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An article on eMediaWire summarizes a report from Strategies for Management, Inc. (SFM) called “The U.S. Graphic Design Business 2004—2009.” You can buy the report for $2,875 (no, I won’t go in halves with you; that just wouldn’t seem honest) but the summary is worth checking out for free. As of 2004, it says, the U.S. graphic design industry has over 16,000 individual businesses, 60,000 employees, and over 74,000 freelancers. Industry wide, design firms annually generate $7.8 billion in revenues.

Thanks to David Weinberger for pointing out the article.

I mistrust economic forecasting but the projections don’t exactly make me giddy. “Total industry revenues for both graphic-design businesses and freelancers in 2004 is estimated at over $11 billion, which is expected to top $13 billion by 2009.” Considering how sucky 2004 is/was, an 18% bump in five years doesn’t make me want to run out and start a layaway plan on that jewel-encrusted vibrator I’ve been meaning to get for my wife. The figures on design firm size and revenues are interesting, however.

The report says that graphic design firms employ about 60,000 people (with nearly 68,000 employees expected by 2009.) It also indicates that there are 74,000 graphic-design freelancers (with an expectation of well over 86,000 by the end of the decade.) Even a graphic designer can figure out that this means 134,000 graphic designers in the US. That also means that about 1 in ever 220 Americans is a graphic designer. Surprisingly, the US has more troops in Iraq than it has graphic designers. I suspect, however, that graphic design students outnumber ROTC cadets.

So those total revenues of $11 billion divided up equally come out to a reasonable eighty-two grand gross per designer. Nobody should be too surprised to discover, however, that we aren’t sharing equally. The freelancers’ $3.4 billion comes to an average gross of just shy of $46K. The summary indicates that the 50 largest firms are less than 1% of the number of establishments, but account for over 16% ($1.3 billion) of the industry’s total billings but it doesn’t say what percentage of designers are associated with the largest firms so it’s hard to conclude anything specific from that. They also say that design firms are expected to generate average revenues of $491,000 each in 2004 (over $550,000 in 2009) and that 75% of design businesses employ 1 to 4 people with almost 90% smaller than 10 employees.

The disturbing-but-predictable prediction is that as the freelance population rises, the average gross freelancer income in 2004 dollars is expected to drop by a couple of thousand bucks. The total predicted revenue increase of 18% is, thankfully, greater than the total predicted graphic designer population increase of 14% but that’s not going to the burgeoning freelance population.

What does this mean? Maybe I should hire a few hundred employees. Or go into the jewel encrustation business. I never know how to compare this or the How salary survey (the December, 2004 issue is probably fading off the newsstands and I haven’t seen it) or the Aquent survey to my reality. Is a one-person business that deals directly with clients like a freelancer who works for design firms and ad agencies? (Not to compare myself with Paul Rand but was he a freelancer?) What does/should decades of experience add (or subtract)? What percentage of graphic designers have talent or actual expertise? How many of the freelancers are new grads who aren’t making it and will drop out of the biz after lowering the average for a while?

During the bad times of the early ’90s it looked like one-person firms with low expenses could make more money for a designer than having employees would. What is the best model for the graphic designer who doesn’t have a trust fund these days?

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.17.2004 BY Gunnar Swanson
Tan’s comment is:

That figure (approx 130K designers in the US) has gone way down from the unofficial estimate (300K) during the dotcom heydays.

But $11 billion is still pathetic as an industry. The ad world probably generates that much a month, easy. Hell, I bet the portable toilet industry collectively generates more than we do per year.

The question is though, how narrow is the definition of "graphic design" firms? Does it include branding agencies? Design research agencies? DM/CRM agencies? What about interactive, motion, and all of the print-hybrid iterations in that category of agencies? Not to mention retail, exhibit, "full-service" agencies that do some or all of the above, anchored by a graphic design core?

Despite all of the doom and gloom, I don't think the industry is structured any differently than it was 10, 15 years ago. The path has always been split between agency life or freelance/contract life? Neither path has ever been stable, and neither have been guaranteed to be more financially lucrative than the other. I know freelancers who make 6 figures, as well as agency veterans. The Aquent survey shows that.

I do see a growing trend of more frequent consolidation and acquisitions of medium and larger firms. The Omnicoms, WPP, and IPGs of the world are picking up notable firms left and right. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. It's just been the reality of business lately.

Really, Wal-mart probably collectively sells more than $11 billion of pet food a year. Just pathetic...

On Dec.17.2004 at 07:21 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

how narrow is the definition of “graphic design” firms

That’s one of the big problems with any such survey. I remember a factoid projected during the 1989 AIGA conference in San Antonio. It showed graphic designers making a lot more than art directors. I’m sure the sample size was so small as to make the figures worthless but I also suspect that design firm owners self-identified as graphic designers while ad folk who were making big bucks called themselves creative director or such.

On Dec.17.2004 at 07:34 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

If it gets any lower I'm gonna have to resort to Plan B...becoming the proofreader in a New Orleans tattoo parlor...The hours are good. And I know how to draw in case the boss gets sick....

On Dec.18.2004 at 08:52 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:


Excellent Editorial. Like TAN

I'm curious to know whom Joe Webber consulted.

I'm almost certain if Internal Revenue gave an accounting of what American Designer(s) Firm(s) and Consultancies earned the figure would be much higher.

The average revenues Joe Webber quoted of $491,000 each in 2004 (over $550,000 in 2009) is the entry level price of a First Tier Corporate Identity Program for a Fortune 1000 Company.

The average salary of a Vice President and/or Senior Partner of a First Tier Identity and Branding Consultancy.

The salary quoted by Joe Webber is equivalent to what OMINICOM, WPP, Interpublic, True North and Incepta Group plc gross annually.

These Communication Conglomerates own Identity and Brand Consultancies, Advertising Agencies, Marketing, Communications, Public Relations, and Crises Management Consultancies.

Understand fees for advertising is much higher.

I'm perplexed by the figures.

Below is a excellent read on British Graphic Design Services for 2002.


Their figures are much higher. My Bad, they didn't have Dubbya in office.

TAN something especially for you.

Anybody else whose interested. Major, Major Advertising and Marketing Rankings by Industry Sector for 2004.

Interesting, WPP is listed. They list Young and Rubicam. Landor is not listed. Of course Young & Rubicam own Landor. I wonder if Landors' earning are separate from Y & R.


If the pdf's don't load let me know. I'll try to correct the links.

In trouble with the wife and Kids. Have to finish Christmas Shopping. When I'm at the computer they know I'm on Speak Up or Design Observer.

See Ya !!!!!!!!

On Dec.18.2004 at 10:40 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I may be showing my ignorance in terms of economical forecasting issues but isn't this report simply showing us the natural of curse of figures adjusting for inflation — of both prices and population?

On Dec.19.2004 at 09:17 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:



Before you ask me what I've been smoking. (Don't indulge)

After reviewing the 2004 Advertising Survey by Market Sector. I realized the Communication Conglomerates, OMINICOM, WPP, Interpublic, and others are showing revenue for Advertising Agencies only.

OMNICOM, own InterBrand, Siegle & Gale, Wolf Olins, Hornall Anderson.(others)

WPP, own, Landor, Enterprise IG, Fitch, Lambie-Nairn. (others)

No annual figures are recorded for the aforementioned Identity and Brand Consultancies; with the pdf link posted.

On Dec.19.2004 at 03:08 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Armin—The predictions envision a 13% rise in employee graphic designers and a 56% increase in number of freelancers so they weren't just saying “like now only a little more so.” The figures were supposedly in real dollars so the 2004 dollars would be multiplied to adjust for any inflation. I don’t know if the actual report indicates their projection methods. The summary doesn’t.

Mave—It’s hard to guess how the few big firms affect average earnings. Not having seen the raw data I have no idea what a small firm (the average of those sub-five-person firms) makes or how big the average small firm is. I don't know how much of the $11 billion pot goes to the 10% with ten or more employees and how much to the minute number with enough employees to qualify as large small businesses. If Landor makes ten million more, the other firms get fifty grand knocked on their grosses but a two-person firm that has kept expenses reasonable and is grossing $400K probably has reason to celebrate. (On the other hand, a nine-person firm grossing $500K better be very lean and very low paying or they’re gone.)

All of the average figures are too much like saying that you and Armin and I were hanging out at Jack in the Box when Bill Gates came in and our average net worth skyrocketed. I don’t even know how you count such an ill-defined category as “graphic designers.” If you have ten freelancers and one actually made no money last year, do you count the guy preparing for bankruptcy or do you say he's no longer in business? It makes a big difference in everyone's average earnings. If he’s out you get an eleven percent raise. When June comes and a bunch of people graduate and don’t get jobs, does that bring down our average pay?

On Dec.19.2004 at 04:24 PM
ps’s comment is:

good post. i always have a hard time with these reports. not sure how to value them.

the aquent/aiga survey seems to be based on too few responses for it to be taken seriously.

however, i wonder if it would be possible for speak up to generate the average income for people who were contributing in here for 2004. that would be a cool average to see. (anonymous form to supply annual income, divided by people submitting response -- bam, there you would have it)

the notion of bill gates or anyone like it....walking in and turning everything upside down is interesting and... true

let's just hope maven got his shopping done.

On Dec.19.2004 at 11:46 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Hmm..an average SU income/billing survey would be very interesting indeed. C'mon Armin — just for kicks, make an informal online survey.

Maven, you still have time to shop online and get it before C-day.

On Dec.20.2004 at 10:54 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Sure thing. I'll add it to the to-do list, and this would probably happen until next year — which is, like, so far away. What facts would you all be interested in?

On Dec.20.2004 at 01:51 PM
Tan’s comment is:

simple stuff like Aquent's.

For individuals:


Contract or full-time

Annual salary

For small businesses:

Number of employees

Annual gross revenues

On Dec.20.2004 at 02:05 PM
susan’s comment is:

On a smaller scale...

I would also be interested to see how many designers there are out there working full time and freelancing. And how many freelancers get their business from deign firms and clients on their own. What percentage of their income comes from each.

The longer I am in this industry the harder it is to figure out. Wanting to start my own firm, I see those figures and want to cry. Is it really true?


On Dec.20.2004 at 04:47 PM
Steven’s comment is:

One other factoid in the freelancer catagory, the percentage of time actually working over the course of the year, because a lot of us freelancers are not working full-time all year round. So it's a bit misleading to consider an intermitent worker against a full-time worker. Knowing the average time worked by a freelancer would be useful, like maybe the average freelancer makes $40K a year, but is only working 50%, compared to a full-time employee who makes $70K. Another statistic to this, the precentage of freelancers doing so voluntarily versus involuntarily.

Well, maybe this starts to get complicated; but just looking at raw income data is also misleading.

On Dec.21.2004 at 03:16 PM