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Designer Wages and Cost of Living

According to the most recent Aquent Survey of Design Salaries, designers are making a fair living across the board. Entry level salary is hovering around $32k/yr, while owners are raking in about $175k/yr. Of course, there’s a big range to fill in between.

In comparison, the median salary for an architect in the US is approx $56k/yr. So it seems that designers are making a decent living after all. Or does it?

Is a designer’s cost of living higher than average?

The average cost of a house in Seattle is around $300k. In SF/Marin County, it’s realistically double that figure. Equally expensive is LA, Chicago, NY, Minneapolis, and other design meccas. Sure, you can live in Omaha or somewhere less expensive — but it’ll be a little more difficult to build a high-powered design career there.

And then there’s our design “necessities”. Like 15” Powerbooks, iPods, Aeron chairs, NAVA bags, Alan Mikli glasses, Rotring pens, Starbucks triple-soy lattes, etc. — not to mention Audi TTs, A4s, and Mini Coopers. Heck, we’ll even shop at Target because it’s more design-friendly, eventhough we know Walmart is cheaper. A designer’s life isn’t cheap.

Do you agree? How much do you think designers should make?

Should it be based on the value of what we provide to our clients? How?

What’s more obscene — a junior making $22k/year or a firm principal who makes $500k/year?

And lastly, are we too fixated on monetary gains, when we should be just grateful to be doing something we love? Is that enough, or is it just bohemian bs?

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PUBLISHED ON Apr.27.2004 BY Tan
Rick Moore’s comment is:

It really depends on where you live and who you work for. I work in an in-house design department with a "Graphic Designer" job title (no senior or junior titles tacked on here), while another designer I know is an award-winning senior designer at a local ad agency and makes about 10k less a year than I do. I wish I had his job for the work he gets to do, but I have a better salary and great benefits where I am.

I still feel poor though, compared to my friends in other professions. Especially those in sales jobs--they seem to be raking it in no matter where thy are.

On Apr.27.2004 at 12:11 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I know what you mean, Rick. Salespeople can make big bucks -- but it's a hard life too.

This thread was mainly prompted by the cost of housing discussion in the What's Up thread.

I think it is more expensive to live as a designer. We all expect more out of the lifestyle and environment we surround ourselves with.

On Apr.27.2004 at 12:20 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

You're so right on the higher cost of living. I'm shopping for a car, and there's just no way I'm buying a bland Honda or a cheap-end Hyundai. I just can't do it. So that's making the cost of what I'm going to buy much higher. It's frustrating sometimes having a higher aesthetic sensibility!

In regards to salaries, it's very hard to pin down what is reasonable. A living wage is certainly what should be the minimum, but that's hard to offer in places like NYC. Cheap rentals are hard to come by if you don't want a roommate or three. Job satisfaction is more important than money, because you are likely to learn and grow more than in a job you dread every day. In the long run, the money will come as you learn, grow, and advance in responsibility. In some cases, whether you earn $40k or $400k a year is up to you. There's nothing obscene about $400,000 a year for a principal in a hardworking firm if the partners are sharing the wealth. If they're pocketing $400k and the rest of the staff is mired at $40k, then there's a problem.

On Apr.27.2004 at 12:30 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

We all expect more out of the lifestyle and environment we surround ourselves with.

More so than anyone else? I don't think so.

Does good design cost more? I don't think so.

If it does, and we're the designers, well, then it's our own damn fault. ;o)

On Apr.27.2004 at 01:02 PM
Ray’s comment is:

In all honesty, I think that we should all be happy that we have jobs, there are so many people out there who can't seem to find a job, well, at least in Atlanta.

On Apr.27.2004 at 01:05 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Audi's chairman once said, "It takes just as much money to build an ugly car as it does to build a beautiful one. We choose to build the latter."

But have you seen the price of a new TT? I dunno what ugly cars he's been pricing against.

I think well-designed stuff does cost more in most cases. But it's not the fault of the designers. It's about market demand -- design isn't always geared for optimal mass consumption. Design is usually marketed as a premium, so perceived value reflects in higher prices. It's also about cost per unit of production -- 10 Pontiac Grand Ams are sold at the same time as 1 Audi A4, so guess which one costs more.

>I think that we should all be happy that we have jobs

I'm thankful everyday leaving for work.

But with all due respect -- enough of the pessimistic, be-grateful-for-what-you-have mentality.

What's happened to the hunger that designers used to have? Where are the Vanderbyl wannabes? Has this economy driven design so far down that it's making people feel guilty about wanting more pay? Has this economy turned design into a blue-collar job for minimum wage?

On Apr.27.2004 at 01:24 PM
surts’s comment is:

If you create stuff from nothing (aka a designer) for a living, you probably see things slightly different from the average person. That eye for detail probably influences your choice in priorities. With that said, you can see past expensive gimmicks too. Appreciation for value is different. When logic is no longer in the equation, we can also rationalize things we know we shouldn't purchase.

On Apr.27.2004 at 02:21 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Using the salary calculator, I'm right in line with the median earnings for my area. I find it frustrating that the community where I live often raises the issue of the poor underpaid teachers in the area that make what I make, have a good health plan and get their summers off. I'm not comparing the work involved, or the social importance -- just pay.

I've never had any luck trying to get into any of the design firms in my area, so I'm not sure what the pay scale is like. I've observed that some of the attitudes of the local design studios in the area reflect a kind of arrogance because they are viewed as gods by local businesses. It's funny that most clients won't ever know that they are just little dogs following around the big dogs. I guess allot can still be learned from emulation.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a successful local freelance designer. She recalled that the biggest change she observed when transitioning to freelance was related to respect. The in-house design department she worked in placed little value on her skills and opinions. When she made the transition to freelance design she observed a much higher level of respect from clients.

On Apr.27.2004 at 03:57 PM
Steven’s comment is:

While having a "designer lifestyle" can be expensive, we choose to buy these nice things. Nobody is forcing us. Back when I was making nice software/dot-com money, I never had any money. I was blowing through it like nobody's business on stuff that, at the end of the day, didn't really amount to much. Now, just scraping by in the off-and-on again freelance world, I've really learned to live cheaply. Many of the "design 'necessities'" can be completely avoided or down-sized. It's really just a matter of adjusting one's expectations. And frankly, living cheaply can be somewhat liberating, truth be told.

Now I do completely agree that the cost of living expenses are greater in "design meccas," and making a living in ostensibly more remote areas is a lot more difficult, especially considering that those markets just don't have the volume of work to sustain multitudes of designers. So being a designer does somewhat force one to have higher cost of living.

In general, though, I think that those salary levels stated in the Aquent survey are reasonable, all things considered. Being a designer is not about making Big Money. If that's what you want, get into investment banking, esoteric biotech engineering, and the like.

We all should be involved with this career, or any career for that matter, because we trully love it. Why go through all of the hard work and frustrations involved in being a designer if there isn't something about it that gives us a deep, meaningful satisfaction, if not a euphoric high.

Having said this, I think that great disparities in salary ranges is indicative of exploitaion and those doing so are selfish and mean-spirited. And from a pragmatic perspective, pay disparity doesn't build good moral and dissuades creativity, commitment, teamwork, and personal growth. It's just bad, dysfunctional policy, IMHO.


If you like A4's, Passats, or Jettas, here's an inside tip from my father-in-law, who used to sell them: The Jetta was designed by VW, while the Passat was designed by Audi. In fact, the Passat has the same engine and frame as the Audi; so it's sort of a stealth Audi.

I think that we should all be happy that we have jobs, there are so many people out there who can't seem to find a job

Do I hear someone calling my name? This subject sure hits home with me. But then I have heard from a number of my fellow intermittently-employed designer peers that it's tough for a lot of us still. I was very happy recently to land a one month freelance gig at Young & Rubicam through Aquent (bless them) and the folks at Y&R seemed to like me, so hopefully there will be more from them in the future. But in my heart, I'd really like to get a full-time job in a small- to medium-sized studio, where the opportunities to do good, career-enhancing work are perhaps better and the client relationships are a little more direct and less bureaucratic.

However, I think that my situation is perhaps a bit more complex: my age and experience level ironically seem to work as much against me as for me, even though I'm soooo easy to work with and have very reasonable expectations about hourly fees or a salary.

But I've come to terms with my plight and I'm just pushing forward with my life despite the obstacles. Self-pity and depression is so 2001. I'm way beyond that now.

On Apr.27.2004 at 04:21 PM
Rick Moore’s comment is:

My wife and I live with our daughter in an $80K townhome in the Salt Lake suburbs and drive a 96 Nissan Sentra. We are looking to build a new home soon, and the average price in SLC these days is about $165K to $190K--if you live 20 miles outside the city. In the city? About 200K to 300K+. For an old house.

When it comes time to get a new car, I think we are going with the new Scion xB. Something about that little box just moves me.

I care very much about aesthetics, but can't afford (let alone justify) all the nice things I want at this point. On paper, my salary is great--we have (relatively) minimal debt and should be putting loads in savings and investments. But the cost of living and raising a child seems so high in Salt Lake that things are often tighter than I think they should be.

I agree, Tan, that sales is a hard life. Salespeople seem to me to be a lot busier and more stressed generally. I am so happy when I can walk out the door at the end of the day and not have to bring my work home with me.

I sure wish I was brave enough to take the leap from in-house to full-time freelance. I guess it's my wife, my 14-month old daughter, and fully paid medical insurance that really keep me tied to where I am.

To the risk-takers out there: How do you make it after saying, "You know what? I am going to quit my job and rely totally on freelance work." Please share your horror stories as well as your success stories.

On Apr.27.2004 at 04:23 PM
Joline’s comment is:

I've been at a small company since out of school and 4 months after attaining the position my art director was let go and I was left to fill in. Everything changed yet nothing has.

Point in Case: I went from jr. designer to Creative Director in a night's rest. A year and a half later I still have the same pay as I started with, the same work ethic and the same passion for good design.

Anyway I try to rationalize the scenario I am in I always come back to the same conclusion. I am a designer for life. I can't imagine doing anything else and I would do it for pennies though Susan B. Anthony's are much preferred, after all I am human.

Either way I am content not driving an Audi TT, though it would be nice. And I paruse Target but buy at Walmart. The passion is the drive. The money is the reward. Not having any of it after all the bills are paid is the sacrafice. Is it worth it? YUP

does money make one happy or does it just convolute the endorphins in you?

On Apr.27.2004 at 04:38 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

I think it is more expensive to live as a designer. We all expect more out of the lifestyle and environment we surround ourselves with.

It's frustrating sometimes having a higher aesthetic sensibility!

So true. Then again, design has become more democratic. I can get nice looking chairs can at Target even though I want ones from Kartell.

When speaking of salaries and such, here's the benefit of being in the creative field. The opportunity is there for us to supplement our income if need be with a host of work. Freelance, tech support, teaching, etc. There aren't many careers where one has that freedom. Doctors can't "freelance" a bypass to paid for an plasma television. We can.

On Apr.27.2004 at 04:42 PM
palazzo’s comment is:

It seems more Americans are happy with bad design. This coupled with people's misunderstandings about design create a culture in which demand for superb design is low. If demand is low, well you know what happens after that. Many people are happy with their wife’s version of an annual report that she created in her Intel Centrino Laptop. The desktop publisher seems enough for these people. All of the discussion here raises another question for me. Why do people still shop at Wal Mart when Target is in town (this also being a metaphor for inferior design being chosen professionally); and why is our profesion taken less seriously in the U.S. than in places like Holland ? If we're taken less seriously then prestige is gone. If prestige is gone we make less money.

On Apr.27.2004 at 07:01 PM
Jason’s comment is:

This topic has been on my mind since moving to Seattle in 2001 from Omaha, Nebraska. The cost of living between those two cities is radically different, and so are the design salaries. In Omaha, an Art Director (junior designer) made $30-35. Here in Seattle it's about $40-45 (so I'm told). In Omaha a four bedroom house costs $180,000 in a calm neighborhood on the up and up; in Seattle, a two bedroom house in a swanky part of Capitol Hill or Queen Anne runs $200-300. (Omaha is as short on "swanky" neighborhoods as it is on "dreamy" design jobs.)

But really, it's all about comfort. Between making good money and living well, you find value on your own terms. At least I always have. Being a poor student, I'm doing something I love, but can't wait till there's more coming in than a teaching assistant's meager wages.

You've really got to find balance.

On Apr.27.2004 at 09:01 PM
priya’s comment is:

Do I think we should get paid more? Of course. Who doesn't think they should get more pay? I also think that there are other professions that are more important than my own that do not get as much compensation... (hello, teachers.)

Sort of on a tangent: Sometimes I think we as designers would be worth more to our clients if we were well versed in the principles of Marketing and Finance. I wish these things were taught as part of the design curriculuum. Knowing good design helped me construct sound business and marketing plans for my business classes and knowing marketing strategies and concepts and simple finance makes me a better designer.

In fact, in a lot of the group projects I was in for the Business School, my groupmates came to really value design and appreciate good design over bad. You could see the difference in our professors and classmates' reactions to a slapped together presentation or marketing plan and one that was designed intentionally. A lot of them really understood where I was coming from while making design decisions because they understood that the design affected the bottom line. If we are to succeed in the business world we need to know about conducting business. Do any schools currently offer business education to their designers?

On Apr.27.2004 at 11:15 PM
Allison’s comment is:

Ah the cost of living... here in NY, it's ridiculous and it's only after ten years of working as a designer that I make enough money to save any money. And that's mostly becaause I sold out and went in house.

My husband (a 3-D animator) and I are lucky enough to live in a rent-stabilized apartment that I have had since my college days, so that certainly helps. Unfortunately it's a studio apartment, so if we ever want any rug rats of our own we have to look for something larger or start emptying out the dresser drawers, to use as a bassinet.

In a city where a studio apartment can cost you $2,500 a month in rent (as the one next door to ours does), trying to find a way to buy that $400,000 one-bedroom can drive you batty. Especially since most co-ops require 20% down and an $800.00 a month maintenance. Ouch. Thats about 90k (figuring closing and moving costs) you need, in cash, before you can think of buying even a modest - and by modest I mean tiny and meager - apartment.

So basically, as hard as it is on a designers salary, it's just as hard for the book editors, waiters, struggling musicians, engineers, etc. I think the only people who seem to make it work are either on Wall Street or lawyers.

Unfortunately I don't think that designers in NY get much street cred for belly-aching about the expense of our lifestyles.

I'd go back to law school, but I don't think I can afford it on my salary.

On Apr.28.2004 at 09:29 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Ah the cost of living... here in NY, it's ridiculous and it's only after ten years of working as a designer that I make enough money to save any money. And that's mostly because I sold out and went in house.

Do you mean that you were working for yourself and not making enough money before joining and agency?

On Apr.28.2004 at 09:39 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> And lastly, are we too fixated on monetary gains, when we should be just grateful to be doing something we love? Is that enough, or is it just bohemian bs?

Yup, bohemian bs in my opinion. As much as I love what I do (and I madly do) I wouldn't do it if I didn't think I could make a living out of it and that I could eventually support a family through being a graphic designer. That I love what I do is a big bonus!

On Apr.28.2004 at 10:04 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Point in Case: I went from jr. designer to Creative Director in a night's rest. A year and a half later I still have the same pay as I started with, the same work ethic and the same passion for good design.

Seems like this is my story, except the AD got fired a year before I got here. I've been GD, AD, and President (not to mention Grand Magnanimous Design Potentate) since I got here. That's a lot of crap to heap on a (then) design student and I've made plenty of mistakes, but the experience is golden, and the paycheck is helpful if not quite what I want. If you're 40 in that job then it's time to move on, but hell, it's a 24 year old's dream job.

As far as cost of living, it's minimal here in Wichita (somewhat like Omaha, Jason), but what you make up in rent is what you lose in business. It's a sliding scale. I can afford a two bedroom apt. and the payments on a 2003 Hyundai (they're not that bad, jonsel) so I figure I'm doing ok.

On Apr.28.2004 at 10:44 AM
sheepstealer’s comment is:

First about cost of living:

Many years ago I left Provo Utah, where I made squat as a designer (my first full-time job started at $18k). I also paid squat in living expenses. I remember when rent for my two-bedroom apartment was raised apologitically by our landlord from $200 to $215. And if I bagged my own groceries at the crap-o-mart I could feed my family of three for $15 a week.

After doing that for awhile I found the opportunity to move to Seattle and work at one of the leading design firms here. When I first heard the salary I was floored and excited. After being here for a few months I discovered that my lifestyle had shifted exactly sideways. My salary increase was exactly proportional to my cost-of-living increase. I have a friend in SF who had the same experience, only he makes even more, and spends even more. I think nature has a way of balancing these kinds of things.

About designers needing more expensive stuff? Nah. we just want more expensive stuff. We're just cursed to know the difference.

About us being paid the big bucks:

If I do a logo for a cookie company and they sell a cookie because of the design I did, and they make a buck, I should get a piece of that buck. Maybe a penny? If I'm really good, how ’bout a dime? -- If I do work for global corporation, and they increase their revenue from 7billion to 8billion, I should get a piece of that billion. Using my cookie/penny formula that's a million dollars.

So should I be happy just to have a job I love? Yes.

But I should also be aware that what I do brings real dollars into the pockets of my clients, and I deserve to be compensated for it.

On Apr.28.2004 at 11:13 AM
Valerie’s comment is:

I am very happy doing what I do, and while the pay is still about $10K less than the lower 25%, I am still getting the bills paid and can afford an apartment and a car in Phoenix, which is not a design center, but there are many great designers here.

I am grateful every day that I am not one of those "Ugh, I hate Mondays; Thank God it's Friday" people who just hate those jobs. However, the reason I got into graphic design is because I love art and anything design-related, but I knew I couldn't make a living being a fine artist.

I don't agree that more Americans are happy with bad design. In fact, I think that more and more people are aware of the difference between good and bad design (thanks to Target, Ikea and the like). I do think that people are money conscious and practical when it comes to calculating the difference between the Alessi corkscrew and a $10 supermarket cork screw. Of course the Alessi corkscrew is much nicer to look at, but my paycheck usually ends up making the decision for me.

On Apr.28.2004 at 12:00 PM
Allison’s comment is:

In response to Zoelle's question - I was in publishing (at two different well-known magazines) for two years, then moved to a smallish design firm for 4 and a half years, then another smallish firm for nine months... at which point I decided I wasn't earning enough and was tired of the crazy hours, difficult clients ("Green scaaaares meeeee"), and lousy pay...

So three and a half years ago, I moved in-house to a national investment and management company, got a 30% pay bump, far better hours... and only semi-lunatic clients. I design for one company... multiple brands are being developed for our different products all the time, but it's a slower pace than I was ever used to before.. and the corporate culture could easily be equated to a feudal kingdom.

They give me a nice pay bump every year, a nice bonus... and nobody looks at me like I am stealing food out of their childrens mouths if I am 15 minutes late to work.

It also leaves me plenty o' time for the freelance projects that satisfy my creative juices. The full-time job I have now was a decision based more on pragmatism than creative passion - and I am fine with that. It's still a grillion times better than being a crazy paper-pusher.

I still love good design and (IMO) still produce good design. But I couldn't continue to get by here in NY on a studio salary.

On Apr.28.2004 at 01:36 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>We're just cursed to know the difference.

ain't it the truth. It's like the dog that gets fed table scraps for the first time -- it's hard to go back to Alpo.


When I was in design school, I waited tables to pay the bills. But the interesting thing was, I was making alot of money waiting tables. Something like $45k+/yr just part-time (granted, working in top-end restaurants). So when I graduated and got my first design job for $25k full-time -- it sucked. The reality was, I was a professional that made half of what a part-time waiter did. But I endured.

Any fresh graduates out there? What do you think?

On Apr.28.2004 at 06:49 PM
Ray McKenzie’s comment is:

I've been in sales or sales managment for most of my working life (early 40's). I've made great money, I've lived with stress (ongoing...never ends). I've made little money, I've lived with stress (ongoing...never ends).

Moving to design will be a career change for me. When I make that move I won't be doing it for the money. I'll be doing it for me....and as the old saying goes, "that will make all the difference".

As all the old timers in any walk of life say "find something you enjoy doing and then do it. if the money comes great! if not, that's ok too. your still doing what you love."

On Apr.28.2004 at 07:59 PM
marian’s comment is:

I've been down with the flu, so I'm late to this (and all) discussions. Some random thoughts:

when we should be just grateful to be doing something we love?


something about it that gives us a deep, meaningful satisfaction, if not a euphoric high.

There is this assumption among ourselves and in society at large that creatives get something extra from their jobs that other people don't. Sure there's a lot of shit jobs out there, but I have personally met doctors, lawyers, accountants and electricians who love their jobs, get a real charge out of what they do, find it endlessly interesting and none of them ever talk about taking pay cuts or working for less because they get this other satisfaction out of it. In fact they know that the better they are at what they do, and the more into it they are, the more they should be paid.

So I really don't buy the aw shucks I'm just happy to be doing something I love line.

Here in Vancouver (Canada) things are a little different. According to our Aquent 2002 survey, in BC the owner/principal salary high was $80K (Canadian = multiply by approx .75 to get US$ ... or actually, in 2002 $, maybe cut it in half) and the average was around $55K C.

Senior designer = 57k C high, 42K C average

Junior designer = 36K C high, 30K C average

(this is out of whopping 10 respondents ... so uh ...)

Canadian clients also pay a lot less, and respect the design profession a lot less than in the US.

The Vancouver cost of living is high. Want a house in a good neighbourhood? $500K C and up. A crappy run down piece of shit in a bad neighbourhood is $300K C and up. A box in the sky? $130-$200K C for 350-500 square feet (and they sell like hotcakes, my friend, they are Vancouver's beanie-babies of the new millenium).

Rents are about $800-$1600 for one-bedrooms.

So why do we live here? Great weather, ocean, beach, mountains, safe, calm, clean, and not very many guns. Oh, and the drugs, We live here for the drugs.

But is it more expensive for a designer? Well, we do have some expensive necessities in equipment and books (god, those design books!!) but that should all be covered in our overhead.

When it comes to personal aesthetics, I could make a case, Tan, that it is less expensive for some of us. For instance, when Dante and I renovated our home on Bowen island we saved ... what? many thousands in protential architect's and interior designer's fees, because we have the ability to envision our own space.

We also saved a good $150K in contractor's fees because we were able to do the work ourselves. Being good with your hands can extend beyond making paper mockups.

We'll probably save about 7-10K on a couch, if we ever get around to it, because Dante will design it, spec it, and we'll have it made.

There are many things we can and do make, or source from our secret suppliers and connections that other people have to pay full price for. So I dunno about that one.

"You know what? I am going to quit my job and rely totally on freelance work."

I didn't quit my job, I quit my 8-person business. I was willing to take a pay cut to pursue the thing I love. Am I happier? Mostly. But I want the damned dough. I won't be truly content with this lifestyle until I'm getting paid what I think I'm worth, which is, if you must know, quite a lot.

On Apr.29.2004 at 01:38 PM
scott’s comment is:

Do any schools currently offer business education to their designers?

I got a BS degree in "Technology Commerce" from the University of Advancing Technology (www.uat.edu) in Tempe, AZ. The degree is a combination of business classes with and emphasis of your choice. I chose a web programming emphasis but I think there is a graphic design emphasis too.

I liked it because unlike at the major state school I attended, I could take classes that weren't in my major including graphic related classes. That meant database AND graphic design. Usually "art" classes and advanced asp.net class are in completely different schools and students can't take both. Not at this school.

I started working for a successful entertainment company in the valley right out of school. I had/have technical knowledge as well as an understanding of marketing, corporate structure, and business that made for great interview fodder.

I suppose my point is that it's a great idea to combine graphic design and business when pursuing your education.

On Apr.29.2004 at 03:24 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>I won't be truly content with this lifestyle until I'm getting paid what I think I'm worth, which is, if you must know, quite a lot.

Amen, sister. Now get back to bed before we all catch your flu.

On Apr.29.2004 at 03:42 PM
Lea’s comment is:

Marian, see, it's cause you live in Vancouver, the most expensive place to live in all of Canada. I live in Edmonton. For less than 300K, you can live in a suburb of Edmonton with a very decent custom-built home. Also, we don't have any provincial taxes here in Alberta. I know very many people who can survive by a simple waitress salary. All I know is my 22-year-old friend owns a condo on her own and she's had nothing more than waitressing jobs, or other service-type jobs, and only recently got a job in the design industry.

Though surviving and living well are two different things. ;-) How much money you have really depends on how well you spend it.

Meanwhile, Jonsel, I couldn't let your Honda jab down. Honda, their cars, their ads, and everything is nothing short of brilliant. They're for people who want their cars fast and reliable ("In every Honda vehicle, there's a Honda engine") In Consumer Report, they (their Acura model) beat the crap out of the VW Jetta in reliability and price.

Also, how can you NOT love their clever TV advertisements (including their domino-effect ad, their lego-effect ad, and their Honda 'for life' ad)? :P

Bland? I think not.

I won't be truly content with this lifestyle until I'm getting paid what I think I'm worth, which is, if you must know, quite a lot.

I second that!!!

On Apr.29.2004 at 05:40 PM
Ray’s comment is:

"So I really don't buy the aw shucks I'm just happy to be doing something I love line."

Money only buys part of the lifestyle. Attitude buys the rest. Either you got it or you don't.

On Apr.29.2004 at 08:31 PM
kev’s comment is:

Any fresh graduates out there? What do you think?

I graduated in August. I haven't been able to find a job in design. If I were to make $25k a year now, I would be probably be making more money than anyone in my family.

I wouldn't even know what to do with all of that money.

Don't laugh.

On Apr.30.2004 at 02:12 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>Don't laugh.

Kev, no one's laughing. A lot of designers and graduates are jobless right now. Is it the economy? Yes. Is it because there are more designers than the market needs? Yes as well.

Just some practical advice — at some point, you might want to start thinking of other options. If you can't get a design job, then maybe start looking for a job at a design service provider. Or maybe start thinking about other careers.

The reality is, it's going to be years before the design industry bounces back from this recession. In the meantime, there are so many other career choices out there.


So, from the responses so far, it sounds like everyone's pretty satisfied with what they make as a designer.

So why do people complain about how you can't make money in this profession? Why does that perception exist?

On Apr.30.2004 at 11:11 AM
Allison’s comment is:

When it comes to personal aesthetics, I could make a case, Tan, that it is less expensive for some of us.

I have to completely agree with this... when I got married last year, there were so many things we did that were virtually free, or at least a lot less expensive, because I could resource them properly and really knew what I wanted, I had a vision. And our guests - as far as I could tell - were pretty blown away by my inexpensive designer details.

The same goes for renovations on our apartment, as well as the furniture pieces my husband - a former industrial dsigner - has made for us.

Which is lucky because NY is so crazy expensive! Just like Vancouver!

So I really don't buy the aw shucks I'm just happy to be doing something I love line.


It's great being a designer, I love being a designer... but I still do it to earn money and have made choices based on who was really showing me the love fiscally as well as creatively...

Alright, I have to stop before this just turns into a big mash note to Marian because I love everything that she said and she lives in one of my very favorite-est places in the world!

On Apr.30.2004 at 11:28 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

The reality is, it's going to be years before the design industry bounces back from this recession. In the meantime, there are so many other career choices out there.

NEVER, EVER, GIVE UP! I'm not saying that's what Tan is telling you to do, just don't be so fast to pack it in. Sure, find another bill paying job, but if you are truly passionate about design don't let it go. Design for yourself, your friends, your family, but keep designing. Unless your new vocation fills that void completely you'll always hear that "what if" or "if only I" whispering in your mind. Don't let the economy dictate your life's direction. Take on the world! Never stop trying! and Don't take advice from designers! Err... Um...

On Apr.30.2004 at 11:36 AM
Tan’s comment is:

No, I'm not telling anyone to give up on their dreams.

But at some certain point, we all can't be movie stars, major league baseball players, supermodels, or even graphic designers. It's all in the cards, you know what I mean?

The truth is, this industry has never been able to support all the design graduates that come out every year, regardless of good or bad economies. Only a fraction will find jobs. Like you said, maybe only those that persevere. But realize that the rest of the group end up finding alternative careers that can be just as rewarding.

Just be smart about your options. Just find new dreams. That's all I'm saying.

I attended a couple of student portfolio reviews this past week. Saw maybe 30-40 student portfolios. To be honest, only a small handful of them even have a chance of making it into the industry. The rest need to be prepared to find other options. I'm not trying to be a bastard about this — just truthful.

On Apr.30.2004 at 12:14 PM
Allison’s comment is:

Tan, I think the issue goes back to pay disparity...

When I was a Junior Designer, making 22k a year, it was excruciating to go to the annual get-together at my boss's multi-million dollar home in Connecticut... to be picked up at the train station by him in his Land Rover.. knowing that the fat lifestyle that they were leading was paid for by my late-late nights and the sweat of my brow.

As a more experienced designer, and a far far better paid one, I can understand that he earned that lifestyle by starting the business, by generating the business, by taking the risks and shouldering the burden of a payroll..

But it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to think of how I struggled and how aggro I had to learn to be to get more money... Ultimately, after 4+ years I had to leave the firm to get the money I was worth. Having to job-hop to get the wage you deserve is a lame way to get to it. It was certainly a case of the cash in the business having gotten clogged up at the top.

These days the observation of pay disparity comes in to play when I try to consider owning a home. I earn a great living - for a designer. But on a New York scale of earning, I earn diddly. After ten years as a designer, I am still easily outpaced by first year lawyers and MBA's. And the real estate market here is geared more to that scale of earning than my designer scale of earning.

It would be easy to argue that those people have earned their greater income power by getting their secondary degree and investing in themselves, but what about my friends who have MFA's in design, who earn what I do or less even?

So I think that my complaints about not being able to make money stem from seeing the glass ceiling between what I can expect to earn and what I know my contemporaries in other 'white collar' professions can expect to earn... and how my lifestyle is somewhat dictated by their earning power.

To Kev I say - I am not laughing at all... I was psyched to get that studio job for 22K ... and you will be psyched when you land your job.

The industry will rebound - it may not be the days of wine and roses that the last years of the nineties were (when we could compete with the MBAs and lawyers), but people will continue to need things designed and the jobs will be there. Heck - the early nineties sucked for design and that was when I got started.

Meanwhile, as Zoelle suggested, don't give up. Get an internship.. design a birthday card for your mom... do whatever you need to do to keep your creative brain active and engaged.. to keep yourself out there and thinking of design as your career.

On Apr.30.2004 at 12:20 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Thanks Allison. Great response — exactly what I was hoping to get at when I started this thread. Is our pay scale and earning power fair and comparative to what we do? I think you just answered some of that very eloquently.


And while I'm at it — kids, there's no such thing as Santa Claus and mom didn't really send the dog to a chicken farm.

On Apr.30.2004 at 12:31 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Is the real problem that it's just so damn hard to decipher what the ROI is on a designer? When a full page advertisement is placed in a magazine and the ad starts to generate phone calls which turn into sales, who gets the credit? The copywriter, the photographer, the marketing director (who picked which magazine the ad would go in), or the graphic designer (who meticulously kerned the type and prepped it for press)? It's not always clear. So how do we stand out? Does it come down to how well you play with others? What do we do that's so freaking important?

Why are we worth so damn much?

(Lookout, I just might drop my fist F-bomb on this site.)

On Apr.30.2004 at 01:29 PM
Estamino’s comment is:

That Design Salary survey was like a punch in the face for me.

Last year after being out of work for six months, my wife and I packed up and moved to Denver from Chicago. My wife got a job, and I landed one just 2 weeks after arriving here. The pay was a paltry $33k, but it was way more than I was making on unemployment. (I'm a web designer and developer, by the way, with 7 years under the belt.)

I got a promised $2k raise later, but I feel the usual "I don't get enough money" feeling. People here are amazed when I can do stuff that takes me 5 minutes, I'm largely unchallenged, and clients are slow in coming. The Survey's punch for me was the minimum salary average between web design, development, and programming - I'm about $7-$10k under that.

The money feeling... I wonder how much of that is due to my lifestyle. We've already cut out the vast majority of extravagances, but we're also just months away from moving in with the in-laws due to lack of cash. (Unless I find a job in Chicago, which I'm searching for pretty actively now.)

Denver is cheaper than Chicago, but primarily in real estate and little else. You need a car to get around here. You can find a house for under $200k, but just as in Chicago, that's starting to inch farther away from the city proper. And then you have to deal with traffic, etc.

On balance, it's discouraging. I'm gunning for a design/development job that pays at least $50k in Chicago but it's starting to feel more and more like a pipe dream. I hate the idea of job hopping, but I seriously doubt I'll earn that in my current place of employment. Not being able to put real money into savings isn't fun.

On Apr.30.2004 at 04:08 PM
Ben Hagon’s comment is:

This is a funny discussion.

My generalized view is that the money you make should be gauged by the money you bring in.

You can all stick your iPods, Audi TT's, and fancy chairs, if I was your boss I wouldn't give a damn, as long as you were fed and housed I wouldn't feel responsible for your designer toys.

I work in Canada, where designers are paid less, but as long as my company is paying me one tenth of what I am earning (this is the ideal ratio for a business owner) I am happy.

However I do not spend what I do get on frivolous items such as designer glasses and triple-soy lattés!

On May.03.2004 at 08:30 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I once read a very poignant description about the difference b/t Canadians and Americans related to these last 2 posts.

"Americans are embarrassed to be poor, while Canadians are embarrassed to be rich."

So true.


>one tenth of what I am earning (this is the ideal ratio for a business owner)

How is this ideal? Where did you get this ridiculous ratio? In an average design firm, if an employee equates to more than $150k of billing revenue, then the firm is doing pretty good. By your ratio, that means the employee should be grateful for making $15,000 a year — instead of the average $35-50k. And as a Canadian, you're ok with this math, and think us Americans are frivolous to want more?

On May.03.2004 at 09:27 AM
Allison’s comment is:

My generalized view is that the money you make should be gauged by the money you bring in.

You can all stick your iPods, Audi TT's, and fancy chairs, if I was your boss I wouldn't give a damn, as long as you were fed and housed I wouldn't feel responsible for your designer toys.

I think that the point Ben is that in design you can be bringing in the money as it were, and not actually be bringing home the money that you need to live on - soy lattes aside... feeding and housing can be expensive...

I'm mystified by that one-tenth comment as well. When I was working in studios the ratio seemed a bit more as Tan described it. And I am well aware that my employers were benefiting lucratively from that ratio.

Tan don't be so down on Canadians! Marian is Canadian!

On May.03.2004 at 09:58 AM
michael surtees’s comment is:

Tan's generalization of cdn's is partially true. Naturally there are exceptions of course.

Was that a challenge or something?

On May.03.2004 at 11:06 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Hey, brethren Canadians -- my poor/rich generalization wasn't meant as derogatory at all. I admire that socialist attitude -- it's why you Canadians are considered nice all over the world. I love everything about Canada, with the exception of Celine Dion and Andy Dick. And maybe Thunder Bay, Ontario.

And yes, there are exceptions to all stereotypes -- but in my experience, with most of the Canadians I know, that statement is remarkably true. If anything, it's derogatory against us Yanks.

On May.03.2004 at 12:45 PM
Ben Hagon’s comment is:

I could have sworn that was what I read once (for a junior position anyway), but as I read over it, it seems a tad excessive!

I think the ratio is probably closer to 1:4 (or 5) but none the less, the talk of designer toys kind of grossed me out. I like to think designers are smart people, and this talk of this and that seems so obscene to me, whether true or not. Should we continue to perpetuate shallow designer stereotypes when so much talk these days is of deeper context?

As for the Canuck stereotypes, I am a Brit living in Canada, and yes this general liberal —rather than socialist— utopia is pretty sweet, but the distaste for excessive wealth (and frivolous spending) is just as strong back in Blighty as it is in the great white North.

On May.03.2004 at 01:01 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Ben, it's more about professional value and lifestyle, rather than just the accumulation of material possessions. But I understand what you mean.

I have friends who are architects. In their profession, general attitudes toward income level and lifestyle is different than in ours. There's a sense of entitlement in return for the professional value they give to society.

In contrast, designers tend to martyr themselves more — suffering, bohemian artists drinking home-brewed coffee while reading Adbusters.

On May.03.2004 at 01:36 PM
Levi’s comment is:

I wonder if the monetary woes that some folks are reporting here have more to do with the people themselves than the actual job/salary market.

Example: My old creative director was an amazingly good designer however he was a poor communicator. Like many creative people he was better at communicating through design than the usual ways of communication. His firm stuggled mightily to find work during the reccession. In contrast a more glib, gragarious friend of mine who was an awful designer flourished during the recession.

Maybe it's as simple as, the people who can't find work or get the salary they want just aren't good at doing just that. Especially in the design world where so much is about connections and who you know, It's more than just being good at what you do.

On the flipside: I've never met a truly talented designer that was starving.

I guess my advice to the talented designers out there would be: be fearless if you think you deserve/need that big salary or position go for it. Knock down doors and break down walls.

What does everyone else think? Am I way off?

On May.03.2004 at 02:09 PM
david’s comment is:

I beleive the industry is slowly coming back. There are design actually advertised in the LA times now. There haven't been any advertised for awhile before now. A good sign for all of us, I hope!

On May.04.2004 at 01:13 AM
Micah Sonderman’s comment is:

If it's money you are after, then the first thing that is required is hard work. I am currently an AD with a specialty software company and I'm making a decent salary. Jobs not the best in the world, but the benefits are awesome. 5 weeks of vacation a year, sick time out the kazoo, and a fairly flexible schedule.

It took me 5 years of hell to get to this point, but now that I am here, I'd be stupid to leave. Now that I've got my "tenure", I'm spending my extra time doing what I love... Real Design. My freelance work has taken off in the last year and it's because I've busted my rear to find clients and make a name for myself.

I'm just tired of hearing about the poor designer that never gets a break. Every designer I know that feels that way is lazy or I hate to say it, not smart enough to move on if they are in a dead end job they hate.

I don't care how bad the market is. If you hate the job, get out. If the money's not good enough, try McDonalds. Just stop the whining.

On May.04.2004 at 01:20 AM
david’s comment is:

I truly hope that I am not as bitter as Micah when I am an art director.

On May.04.2004 at 11:05 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Oh, I don't think Micah is bitter — maybe just a little weary of managing problematic employees. Like I said, HR is harder than people think. A few years of managing people can turn even the most empathetic person into a hardened skeptic.

I agree, whining about pay is stupid. If you don't like it where you are, then just find another job that's better. It's called ambition.

On May.04.2004 at 01:15 PM
Micah’s comment is:

I don't see myself as bitter as much as disheartened by the number of designers that think the world/industry owes them something. I believe that the world owes me only as much as I am willing to put into it.

I have seen designers come and go that expected respect and the best projects just because they use to work for X-Agency or Y-Firm or went to a very prestigious school. None of these things matter if your designs are substandard and your communication skills are awful.

My advise to any designer would be to be confident in yourself but don't act as though you don't have anything to learn. A great designer learns something totally new everyday. If a day goes by where you don't learn something, you were probably not paying enough attention.

On May.04.2004 at 03:51 PM
mazzei’s comment is:

Have the confidence to start your own business and make the money you complain about not having! Like obesity we are also fat on blame and excuses! make it happen for yourself!

Or go this route,

1. All comments, ideas and thoughts on ---- are property of their authors, reproduction without the author’s or ----- permission is strictly prohibited.

2. By posting comments you give us permission to use them in our monthly Retrospect to highlight the best discussions of each half of the month.

3. Keep in mind that your comments could potentially be used in varied ---- promotional pieces (we will contact you if such is the case).

4. ---- reserves the right to delete any comment deemed offensive or unnecessary.

Use Armin as your inspiration on what it means to start something and have it be successful, OWN YOUR OPINIONS, remember your currently making this site a success —put as much passion behind your own future as these blogs and you’ll have it made. Hopefully, Armin will invite you to a bbq at his new house in Canada.

Come on ..do you need a class in school to know that this business is about knowing we are all 2 steps from the guy on the corner with a cup in his hand no matter how much we make? The key is to keep a part of yourself that’s the RENEGADE and know everyday you work in this industry is everyday you avoid working the job your buddy/dad has that you’ve have nightmares about.

On May.05.2004 at 03:18 PM
Armin’s comment is:

New house? Canada?

On May.05.2004 at 03:54 PM
Tan’s comment is:

And barbeque?

On May.05.2004 at 04:57 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

>Ultimately, after 4+ years I had to leave the firm to get the money I was worth. Having to job-hop to get the wage you deserve is a lame way to get to it.

Acutally, I found it much easier to increase my pay by changing jobs than staying at a job. After working at a firm in Atlanta for 2 years, I got a 7% raise. But then moved to New York and landed a job with double the pay (no small part of that due to the higher salaries in NYC, of course). When I moved to another job, I got another 50%. But on-the job raises were almost always cost-of-living (like 4%). The only time I got a hefty raise (33%) was when word got to the principal that I was looking to leave.

On May.05.2004 at 06:45 PM
Allison’s comment is:

Patrick I meant lame in the sense that if you like the work that you are doing and are invested in a company, it is unfortunate that you have to go elsewhere to get a raise to a liveable wage. I wasn't using lame to infer that the person who chose to job hop was lame.

It's how I've made significant leaps in my income. I'm certainly not going to describe myself as lame.

After all Tan would describe that behavior as ambitious, right?

Lordy, I don't think I have used the word lame so much in my life as in this reply... how.. umm.. lame.

On May.06.2004 at 10:21 AM
tk’s comment is:

Hi guys. I'm just after some advice. I graduated in Industrial design just about 3yrs ago and never had a design-related job. I recently returned to Australia from Japan where I worked in a totally different field and am looking to break back into the design scene. Even though I didnt work in design, I'm still very much in touch with whats out there but I'm not having much luck since many firms require 2-3yrs of experience in a firm. So now I'm looking into freelance work. From what I've read, it's tough for some, great for others. What I'm more curious about are the wages. What can a first-time freelancer request/make per hour?


On Jun.23.2004 at 02:06 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Hi tk — I assume you're asking about freelance work for industrial designers, right? If so, a better source is the IDSA.

Some of the larger graphic design firms and agencies do occasionally hire out freelance i.d. work for products — but the rates vary drastically depending on the project and scope.

>What can a first-time freelancer request/make per hour?

You can't just pick a number out of thin air and call it your rate. How much is your overhead? How much is the billing rate for where you're working? Etc. That all determines rates.

Maybe the best thing to do is consult with a local placement agency like Aquent or an equivalent. They'll have better guidance and resources.

On Jun.23.2004 at 11:12 AM
Vladimir’s comment is:

Hey everyone!

Wondering if you can help me with a quick question about the wages for a full time job opps in publishing. I have a 6 year design/illustration freelance experience. Just got my MA in Communication Design from London. I have been looking for jobs as a designer at some publishing houses (some major ones like Penguin or Random House, as well as small ones) mostly in New York , Chicago or LA.

The question that always gets me is the salary requirement. Any suggestions on what I should put when applying for junior or senior designer in publishing?



On Jul.05.2005 at 06:35 AM
Armin’s comment is:


The AIGA/Aquent salary survey should give you a pretty good idea. Specially when it comes to regions and levels.

For a junior position you shouldn't expect more than $40k and for a senior no less than $55k. After that it's all a fine mess of trying to figure out how much an employer may be willing to pay.

On Jul.05.2005 at 08:55 AM
Pamela ’s comment is:

Hi all,

I'm looking to change directions in my career. Currently I'm a desktop publisher and I really like designing.

I've always liked drawing floor plans of residences. I've been doing it since I was 10 years old. I'm not good at math so I didn't study architecture, but I also don't want decorating to be a major part of my job in interior design. I'm thinking about going back to school for either architecture or interior design.

Is there anyone who is familiar with both fields?

On Jul.18.2005 at 06:20 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Hi Pamela,

Both professions have their own professional organization and corresponding websites.

Interior designers have the International Interior Design Association, the IIDA. And architects have the American Institute of Architects, or AIA. Both organizations' websites have a wealth of information regarding their respective professions, necessary education, and industry insights.

That would be a good place to start.

On Jul.18.2005 at 07:38 PM
Lyndi Parrett’s comment is:


is it ok to lie about your salary in an interview?

and...how do you go about negotiating with your

current company if you like it and want to stay

but need to make more money?

can you use the new offer of more money to negotiate

more money in the current job?

On Jul.20.2005 at 12:38 PM
Christopher Simmons’s comment is:

Best not to lie, period.

If you want more money, better to become more valuable.

On Jul.20.2005 at 03:16 PM
gregor’s comment is:


lieing is not a good idea, although it's common, fair and acceptable to add your health benefits cost to your actual take home salary and present that as a current salary.

re-negotiating is an art and the 1st and foremost consideration is what added value have you brought to the team and in what measurable ways has your contribution qualitatively increased over time.

While an offer from another firm or studio is sometimes helpful, it's usually not and is seen as a lack of commitment to your current company and a readiness to jump ship (why would a studio invest more in you if you're looking at other opportunities).

It's always better to renegotiate based on perfomance and if you cannot attain the income you need, then looking elsewhere is appropriate.

On Jul.21.2005 at 05:35 PM
Tan’s comment is:

A way around the dilemma of disclosing a current salary (that's embarrassingly too low) — is to respond with a vague range.

"I make a little less than 40." or "I get paid in the mid to high 50s." Now, how accurate your rounding off skills are — is up to you, and you alone.

The truth is this. Current employers are not supposed to disclose an employee's exact salary. If they are asked, they can say "we pay our senior designers from 45s to 80s, depending on their experience." But they can't disclose "Sally makes $31,500 a year plus benefits."

Besides, I've never had another agency's HR call and inquire about a past employee's salary. It's none of their business, and I wouldn't disclose it anyway.

Negotiating salaries isn't rocket science. Do your research. Find out what the fair, equitable range is for your position, and ask for it. Firmly and confidently. Chances are, the employer asking has already done the same, and is prepared for it. If your research is accurate enough, and you don't get too greedy, your number and their number will match fairly well.

On Jul.21.2005 at 07:27 PM
HighSpirits’s comment is:

Hi all,

I just moved to the US a month back. I have a bachelor's degree in Architeture from another country.

I have mostly been doing graphic design back home. And I want to continue in that field. Can someone please suggest a good school interms of quality and and tution fees? What is the average income I should expect if I get hired now? Any advices that can help? Thanks.

On Jul.24.2007 at 12:33 AM
Natasha’s comment is:

You're lucky in the states, then.
In Spain, I work as a Creative Director and make less than 12K euros a year.


On Feb.25.2008 at 05:16 PM
Owen Moore’s comment is:

Well let's see, a welder I know makes $110 per hour Average Joe plumber is at $80 per. I know that the big agencies charge $150 to 200 per while paying us peanuts.
So what's the problem. We're weak. How much are you worth? the answer is obviously much more. But we have no union worth a damn. I for one am ready to be a welder. I've had it. I'll be damned if I'm going to go back to what I made when I started out 25 years ago.

On Oct.29.2008 at 07:15 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Most construction jobs like welding pays well. But the hours aren't constant, and the work is hard labor. Plumbers may get $80 per hour if they're independent, which means most of that $80 goes into overhead, equipment, the plumbing van, gas, and then don't forget -- you have to work with shit. Literally.

It's too simplistic to complain about agency rates versus design salaries when you don't understand how those rates are determined. If you did, you'd realize that 1/3rd goes into overhead like software, equipment, and such; and the rest is divided into 1/2 or more -- because no designer can be 100% billable without marketing, pitching, admin work, etc. which is all non-billable. That's the kiddie version of the model.

I've run a number of design teams at different agencies, and most designers think they're getting the raw end of the deal when it's simply not true. Sure, starting junior design salaries can be low. But if the designer is worth a damn, and smart enough, his/her salary can quickly grow. Designers can make good money. Some designers can make great money, but it's not easy and it's very competitive.

Lots of designers feel entitled to a higher salary when they still don't understand billing structure and how the business work. All they know is that they just want to make more than plumbers do. My suggestion: complain less about the salary, and work harder and smarter. Earn it.

If you've been in the business for 25 years, and still complaining about a measly salary -- then maybe it's not the profession's fault that you don't make any money. Maybe you should read up about welding.

On Oct.29.2008 at 07:38 PM