Survey reveals British designers feel underpaid, overworked and worried about job security

The Design Industry Voices 2012 report is out and it appears from this year's survey that the design industry is even more unhappy than it was in 2011. We're still being asked to produce more work for less money and pitch for free – and we believe that safe full-time positions are disappearing in favour of freelance jobs and unpaid interns.

The one bright light is that we still seem proud of what we do: fewer of us believe that the standard of our work's declining than in 2011 (down to 28% from 31%).

The report is based on a survey of 459 people in October from a variety of positions in design companies – not all creative – including owners, designers, planners and account managers. The full report can be downloaded from It was written by Rachel Fairley, MD of brand consultancy Fairley & Associates – along with Karina Beasley, MD of design and digital recruitment agency Gabriele Skelton and Stef Brown, MD of On Pointe Marketing.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked about how they feel about the demands of their jobs and clients, they were asked to compare them to the pre-recession days of 2007 rather than last year. This makes it easier to draw conclusions from how their opinions have changed, as respondents are comparing themselves to a fixed point.

While the top three complaints – clients expect more work for less money, budgets have been reduced, and they expect more work in pitches for free – haven't changed, it's the first of these that's increased by 2.5% while the others have barely varied.

Clients who know better

Regular followers of the Clients From Hell blog won't be surprised that some of the blame for this is being laid at clients who think that design is easy – and that they should be art directing every project.

“In their incessant search for lower costs," says one respondent, "clients have become yet more deluded in the misplaced faith they have in their own design ability. Not content with doing their own job – rarely with any convincing skill or aptitude – they insist on doing mine too. I am heartily sick of artworking ill-conceived, surface executions which never solve the communication problem they think they have."

"Unless clients give the design professionals the respect they deserve they will never get the best result for their produce or brand," said another.

However, it's impossible to tell whether this is arrogance on the part of clients, or designers who can't take criticism. I'd say we all know both types, but we are all both to a greater or lesser degree in our professional and personal lives.

Most of the other statements that respondents were asked whether they agreed with or not (or had no opinion about) also saw little change. Notable changes included rises in those agreeing that agencies are employing more freelancers (up over 10%) and fewer permanent employees – a disappointing trend that has happened across much of Britain from coffee shop chains to the NHS (and publishing houses too).

The creative industries have always relied on a healthy body of freelances to supplement in-house teams when big projects come in or when specialised skills are needed. But when organisations refuse to take on needed full-time staff and instead rely on like-for-like freelance replacements, they end up wasting money rather than saving it. Just over two in five of us think agencies are using more unpaid interns than in 2007, but this down from last year – hopefully helped by stories in the mainstream press about companies from a variety of backgrounds being investigated by HMRC and made to pay up under minimum wage legislation.

4.4 per cent more people said that pitching took longer (for a total 58.3 per cent), and more than half believe that clients want work that's safer than before. This is perhaps surprising as – while recessions always make people cautious about risk – the continuing growth of social media, mobile and tablet means that clients have to expand their horizons if they want to continue to engage their customers. However, there's no way to tell from the report whether respondents thought 'safer' referred to concepts, execution, platform – or just not going along with their ideas.

Are you as fulfilled as you should be?

Separately, the survey asked respondents to rate their agency on business and holistic criteria – the latter being being something that creatives feel to be important more so than other professions – from workloads to how good the management is helping staff deal with stress. Usefully, the survey also asked them how important they considered those things to be, and then worked out the 'delivery' gap between the two.

Again not much as changed since last year – with areas like staffing, valuing ideas and opinions, development, teamwork, feedback, and pay and benefits all sitting at around a 50% discrepancy between how respondents think it is and how it should be. The worrying thing is that many of these have doubled – or even quadrupled – since 2009.

This report appears to show an industry with a serious morale problem, as the fallout from 'austerity Britain' leads to us having to do more for fewer rewards – in terms of money, time and feeling creatively fulfilled. But there are ways to get more of what you want – and that's what Digital Arts is dedicated to bringing you every day, whether we're in times of boom or bust.


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