Illustration by Simoul Alva

Industry surveys are, by their very nature, a snapshot in time. Pull up the questionnaire, and fill it out. What happens tomorrow or the next day doesn’t count, in the most literal sense of the phrase. That reality makes it difficult to get a full and clear picture of what’s happening in the design industry, especially in a moment when the entire world feels like it’s on shifting ground. In years past, a snapshot was enough to glean a basic understanding of what was happening across the design world. Today, a more sophisticated approach is required to fully comprehend the forces that shape the industry and its practitioners’ lives. 

With that, meet the Design Point of View (POV), AIGA’s reimagined research initiative that aims to uncover the complexity of what it means to be a designer in an ever-changing industry. The POV is meant to be an ongoing conversation about where the design industry is, and where it’s heading. Combining qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, the research is a holistic look at what’s happening in the design industry, how it impacts the world at large, and what that means for the people who are doing the work. 

Over the course of the year, AIGA will roll out its findings in a series of reports that are freely accessible to members. We sat down with AIGA’s executive director, Bennie Johnson, and the organization’s chief of insights and learning, Dr. Rubens Pessanha, to hear a little more about what’s to come.

Let’s start with a big, broad question: What is the Design POV, and how is it different from the Design Census of the last few years?

Bennie Johnson: The design POV is really a dynamic reimagining of what research can be for an industry. And for years, we started our process with the Design Census, which really spoke more to what a census is—measures and numbers. We realized that there was an opportunity to build greater and deeper understanding for our profession, which is growing and evolving in dynamic ways. The Design POV is about looking at the profession as a whole, as it evolves from inside out, outside in, through not only demography, background, experience, and journey, but also how the profession works with the world around it. When you think about the notions of industry and profession, these aren’t things that you do by yourself. Our space in the world is integrated with what’s happening in other professions. We felt that the Design POV would be an incredible contribution for us as AIGA, the professional association for design, to really start laying that framework for understanding the profession and asking meaningful questions in big ways.

Let’s hear more about that. When you started thinking about restructuring the research, what were some of the big questions that you wanted to answer? And how did you go about doing so?

Johnson: We’re engaging in both survey research and focus groups, as a way to explore and answer the question of: What is the profession today, and tomorrow? By using a diversity of methods, we’re able to tell a story and glean insights that were under the surface before. Integrating all of these is where Rubens’ brilliance comes in. 

Rubens Pessanha: To give more detail, we used an exploratory sequential mixed methods approach with virtual interviews with approximately 30 members of the design community followed by a quantitative online survey research. In total, 5,437 individuals participated. We bolstered the survey research by analyzing data from official government agencies, AIGA databases, hundreds of job posts for design professionals, previous research from AIGA, annual reports/websites from Fortune’s 100 World’s Most Admired Companies, and many other multidisciplinary sources. The goal of this data is to better understand what it means to be a designer today. 

Being a designer today might feel much different than being a designer two years ago. The survey took place during COVID—I’m curious to hear about how that colored the story you’re telling with the data. What have designers experienced over this past year?

Pessanha: Covid has had a tremendous impact, and we’ve been able to tell the story of that impact over time since we started doing “pulse surveys” in May 2020, followed by surveys and focus groups later in the year. Covid is going to change the industry a lot in the future, including behaviors and priorities. It reset the marketplace in so many ways and accelerated some of the changes that were already happening, like a concentration of designers moving from agency work to in-house jobs. We saw a lot of people using more do-it-yourself tools to do their work, too. Of course, the impact was uneven, and that’s an important point. Not everyone felt the same way, which was important to highlight.

Was it not all bad news?

Pessanha: Some people were negatively impacted, for sure. In the 2019 census, we had 1% of respondents saying that they were temporarily unemployed. Now we have 6%. This year, four out of 10 people said that they had their income negatively impacted, and one out of five says that they’re struggling to stay afloat or even considering moving out of the profession. But no, it’s not all bad news. In our focus groups, we heard that some people were more busy than ever; some people grew their businesses, especially designers who work in the digital, e-commerce, and online retail industries.

Four out of 10 people said the pandemic negatively impacted their income.

What have been the main challenges designers have faced in the last year?

Pessanha: Some of them are work-related, like finding work and keeping a job. Designers had to adapt to abrupt changes, new working dynamics, and working from home. We found that designers learned to stay positive and pivot business models and skills. People didn’t have a choice but to change. But designers are optimistic: Six out of 10 said they believe design has a role to play in helping us move out of pandemic stronger.

What might that look like? What can designers really do?

Johnson: Design, by its very nature, is about problem solving. Not problem solving [in the sense of] finding problems to solve, but solving problems that are tied into humanity and a way forward. When organizations are stuck and trying to figure out the way forward, they look for those who can help them solve problems. And they equip those who are practitioners to play a valuable role in multiple levels of an organization, from the executive suite to entry level. Designers can come up with humane opportunities to build better. And that’s what we really need now in order to shape what our tomorrow looks like. That’s a place for designers, and that place isn’t going away. 

I feel like the role of a designer has been evolving for a long time. What did you find around the way designers are thinking about their skills today?

Pessanha: At the beginning of Covid we found that a lot of designers—about one out of two—decided to learn new skills. We wanted to know how they saw the future because that drives their learning priorities. They articulated that the profession will become increasingly digital, mobile, and interactive. They said the profession is becoming more multi-faceted, needing a more diverse set of skills, and more data driven. Designers said in the future the most important skills will be communication skills, followed closely by adaptability and complex problem solving.

Even if the  world hasn’t always understood the impact of design, designers have always understood their impact on the world.

It really struck me that 88.87% of designers who are employed, and 56% of those who are unemployed, wouldn’t accept a job offer for a company whose values they didn’t match their own. That’s really interesting, especially in very uncertain economic times. What does that say to you?

Pessanha: It’s important to look at the data a little bit deeper. The findings were that the majority of folks—88%—who are employed would not take an opportunity in a company that didn’t share values that they feel are important. For those who are not employed, it was closer to 56%. Even 56% is high, which says to me that the profession has social awareness, but there are personal situations where sometimes you need to be more flexible.

Johnson: I think this is something that may be somewhat unique to our profession, that we really care about the work that we do. We care about how our talents are applied. We care about how our insights and contributions are used. And when we talk about our problem solving, as mentioned before, we talk about the connection between the work that we do and the betterment of an entity in space. So I’m not surprised, it’s really reinforcing to see it show up in those ways in which, “if my work is going to be used in a space that’s not in keeping with my values, then I have a choice and an agency to not be a part of that. And I think that’s really powerful in our profession. Even if the world hasn’t always understood the impact of design, designers have always understood their impact on the world.

Subsequent reports from the Design POV will be freely available to members. Consider joining AIGA as a member to access all of the insights.