The design industries have been adept at reinventing themselves. New specialisms, objects and audiences are constantly sought as designers work their way through periods of crisis and affluence. The designer dodges and weaves through hardship and prosperity based on a tactical responsiveness paired with a resourceful optimism. In spite of this agility, many designers experience insecurities and inequalities. These are often considered the mere price worth paying for a creative life: what one has to endure to do the thing one loves. In neoliberal times design has become an instrument of economic policy and commercial opportunity, more generally. This is in both its basic role in creating and controlling assets through intellectual property rights, and in its symbolic role as a leading innovator in the transformation of labour for the past 40 years.
This essay focuses on the contradictions between ideas of ‘being creative’ and the realities the day-to-day work of being a designer entails. There are many potential rewards, such as personal satisfaction, recognition and adhering to a certain lifestyle where leisure and work overlap. Yet there are also often the requirements to ‘play at’ being creative – to perform to clients and even to the very studio culture of design itself. To the outsider, this obscures the real practices of design that are often very routine and measured. Work in creative sectors may return personal fulfillment, be project-focused, flexible and capital-light in character. Yet it is also professionally insecure and precarious while, at the same time, being subjected to extreme pressures of delivery and effiency on the part of clients.
Much that follows is adapted from my book Economies of Design (2017) in which I explore the ways in which design is shaped by contemporary, global economic processes and how design itself shapes economic practices. With the perspective of time, I have begun to think about how designers might strengthen their practice. It seems that they have played a subordinate role to their circumstances. ‘Empowerment’ is an overused term, but at the end of this essay, I consider some ways out of the fine mess that is design.
In the late 1990s, a dedicated set of government policies were directed towards supporting and nurturing the creative industries and seriously considered for the first time(1). During the following two decades, this idea that there was a particular form of labour and multiple economic functions for this newly recognised creative sector influenced policymaking around the world. A new field of scholarly interest emerged, and with it a space to study the rise of design in these neoliberal times.
This ‘creative industries’ concept originated and was promoted through early policies of the United Kingdom’s Labour government between 1997-2010. The creative industries were seen to be fulfilling several key roles(2). Firstly, they contributed significantly to national economic performance. Secondly, they provided possibilities for the reskilling of workforces hit by deindustrialisation towards ‘knowledge economies’ over the former manufacturing or primary materials economies. They also functioned in terms of ‘soft power’ – as shop windows for selling the idea of innovative and creative regions, nations, cities and, of course, people. The creative industries were recognised for their potential to not only provide satisfying forms of work, but in doing so, contribute to cultural wealth and social wellbeing.
Beyond these motivations, the creative industries symbolically represented a kind of work that functions at the leading edge of the transformation of the self within the framework of neoliberalism. Work within the creative industries has always been casualised: it presents few professional opportunities to establish a ‘job for life’. The emphasis in the creative industries is particularly noticeable in design. The design industries offer flexible working conditions, project-based employment structuring, multi-skilling, entrepreneurship and individualism, fitting the labour regimes of neoliberalism since the 1980s. Creative workers therefore take on a symbolic role in the wider neoliberal economy. More pointedly, Andrew Ross argues that ‘the kind of development embraced by policymakers seems guaranteed merely to elevate this traditionally unstable work profile into an inspirational model for youth looking to make an adventure out of their entry into the contingent labor force. If the creative industries become the ones to follow, all kinds of jobs, in short, may well look more and more like musicians’ gigs: nice work if you can get it’(3).
A more positive spin may be given on this development by looking at the world of freelance work in certain creative sectors. The design industry has seen an ongoing rise in the proportion of professionals engaged in freelance work(4). This may be read as part and parcel of the rise of precarious labour. Freelancers may not just be working alone, but, for example, may frequently be hired into design companies on a project-by-project basis. But there may be other factors at play. Research on professionals working in creative digital professions shows that many freelancers prefer the flexibility that working alone affords. It allows them to move between clients or other digital companies they service, expanding their knowledge and experience as they go along. Working for oneself provides a wider set of social contacts through work, and providing things go well it also allows relative autonomy on working hours(5).
The ‘money or love?’ conundrum of creative work has persisted in many conversations about it. Early analysis of the creative industries centred on similar binary oppositions; between its labour as alienated, managed and routine, or satisfying, socially connected and free of organisational constraint and intervention(6). How are these positions aligned in design work?
Designers are Wankers. That’s the title of a book by product designer Lee McCormack(7). It starts from the premise that design students aren’t equipped ‘with the skills needed to make the transition to design in the real world’ (p.10). This transition involves ‘reassessment, adaptation and resignation’ (p.21). In order to successfully make it in the world of design work, graduates should embrace this professional world which, when ‘studying creativity actively takes you away from it’ (p.23). McCormack’s text then takes the reader through a series of useful tips on how, for instance, to relate to clients, present yourself, protect your ideas and get paid.
McCormack’s book is alive to the troubling juxtaposition of being creative and being commercial and his friendly advice is there to help bridge this gap. It may seem contradictory but, in fact, he is talking about complementary skills. Thus, being good at listening, adopting humility or dropping ‘attitude’ dovetail with developing a personal style, getting noticed or selling an idea to a venture capitalist. This mixture of discipline and freedom is echoed in graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy’s observation that ‘Design studios are a mixture of slave camp and enchanted playground’(8).
What binds these two positions? A closer analysis of design suggests that these two sides are both performed as part of the necessary, rational activities of its economic work. When, for instance, what makes ‘good design’ no longer relies on given styles or aims. When it is always relevant to the needs of the client or the end-user or some other demand, then this has to be continually explained and played out. What delivers value has to be performed in a number of ways.
Designers sell intellectual property. But this intellectual property as a commodity is not necessarily generalisable to all situations. Rather, it is something that is traded with specific users such as a manufacturer, a retail chain or a public service provider. The generalised element is the particular service that each designer or design consultancy can provide to their specific intended market specialism. These conditions have a number of effects on the ways by which designers work and present themselves.
The knowledge economy of design is performed both within the design space between design workers and outwardly with clients and potential clients. Such performativity is not unique to design; it happens throughout ‘immaterial labour’ and beyond(9). In design in particular, the parts of practice that are seemingly difficult to give a specific value to are the things that are ‘performed’ most noticeably.
Professional design studios are often surprisingly ordered, clean environments. Rows of workstations, composed of a chair, desk and a computer almost make them look like any other office space. Here they process projects according to ‘occupational formulae’(10). Previous work is recycled, design magazines and books are plundered for ideas, and photos are sourced from image libraries such as Shutterstock. The ‘look and feel’ of the finished piece, in graphic design for instance, will probably have already been determined through meetings between the studio’s account manager and the client. Deciding upon other details such as production requirements, budgets and what ‘raw material’ the client can provide, such as images, that they can supply(11). Design work can be much more routine than studying design where students are developing their personal approaches and learning their creative styles through varied projects. Instead, in the professional context it may sometimes be questioned the extent to which designers might be labelled as 'cultural intermediaries', given the bureaucratised, repetitive and risk-minimising processes they often engage in.(12)
This may be surprising for clients as well. After all, ultimately the design studio is selling creativity in some form or other to their clients. And yet, there seems little material evidence of this in a traditional sense were they to visit the design studio. Anecdotal evidence tells us that design studios have been known to ‘jazz up’ their studios, for example by putting more drawings on walls or piling up models, in anticipation of client visits. Creativity is performed for client benefit and reassurance, even where it is less normal. When projects are presented to clients – often at clients’ offices rather than at the design studio – this is more frequently done by the studio head and/or by someone with presentational flair. This person may not be the person who has carried out the majority of work on a project, but someone who is able to connect with and excite the client(13).
At the same time, workflow and tracking procedures for projects are invariably employed. In small studios this might come down to simple ‘to-do’ lists. But in larger studios, or with more complex projects, computer-based time-sheets and workflow systems supported by programmes such as Oracle Workflow, co.efficient or HighOrbit help to allocate, quantify, cost and monitor the distribution of tasks within the design firm. This can also help to back-track if something goes wrong in order to pinpoint exactly where and how the issue happened. Tracking is more usually a ‘below the line’ concern for design studios which isn’t shared publicly with clients, although a simplified version is instructive for them as they can see and appreciate what they are paying for in terms of time and organisational input. As an interviewee put it, ‘We want to give [a] good insight into how we systematically work to achieve solutions for our clients. If we explain to an easy-to-approach manager how we work, it will be easy for the client to buy design from us’(14). Here, internal procedures become presentational supports in the micro-economic interactions between designers and their clients.
To find that a studio uses tracking procedures may be reassuring for the designer who has recently joined the profession. They provide the impression that things are stable, that clearly defined tasks are assigned and that the completion of tasks is set up in time-frames. The reality is that while design work may be structured into billable units of time, designers often find themselves providing input outside these (e.g. working late, outside the workflow framework). A design project is broken down into the fulfilment of a series of materialisations such as sketches, models, prototypes, mock-ups, proposals or proofs, each of which has different expectations and audiences. Design work therefore becomes a precarious set of negotiations to get through the studio hierarchy. The designer’s performance in this environment is therefore also measured against a cumulative set of evidence that ultimately allows for, or inhibits, their career progression. Design work is under constant scrutiny and increasing pressure. It becomes a form of partially deskilled and managed, alienated labour rather than the life-fulfilling, joyous work that, at least, William Morris imagined.
It has long been observed that design is generally a long-hours, low-turnover profession, and things aren’t getting any easier. Surveys reinforce this view even further. In a questionnaire of 576 people working in design in 2013 in the UK, 85.6% said that ‘clients expect more work for less money’, around two thirds of respondents agree that ‘agencies are using more freelancers’ (68.1%) and about two fifths (42.5%) agree that ‘agencies are using more unpaid interns’ (Design Industry Voices 2013).
These statistics underline a generally held opinion that design work offers little job security, involving flexible employment patterns and constant downward pressure on project budgets by clients. The extent to which junior designers fall into the category of the precariat is debatable.
The precariat is a term used to describe workers who are in insecure labour, who are in expectation of this situation and are often overqualified for the jobs they are doing. They may be qualified in professions but they don’t necessarily anticipate that they will find their way into long-term positions and they may be working beneath their capabilities. Precarious working involves constantly having to learn new technical, commercial, social and communication skills as they move from organisation to organisation, adapting to their specific structures and processes. In design, this is characteristic of the working life for many graduates who are often employed in short, fixed-term contracts, requiring them to familiarise themselves repeatedly and giving them the impression that they are always having to start from scratch. The term ‘precariat’ derives from a contraction of the words ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ and in doing this, the originator of the term, Guy Standing, recognises this category to constitute an identifiable class of its own(15).
An alternative view is that precarious work in design provides junior designers with opportunities to build experience in a number of organisations and broaden their skillset, perhaps before establishing themselves as freelance designers or setting up their own studios. The rise of internships in design is clearly directed at this notion, providing short-term opportunities for graduates to build their experience whilst practically working for free.
This ambiguity has been captured by the establishment of Intern Magazine in 2013, a biannual print publication aimed at providing and showcasing the work of interns in the creative industries whilst acting as a platform for debate around the negative issues this form of work carries. Within its pages, the question of profile-building through internships that enhance the CV and demonstrate experience of having worked with recognisable ‘names’ is clear. One such ‘name’, who herself had undertaken internships prior to becoming a partner with renowned graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, stated it as following: ‘Our [interns] are unpaid. We pay for their lunches. I think it's on a situational basis whether people are comfortable with that, and can handle that. But I think internships in general are just a fantastic opportunity for people to learn and get close to people they really admire and respect’ [my italics](16). Being ‘comfortable with that’ would include having sufficient finance already to cover ordinary living costs while undertaking that internship.
For some, the personal rewards of working in a design studio may be enough to accept exploitative working conditions. The rise of platform capitalism has added another, more globalising layer to this narrative.
So far, we have viewed design work as being relatively geographically concentrated. This is taken in terms of the studio culture, the social networks between designers, the apparent ‘clustering’ of designers for the purpose of either competitive advantage, symbolic capital or merely ‘the buzz’. In addition, we may read it as the effect of layers of economic reasons or globally circulating policy orthodoxies. The global rise of the ride-sharing company Uber from 2011 has come to signify the fine line between the flexibility and the exploitation that can emerge in platform capitalism.
In 2008, three crowdsourcing platforms for logo design were launched. These were 99designs (with over 850,000 registered designers by 2014), DesignCrowd (with over 440,000 designers by 2014) and crowdSPRING (incorporating graphic design and naming with over 160,000 designers and writers by 2014)(17). Similar platforms such as 12designer, CrowdSpring, MycroBurst and designenlassen (the English version being designonclick) followed. The general idea of these platforms is that potential clients can place design briefs on these platforms and allow designers to pitch for the work, supplying costs and design proposals. It is like the free-pitching method where traditionally a client will invite several design consultancies or freelancers to enter into unpaid competition in order to secure a job. The obvious difference is that this internet system allows the client to spread the net globally and drive down the remuneration for work as they tap into low-wage economies and a much wider labour marketplace. For the platform owners, the rewards can be high: with a 40% commission, 99designs were taking US$1.3m per month from an overall US$3.3m of turnover in late 2014 and early 2015(18). They represent and facilitate the globalisation of design labour while also ensuring another form of extractivism of the global South from the global North.
For very few designers at the other end of these platforms, there can be good rewards, both financially and in terms of their publicised profile. Most of these platforms have a ranking system that shows the relative success of members. In Ecuador, Xavier Iturralde reportedly made 34,577 euros over four years via the platform jovoto, with an average earning of 110 euros per design idea. For many, it means very low remuneration – Grace Oris in the Philippines reported earning as little as US$4 per day on 99Designs for her logo design work (Schmidt 2015: 208 and 197)(19). But it also involves constant cycles of expectation and disappointment as designers plug away in the expectation of eventually getting ‘the big break’ and landing a good client. This has been described as ‘hope labour’(20).
Needless to say, these platforms can only service specific sectors of the design industry such as logo design, particularly for small businesses. Larger, more complex branding schemes that require fine-tuned understanding of a corporation’s internal structure and culture, its audiences and strategies demand close and long-term relationships between designer and client that cannot be replicated online. Nonetheless, some of these platforms try to emulate some of the social world of design elsewhere. Hence, meet-ups of participants and spaces on their websites are organised as spaces for information-exchange and, moreover, give the feeling that they are part of something. These platforms help to give the illusion of being part of this creative crowd and the lifestyle of the creative industries. It appears that the social milieu of being a designer still has some value, even within this disjointed and flattened world of platform capitalism.
It seems like a bleak picture for many in design work. Market expansion for designers is growing apace. Globally, the annual growth rate of design services has been at a reported 11.6% since 2014(21). Yet the downward pressure on design businesses to cut costs and precariatisation of design work it seems has continued. Design work, as with many other sectors of the creative industries, remains under-asserted and -securitised, vulnerable to wider economic fluctuations and a relatively low-pay activity(22). The Covid pandemic since 2020 has exacerbated this situation(23). What to do about this state of affairs?
It may be inappropriate of me, a reasonably well-paid academic who doesn’t work professionally in design, to make prescriptions here. Indeed, it seems to me that the good intentions of design academia have left it replete with declarations of ‘design must’, ‘designers should’ or ‘we have to’ without producing pathways towards achieving whatever they suggest. Copious texts pushing designers to embrace lofty ideals such as ‘sustainment’ or ‘defuturing’ pay little attention to the realpolitik of being a designer and paying the rent. The privileged position of academics sometimes assumes that to be universal. Some possibilities for the conundrum of how to be a happy but also sufficiently pecunious and secure designer may emerge through analysis.
The problem may in part reside in the very emergent nature of design culture in the first place. I specifically refer to the design profession’s constant invention of specialisms and sub-specialisms in response to changing market and social conditions. The American Institute of Graphic Artists reports some 23 design specialisms at play(24). There may be many more than that. The design profession’s almost kaleidoscopic ability to throw out new ways of working, new objects of design, new processes and relationships is, in itself, a creative asset. And yet this makes it ever harder to establish any normative structures. As novel ways of doing design are produced, the establishment of ‘codes of conduct’ or professional expectations constantly remain just out of reach.
An easy comparison to make is with architecture. This is a sector that is redolent with nationally-set standards for education and practice, collectively agreed processes and relationships with clients and, generally, publicly understood remuneration patterns. These give the architecture profession far greater security and stability, overall. Additionally, while architects invariably report precarious relationships with other actors such as project managers and property developers, the essential tools for designing remain under the architect’s dominion. In design, there are specialisms that are partly securitised through their control over the tools to hand. For example, Human-Computer Interface or User Experience design requires technical input, such as coding, that is easily defined and costed. Thus, there may be ways by which designers can more clearly identify what they hold monopolies over. Having identified these, they can then be held close to the designer’s toolbox. They become a scarcity that the client requires.
Meanwhile, designers are typically engaged in so-called ‘needs production’ as termed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu(25). Indeed, this explains the historical promotion of ‘good design’ as a necessary component for a thriving society and economy. They have to create their market, for their output isn’t typically recognised as being absolutely essential to human existence. The promotion of ‘good design’ as an ennobling and profitable aim has been made by successive museums and schools, professional associations and government bodies for over 150 years.
Needs production can seem just a bit too needy. Texts on ‘how to be a successful designer’, such as this essay has referred to, rely on the ingratiating performance of the designer for the client or to each other. They require the professional designer often to be so deep in ‘service mode’ that their specialist skills become subordinate. On either side of this, the design profession is often engaged in both a race to the top and to the bottom. On the one hand, many designers work up the value chain to offer more holistic services, integrating design with marketing, strategy and management. But once there, they are in competition with specialists of these fields who, in turn, may have done a short course in ‘design thinking’. On the other, their work, particularly in visual communications, may become increasingly routinised and subject to occupational formulae such that it is perceived to be low-skilled and easily replaceable in the global work marketplace or, even, by technological means (e.g. A.I.).
If what is sold through design work is creativity, then perhaps designers can be creative in the way they work. Can the multiplicity of economic practices that circulate through and around design, including financial and other economic practices, be given more consideration? Can the activities, networks and goals of design be reframed and subject to other forms of valuation? So far, in creative industries policymaking by governments and in the promotion of design by professional organisations, the framing of how success in design is measured has been fairly one-dimensional. Governments have placed emphasis on the bottom line of ‘contribution to national GDP’ in countless creative industry-mapping documents, while design has been sold to potential commercial clients in terms of value-added to the bottom-line of profit. The latter may be either directly in terms of increased sales or indirectly in terms of, for instance, brand recognition. This narrow conception of value conspires firstly to frame the economy merely in terms of financial exchange, rather than in terms of the full panoply of transactions that exist in the economic sphere. The exchange of time, skills or learnings, the care economy of supporting others, bartering, gifting, swapping and many more activities exist outside but also help to sustain wage-labour(26). These function in the design economy as elsewhere. Furthermore, policymakers and design promoters conspire to separate spheres of life. In this framework, perceived economic functions are isolated from other activities in everyday living, such as social relationships, environmental connections (‘natural’ or human-produced), cultural processes or religious practices. Would a simple turn to thinking about livelihoods, where such spheres of everyday life come closer together, be more meaningful?(27)
Much of this essay has centred on the ways in which design work has become progressively more insecure. Behind the ways in which alienated labour is also to be found in design, there is still a strong performative element, where the lifestyle, creativity and social milieu of being a designer are still very present. One might trace this to the educational roots that are to be found in design schools, where the 24-hour studio culture is still apparent(28). But I would also push that this performativity is part of the normative culture of the professional studio.
It may seem a contradiction to therefore suggest that we think more in terms of livelihood where the social and economic worlds of the designer overlap. They already overlap. But this is in very particular ways as defined by a dominant understanding of professional design work. Here, I am suggesting a more expanded attitude about work, social practices and environmental relationships. This needn’t be all of the time. After all, it is often necessary to live contradictions in capitalism. Commercial work of a particular kind, done in a particular way may have to be done to pay the rent. At other moments, let us consider being more creative about what we understand to be design work. Some models for reorganising design work already exist(29). Working through what would need to happen in order to achieve other livelihoods would also be the work of design itself.
(1) Flew, Terry (2010) ‘Toward a cultural economic geography of creative industries and urban development: introduction to the special issue on creative industries and urban development’, The Information Society, 26(2), 85-91.
(2) Smith, Chris (1998). Creative Britain. London: Faber.
(3) Ross, Andrew (2009) Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. New York: New York University Press.
(4) e.g. BDI (British Design Innovation) (2005), ‘The British Design Industry Valuation Survey – 2004 to 2005’ (report) Brighton: BDI; Design Council (2015) The Design Economy 2015: The Value of Design to the UK. London: Design Council.
(5) Sapsed, J., Camerani, R., Masucci, M., Petermann, M., and Rajguru, M. (2015) ‘The BrightonFuse2: Freelancers in the Creative Digital IT Economy’, (http://www.brightonfuse.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/brighton_fuse2_online.pdf), accessed 17/11/15.
(6) e.g. Townley, Barbara and Beech, Nic (eds.) (2010) Managing Creativity: Exploring the Paradox, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(7) McCormack, Lee (2005) Designers are Wankers. London: About Face Publishing.
<8) Shaughnessy, Adrian (2005) How To Be A Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul, London: Laurence King.
(9) Lazzarato, Maurizio (1996) ‘Immaterial Labour’, In M. Hardt and P. Virno, Paolo (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 133-147.
(10) Negus, Keith (2002) ‘The Work of Cultural Intermediaries and the Enduring Distinction Between Production and Consumption’, Cultural Studies, 16: 501-515.
(11) Dorland, AnneMarie (2009) ‘Routinized Labour in the Graphic Design Studio’, in G. Julier and L. Moor (eds), Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice. Oxford: Berg. pp.105-21.
(12) Moor, Liz (2012) 'Beyond cultural intermediaries? A socio-technical perspective on the market for social interventions', European Journal of Cultural Studies, 15(5): 563-80.
(13) Julier, Guy (2010) ‘Playing the System: design consultancies, professionalisation and value’ in B. Townley and N. Beech (eds) Managing Creativity: Exploring the Paradox, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 237-59.
(14) Törmikoski in G. Julier and L. Moor (eds.) Design and Creativity: Policy, management and practice. Oxford: Berg, p.248.
(15) Standing, Guy (2011) The Precariat. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
(16) Walsh in Quito, Anne (2014) ‘Casting Jessica Walsh’, Intern Magazine, Summer Issue 2: 22-53.
(17) Schmidt, Florian (2015) ‘The Design of Creative Crowdwork: From Tools for Empowerment to Platform Capitalism’, PhD Dissertation, Royal College of Art.
(20) Kuehn, Kathleen, and Corrigan, Thomas (2013) ‘Hope labor: the role of employment prospects in online social production’, Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9–25.
(21) Business Research Company (2020) ’Design Services Market Characteristics’ https://www.thebusinessresearchcompany.com/report/design-services-market, accessed 12/11/2020.
(22) KEA (2019) Research for CULT Committee - Culture and creative sectors in the European Union – Key future developments, challenges and opportunities (report). European Union: Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies.
(23) OECD (2020) ‘Culture shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors’ (report) available http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses, accessed 12/11/2020.
(24) AIGA (2020) ’Types of Design Practice’ at https://www.aiga.org/aiga/content/tools-and-resources/student-resources/types-of-design-practice, accessed 12/11/2020
(25) Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(26) Gibson-Graham, J. K. (1997). The end of capitalism (as we knew it): A feminist critique of political economy. Capital & Class, 21(2), 186-188.
(27) Miller, E. (2019). Reimagining Livelihoods: life beyond economy, society, and environment. Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
(28) Frith, Simon and Horne, Howard (1987) Art into Pop. London: Routledge.
(29) For example see https://weareholon.gitbook.io/handbook/, accessed 12/11/2020. Further examples feature in Julier, Guy (2017) Economies of Design. London: Sage, chp.7.