Why are designers as a class so bad at getting paid?

Gotta ask this one. Some of the salaries getting tossed around here are ridiculous - as in bad ridiculous. $35k in NYC? Completely inexcusable. Why are numbers like this even on the table?

Supply and demand. Most designers are as good in marketing and finance as marketeers are in design.
And both sides don’t man up to it.


Your post is very timely, coz I’ve had not one but two wrangles with clients about fees today. Let’s say you hit a raw nerve.

Designers don’t know their own worth. Some employers think it’s a hobby, a pastime and don’t want to pay for it.

I’ve been in negotiations with a factory to design a range, I’ve done a small group for them already, they paid in advance, my usual day rate. They made all the right noises. Now they’re playing hardball. They just don’t want to pay what it costs. They want like 50% of my usual fee! They want to employ a European designer with lots of experience, but they want to pay China rates. Needless to say, I’m not doing it. If I caved in and did it, I reckon I’d only end up resenting the client, or take short cuts and the range would suffer.

A freelancer friend of mine, (in soft accessories) is very talented but just cannot get her day rate up to what she knows she is worth. The market won’t support it. There is a ceiling for daily rate in mainstream fashion accessories, your talent and experience doesn’t come into it. Which is frustrating. She needs to pay her bills, so she’s having to accept the market average for her services.

And then we get onto agencies. Because they want to whack their commission ontop of your day rate, they try to cut your dayrate down. I’ve spent the afternoon playing email tennis with an agency who seems to be waiting to see if I’ll ‘crack’ and lower my rate. They’re not being entirely honest with me. Ok - they’ve told a few fibs already. They keep contradicting themselves. And this is a big multinational agency, supposedly respectable and they behave like this. And the client is a hugely famous company that turned over £4bn last year and I’m being told their budget won’t allow it, so they ‘can’t put me forward.’ (Yesterday they told me the client didn’t give them a budget!) They want seem to want to scare me into giving in and accepting a lower rate before they’ve even discussed this with the client. I’m unimpressed, can you tell?

I expect sales forces at these companies don’t get treated like this.

Of course not everyone is like this but when you have two incidents like this in one day…

I think we can be our own worst enemies though. It really really annoys me when I see designers (based in my country) advertising on People for Hour and similar sites and offering hourly rates that I know it’s not possible to live on if you’re freelance. They’re not helping themselves or their fellow designers.

At least I guess I’m lucky in that clients still want European designers for their ranges. If you’re designing fashion then they want you to be living in the market that you are designing for.

Anyway, I just wanted to share. I feel like ringing up every new freelancer out there and telling them how it is and warning them about this stuff, because it’s not on.


Because people are willing to work for that much. Anyone making that much money though is generally a fresh-out of school designer with little to no overhead. Most people living in NYC at that wage are renting a small bedroom in a multi-person apartment, don’t have a car or family, so all their money goes to rent or booze. I know a lot of people with that lifestyle and it works for a bit until they finally get a raise and can then move into their own apartment (But still not be able to afford kids or a car).

Design like almost any creative profession is a “foot in the door” kind of job. Most students straight out of college are willing to accept long hours and peanuts because they hope it’s going to be that “Foot in” moment. Sometimes they’re just signing up to be overworked, but it’s that realization that will make them ask for more money the second time around.

Think about how many unemployed designers/new grads there are? If you don’t want a job at $35k I can guarantee theres at least a dozen people who will jump at it.

Luckily I’m glad I didn’t start in that boat.

Are we underpaid as a whole? Wouldn’t the basic order of supply and demand (as has been noted) mean that our value is exactly what it is? Sure, some make $35K in NYC, but some also make $250K (not one to one, of course).

I always remember discussing my baseball card collection with my Dad as a kid telling him X card is worth $Y according to whatever guide. he told me, “No, it’s worth what someone is willing to pay”. This is true not only in worth of jobs but also real estate, ebay auctions, whatever. You can say something is worth whatever you like, but it’s only true when someone agrees and offers you that amount.

That’s not to discount of course that there are people who under-estimate our value or try to lowball it. But again, it’s only a problem when we accept.

I got an email from a China fty today asking if I was interested designing footwear for potential royalties if their client “picked it”. Knowing the location of the fty and the type of brands that would use it, even if the deal made any sense (it didn’t) and I was willing to work on spec (I’m not), I know the brand wouldn’t want to pay for my level of design. it’s just not in the brand’s level of business where price is number one and design is number 42.

It’s also important I think to recognize value and $ are all relative. What is small for one guy, may be huge for another. One person may work for $ as an end goal, someone else may work for pleasure or fame.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, and don’t know the original source, but I believe the maxim -

“Fame, Fun, Fortune…pick two” is somewhat correct. Like anything I’m sure there are exceptions, but I believe as a rule it holds pretty true (like the “Good, Fast, Cheap. Pick two” similar maxim).


I’ll take Fun and Fortune please.

it’s only a problem when we accept.


Sure there are some chancers out there, I did get a call last year that went, ‘we were going to get some students to do this because they’ll work for free, but they might not have enough experience, will you work for free?’

After I’d lifted my jaw back up from the floor I wished them the best of luck with their company, (because I knew they’d need it!)

$35k is shocking to me because that’s 8-years-ago-just-graduated-job-in-the-midwest-level pay.

Not to say it’s not shocking to me - I’m in NY and I flat out would never have accepted that, even out of school. I knew from previous jobs what my time was worth. In fact I arguably took a pay cut going into ID from web development where I probably could have been making double or triple what I am now, but I mentally couldn’t bear the thought of writing code every day for the rest of my life and went with the ID gig.

But we can’t forget theres 6 billion people on this planet and what may be beneath some is food for someone elses table. Really just depends what side of the fence you’re on, and most of us happen to be lucky enough to be on the opposite side. The guy making $35k is probably still in the studio now huffing down marker fumes.

I started out with a $30K salary out of college in 1988 :open_mouth:

I had a client come in and made a big deal about bringing their CEO to meet me. They were fairly known in the computer accessories field and have a line of products in the market. I thought great, this is a legit client and not some hack inventor. Turns out his deal was, “we’ll treat all projects like a contest and have all the designers we picked submit their designs, if yours wins, we will produce it and put you in the brochure and mention you designed it.” Then I asked about pay and they said there was none, payment will be a portfolio piece and a mention in their brochure that should help me get other business. Ha! I politely escorted them out the door about 10 seconds after I told them I don’t work that way.

that’s when you tell him, you’d be happy to accept any and all his products for free, and if you like one you might tell a friend about it :slight_smile:

As an industry we simply need to keep asking for what we believe we are worth, and present a coherent case for it. I was once told that as a freelancer, If you win more than 50% of your tenders then you’re not asking enough. there’ll always be people willing to work for peanuts, or free, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to compensate. Create value in the work that you do and most importantly, show to the client that regardless of your pricetag, they’ll be getting great value and benefit from you. If our knowledge seems expensive to a client, then they will quickly learn that ignornace is much more expensive :stuck_out_tongue:

“Fame, Fun, Fortune…pick two” is somewhat correct. Like anything I’m sure there are exceptions, but I believe as a rule it holds pretty true (like the “Good, Fast, Cheap. Pick two” similar maxim).

That one is pure gold!

I pinned it on the wall behind my office chair to have a look at it in times of despair.
Clearly, I took Fun & Fortune, which luckily enables me to pick Good & Fast over cheap. The missing fame sometimes botheres me, though…

To come back to payment:

I once worked for a small but “hot” agency that had all the right exposure. My pay as a freelancer was ridiculous, but the
“circus director” always insisted on not making any money himself. The time came that I had to deliver some sketches to
a client and took “signed papers” back. The writing backed up what our boss told us. The contract was a joke. I left the show 6 weeks later.

It is not too difficult to calculate what worth your work carries for the client. You can’t take all of that worth through your pay. In reality the deal should be beneficial for both sides. And I have to stress it both sides.

A word about royalties. Today some contracts schedule the capping of the royalties after X years, that a product is on the
market. Why that? This gives the manufacturer an unfair chance of winning in the long run. And I experienced it to be relatively easy to get that important barrier out when frankly discussing contract terms. It doesn’t hurt the customer immediately, he doesn’t have to pay out of the pocket and may not even see the chance himself that a product runs for more than the normal life cycle. If a product does, usually it is not triggered my marketing or brand building but by the
intrinsic value in the design itself. But those “icons” need some time to gain momentum, as “revolutionary” solutions that
are “ahead of time” need some exposure to the public. If your pay is capped after 5 years you may potentially lose a fortune on your best works.


Me too, (well, similar - $28k in 1991) the deflation is frightening.

We as a profession are seeing the same thing that happened with Graphic Designers in the late 80’s early 90’s. Anyone with a seat of photo shop was calling themselves graphic designers and charging$15 an hour. And turning out crap or completely unusable work. And the people paying for it could see only how much less it was to hire the %15.00 per hour “designer” then it was to hire the actual professional.

Now in our industry, where many schools are turning out designers at a high rate (many who do not deserve to graduate but paid their tuition) combined with how readily available high end software packages are (bootleg)Plus so many young designers presenting themselves as Product development (themselves and a buddy) firms and charging a rate of $35 an hour. Corporation who don’t understand are jumping at the price or when going to a firm or freelance who has the experience saying to them “well i talked to this other firm and they bill at $35 an hour” not realizing that you can’t make a comparison on price because a 1 year grad designing a product for production does not compare to a person who has designed and developed for production for over 10 years.

Now i am not trying to knock on students as not everyone is doing the same thing, but i have begun to see a trend were in recent grads put in there resume that they designed for such and such client or developed a product for so and so corporation, without stating that these we class projects and were never taken further then the concept phase. On top of that I see portfolio’s and websites being created showcasing their work and the descriptions do not explain that these were concepts, and even at times lead the viewer to believe that the project was more then it was.

All these things combined have muddied the waters for many people, Now some get it and know that they need to pay a fair price to achieve quality work, but many still see the bottom line and want that.

Okay my rant is complete back to work.

Chevis W.

Again, I’m going to go back to simple economics. You are paid what you are worth. You get what you pay for.

There will always be some kid charging less. That’s fine by me, and I think even good. That kid can in no way do what I can do with my experience, so someone that hires him gets what he can deliver at whatever price he asks for it (assuming it’s less). What this may do, would be bring someone to a designer that might not normally hire one at all. Next project, when they want to raise the bar even higher, they up the budget and come to me.

If they don’t need my level of design, they won’t pay for it and I’ll be the first one to tell them to go elsewhere. Like the China fty I mentioned. I’m not going to complain that they can get their chinese designer to do with for $200/MONTH, because they don’t need me. It’s not competition.

If the new grad with is charging $35/hr you shouldn’t be mad at him. If he can charge more, yes, he should. But he’s only charging as much as he can, right? There is no incentive to him to underchange, again it’s simple economics.

If you as an experienced designer are doing the exact same thing at the same level as the kid, you are the one that should be worried and have a problem. If you are doing more, better, and bringing more to the table, you’ll be fine and will charge what you are worth.

A rising tide lifts all boats.


The shoe trade is so small it takes about ten minutes of emailing to find out how honest they’re being.

If they don’t need my level of design, they won’t pay for it and I’ll be the first one to tell them to go elsewhere. Like the China fty I mentioned. I’m not going to complain that they can get their chinese designer to do with for $200/MONTH, because they don’t need me. It’s not competition.

That’s why I’m annoyed about my recent experience with the Chinese factory. They wanted my level of design because their range for selling in Europe just isn’t working for them, it’s not selling, the styling is wrong. But they led me up the garden path, not complaining about my rates until I met them at the show (they have known how much I charge for months). Thing is, they don’t want a Chinese designer, they want a European one who really knows the market inside out, but they can only pay peanuts. But they still managed to pay for a big fancy booth at GDS, which tells me how much they value design. I’ve told them to look for a designer that doesn’t live in one of the most expensive cities of the world and that doesn’t have 19 years experience. I expect we’ll see them, soon, advertising somewhere on Craigslist or Gumtree.

I am also seeing a lot of students or recent grads claiming to have 2-3 years of experience, but there is no employment listed and maybe 1 or 2 internships.

Why is it so hard?

Because it’s hard to show the added value of good design. If you want to show it you have to do a bad design. But that would be suicide. People take it for granted. If people ask me what I do (productdesigner) they look astonished. People think products grow on trees. That is not a result of someone who has tinkered an thought about for a long time. And yes it’s designer who create the added value and they do not get paid enough for this feat. Unfortunately it’s much easier for a salesman or a marketeer to sell his added value. Especially marketeers who think the success of a product is their doing…I’d like them to sell shit and then we’ll talk…although probably some of them would pull that off to :wink: http://www.wimdelvoye.be/cloacafactory.php