How is the cost of living crisis impacting designers?

As inflation soars, we speak to designers about how current living conditions are affecting their work and practice.

In April, UK inflation rose to 9%, the highest rate in 40 years. The rising price of gas, electricity, food and raw materials are all adding pressure to households and businesses.

We speak to a range of designers about how the cost of living crisis is affecting their work – from a change in client briefs to finding cheaper studio space.

“We’re now seeing there’s no wiggle room at all”

Ewan Alston, senior designer at Blond, explains that the studio’s industrial design work will likely respond to the events, just as the climate crisis prompted sustainability-led projects.

He says: “This could range from products that aim to lower energy costs (for example, novel insulation materials, off-grid energy solutions) to furniture that facilitates living and working in smaller spaces. It could even encourage a next wave of home-growing products such as hydroponics.

“As individuals, we will struggle ourselves with the changes this year, so we’ll be on the lookout for potential solutions that could help any relevant client projects or perhaps even spark a conceptual project that would aim to inspire other players in the industry to make a difference. Of course, it’s worth noting that product solutions like those mentioned above would likely be stop-gap measures to the real crisis, and it’s government policy and regulation that will be needed to help those truly in need.”

Pippa Nissen

Pippa Nissen, director of exhibition design studio Nissen Richards, adds that tighter budgets have prompted a more considered approach than usual.

She explains: “We’re all acutely aware at the moment that money is tight for clients and that we need to be very, very careful with budgets. ‘If it’s not necessary then it shouldn’t go ahead’ is the clear direction. Of course, this is always true, but where in the past we might have dug in our heels, we’re now seeing there’s no wiggle room at all, so we’re trimming our designs to suit.

“It’s all about keeping the big gesture, with well-built detail. Robustness and impact come first – then flexibility, including finding ways to create a sense of change without much build. When we do build, it’s about finding ways to do the same idea, but more simply and with good, locally-sourced materials – with a plan B and C if we can’t get hold of the materials we want. On a recent project, initially delayed through COVID, we’ve changed the build material three or four times to suit fluctuating costs and budgets, whilst making sure the original intention remained intact.”

Rachel Withey

Rachel Withey, co-founder of interior design consultancy Ekho, believes that rising costs could hamper progress in sustainability.

Withey adds: “The rising cost of living will inevitably knock-on increasingly on product costs, limiting choice and future innovation. We may well see brands focusing on best sellers, reducing material quality and quietly mothballing less popular lines. I’m concerned this might decrease the focus on sustainability and lead to a scaling back on sampling and other services which affect how we do our job, particular with entry level or mid-priced brands.

“Longer procurement times, with demand for products outweighing stock, will exacerbate the issue. It feels like we’re in the eye of a perfect storm – and we have to navigate this not only on behalf of clients but also our team. As a design studio, we’re a service provider and our product is our creativity. We need to look inwards to our employees too and keep an eye on how this affects their wellbeing and creative thinking.”

Sam Rowe

Sam Rowe, CEO of exhibition and event design consultancy Ignition, believes that the crisis – and pandemic – could prompt a positive change in thinking.

She adds: “We’ve been a flag-flyer for ethical and sustainable business methodology for a long time and seem to be making real headway right now with client procurement departments considering modular and re-usable exhibition stands that last a number of years, rather than always focusing on single events. They’re also considering not limiting their investment to fit their annual budget, but looking at the huge savings that can be achieved if their investment in a sustainable kit of parts is amortised over 3-5 years. I think probably it’s a combination of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis finally making that message ring true.”

How studios could struggle during the crisis

Chris Skelton

There will likely be consequences for designers themselves, whether they are freelance or part of a larger consultancy. Chris Skelton, creative director at Thompson Brand Partners, highlights the problems for design studios, including office running costs and salary increases for staff.

He says: “Lots of studios have struggled throughout COVID, and for those still not quite back on their feet, high energy prices may force the decision to close their office space and go fully remote. Fuel cost may cause more people to question travelling in; despite many studios’ desire to start having more facetime with clients, video will remain a mainstay.

“The cost of living has the potential to delay things like salary increases for staff that may have been on hold, something we’ve been keen to address recently by reviewing pay across the board. Economic concern may also perpetuate worries over job security, making recruitment for top talent even tougher than it already is. This could force margins to be squeezed due to a higher reliance on freelance – the cost of which we’ve already seen increase.”

Many of the designers echo Skelton’s point about the higher cost of running studios. Blond’s Ewan Alston adds that a relocation might be on the cards for city-based studios looking for better value.

He explains: “We imagine the crisis could be an influence in more studios moving away from expensive inner-city locations towards areas further out where rent is cheaper and more space can be found, especially as there is less and less need for face-to-face meetings with clients these days. In fact, Blond is considering one such move ourselves.”

What about freelance designers?

Kieron Lewis

Graphic designer Kieron Lewis highlights the increased pressure on freelance designers working with budget-conscious clients.

He says: “There can be a fine line between being smart with your budget and trying to get a lot, on the cheap. Almost ‘Del Boy-like’. This will always have a ripple effect on the final outcome. Using platforms such as Canva, once the designer has given a handover, is totally fine. Especially if it gives the client more control. However, from a design consistency perspective, it is very easy for elements to ‘slip through the cracks’.

“Certain design programs such as InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop are created specifically for design-related projects. By trying to use a version that is limited within design functions, could compromise on the final deliverable quality. Designers can spot these inconsistencies a mile away!

“When I am approached by a client, I’m always conscious of the above and I always do my best to be flexible on the finance front, whilst ensuring I charge fairly for my time. The key is to find the balance to make your freelance work sustainable.”

Ananya Rao-Middleton

Illustrator Ananya Rao-Middleton elaborates on these points, from the perspective of a disabled designer.

She says: “My cost of living tends to be higher than non-disabled people because I have to factor in the medicines, tests and products I need to buy each month in order to maintain my health. On top of my meeting my needs as a disabled person, the cost of living crisis was one of the reasons I decided to take the plunge to go freelance in the first place.

“Working a 9-5 job as a marketing director felt like an inefficient way to work and meet my needs – I became chronically stressed and more sick as a result of working needlessly long hours for less pay than what I’d make freelancing with fewer hours and less stress.

“As a freelance illustrator now, I see many different clients throughout the year, most being larger companies and brands. The one trend I have noticed recently is more clients wanting to engage with more social justice themes around mental health and disability, both of which have been bought to the fore alongside the cost of living crisis.”

A potential threat to diversity efforts

Greg Bunbury

Graphic designer and educator Greg Bunbury worries that there may be a wider impact on the industry’s diversity efforts, which have been in focus over the last few years.

He says: “Such a rise in the cost of living has a causality that will likely impact diversity and inclusion across the creative industry. As consumers are forced to economise and be more discerning with their spending, we may see the brands and organisations driven by creativity, become far more conservative with their internal and external investment in diversity and inclusion (D&I).

“Over the past few years, much has been made of the apparent business benefits of diversity, but we’ve seen that when D&I is only viewed in terms of a bottom-line metric, it tends to lose in favour of more lucrative priorities. Therefore a smaller pot may make organisations reluctant to take big swings on D&I, and routine is the enemy of innovation.

“On the other side, a high cost of living will make it even more challenging for marginalised creatives to break into the industry. Including those from impoverished or working class backgrounds that simply can’t afford to intern or endure the unpredictability of freelancing. Creativity needs room to fail, but the pressure to make ends meet could curtail the experimentation and innovation, necessary to push the creative industry forward. As a result we could see more young people opt away from creative jobs, for careers with more stability.”

Ignition’s Sam Rowe echoes Bunbury’s point about job security and stability, highlighting that there’s been an impact on recruitment lately. She adds: “People are very worried about security and are particularly unwilling to move jobs right now, in spite of generous living- and means-tested salaries on offer. That’s definitely become more of a struggle, though the WFH option offsets it to a degree, as we’ve also been able to recruit from a wider geographic area.”

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