing #10 envelopes so we don't have to waste even more paper and I am starting to convince myself that that does indeed make a difference. But it starts from the top, no two ways about it and please spare me (not you personally Dawn) of the get-involded-from-the-start preaching (I am aware of that option) — sometimes people are convinced that sending out 10,000 pieces of direct-mail is the best way to make money and that's what we get hired for.

On Dec.16.2003 at 09:28 AM
firebelly’s comment is:

> sometimes people are convinced that sending out 10,000 pieces of direct-mail is the best way to make money and that's what we get hired for

I guess this is the very reason I do what I do at firebelly...so I don't have to work with people who would tell me that this is the best way to make money. It's unfortunate that most designers feel they have to settle for this option. Rock the boat man...make a difference. Thinking what you do is inconsequential is bullshit. Everything matters.

On Dec.16.2003 at 09:54 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I don't want to sound like a defeatist here nor that I think our actions are inconsequential — because I'm not and I don't respectivley.

And I'm all for ideals, but I'm also grounded in reality.

On Dec.16.2003 at 09:59 AM
Dawn Hancock’s comment is:

Reality is what you make it my friend - I have decided to do things differently over here. Everyone can. Blah, blah, blah. Too much Dr. Phil lately, sorry. (although I do believe these words to be true)

On Dec.16.2003 at 10:13 AM
Tom’s comment is:

An interesting article that might help explain some of our diverse reactions a couple months ago. The best and worst cities for entrepreneurs according to an upcoming survey by Inc. Magazine, gives some insight to what is going in the growth area of entrepreneuralism around the U.S. The study says "The list is littered with areas still reeling from the tech sector implosion," and sprawling surburban cities seem to be doing better for now than urban areas.

On Feb.11.2004 at 09:40 AM