What are you on?

Design Week trawled the design industry to discover how designers are faring in terms of their salaries. Here, Bhavna Mistry presents the results

SBHD: Design Week trawled the design industry to discover how designers are faring in terms of their salaries. Here, Bhavna Mistry presents the results

Growth is back on the agenda for many consultancies – albeit cautious growth – as opportunities of work increase and the industry continues to stabilise. But while most recruitment salary levels show a slight increase over the past 16 months, designers looking for new jobs are still struggling in a buyers’ market; employers continue to take their pick of the best candidates, and they are starting to demand project management and client liaison skills from designers.

According to Design Week’s eighth salary survey, 41 per cent of respondents report an increase in the number of design staff over the past year, and 40 per cent saw the level of staff remain the same. Only 14 per cent experienced a decrease, which is similar to last year’s survey and again underlines the fact that the industry is stabilising.

But while over half of the respondents agreed they would have to change the nature of their business to face changing market requirements, as few as 9 per cent are recruiting full-time designers to handle the change in the focus of work, and a massive 41 per cent say they are definitely not recruiting designers, despite acknowledging the changes their businesses are facing.

So if well over half of those asked say they will not be hiring more designers in order to handle change, how are they planning to accommodate it? Using freelances is the obvious answer, and, yes, 37 per cent of respondents said they would draw on freelance help to meet current demand levels. But a significant number (27 per cent) said they would not.

The freelance market continues to remain buoyant, with 76 per cent of survey respondents employing freelances. But average hourly rates have gone down slightly again, from ú16.78 last year to ú16.62 this year.

Given that the Design Week survey elicited a limited response, mainly from groups which employ 10 designers or fewer, is the picture any more rosy among the larger consultancies?

Recruitment consultant Price Jamieson, which lists Coley Porter Bell, Landor Associates, Sampson Tyrrell and Michael Peters Limited among its clients, thinks things are looking up. “1994 was a great year for creatives and project management staff,” comments Price Jamieson consultant Ashley Goodall. “The big boys are definitely back on form and are looking to expand. Last Friday alone we had 13 briefs to recruit designers.”

However, Goodall acknowledges that consultancies are leaner and that those that are hiring are still expecting to recruit the best from a market that, during the recession years, was awash with good design talent. “For designers who are good, it is gradually turning from being a buyers’ market to a sellers’ one. But you have to be good,” he says.

And while there is more movement and an increase in the number of the larger consultancies looking to recruit, the salary levels in this sector have remained “pretty stagnant”, according to Goodall’s colleague Edwina Finlay. Depending on what sector they go into, junior designers can expect to earn between ú10 000 and ú12 000, which tallies with survey results and is more or less the same amount they would have been earning according to last year’s salary survey figures.

On the less gloomy side, in design consultancies that employ between 11 and 20 designers, salary levels have increased across the board. And according to Finlay, Europe and especially the US are starting to show interest in recruiting British designers.

Although consultancies from abroad have specific requirements about the type of experience they are looking for in a designer, Finlay explains that some of the more talented designers can earn up to “50 per cent more further afield than they could here”.

But Kim Crawford, director at design and advertising recruitment specialist Major Players, echoes Finlay’s dismal view on salary rises in the UK. For designers, salary rises are not even in line with inflation, Crawford says. “But at least they aren’t dropping,” she adds.

Salary levels have increased for project management and sales staff, according to the survey, with only London consultancies reporting a slight downturn in salaries for sales, marketing and project management staff. Results also show that while the majority of respondents said it would be unlikely that they would hire full-time designers to help handle a change in focus of their work, just over half stated they either were recruiting or expected to recruit sales, marketing or project management staff.

Both recruitment consultants agree that this is where consultancies are shifting the emphasis of their businesses to. “Marketing, sales and project managers’ recruitment salaries have increased by about a third more than designers – they do command higher wages, and the gap between them and designers does seem to be getting wider,” says Crawford.

Goodall goes further and says that consultancies that are currently recruiting are expecting designers not only to have solid creative skills backed by qualifications in technology, but also to show good communication and client liaison skills – effectively, to be able to run the project. “With more designers becoming Mac-fluent, not only does it mean consultancies need fewer staff, but also the staff they do have and will be recruiting have to be able to see projects right the way through to completion,” comments Goodall.

“And as clients become more adept at buying design, they want contact with the designer, so the designer has to be able to communicate and be able to present and talk to clients,” he adds.

Interiors and architecture is still the best paying sector for designers, with the average salary for new graduates up very slightly from last year’s ú11 350 to ú11 630 this year. For more experienced designers in this sector, the rise between last year and this year increases (see table). Retail also shows a slight average increase, but as experience is gained, it is this sector that offers most rewards. Identity, packaging and graphics are roughly on a par and offer similar rewards.

Unless you’re a design director, perks are almost non-existent. Survey findings indicate that there are significant decreases in employment benefits across all jobs apart from design director. On average, only 10 per cent of staff benefit from a pension. If you are a design director, you are likely to have a car as part of the package, but, beyond this, other perks such as healthcare and equity schemes are still rare. Salary increases tend to be awarded largely on an annual basis, with 82 per cent of respondents saying that salary increases are also usually linked to productivity.

Advertising is gaining ground as the preferred form of recruitment, with 43 per cent of respondents outside the capital and 40 per cent of London consultancies using it as a way to recruit. Word of mouth is just as popular. But almost twice as many London consultancies, as opposed to those in the regions, use recruitment consultants, perhaps because of the availability and knowledge of London-based recruitment consultants.

The recession is still having an effect, even though the industry is more optimistic and currently stabilising; those designers who would now have had four years or more experience within the industry are thin on the ground, and therefore still proving difficult to recruit. But, as in previous years, it is designers with eight years or more experience who are the most difficult to recruit. Ironically, it is for these designers that salary averages have dropped in the smaller consultancies.

Admittedly, the overall picture painted by Design Week’s survey in salary terms is gloomy. But there is evidence that the clouds are lifting, not only because many salary averages are increasing, but also because 1994 saw “feverish movement as designers let their hair down and started to move, if not for more money, then to named consultancies for more experience”, according to Goodall. The cautious realism which was last year’s maxim continues to be this year’s watchword, but if expansion is on the cards, then salaries could soon catch up.


The eighth Design Week salary survey is based once again on a questionnaire sent out to a cross-section of some 1000 consultancies across the country. The questionnaire covered 18 sections, ranging from the size of consultancy and the number of designers and account handling staff employed, to salary details for staff across the board. The last salary survey was carried out 16 months ago, in October 1993.

Some 9 per cent of those surveyed responded. Of this sample, just over half of the respondents (52 per cent) are based in London; of the 42 per cent based outside the capital, 5 per cent are based in Scotland and 4 per cent in Ireland.

The majority of respondents work in graphics (64 per cent) with identity, interiors, packaging, retail, product and exhibitions respectively following some way behind. The majority of the sample (81 per cent) employs ten or fewer full-time designers.

Survey results were compiled and analysed by communications consultancy Vater Hale.

Latest articles