Graphic Designers Surveyed – the findings

Last year, publishing house GraphicDesign& conducted an extensive survey about what it’s like to work in graphic design today. Here, Lucienne Roberts and Jessie Price of GD& talk through some of their findings, covering everything from pay and hard work, to clients, creativity and colour.

This piece needs to start with a huge thank you – to you, the readers of Creative Review. In April last year you might have seen our call for graphic designers to take part in our GraphicDesign& survey. You may well have been one of the 2,000 designers who responded. Having spent some months processing the data, we have now published our findings as Graphic Designers Surveyed. We have to thank all the respondents for the richness of the information we have to share.

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We embarked upon this project because, as designers and educators, we have often wanted information about our industry – or had students ask for information – that simply wasn’t available. The Design Council’s industry reports are an extremely valuable resource, but they are about the wider design industry, not just graphic design, and our survey took a slightly different (dare we say, nosier) approach!

Our questions were wide-ranging. We asked designers what hours they work, the wages they earn and whether they’re content; we tried to tease out some of the differences between men and women, and what it’s really like to be a designer now; we cheekily asked if designers archived their work in the hope of a future retrospective and what their favourite Pantone might be and, more seriously, posed questions designed to explore how economically viable the activity of graphic design actually is. From ethics to education, money to motivation, clients to creativity – it’s all here.

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Collaborating with social scientist Nikandre Kopcke shaped the process and gave our research for Graphic Designers Surveyed a rigour we couldn’t possibly have achieved alone. She set out the questions that any good social scientist would ask about age, gender and income while, under her watchful eye, we added questions specific to our field. She advised that surveying two comparator populations would be most revealing so we chose to survey the UK and US for their scale and diverse design communities. Having looked through the data, Nikandre also had a few observations to share about surveying designers.

To quote from her introduction: “Designers are a nightmare to survey. They frequently disregard instructions and give answers that can best be described, fittingly, as creative. Male designers tend to be both creative and grouchy. And almost everyone has a bone to pick with clients.”

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We also wanted to showcase what graphic design can bring to pure information, so invited data designer Stefanie Posavec, one half of Dear Data (dear-data.com) which won ‘Most Beautiful Project’ at the 2015 Information is Beautiful awards, to bring a more experimental approach to the book.

So what did we find out? Set out over the next few pages are some of the many interesting findings we can share. As you read, it’s important to remember the limitations of any data, something that Nikandre kept us aware of. The data tells us about the group of people we surveyed, but for the most part the results don’t tell us why things are the way they are. We also cannot extrapolate from the results to the whole graphic design industry – the only people it can tell us about with certainty are those individuals who took the survey. That said, the results do point to themes and trends and give valuable insight that as far as we are aware has never been gathered in such detail before.

Interestingly, while only 55% of respondents said that they were satisfied with their own career, 83% said they would recommend graphic design as a career choice, which we think shows graphic designers to be a pretty optimistic bunch.

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Over-worked and underpaid?

Our impression has always been that designers work long hours, and 58% did report working more than 40 hours a week. More revealing, perhaps, is that 78% of respondents reported working more hours than they were actually paid for.

Generally, designers reported that they were ‘getting by’ or ‘living comfortably’ on their income but 45% reported that their income was ‘unpredictable’. It was notable that those who found the unpredictability difficult were more likely to work longer hours than they were paid for.

Women were more likely to be low-earning (and less likely to be high-earning than men). Specifically, women were one-and-a-half times more likely to earn under £20k/$30k. In general, designers’ partners earned more than them and worked shorter hours too.

We wondered if this means a lot of graphic designers have a patient partner in the background, supporting them with time and/or money….

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Work hard & be nice to people

We were interested in perceptions of how you get ahead as a graphic designer. In response to our question about what most advantages designers in their career, ‘hard work’ and ‘who you know’ easily came out on top (40% and 28% respectively).

Interestingly, there was a gender difference here: men were more likely than women to say hard work mattered most, and women more likely to think who you know was important.

When it comes to awards, it seems true that ‘you have to be in it to win it’: 59% of people who had entered their work for an award just once had gone on to win, compared to 98% of people who had entered their work 10+ times.

Whether this is because once designers have won once they’re more likely to keep entering or simple law of averages is impossible to know. Probably the most overwhelming agreement between respondents was on the subject of rejection: 92% said that you ‘have to be able to withstand rejection to be successful’.

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The view from across the pond

Nikandre looked into the differences between responses of designers based in the UK and the US. Our US respondents said they worked more hours on average than our UK respondents.

These national differences in work habits seemed to translate to a difference in attitudes toward work-life balance. While UK- and US-based designers both reported working more hours than they were paid to, respondents based in America were on the whole less bothered about this than the Brits, possibly because there is a greater cultural expectation of long work hours in the US.

The results suggest designers in the UK felt less satisfied with their work life than designers in the US. While designers in the UK and US were opposed to free pitching (72% and 73% respectively disagreed with it), the US were more likely to follow principle with practice – 69% of US-based designers said they didn’t do free-pitching, compared with only 53% in the UK.

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Pantones and politics

Respondents were politically engaged and more likely to vote than the average citizen in the UK or US – and tended to vote for left-leaning parties.

In the US this was particularly striking, with 77% of designers identifying as Democrat compared to 51% of the general population. Designers were conclusive about the future of print: it’s not dying any time soon. This was borne out in opinions on whether respondents would consider it to be a greater success for their work to be featured in a book or on a high-profile blog: 67% voted ‘book’!

Asking for favourite Pantones turned out to be something of a can of worms. Not only did 8% of respondents choose to tell us why they weren’t going to answer the question (‘survey descends into self-parody’) but Stefanie had the challenge of presenting data about colour preference in a black and white book. So the favourite Pantone, Orange 021, can be seen in all its glory on the cover.

Graphic Designers Surveyed is published by GraphicDesign& – its third publication to date. Editors: Lucienne Roberts, Rebecca Wright and Jessie Price, with contributions from Nikandre Kopcke and Stefanie Posavec. Book design: LucienneRoberts+. The 480pp paperback book is £15 (plus p&p) and is available from graphicdesignand.com. All photography by David Shaw.

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