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A Snapshot of the Design Industry in Five Graphs

Answers to the money questions you don't want to ask

The design industry can feel like a black box, especially when it comes to finding a job and getting paid. Everyone has been there—the anxious feeling of negotiating a salary, the fear of asking for too much, or too little. This lack of transparency can impede progress towards creating more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplaces. 

We dug into the latest release of the Design POV research to unearth data around how designers are landing jobs and getting paid in the industry. The full report (free for AIGA members, $25 for nonmembers), puts it all in context, but below you can find five data points that we think highlight important information about where the industry is today. Think of it as a Q&A in infographic form. 

So while we don’t have a crystal ball for telling you exactly how much your colleague is making, we hope this data (and don’t forget about this spreadsheet!) will make you feel like you have more answers than questions. 

How do designers get their first job?

Designers land their first jobs in myriad ways, but according to POV research, most credit networking and building relationships with helping them to get there. While that’s not surprising, respondents also said that their formal education did little to prepare them for an industry that centers on building and maintaining professional relationships. “We heard that academia tends to prepare people for a world that doesn’t exist in the marketplace,” says Dr. Rubens Pessanha, AIGA’s chief of insights and learning. The good news is that designers tend to be resilient and passionate, and many credit their persistence with finally getting that first job, followed by leveraging internships and freelance work.

Do designers make money on the side?

Many do, yes. The POV found that every designer has the potential to be their own business. Four out of ten designers working at in-house, agencies, and education jobs say they have more than one source of income. Read: freelance and side projects are a major source of extra money—on average, designers with more than one source of income increase their annual income by 26 percent. If you add freelancers and small business owners into the mix, then the majority of designers who responded (six out of ten), say they rely on more than one source of income. The report found that designers at agencies are more likely than designers at in-house jobs to do freelance gigs outside of work, which correlates to the fact that many agency designers make less than their in-house counterparts and reportedly feel less stable in their job. Ultimately, we expect this trend to only increase, particularly as designers work continue to work from home and spend the extra time they save from commuting by taking on additional work projects. 

Do some types of designers make more than others?

They do. The data found that designers working in-house at corporations made more than their counterparts at agencies, non-profits, government agencies, and those who are educators and freelancers. The big plot twist? Designers who identified as “small business owners” reported the highest salaries, going to show a little entrepreneurialism goes a long way.

Does pay get better with time?

Good news! Salaries trend upward the longer designers stay in the industry. While the average entry-level designer reported making $48,000 a year, their salary nearly doubles after working in the industry for 10-plus years.

Does where I live matter?

Yes, and no. Respondents in large coastal regions like California and New York reported higher salaries compared to designers in the Midwest and South. These regions tend to have a larger concentration of high-paying jobs in industries like tech, advertising, and financial services, but they come with a higher cost of living. The discrepancies between location and the lowest-end of the salary range are much smaller, which could mean payment for entry-level jobs is fairly stable across the country. Meanwhile, the 75th percentile of wages are notably higher in both the Northeast and West. How this changes with the continuation of remote work has yet to be seen. For more detailed information on salary information by state, check out the full report.

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