Working overtime? “Costing jobs is paramount before you even pick up a pencil”

Last week, the DBA released a report that revealed clients underpay for projects and designers still “work for free on Fridays”. We asked designers about their opinions on slogging it past 6pm.

Ben White, CEO, Bloom

“There’s no question that working late is nobody’s favourite pastime. However, it does happen and we’ve all pulled some late nights in our careers.  At Bloom, we try to minimise the pain by getting stuck in together, ordering in the Deliveroo, ramping up the tunes and cracking on. Those not scheduled on the particular job at hand tend to stay and help if they can and we never take people’s efforts for granted.

We also try to understand why it has happened – and if it’s a particular client, we have been known to let them go. We try to make up for these times in other ways too, with people having time off each week to take as they choose (late Friday mornings are popular) and an annual company holiday. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the odd late night in our industry, but we should focus on making them bearable.”

Emily Penny, independent brand consultant, Colourful

“From what I can tell, the Design Business Association (DBA)’s report looks at the hours the studio doesn’t get paid for, not the hours the employee doesn’t get paid for – big difference. Overtime (as in working late) is perhaps a more important issue. It doesn’t tend to be paid in our industry, which means it’s very lucrative for design studios, and often it’s a culture rather than a necessity. It might seem fun – pizzas, beers, camaraderie.

But just like unpaid internships, unpaid overtime needs calling out. When it becomes sustained, it can be detrimental to health, wellbeing and family life. And worryingly, it seems to be on the increase. I may well be one of the only people asked this question who is neither an employee nor an employer, so I can really tell it how it is – and it’s not good! Yes, I’m all for dedication and hard work. But as a consultant, at least I get paid for all of it, even if it’s 10pm or a Sunday.”

Alan Dye, director, NB Studio

“I’ve never had to slog it out at work – slogging, in this case, is the wrong word. 100% of designers I know are in this profession because they love what they do, and costing jobs and getting things signed off is paramount before you even pick up a pencil. If we have to do overtime, it’s because we enjoy doing it – we need to and want to, and our account manager is charging for it (mostly). Plus, most designers at NB Studio are wrapping up their days at 5.55pm, because we plan our time properly. What pisses me off is design studios that slog it out for free, creative pitches. Now, that’s a waste of money and it’s also unprofessional in my view. Could you imagine doctors, plumbers and lawyers doing what they do for free just to get work?”

Fredrik Öst, founder and creative director, Snask © Jussi-Hellsten

“Well, the worst is spec (speculative) work of course – we have always hated it. Otherwise, it’s been remaking work when you know there’s no need for a change and there’s no logic to it but you still have to work overtime to fix it or risk ‘not delivering what was promised’ in the eyes of the client. It’s hard to claim that someone is wrong when it comes to visual form but experience has been our way forward. The more wrinkles we have and the bigger our bellies, the more we’ve grown in confidence and boldness when it comes to fighting for our ideas. We don’t have to do this much anymore but I still remember the hardship from our early years.”

Dave Dunlop, creative director and partner, Else

“I can honestly say I’ve never done the ‘all-nighter’ that you hear about so much in our industry. But then I’ve never really worked in advertising. I’ve managed, through sheer luck, to avoid this situation mostly.

However, quite a few years ago I worked for a studio that had managed to agree to a deadline of 22 December for a campaign site. Campaign activity was due to start in the new year for the client, so we had to make sure everything was done pre-Christmas. We ran into trouble, and 22 December became the 23rd, then the 24th…

We finally got things live late on Christmas Eve, taking ‘never launch on a Friday’ to new stress-filled heights compounded by a rather unreasonable client.

I remember at a different design studio we had a change at the top, a new creative director. I remember him telling us: “If you’re working late, you’re either not very good, or you’re great and you’re on a badly-run project.” Overnight, the culture changed and, as a designer, that’s how you survive – work somewhere where the culture isn’t about working you to the point of breaking.”

Max Ottignon, co-founder, Ragged Edge

“Some projects are just too good to pass up. Despite insane deadlines, we jumped at the chance to rebrand a global drinks company. It was tough: an ever-expanding project scope creeping up on us; real time feedback from multiple stakeholders, markets and disciplines; conference calls very late on Friday nights. We pretty much had a 10pm standing order with Pizza Pilgrims across the road (I recommend the Aubergine Parmigiana). It was saved by a client who saw us as true partners. They were as determined as we were to create something that really made an impact, so we never felt taken advantage of. And crucially, we were incredibly proud of the result.”

Have you had to burn the midnight oil and work beyond what you were paid for? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  • Stephen Bell November 1, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    I deplore Alan Dyes comment (although I’m sure he is a nice man). The notion that we do it for the love of it when asked about unpaid overtime and the financial consequences is so the default and indeeed ‘faulty’ response and it infuriates me as it completely undermines and undervalues the skill and worth of designer. The fact that most designers love what they do may not be in dispute but shouldn’t that love be rewarded. After all profit is being made. Why can’t designers love what they do AND be payed for their time and worth. This response perpetuates the notion that designers have to so passionate and self sacrificing to be highly regarded and the money talk is a dirty business! From experience also, nothing kills love and passion for a job quicker than overwork, exhaustion and lack of just reward.

  • Neil Littman November 2, 2017 at 9:21 am

    When I saw this article I thought where do I start?

    Have worked in the design industry for over 43 years so have seen every aspect of the long hours culture.

    There were a couple of points that were not mentioned by the interviewees that might be worth sharing.

    In the early days of my career everything took a long time to do before the advent of computers. The mechanical side of design was a convoluted process and there were probably more of us working in studios then.

    However, there are other factors. I worked in the corporate reporting sector for many years and client demands dictated our working hours as much as creativity. Clients in large multinational companies worked long hours and expected us to do the same so we lost control over our lives.

    I always knew if I was eating pizza at 9pm it was a bad sign and being a morning person my ideas would never be as good in the evenings.

    Then we saw the culture of competitiveness, who could come into work the earliest after working the latest… None of this was healthy or helpful.

    Have seen gifted designers who came up with great solutions in five minutes, On the other hand I am somewhere in the middle. Experience helps me a great deal these days but there is also a lot of slog that is simply from time it takes to process and understand a brief and come up with ideas.

    Many of the studios I worked in had 24hr production departments (and a few still do) and it wasn’t unusual for designers and print managers to be working on press passing at all hours of the day and night. It seemed to be a badge of honour to have come in late in the morning having done an ‘all nighter’ on press.

    Most of the working hours culture seemed to stem from the top and the creative directors determined this as much as the management.

    I knew of one company that survived on a diet of amphetamines. They don’t exist now but ironically they did produce beautifully crafted ground breaking work. Maybe that is the price you pay?

    For me, the big change was going freelance about nine years ago. My discipline for the working day went out the window and I thought that as a freelance I had to be performing at all hours. I never did an all-nighter but regularly worked until 1-2am and our virtual company culture included seeing who could send out an email the latest…

    In 2011 a heart attack and bypass operation put paid to that and I learned a valuable lesson. Yes it is more than a job, it is my career and my life but it is not worth killing myself to stay in the industry. These days I have a more rationale approach to my working day and so do many of my colleagues who have survived.

  • Mike Dempsey November 2, 2017 at 10:17 am

    In the years that I co-ran Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell (CDT Design) we had a policy of encouraging everyone out the door at 5.30. Some loved being in the studio so much that they would rather hang on. But I was always keen for our people to go off and recharge their batteries. I would always say, “Try not to just hang out with other graphic designers” because it will limit your potential. Embrace all the other creative areas, film, theatre, opera, literature, art, whatever and it will enrich you and you’ll do a better job.

    I am told that after I left the company in 2007 things changed and late working became common. I guess that was because the design industry itself was expanding and changing, with ever more younger and hungry designers setting up shop, happy to take on free pitches and expecting their staff to work late without payment.

    I think, with few exceptions, this is now the norm in the design world and we are all the poorer for it. The industry is now too big and clients to few to keep everyone afloat, consequently, our industry is ripe for exploitation by unsavoury clients. And whenever I am approached by these types for unpaid creative pitches, I always try
    to expose them as DW knows.

    As for late working, the bottom line is the fact that any designer worth their salt will always be working out problems in their heads, wherever they might be. That is the life of a designer.

    • Stephen Bell November 3, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Any designer worth their salt should be paid their salt too.

  • Adam Fennelow, Head of Services, DBA November 2, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    Emily Penny hits the nail on the head when she points out that the “working for free on a Friday” quote from the DBA report is about agency recovery rates – not staff overtime or working late. Your recovery rate is the % of the time you spent working on a project that you actually charge the client for. If you have collectively worked 100 hours, but only charged for 80 because you don’t think the client will stomach it, then your recovery rate is 80%. Which coincidently is the national average – hence “working for free on a Friday”.

    The most common reason for a low recovery rate is “over servicing” but there could be a multitude of reasons. The relationship between the 4 spinning plates of recovery rates, utilisation rates, fee levels and salaries is key to the profitability of course. Improving your recovery rate is the fastest way to improve your bottom line.

    The DBA report also looks at overtime and gives data on how many agencies pay overtime or give time in lieu for different levels of seniority within an agency. Personally I love the quote from Dave Dunlop “If you’re working late, you’re either not very good, or you’re great and you’re on a badly-run project.”

    • Stephen Bell November 6, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      Adam Fennelow, have you ever worked in a design agency? The idea that if you are a designer who consistently works late you are either not very good at what you do, or you are great at what you do but the project is run badly, is very rarely the real story. If you’re not good, you wouldn’t be employed and great designers are frequently exploited. The company I used to worked for deliberately squeezed designers and under resourced. The resource planning often put designers down for 10 hours work a day when officially they were contracted for 7.5. Of course it was often more than that, but that is a deliberate and calculated act to extract more labour in less time thus making more profit! AND the designers were GREAT. The DBA needs to look at the real facts, but the nature of the beast is on the side of the Business Man.

  • madelaine cooper January 10, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Of course nobody should work for nothing. If you have expertise, knowledge, insight and proven track record of achieving good results in your field, then of course you should be paid fully and respectfully for that work. EXCEPT of course when it comes to talent resourcing (some may feel that recruitment is a good enough word for this tricky task, I never have). I’m expected to do all of my work for no financial reward whatsoever until and if a candidate is successfully appointed. During the process of trying to get to that point I’m incurring the cost of overheads, expenses, travel etc etc before we even begin accounting for my actual time input. In the thirty years I’ve been doing this, nobody has ever questioned whether that’s an appropriate way to treat a fellow professional. Respect your suppliers please…

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