Illustration by Beatrice Sala

This op-ed was collaboratively penned by Design Action Collective and Partner & Partners. Design Action Collective is a cooperative design studio based in Oakland, California, and Partner & Partners is a cooperative design studio in New York City. 

Earlier this year, AIGA Eye on Design republished an article about worker-owned cooperatives featuring interviews with members of Design Action Collective and Partner & Partners.

While we were glad to see the national design industry take note of worker co-ops, we were disappointed to see Pentagram mentioned in an article featuring cooperatively owned design studios. Though Pentagram refers to the heads of their teams as “partners”—a commonly used term to describe co-owners in the co-op space—they stop short of actually operating as a cooperative. Only the partners, a small percentage of the firm’s employees, hold ownership and decision-making power. We believe including a large agency in an article about co-ops is misleading and indicative of a general misunderstanding that often finds its way into conversations and articles about worker-owned studio models.

Which brings us to a larger point: Amidst growing interest in the co-op model, it’s imperative that the design industry and the design press remains thoughtful in its usage of the language around cooperative labor and shared ownership, and critical of attempts from corporations and large agencies to appropriate that language and empty it of meaning

We’ve kept our small businesses afloat through the pandemic with a cooperative business model, and we believe it’s the future of the design industry. In the face of staggering income inequality and aggressive anti-unionization efforts, worker ownership is a proven strategy that can mitigate oppressive economic conditions. We’re taking this opportunity to articulate our principles as worker-owned design studios and to encourage others to consider transitioning to a worker-owned cooperative business model as well.  

Though the co-op model is about more than sharing profits between co-owners, more equitable pay is one of the defining features of a co-op, and one that sets it apart from the common design studio business model. The process of researching salaries at large firms often reveals a massive wage gap between the partners of a firm and their employees (though due to a lack of transparency around pay, it’s often difficult to obtain exact numbers). 

To continue with the Pentagram example, on the Graphic Design Salary Transparency spreadsheet, junior designers at the firm’s New York office report annual salaries of $40,000 to $55,000. These numbers were similar to Glassdoor, on which 47 reported salaries for the roles of “graphic designer” or “designer” at Pentagram ranged from hourly figures of $21/hour to around $50,000 to $59,000 annually. Reported salaries show that associate partners make around $112,000 to $128,000, plus a $16,631 bonus. The single reported salary of a partner at Pentagram is around $300,000, with a $117,000 bonus (this hole in wage gap transparency has been well-documented). At a similarly established firm like Wolff Olins, a global principal reported a salary on Glassdoor between $334,00 and $359,000, while a junior designer lists a salary around $64,000 to $68,000.

These are striking numbers, but they aren’t unique to Pentagram and Wolff Olins. Across the advertising, architecture, and graphic design fields, you can find a similarly inverted relationship between the executive class, who hold the decision-making power, and the young, hungry underlings who execute much of the labor. In this system, design firms work toward signing the largest clients possible, make enormous profits on their work, and then pay their designers as little as they can get away with. Though this business model is still heavily entrenched within the status quo, we’re presenting an alternative to all designers who are increasingly aware of the precarity and exploitation they face: Consider joining a co-op or transitioning your studio to a cooperative model.

The characteristics of a cooperative working model differ significantly from a traditional, hierarchical business model. The most important principles of cooperative work are  transparency, equity, and fair pay. Under the worker co-op model, all of the worker-owners “participate in the profits, oversight, and often management of the enterprise using democratic practices.” In practical terms, this means all members of the cooperative make decisions democratically about wages, raises, hiring, spending, and profit sharing. This might involve writing new policies together to expand paid time off, add new benefits to support families dealing with the impact of the pandemic, or address the needs of individuals and the health of the studio as a whole. It might mean voting on whether or not to accept a new client or pitch for a particular job. Transparency and equity stem directly from all worker-owners having access to the books and regularly working on the financial structure of the business. This includes writing paychecks, budgeting hours to work on a project, and sending and keeping track of invoices. Every worker-owner engaging in these processes generates an automatic level of transparency about profits and how they’re divided. 

Design Action Collective is made up of 10 worker-owners plus two additional workers who will become owners after their nine-month candidacy period is completed. At Design Action Collective, we are primarily made up of folks who have been historically excluded from our industry and we all have experience in activism and social justice organizing. Design Action’s mission is to provide media tools for social justice campaigns. After working primarily on print design projects in our early years, we made a decision to develop a robust web department, and have since continued to specialize in roles such as project management, art direction, production, information architecture, and web development. 

Even during the most challenging start-up years when funds were tight, Design Action planned from a place of abundance. We set our sights on the shop we wanted to be, not just the shop we could afford to be in the moment. We wanted to hold ourselves to the high standards that the labor movement has fought for, and outlined our goals for paid time off, robust health care benefits, family leave and sabbaticals, retirement benefits, personal and organizational development, and more. This gave us a north star to follow as we made day-to-day decisions. Over time, we have implemented almost all of our original policy goals while continuing to envision improvements with an equity lens. While we do not have an HR department, we do have a resilience committee, which all worker-owners can rotate onto; this committee helps resource everyone so that we see each other as whole people and not just workers. We practice leaning into generative conflict in a principled way so we can name points of tension with compassion and generosity.

Partner & Partners consists of five worker-owners, plus one additional worker who is on track to become a co-owner after a two-year candidacy period. P&P was founded in 2013 and prioritizes projects and groups that promote social, economic, and environmental justice. All major decisions at the studio, such as choosing the projects P&P takes on, or deciding how to invest in our business and whether we raise our salaries, are formally and democratically decided. (To be transparent about our own salary figures, every owner and employee makes between $62,000 and $80,000, and no co-owner makes more than $80,000.) We are often working on a number of projects at a time, and different worker-owners lead projects based on interest, skills, and scheduling availability. Our working process is very collaborative, and often our projects pass through almost everyone’s hands at the studio. Three people may each design a visual direction for a project, which might become a website that’s developed by a further two people.  

One challenge to running a worker cooperative is the need for increased communication around conflict. At Partner & Partners, we have a structure for conflict resolution in our operating agreement that we (thankfully) have not had to use or discuss. If a conflict happened—let’s say if we wanted to move the studio—we would need a consensus minus one among everyone involved. Structures like this one, or like Design Action Collective’s resilience committee, are ways that cooperative work models can democratically make the kinds of decisions that are typically made by a small handful of directors. 

We want to acknowledge that transparency, equity, and fair pay are possible under other business models, and of course exist in other design and architecture studios without a cooperative model of ownership. However, Partner & Partners and Design Action Collective are hopeful that in these economically turbulent times, there is growing interest in the cooperative work model as a way to sustain a healthy business while staying grounded in principles of economic and racial justice. Below, along with resources for converting to or forming a worker’s cooperative, we’ve listed some design and technology cooperatives that are invested in equitable business models for their studios.  

We see, based on our own studio practices, that the shape of the design industry could be radically altered through the use of cooperative work structures. We want to let young people know that there are profitable, worthwhile possibilities to cooperatively running a business, and alternatives to the traditional labor practices of the industry. Small businesses and studios, inside and outside the field of graphic design, should consider converting to worker ownership now. 

Other co-ops and studios with democratic structures

Boot Boys Biz
The Drivers Cooperative
Radix Media (printer and publisher)
C4 Tech & Design
CoLab Coop
Palante Technology Coop
Polycot Associates
Sassafras Coop
Tadpole Collective
Full Steam Labs
Little Weaver Web Collective
Research Action Design
Nova Web Development

More resources
We don’t have this all figured out, and we continue to accumulate resources that help us run our studio practices and businesses together. Here are some tools and resources that have helped us define our principles and get started:

Anti-oppression Resource & Training Alliance
United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives
Generative Somatics
Github Tech-coops
Allied Media Conference
Co-op 101: A Guide to Starting a Cooperative
Sustainable Economics Law Center
ICA group