Can you still make a living in design? Or would you be better off serving coffee?

Garech Stone of Amsterdam consultancy the Stone Twins has a few problems with the current design scene.

He sees an industry plagued by bad education, free pitches and facile work – and where graduates are forced to take coffee-shop jobs to make their ends meet.

Read on for Stone’s thoughts on the design sector and how it needs to change.

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Something is rotten in the state of design (particularly the area of visual communication design or graphic design).

Something is wrong when many peers are struggling to make a living, and when honours graduates are working in coffee shops. 

Something is rotten when working cheap (or even free) with the promise of something called “exposure” is endemic in the industry.

It’s time to reassess the philosophy or our profession

Something is wrong, and it’s time to reassess the philosophy of our profession, and its meaning as it stands today. It’s time to remove the mouldy rot before the business of design is further trivialised and humiliated.

A few years ago, as Department Head at Design Academy Eindhoven, I was privy to a survey administered to alumni from the previous decade. The report tracked the journeys of former students and revealed that their average annual income was €10,000 (£7,000). Yes, a paltry ten thousand Euros per year. One earns more serving Happy Meals.

Compounding the shock was the smug reaction of DAE management who hypothesised that design schools are not intended to prepare students for the job market. Instead, they spoke of loftier goals, such as exhibiting in museums or saving the planet.

I met one graduate serving coffee and another selling theatre tickets

Soon after, when I met a red-faced honours graduate serving coffee in a museum and another behind the ticket desk of a theatre, my simmering frustration gave way to anger.

Of course, the place (and role) of design has changed significantly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, globalisation and the democratisation of design. But perhaps, it’s time that design schools also shared responsibility for the growing hordes of unemployed designers?

It may be unwelcome to ask, but are design schools adequately preparing students for the realities of the labour market? Do they impart sufficient skills, and a certain humility? Or are they perpetuating a culture of self-indulgence, while championing experimental, niche and esoteric design?

Graduate show fripperies don’t exist in the real world

Most annual graduate shows are organised (or “curated”, if you want the new buzzword) like museum exhibitions. Formulaic showcases of books that can only be viewed with gloves, cubicles made out of black curtains for private video-showings and popinjay-designers who try to elevate design into a performance.

All these things don’t exist in the real world, yet are staple entries in any graduate show. Is it any wonder that many design graduates flounder in the job market?

Meanwhile, the ugly culture of internships is spreading faster than the latest Grumpy Cat meme. In former times, the internship experience was seen as training and was for the benefit of the intern (who was strictly a student). But few internships these days are serious about students or training, and most don’t even pretend.

£280 monthly internship allowances are wage theft

It’s nauseating to see so many established design agencies getting inexpensive labour. “Naturally you’ll receive a monthly allowance to cover some costs and hopefully a little extra to play with…” states a shameless recruitment ad by an Amsterdam agency.

The paltry monthly wage is mitigated with the promise of “exposure” and a way to boost a résumé. The reality is that too many firms are getting something for next to nothing. The average payment of €400 (£281) a month for an Amsterdam internship is below minimum wage, and for a degree-bearing professional is wage theft.

Unscrupulous firms have normalised this practice, design schools have made it official with academic credit, and organisations that should be looking after the rights of designers have looked the other way. Meanwhile, desperate young designers accept it as standard practice.

Internships are disrupting the labour market

Right now many internships are not just exploitative and unethical. They are disrupting the labour market, as they are increasingly eradicating the entry-level job and replacing regular positions altogether – since many so-called “interns” have already graduated from design school.

The practice ultimately has far-reaching affects on salary expectations for members of an already-underpaid industry. If our industry doesn’t act fairly with its own, how can it be respected in the business world?

However, the practice of being asked to work for almost nothing in return for “the joy of creative freedom” and “the exposure” is not just restricted to the humble intern.

Paying a “nominal fee” suggests that design has no value

Not long ago my studio was invited to pitch for a brand identity for a government department. After a lengthy briefing, and the signing of a non-disclosure, we noticed an audacious paragraph that read: “As we are requesting a creative response we will be offering a nominal fee of € X per invitee. This is really only a nominal fee for a project that we feel is more prestigious than of a commercial venture.”

Asking designers to work for “a nominal fee” suggests that design has no value. The work of designers provides significant value to business, yet somehow low-paid, free and speculative design work is commonplace.

Design is not merely a form of creative expression, it is also an activity to solve problems, think strategically and make the intangible tangible.

We designers can be our own worst enemy

In a world where visual communication is increasingly prevalent, why are designers regularly squeezed? How come many clients think it’s OK to drive the price of design down? Do they also haggle with their dentist, or the plumber? Can you imagine them saying to a pizza service: “you should be honoured to serve us, so can you give us a free pizza?” before adding: “If we like it, then we’ll pay you for the next delivery.”

Of course, not. It’s absurd. Yet, in our industry, these patronising requests are par for the course.

Having said that, we designers can be our own worst enemy. As long as we continue to work for very little (or free), we undervalue our skills, and diminish the true economic value of design.

Visual communication is becoming a frivolous profession

In addition, isn’t it time that we also started to take our own industry more seriously? Outside the annual whitewashing of design school walls, the practice of visual communication design is steadily morphing into a frivolous profession.

The industry has shifted away from its traditional role as a conveyor of ideas and information in a visual form (be it to inform, educate, or persuade a person or audience). It does not seem like the serious problem-solving activity that it was 20 years ago.

Today, many young designers seem too self-absorbed. These “selfie-designers” produce graphic paraphernalia with no real content or relevance outside the practice of graphic design. It’s a world full of T-shirts with ironic slogans, posters held aloft by their makers, visually seductive (yet superficial) data visualisations, framed letter-press posters of oxymoronic quotes and Pantone© mugs. Oh, and don’t forget the Tumblr and Pinterest followers that endlessly re-tag, re-share and re-arrange all this graphic merchandise – and the blogs and festivals that celebrate it.

Design is an overly incestuous tightly-kerned world

Ultimately, this is design for designers, in an overly incestuous tightly-kerned world. Have you ever heard car mechanics in cafés talk excitedly about spark plugs, or bakers tweeting photos of pastry rollers? No, me neither. Such navel-gazing is unhealthy in any field and has damaging consequences for the profession.

To borrow a quote from the late great Tibor Kalman: “Graphic design is a means, not an end. A language, not content.” These days much graphic design is impotent. It doesn’t feel compelled to communicate. Design for design’s sake. If we cannot take our industry seriously, then how can we expect others (potential clients) to?

No wonder graphic design is often devalued.

We need to see the failing and understand the need for change

Too simplistic, perhaps? Or maybe this piece sounds like an anecdotal rant. The points may be unwelcome – but, at least, let’s start a conversation. Too much coffee vapour has settled on the design industry’s dark-rimmed glasses, and it’s time to wipe them clean.

We need to see the failings and understand the need for change. We need to stop celebrating only the niche and the frivolous. We need to advocate for the fair treatment of designers in the workplace, and for a fair compensation for our services and products.

Difficult economic times are not an excuse for short-changing the sector. At present, it is an unsustainable business model.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.


Garech Stone is co-founder of Amsterdam-based consultancy The Stone Twins.

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Comments
  • David Thompson August 3, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    I agree with all of the above, but apart from the self-aggrandising design that’s going on (which is almost an epidemic), most of these issues have always been there.

    College’s don’t teach for the real-world (and never have in my experience as a VL).

    Graduates have always worked their way through the low/unpaid experience stage to kick-start their careers.

    Most have taken jobs they (hopefully) hate to spur them on to working in the industry they’ve trained for.

    All of the above applied to me (apart from the showing off bit hopefully) and that was nearly 20 years ago now.

    I doubt it will ever change, but it is worth reminding ourselves – every now and then.

  • Marcel Zwiers August 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Good post Garech. Don’t know why you ended this article with “Too simplistic, perhaps? Or maybe this piece sounds like an anecdotal rant….’ No ‘sorry for my temper’ needed here.

    The most important thing for me is that designers and design studio’s should be more serious about a lot of things. Starting with understanding the value they create and how to translate that into work. And this DOES NOT mean getting out your most crazy jumper out to wear for the designers-club-magazine-photoshoot…

    Most scary parts might be is that I think the design profession will not innovate from within, but through the whole ‘design-thinking’ rage taking place at most MBA’s at this moment.. Business getting creative instead of creatives getting more businesslike…

  • John Simons August 3, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    This article hits it right on the head. I was asked to design a logo for a guy’s golf club. Being a Freshman in college I accepted and only charged him $100 with 50% down payment. He had the nerve to give me $40 for the down payment and he told me that he didn’t do the whole $50 because he said it would make me work harder. What?! People do not take design seriously.

  • christina tarkoff August 3, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Yes, the design industry has changed. Better or worse – who knows? But, the one thing that has changed the design industry more than any other variable is this…When I started (like in the cut and paste days of exacto knives) it took a room full of twenty designers one week to accomplish what can now be accomplished by one designer in less than a day. So, please stop looking for failings in the schools, industry, business, global economy, etc. Everyone – designers and non-designers alike—live in a global, digital, online-world. The velocity of change continues to increase exponentially. It’s up to the current crop of designers to figure out how to use their skills and talent to make the most impact and wages.

    • Alan McNally August 4, 2015 at 7:16 pm

      Excellent reply Christina. Money can be made and lots of it. The top agencies are getting better and stronger all the time because they are so professional in everything they do. Must young designers take years to develop their skill. It takes years of hard graft, more years of business experience and more hard graft. Only then can you really make a difference, creatively or strategically. Change is good, and after starting out as a young designer 23 years ago, what I do now has no resemblance to what I did then.

  • Charlie Rohan August 4, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Thank you Garech. The feelings of many ‘seasoned’ professional designers structured and presented well.

    There is a massive gulf between what design education prepares (builds their students expectations for) and the reality of the design world in its entirety. There are only so many design positions at the big agencies and corporations but there are many positions in smaller, local agencies and other corporations (others do exist beyond Apple!) graduates need to see that there are opportunities here also and be educated to be able to add value.

    My team (industrial design, usability and accessibility specialists and interaction designer) is responsible for the design and usability of over a third of the ATMs in the world and the majority of self-service checkouts. In total the design solutions my company produces perform globally over 300 million transactions every day by, in the majority, untrained users. These are successful real world design solutions that get little recognition by the design industry.

    Design is a wide field and designers vary widely in skills and attitudes. The ‘design thinking’ concept has unfortunately given far too may designers the impression that they should be in charge and that only they can apply creativity to ‘big’ issues. Don’t get me wrong some can, but they are in the majority. All should be able to answer a good design brief with skill, originality and creativity – on time and on budget – design.

  • mark glynne-jones August 4, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Good piece. Any time you fancy another anecdotal rant over coffee (served by…), just let me know.
    As for working for zip with promise of great things to come… Try same approach with the car mechanic you reference and see where it gets you eh?!

  • James Greenfield August 4, 2015 at 10:34 am

    I graduated 15 years ago and worked for £100 a week for 6 months at a London agency. My rent was £110 a month. A lot of these issues aren’t new. As for graduates working in cafés. Not every design graduate makes it into the job market. There are too many studying and many that simply aren’t good enough.

    • Daniel Battams August 10, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      Your rent was only a quarter of your pay? My rent is more than half. Things have changed.

  • Andy Barker August 4, 2015 at 10:41 am

    AGREE. Time to stop the rot. Otherwise graphic design and marketing agencies will die. But it needs everyone to refuse to give away ideas for free i.e. free pitching. The recession and the commoditisation of design have created a world where clients believe that everything is instant and free. It’s almost as if just because we can wear jeans to work that we’re all nice people who only work for the love of it! Sadly it is us as an industry who have undercut each other into near oblivion.

    I would love to embellish my reply, but I’m too busy struggling to make an honest buck! Luckily there’s a great little coffee shop around the corner that’s recruiting.

  • Paul Bailey August 4, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Really great article, with lots of very valid points.

    I particularly like this, Tibor Kalman: “Graphic design is a means, not an end. A language, not content.” Too many designers think that their visual design is the end goal. What they don’t appreciate is that we design for a reaction. The reaction is the end goal, the reaction is the purpose of the visual design.

    Graphic design has become too much about craft and not enough about communication.

  • Zoe Vidigal August 4, 2015 at 11:00 am

    It can still happen even to designers with experience. I’ve had clients try to pay me less than the rate and all sorts of fun and games. Although I’m in the position now where I can give them their marching orders and have the experience and assurance to do that. It would help if there stopped to be a culture of low pay that is endemic in the industry as a whole. I worked for many years in a marketing dept where I was perhaps one of the most productive members but also one of the lowest paid. I voted with my feet and I am now a freelancer which while precarious means I call the shots and if you don’t pay, you dont play!

  • Joseph Hedges August 4, 2015 at 11:22 am

    The problem in my view travels this way;
    1 – clients spend too much time getting agency prices as low as possible
    2 – large corporations or companies with big enough budgets worth going for, make agencies jump through hoops to become suppliers i.e. 3 years audited accounts, fill out reams on things like – financially backed guarantors, equal opps programs, case studies of similar projects, major account experience for many years, high turnover accounts etc, which then means only the big agencies ‘part of conglomerates like WPP’ get in the door for ‘real’ fee paying projects.
    3 – clients push agencies to work for free, expensive proposal writing that takes days and days to get right, days of filling out forms, weeks of fee negotiation, etc etc…
    4 – clients getting up to 10 agencies doing creative pitches to steel ideas and then get their in-house teams to do the project, once they have all the visual stimulus and benchmarking they need to give their own designers (I have had a client from one of the ‘big 4’ actually admit that to me)
    5 – college leavers doing projects for £50 devalues the effort, when someone working at McDonalds gets paid more per hour.
    6 – small to mid size agencies then have to cut fees to compete, do work for free, work unbelievably long hours to just keep their heads above water. (pressed from the top, i.e. clients, squeezed from the bottom, i.e. students looking for experience)
    7 – agencies have to find other ways to save money in order to survive, such as using cheaper staff to help out on the things that fees aren’t recoupable on.
    8 – their prices become lower and lower until the whole industry is out of kilt.

    Small to mid size agencies struggle
    Students starting out struggle
    The larger conglomerates continue to dominate

    I know work globally to get clients, but that isn’t possible for most as it is hard to get the experience.

    It’s all wonky if you ask me.

  • Phil Sootheran August 4, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    I agree with most of the article, but would argue that any trade has a geek-com to it. I know mechanics, and yes, I get sent pictures of their new toolbox (not a euphemism). I know bakers, I get sent photos of their new creations.

    Part of the problem may be that there are too many of us. There’s more of us than we can use. So supply leads to low prices, as in many cases it is the only way people feel they can make in-roads to clients.

    You have to stand your ground. If you cut your costs, or value yourself too low, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, but your entire trade. I used to be a builder, and had to combat ‘cowboy’ prices all the time. It’s no different.

    I was lucky. I attended Bradford College, getting an HND and immediately turning a 3rd year into a BA(Hons). I was a little older than my college piers, but the structure of their course there (Design Communications) meant that, yes, you had to be there 9-5 most days, you had to create and learn to order, not just to our own tastes. I started my first junior role with someone from the same college, but different course, and he struggled more than I with our first job. He hadn’t trained to work. He was, however, a great designer and is now doing great.

    I’m glad I’m not a graduate now. I learnt my trade on photoshop 1 and Quark. I wasn’t expected to know the entire Adobe suite in order for an agency to find a suitable spot for me, and therein is another issue.

    We live in a time when there is very little value in companies, products or people who are very good at one thing. It seems consumers and clients want people to do everything (often for less cost, as you’re not a specialist).

    • Alan Davis August 10, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Well put Phil. There is merit in pushing back against clients, and in some situations – saying ‘No’. From my experience, there can be a strange satisfaction in saying ‘No’ or refusing work sometimes- and it can help you to clarify what kind of work and client relationships you don’t want, and crystallises what kind you do want.

  • David Usher August 4, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    I remember during my Masters Degree (Has never come in handy) I wanted to produce commercial looking work as I felt this would help me in the “real world”, this was frowned upon by my tutors and they favored and pushed me towards producing something more experimental. One girl spent the entire year thinking about her work and for degree show got an old cupboard and hung some of her clothes in it, this was applauded by our tutors. Bet that came in handy on her CV.

  • Dee Rourke August 4, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    The industry is more than a mess. I worked in an agency were the running joke was to blame the paper-clip ‘wizard’ in MS Word from years ago. Since those day EVERY client believe designers all have a big magic button with the word DESIGN on it. They just think it happens. Another old saying is nobody ever sees good design but everyone spots bad design. Since we are all surrounded by designed stuff the client has become immune to it.

    To be honest in 20 years I have seen the industry die on it’s knees, everyone is an expert these days, everyone can do it themselves and designers such as myself who once believed they where at very least average designers now feel like there’s little point anymore, feeling like a peasant begging for work. I decided to do handyman work to supplement my earnings because to be honest pitching in for a job with little more than a few quid isn’t worth the energy I expend to get the job never mind the love I put into creating work for clients to be unmoved by it. On top of all of that, when asked to simply be a ‘design monkey’ and do as you are told for a key client, when you do and the job is heading towards a car wreck and they won’t listen, you end up carrying the can for poor design …. GO FIGURE!

    Yep the industry is practically worthless unless you know lots of high powered people, it’s more about who you know rather than what you know.

    Anyone looking to enter the industry … DO SOMETHING ELSE QUICKLY.

  • Owen Wright August 4, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    As a recent graduate of product design I agree with a lot in this article. I recently had an industry professional tell me that if I want to really make it in the design industry I will have to work for free.

    I completely disagree with companies expecting graduates to work for minimal transport cost or worse nothing at all. It undermines the work that we as students have done to get our degrees. They look at us as disposable tools that they can throw away.

    With over £35,000 in student debts companies are expecting us to continue this into financial debt with banks.

  • Nick Gierus August 4, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    I say we all go on strike for a year. That’ll learn ’em.

  • Simon Sedgwick August 4, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Yep, this just about sums up the situation. Unfortunately there’s even more rot in the other end of the design world: How many times have you had to wait months for freelance payment or had a project cancelled on you after weeks of work… I won’t work for nothing, free pitch or wait months for money owed, and if everybody else does the same we might just make design into the creative industry it’s meant to be…

  • Mike Cryer August 4, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I really dislike the concept of internships and getting graduates to work for expenses or even nothing. It’s just pure exploitation, nothing less. Our studio recognises that a lot of universities and colleges nowadays do not impart any useful skills to graduates, just a load of self indulgent ‘concept’ work. We have to train to gain. We run graduate programmes where university leavers are paid a fair wage from the outset – £16,750 in the UK and moving expenses if not local. It’s not a high salary, but we have to invest a great deal of time to get graduates up to speed – it’s an investment we make and there is the opportunity to progress with appropriate salary increases if designers show ability. Given the quality of graduates these days it’s fair and 80% of our staff have come in as graduates so we have given a decent number of people a good start on the ladder. I wish the bigger agencies could do the same (we have 27 staff).

  • Katie Parry August 5, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I’m with Phil Sootheran.

    Surely part of the reason there’re so many design-educated people working in unrelated jobs after graduating is because we’re simply training too many designers?

  • Ben Hall August 5, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Yes, totally agree with this article. Design world is crumbling and it appears that design graduates are copying music artists with lots of working for free and a one in a million chance of getting signed. We knew this was the case years ago, but no one has acted and it looks like it must reach rock bottom before anyone tries to do anything. Sad to see none of these comments are showing any optimism for change.

  • Marcel Zwiers August 5, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    I don’t think we are training to much designers @Phil @Katie. In the last few years IBM had let go of about 12k people mostly in the US. Most likely business and management consultants. In the mean time, they have set up a lot of design studio’s all over the world with about three thousand designers working there already. Accenture has bought FJORD, the bank Capitol One has bought Adaptive Path and Google bought Mike & Maaike. And there are more examples…

    I teach Service Design in Rotterdam with students from the graphic, spatial and advertising department. Most of them fear a future of ending up behind the espresso machine. However, if we start the conversation (with articles like this one) on the value designers create and how to get to a better world for designers, I’m sure the business will look a lot different then it does today.

    There is so much potential for designers in so many areas from politics and government, to social innovation and industry to be relevant. We just have to work on being seen and take the challenges that are waiting for creatives to get their hands on.

  • Hon Lam August 5, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    The value of the medical profession has already been marginalised and they save lives. A guild or a union of creative workers needs to be established for us to claim back what is rightfully ours!

    “WE DRAW THE LINE HERE!!! THIS FAR AND NO FURTHER”
    Picard.

  • Jonne Kuyt August 6, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Solid and true. Revolt.

  • Roy Wylam August 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    called supply and demand; Internships, working for free, free pitches, low commissions and low design budgets are all symptoms of over supply.

    The figures bear this out in 1990 the UK was turning out 30,000 design graduates a year for three years that dropped to 10,000 a year for the next fifteen years, that’s just 10k shy of a quarter of a million designers in eighteen years and these figures only take us to 2008.

    There used to be 5000 design Agencies in the UK mostly made up of one or two designers now there are at least 15000, these are obviously made up of designers who can’t get a position in an agency, they decide to set up their own design agencies.

    You also have micro websites selling all sorts of design related graphics and photography at low cost, these used to be individually commissioned.

    On top of all this in the last fifteen years we have had the global rise of web based design enabling designers to work on projects anywhere in the world adding in just about every designer in the world into the mix.

    It’s a very tough business to be in and I believe even if you are an exceptional UK designer this doesn’t mean you can make a living out of design.

    What is the answer, I believe we need to train fewer designers with more skills with longer design courses this will take at least ten years to feed into the business market and set it on a more productive path for all involved.

    We also need legislation on internships and working for free, outlawing these fraudulent practices.

    Payment terms from companies should be a maximum of 60 days and it should be an automatic criminal offense if not complied with, after all it is theft if you do not to pay.

    We also need a trade organisation for practicing designers that you have to belong to, this would help to regulate the industry stamping out bad practices, and if you were found to be acting outside the regulations as in ‘free pitching’ you would be struck off and unable to practice.

    And lastly, we should stop publishing nonsense articles as above that have little or no comprehension of the real reasons the Design Business and Design Graduates are in such a perplexed state as to not know what is really going on, all the above figures are in the public domain and if Design Week did their homework they would know this, instead of putting out half hearted articles by some Amsterdam consultancy that was probably written as a PR piece.

  • Ana Kiss August 10, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Specialise, specialise, specialise! There is so much competition for jobs that the best way forward for a graduate designer is to hone in on a specialism. It’s why graphic designers became web designers, and web designers became ux designers. Sniff out where the market is going next and sharpen your skills accordingly.

  • Merlin Duff August 10, 2015 at 9:48 am

    We often talk about the issues raised here, and we believe there is one simple (in theory at least) solution. Design needs a legitimate governing body, or at very least a widely excepted and recognised accrediting organisation. Most recognised professions have one if not both of these, that ensure fair and standardised practices across their industry.

    With the best will in the world, the award and membership organisations that currently exist (D&AD, CSD, Design Council, ISTD, DBA etc) hold little-to-no power over ‘designers’, rendering them completely powerless to enact any sort of organised change across the industry.

    Until something of this sort is effectively implemented and ‘minimum standards’ set, designers, and their organisations, suppliers, and consumers remain free to continue their race to the bottom.

  • Pamela Edmond August 10, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Wow! I can see where the frustration about respect for good design comes from, and agree there can be an overindulgence, but I also know that good marketers value the language of design for communication. Those marketers that continually drive their “design” relationships from a purely cost perspective, invariably fail in the end. You cannot put a value on strong graphic and brand “design” partnerships. If differentiation is your game then work with, and value your designers for success…..and that goes for all of them, from graphic to code.

  • Mel O'Rourke August 25, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I’ve just read this now…great article. Persuading clients to part with their cash and invest in design is always an uphill struggle as it’s rarely high up on their agenda. However, even through the recession, we have always believed strongly in the value of what we do, have never compromised on the quality of our work and thankfully, have always managed to extract decent budgets from the clients we work with. Sometimes you just need to stand firm and say thanks but no thanks.

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