In May 2019, an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was sitting in a car with a number of colleagues discussing how much she earned.
We all know that talking frankly about money can be a difficult. It’s been noted that today, we behave towards money the way upper class Victorians behaved towards sex—with prudishness, sometimes indignation, sometimes even shame. But as the assistant curator, Michelle Millar Fisher, disclosed her salary to friends at different levels and institutions, she realized just how useful the conversation was for both herself and others. And so, in the spur of the moment on her phone, she launched a Google Spreadsheet inviting museum workers around the world to make their rates public.
So far (as of publication), the spreadsheet includes 3,200+ anonymous entries from cultural institutions large and small. It’s also spurred similar spreadsheets from other industries, such as the 💸Real Media Salaries💸 spreadsheet, Talk Pay (which is industry-agnostic, but skews toward tech and design), one for Academia salaries, and another for people working in advertising. The information collectively gathered in these spreadsheets is incredibly important. Eliminating salary speculation can narrow the gender pay gap by encouraging women to negotiate, while also encouraging managers to better their rationales for pay and develop fairer formulas for raises.
Now, we’ve launched our own spreadsheet for designers. Our spreadsheet is also anonymous. Like the other spreadsheets we mentioned, it’s populated via a Google Form so that the information entered cannot be changed by anyone else from within the spreadsheet. While the data collected is never going to be a perfect overview, we hope that the information gathered will offer insights into graphic designers’ salaries and empower individuals to ask for proper compensation.
We’ve put the form together in the spirit of transparency and camaraderie. When it comes to race, gender, and other identifying factors, we emphasize that you should only enter this information if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. It’s totally okay not to enter this information if you feel like it’ll identify you, or if you simply don’t want to answer. This form was written with salaried employees in mind, though freelancers are welcome to answer with their hourly wage or annual earnings. Very soon, we’ll be opening up a second spreadsheet specifically tailored to freelance graphic designers.
Salaries in Graphic Design: What We Already Know
The Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency provides a number of insights into graphic design workers at cultural institutions. Through its findings, we can see that at MoMA, for instance, a graphic designer reportedly earns $55K, while a graphic designer at The Met started at $67K and is now making $78K. A full-time graphic designer at The Walker Art Center reports earning $45K—a jump up from $40K after three years on staff.
With our salary transparency spreadsheet, we hope to fill in even more gaps in regards to designers working across a variety of industries, institutions, and types of studios and agencies.
There are a number of surveys that provide estimates and averages regarding graphic design wages. According to the latest POWarts Salary Survey, which aims to be “the first comprehensive salary survey focused exclusively on the visual arts,” the average salary for a graphic designer currently working in the U.S. is $65K at a for-profit and $60K at a non-profit.
AIGA’s 2019 Design Census provides more precise averages for American graphic designers; according to its findings, most designers make between $50-$75K per year. In the UK, research from the Office for National Statistics in 2017 shows that full-time graphic designers earn an average of £25.9K ($32.5K) annually.
While averages like these are a useful tracker, they don’t factor in job title, experience, benefits, industry, location, and cost of living. They also don’t reveal the inconsistencies in relation to gender, age, disabilities, LGBTQIA+ status, and other minority groups, nor amongst those holding the same job titles. And they don’t reveal the often drastic pay gap between leadership roles and those in other skilled positions.
Financial Transparency: A Call to Action
Disclosing your salary to a colleague can be more than just uncomfortable—it may be viewed as a subversive act. Most places of employment work hard to keep pay opaque, and studios, agencies, institutions, and companies are increasingly savvy when it comes to omitting wage information from job boards. It’s often in an organization’s interest to keep its employees in the dark, as it can’t always justify salary differences.
As the UK-based organization Evening Class has emphasized, financial transparency is necessary from the very start of the hiring process. Undisclosed salaries on job boards can lead to an undervaluation of the workforce on the whole. As Evening Class writes in its letter against undisclosed salaries: “Graduates just out of university should not be expected to be experienced enough to be able to ‘negotiate’ a fair wage. The possibility of being listened to, or being successful when negotiating, is […] subject to gender, race, and class privileges—particularly when there is no initial figure to negotiate with.”
In recent years, women’s rights activists have advocated for salary transparency, as remaining secretive about income can put others at a disadvantage and make it harder to uncover pay disparities by gender and race. The prevailing logic suggests that by eliminating salary speculation, we can narrow the gender pay gap, which is even worse for women at the intersection of more than one historically marginalized group, including those oppressed due to race, class, ability, sexuality, and more. And these conversations have led to useful developments: Some companies, like Buffer, a social media startup, now publish all employee salaries publicly on their websites. Buffer includes its rate formula that factors in title, experience, and the cost of living of a staffer’s location. Subsequently, it does not have a pay gap amongst men and women in the same roles.
We acknowledge that despite the radical potential that salary transparency can have, the choice to demand more money—and even talk about money openly—can be a privilege, one that not all people have. For those saddled with student debts or without the financial security that comes with a privileged background, demanding better pay can be more of a risk. Yet financial transparency can still alleviate some of the anxiety and exploration prevalent in the industry, and can help pave the way towards more equality in a landscape of power-related information gatekeeping. Achieving financial transparency is one vital step in the move towards a more progressive, diverse, inclusive, and fair work environment in design.
We hope you’ll add the information you feel comfortable sharing in the Google Form we’ve set up to populate the Graphic Design Salary Transparency spreadsheet and share it with others in the industry.