Feeling the squeeze

Declining marketing spend could have a profound effect on the design job market this year, bringing tough times for graduates, freelances and the growing army of overseas designers looking for work in the UK, says Clare Dowdy

The dearth of decent account handlers, the glut of graduates, changing attitudes to freelancing and the increasing numbers of overseas candidates are all expected to have an impact on the UK design industry’s job market in 2008.

Couple that lot with the expectation that clients will start being less generous with their marketing spend, and this year could look markedly different from the halcyon days of 2007.

Indeed, signs of clients’ impending reticence (or should that be stinginess) are already with us. Packaging designers relate how certain clients now actually tell them what daily rate they can charge. Weren’t designers now supposed to be having their say at the marketing table?

So as design bosses and recruitment agencies brace themselves for a less bullish year, their employees and candidates are left watching the horizon.

Freelances have had it good in recent times, and their ranks are forever swelling. Gone are the days when long-standing designers used to age gracefully in the corner of a studio. Now, they’re much more likely to have jumped ship a few times and got out of full-time employment in their middle youth. These roamers have been spoilt for choice when it comes to juicy projects, and have been paid handsomely for their flexibility.

Some employers have been alarmed at the level of churn that results from such a cavalier attitude to the haloed career ladder. It may suit employees to bounce from one job to another, throw in a bit of time off for world travel, and do a stint in an overseas studio, but it doesn’t suit clients. They want to deal with the same designer or account handler for the duration of the relationship.

In fact, recruitment agents expect that a tightening of belts in consultancies will result in a long, hard look at the amount they’re forking out on freelances. When times are good, and work has been plentiful, bosses have been happy to turn a blind eye to hefty hourly rates. That could well change this year.

At the same time, there are reports that some long-term freelances – particularly artworkers – are starting to eye up ‘proper’ jobs. Perhaps they’re now recognising the lure of company perks, and the appeal of a regular – if more modest – salary.

While the standard on the creative side is seen as pretty healthy, there’s a chorus of disapproval directed at design management within consultancies. Bosses are really starting to worry about the scarcity of talent, seeing the same faces doing the job vacancy rounds again and again. It may sound sexist, but some in the industry suggest that a few too many secretaries have been promoted out of their comfort zone. In the past, ‘heavyweight’ people have been attracted to design management roles in design consultancies from the advertising world and client side. But maybe design just doesn’t offer the sorts of salaries these people are looking for anymore.

When times are good, a minority of lucky graduates gets a leg up. Yes, there are more than enough college-leavers clutching design accreditation, and, yes, many of them will never carve out a career for themselves in their chosen field. However, consultancies are scrabbling over the cream that the likes of D&AD’s New Blood scheme throws up. And some profitable consultancies have been nurturing young talent through their graduate programmes. However, if businesses are forced to prepare for an economic downturn this year, such programmes will start to look like a luxury they can ill afford. Then the oh-so familiar sight of too few middleweight designers will raise its head in the years to come.

These graduates are also competing with an ever-growing number of foreigners looking to work in the UK. These days, it’s not just the plumbers who all seem to be Polish. Consultancies that see overseas clients as their way of avoiding a downturn here may well be increasingly receptive to recruits with an understanding of other cultures and stylistic mores. That’s also true of the networks looking to staff their overseas outposts. However, there’s still a stigma among employers against creatives trained overseas. A Pole or a Czech with a stint at the Royal College of Art or Central St Martins College of Art and Design on their CV will be much more warmly received.

What’s more, a downturn won’t just affect design employers and employees. The recent proliferation of recruitment consultancy start-ups could also be hit. But that’s another story.

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