When can I expect to start making decent money?

Graduated from school and started my first design job a year ago. I feel lucky to be employed, and I like my job decently, but I’m making so little money that I’m struggling to get by. (I make $35k / year in one of the most expensive cities in the US.)

At what point in my career can I expect to start making decent/livable money? I feel like my boss has the attitude that “there are a million other recent grads who are begging to have my job, and I’m lucky to be employed at all.” At what point does an employer start valuing my skills and feeling lucky to have me, instead of acting like they’re doing me a favor?

Design is cool and all but being this poor is really, really difficult and it’s starting to take a toll on me. Is there a brighter future ahead or are salaries in the industry seriously this low?

I’ve been thinking about trying to find a new job and have been looking at job postings online, but true “industrial design” roles seem to be few and far between. Being an industrial designer has always been my dream, but it’s hard to live like this.

First, congrats on getting your first gig. Thats the first step.

To answer your question, it is seriously up to you to prove yourself, show value, and become invaluable to your employer. Not to be harsh, but no one is entitled to give you a high salary. And, no one is going to until you 1) have experience, and 2) have proven that you have the skills that value more money. Remember you just started. You can’t expect top money at this point.

As far as what the norm is in the industry for an entry level designer? That varies depending on where you are and who you work for. A salary in the mid-west is going to be lower than a salary in NYC. But I can tell you that even that higher salary in NYC is still going to be hard to live on due to the cost of living. When I started I still picked up freelance gigs and worked as a cook in a restaurant to make extra money.

You will get there. Do you time, prove your value, pick up extra work, and if you feel you are not getting compensated like you should, look for a place that may give you that. Just know that right now you are not in the position to demand too high of a salary.


A big point might be whether you are looking at corporate (in-house) vs. consultancy also. I can’t think of any big companies that would offer 35k but it sounds believable for a small design company. If you can find an in-house design place you like, that can help a lot in this area.

Believe it or not, starting salaries tend to be a bit lower in the more expensive cities… I know it makes no sense from a livability point of view, but every recent grad wants to go to SF and NY.

Corporate tends to pay better, so do jobs not in those competitive markets… but with one year of experience I would wait AT LEAST 12 more months. Most recent grads are very much still in training mode. I’m not sure anything I did went out the door without being modified in some way or heavily directed for my first 24 months. If you have a job where you have the opportunity to learn and do some good work, I’d pay those dues a little longer. It will pay off. In my first 10 years I more than quadrupled my entry level salary, and that was with staying at my first job for over 4 years. My recommendation is to focus on the work, this is the only time in your career when you won’t be managing designers, clients, or keeping executives happy. Those first few years are golden, even if they are filled with ramen noodles, late nights, and roommates.

Myself I followed more of a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, entering many opportunities and if I had a job doing it part time, but now is the time I will be diving into a few more. And yes the first years are golden and very determining. Building relationships is just as important as building a design portfolio - people have to know what you are truly good at, i.e. you need a profile. You cannot expect a very high salary at the start, still your salary is higher than mine and I have 7 years of experience. It is all about working hard and smart, finding opportunities. For the rest, I advise to follow Yo’s advice, that definitely has worked!

Also for finding focus on a budget try (good) bread, toasted with ketchup+cheese or banana+peanut butter, tea, regular exercise, no tv and your productivity goes through the roof.

Great advice here from some seasoned professionals who have all “made it” by sticking with it and paying their dues.

I am no different and also had to struggle for a little while. It went quicker than you think though.
Salary wise, my big break (up 4x) came when I switched from agency to corporate and moved countries.
But I don’t think I would have gotten a lead position in a corporate setting if I hadn’t first learned the ropes and proven myself at different agencies.

The truth of the profession for most is that you aren’t actually done with the student lifestyle when you graduate and there are still a few more years of struggle ahead.
Congrats on getting a job in the first place. As you and your portfolio of work evolve, so will your opportunities. In the beginning I would definitely make sure you are working for a great studio or agency that will give you good experience and exciting work for your portfolio.
This will be your weapons down the line when you negotiate for better pay elsewhere.

I wouldn’t advice to give in and take a job that might have marginally better pay but doesn’t give you the projects and brand recognition. This time is really when you invest in the future.

I’m going to go against the grain here and say that for me, and I would generally say is the norm in the UK, is that the best way to get both promoted and a higher salary is to switch jobs. As sad as it is that companies are unwilling to pay to retain good staff, it’s often their loss.

There is definitely truth to this and I don’t think this is contrary to the other posts here at all.

It is just about finding the right time to move on. If you don’t yet have enough experience and accomplishments at your current place of work, it’ll be difficult to move up somewhere else.
My assumption is that it would probably take more than a year in one job to actually learn the ropes, take on more responsibility and to start to own projects. Especially at a reputable firm.
Unless the working conditions are unacceptable, you should have substantially more to show after you leave than when you started.

As mentioned you’ll usually see the highest salaries in markets where it’s hard to find good designers and corporate environments.

If your boss doesn’t value you now, he probably won’t start - that’s just your boss, not the industry in general.

Your goal should always be to learn as much as possible from any job, continuously refresh your portfolio as much as possible, grow your network of other designer contacts through IDSA Conferences or similar events, and try to figure out your next move.

If you’re in a big expensive city, you may have to decide if you like being in a big city and living at the poverty level (like many in NYC do) because of all the other fun stuff that city life affords socially, or if you would rather make more money but be stuck in a suburb with no night life, no social culture, etc.

There are a lot of designer friendly cities that have enough big industry to get a job, reasonable costs of living and social life. Charlotte, Austin, Chicago, etc. $35k would go a much longer way in any of those places compared to NYC or SF.


My first boss always told fresh grads that he expected 3 years out of them. Year 1 they would be learning a lot, year 2 they would be performing at a good level, year three they would be paying back year 1. He was a great boss and mentor (I still get his advice 20 years later) so I don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation in his case. I do think at least 2 years is good for your first job, unless there is some other circumstance (family issue, toxic workplace, dream job falls in your lap). If you do leave before 2 years I would be prepared to stay longer at your next job. In SF it is not uncommon to move around ever 18-24 months, but in the rest of the country when a hiring manager sees a resume that has a string of 18 month jobs it is a red flag. The amount of cost in terms of money and time that goes into recruiting someone is enormous.

Depending on how strategic minded your current boss is and the level of your performance (we haven’t seen your work), a $5k raise might strategically make a lot more sense to him than the cost of recruiting a new person if you can explain how it will benefit him and make life a lot easier for you. I’d only do this if you plan to stay awhile. If you do get a raise and then leave within 6 months it would not be nice.

I’ve only had 3 people quit on me, ever. One was “graduating” in a way. She was a senior designer who got a director level position and I didn’t have a director position for her. She had been with us 3 years and was totally ready for the role, so I was super happy for her (as much as I didn’t want her to go, I couldn’t compete with her offer and she contributed a lot over 3 years). The second left because he wanted to be closer to family on the East coast, again, something I can’t control. The third however quit to take what I perceived as a crappier job for a $4k bump working for the CEO’s daughters start up (no defunct), and quit as I was handing him a bonus check in front of the president of the company without giving me any warning. I had been personally mentoring this young designer as was totally caught off guard. Naturally I was not happy.

My point is, you only get to quit a job once, make sure you do it the right way and for the right reasons. It will have a big impact on your career later because your network and your reputation will be your most valuable asset.

  1. Do you enjoy your work? Are you learning from Sr. Designers? What is the department structure like? Can you move up with time or will you be stuck?

  2. You “feel” your boss is doing you a favor. Have you talked to him/her? He does value you if he’s paying you a salary. Have a talk with him or her and express what your assessment of your work situation is. Don’t be confrontational but try to gauge what his attitude is towards your employment. Is he happy with your performance? When will your next raise be and how much? Be prepared to answer what your ideal or reasonable working conditions and pay would be. Don’t dwell on your thoughts, feelings & perceptions, but try to gather actual data and facts to support your arguments.

  3. There are not a lot of ID jobs out there (or posted as often as other kinds of jobs). And when they do show up there are dozens if not hundreds of qualified applicants so you’ll have a lot of competition. If you are truly unhappy then start interviewing. Maybe you’ll get a better insight in regards to your salary and if it’s low or the norm for somebody with your experience & location.

  4. Right now you are worth what your check says. If you are worth more then it’s up to you to negotiate a better salary or move to a job that pays you more.

Good luck.

I had the same problems few years ago. You need to wait that moment, when your skills will be higher on 90% of designers, and there will be good money and interesting work. Good specialists earn good money and they are value. Also I can recommend to move in not so expensive city for 1-2 yers. You can find cheap places to live at http://voyagestic.com/, there are estimated budgets for all of the cities.

Here is a rule - you become a master after 10 000 hours of practice.

Define “serious” money in relationship to cost of living…

The only objective way for you to know if your employer values your skills is, if you get a raise and/or promotion. You have to understand the the first 12 months of any job is a review period. If you perform well and have the right attitude doing all of the jobs that no one else wants to do, then you can feel confident asking for an increase.

I would say that if you are working hard and contributing, as soon as you sense that you are not valued or respected, take the next opportunity as fast as you can. Sticking around and ‘learning more’ or in other words being ‘loyal’ is for mafia organizations that only know how to exploit their employees. You’ll know if the new opportunity provides a better environment to learn and build your skills. If it does…Take it, you are young.

A good career is made making opportunities for yourself and taking them when they present themselves to you. Sometimes you’ll have to wait a long period for the opportunity to present itself, sometimes it comes when you just got settled in a new city and you have to pour yourself into yet another vessel.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” -Bruce Lee

The only thing I will add to Mr. Lee is that it is only you who can and will decide if the current vessel form you are in is suitable.

Good luck…

All good points here. Does your compensation include a bonus? You might get a nice little pop towards the end of year.


I definitely feel your pain; as I am a native NY’er whose first design opportunities were in major design meccas (NYC, Seattle and Chicago); both corporate and consultancy. After graduating in 2011, the competition was so fierce in NYC (even after meeting with design directors and getting great feedback on my portfolio) that I had to reevaluate my dream of ending up at an award-winning consultancy and start casting a wider net in search of ID work elsewhere (in not-so metropolitan cities) if I were to be gainfully employed.

I finally ended up being interviewed and hired by a major company in the Midwest known for highly valuing design and their employees; and I haven’t looked back.

I don’t miss the big city and have to come to embrace small town values; and I am close to some major cities if I feel the need to venture out. I am compensated quite nicely (starting salary 60K; and in three short years, am closer to 70K). Granted, the projects aren’t as diverse as a consultancy, but that’s ok. We have multiple product categories, so it’s possible, even encouraged, to move around. I pay only 600 dollars a month for a nice one-bedroom apartment in a nice, modern complex. And in 3 years, I’ve been able to put a huge dent in my student loan debt. And I don’t have to eat Ramen every night. I love the work I am doing, have a great boss and great team members. And I don’t feel exploited nor overworked.

When you wrote, "I feel like my boss has the attitude that “there are a million other recent grads who are begging to have my job, and I’m lucky to be employed at all.”… I can sympathize because after talking to established designers over the years and reading gripes on Glassdoor.com about said consultancies, you will see that their name on your resume is your true compensation (not to mention the great work most of them do) because for the most part, designers complained about feeling exploited, overworked and under-compensated. No thank you!! Basically, you have to truly enjoy the work that frogs, Smarties and their ilk do because you won’t get rich doing it. I made an assumption you are working for a design firm; either large or small, so I apologize if I am incorrect. (My advice below still stands)

You will have to ultimately decide if being in a large expensive city is worth the financial heartache; or if you just need to move onto a company/consultancy in your same area that will compensate you what you are worth. The problem is that in major design meccas with a oversaturation of designers, the competition is not only fierce, but employers feel (for the most part) encouraged to underpay their entry level designers because they know that there will always be another young talent around the corner. Design is a fun, rewarding business but can also be cutthroat and ugly if you allow it to be. My suggestion to you is to either go corporate and/or move to a city with a lower cost of living; and climb up the corporate ladder. When you are then financially more sound (debts paid off, money saved up) and more established as a designer, you can then venture out to the big-name consultancies or to the design meccas you dream of and demand the compensation you deserve; if that is your wish.

Best of luck to you!

I make $35k / year in one of the most expensive cities in the US.

You are being screwed. Hard. That is fifteen-years-ago entry-level money but without the buying power. Adjusted for its 2003 buying power, that’s about $24k. Which would have been poverty wages in a small city back then, and less than you’d earn doing just about any other work. Moreover, the expensive coastal cities have mostly adopted minimum wages around $15/hr. Which you are most certainly not making once you take into account your exploitive employer’s likely expectation that you work more than 40 hours a week. So let that sink in: you’d make just as much money flipping burgers in NYC. All while your employer bills out your time for $150/hr, as you help create value for billion dollar brands. Get out of there NOW and look for a different job. Really. That kind of pay is pure, inexcusable exploitation, period. It also tells you that your employer has zero respect for you.

And no one on this forum should be advising you to accept or continue working for that kind of wage under any circumstances, unless you’re working part time or something.

Agreed, bcpid; good advice! But also keep in mind that there are dozens of other small consultancies in coast cities doing the same thing (underpaying and exploiting) and getting away with it because more times than not, most young out-of-school designers can’t afford to just wait around for the 70K entry level positions and take whatever they can get their hands on. It’s sad. I remember (in NYC, mind you) as far back as 5 years ago entry level positions in medium sized consultancies offering 35K to 45K. That would go far maybe in the Midwest (depending where as Chicago can be just as expensive), but not in NYC! I hope he is able to walk away or just apply elsewhere until he finds something much higher paying then ditch his current job. Walking away is hard when you have student loans and housing to pay for. :frowning: I wish him the best…

I think firms that don’t pay well and who work people extra hard tend to have a very high turn over rate (no matter their reputation)… and then their owners wonder why people don’t stay… if you pay the minimum amount you tend to get the minimum in return (wether that is in effort, loyalty, or both).

I’ve worked for both good and bad. When I worked for places that didn’t value their people I generally tried to figure out an exit. When I worked for places that treated me well I tried to stay longer, add value back, and be a good “alumni” by recommending good people and jumping in when they have reached out for help.

Also, in my experience, if you ever work for people who are always carrying on about people screwing them or being paranoid about people screwing them (clients and employees) typically that is a good indicator that employer frequently screws people over. I’m not sure if that made sense?

It absolutely makes sense.

I want to add to the comments above. I started out a little below $35k in 03, with $17k in federal loan debt at historically low (2.8%) rates, or about $180/mo in loan payments. My debt was a little below average then, and it is my understanding that average debt has at least doubled in real terms since then, against higher interest rates (I want to say average loan debt was low $20k’s in '03). It seems very realistic for new grads to have at least $500/mo in debt payments. I’ve been making adult money for a long time now and don’t have a great sense of what fresh grads are being offered straight out of school, but just to be on even footing with where I started, the floor would need to be at least $50k…in a small city and more like $70k on the coasts before it’s even viable to pick up a pencil.

Profs need to prepare their students for all the ways unscrupulous and/or “paying dues” mentality creeps will try to take advantage of their inexperience. The op’s example is really egregious. As far as I am concerned product development is product development, and the wages of your product development peers are the gage you should measure your ID wages against.