The workplace is in a state of transition. Open-plan offices are out, even if no one’s quite ready to embrace the cubicle. Co-working spaces aren’t the perfect solution, but with the rise of the gig economy (a phrase you can expect to keep on hearing), they’re only going to get more popular. Freelancing is on the rise, and with it increased job precarity. With the growing distrust of large companies, especially those in the tech sector, more and more designers are opting to go it on their own—and no amount of free cold brew or in-office gaming stations is going to lure them back.
The way we work is ever-changing, and with global economies in a state of flux, we should all get comfortable with being uncomfortable for a while. We don’t need to buckle up for the apocalypse, but switching your 401k or investment plan from a “high” to “low” risk portfolio should probably be on your to-do list.
What else can 2018 tell us about what we can expect in the year to come? We’re looking back at the stories we tracked closely and making some predictions for 2019.
Open offices are out. Flexible workplaces are in.
Coworking may have gone mass and lost the ethos that was part of its original appeal, but some community-focused working spaces, like The Design Office in Providence, Rhode Island, reject the rent-a-desk vibe and stay focused on staying small. Like most writers and editors, I tend to be a homebody, so I’ve been forcing myself out of the house by experimenting with Spacious, a service that turns restaurants that are typically closed during the day into coworking spaces for its members.
I’ve also started a drinking game fueled by Fast Company’s incessant coverage of open plan office trends (one shot for every time “open office” makes a headline), which has been going strong since 2013 and shows no sign of slowing. They have covered every possible angle, from why you’re right to hate open offices and how they are slowly killing you, to how open offices promote sexism, to how much money open offices save companies, to how you can hack them. I’m getting my shots lined up for the new year.
Specialists are out. Generalists are in.
No matter where we choose (or are forced) to work, the kind of work we’re doing is changing, too. Many old school graphic designers love to wax on about why you should be a design specialist and not a generalist (many of these old school designers are specialists themselves), and while having one uber-honed skill is valuable, at this point it’s fair to say that we’ve crossed over into the era of the generalist. In John Maeda’s latest email missive, he cited generalism as key, especially for designers in the tech space: “You can either be a jill of all design-y trades or a master of just one. Nowadays you’re better off being a jill because we don’t know which trades will remain.”
We drilled deeper into the generalist vs. specialist debate, noting that “while the design industry asks for versatility and broad capability from its youngsters, it simultaneously requires a distinct, honed point of view from its experts. At entry-level, style eliminates opportunity, but in order to be in the class of the acknowledged best you must have a trademark. If you’ve survived your first years in a profession that perpetuates your chameleon nature, you must suddenly look like yourself. And what do you look like? A generalist.”
Whether you’re doing it all or doing just one thing, the way we get paid for our work is—yep, you guessed it—it’s changing, too. For those looking to bring their side project to life, crowdfunding might seem like an obvious route to take, but we’d advise you to think twice about that.
Crowdfunding is (slowly going) out. Membership models are tentatively in.
After years of the feeding the Kickstarter high, we’re all starting to come down. The crowdfunding model is tiring, for both the buyers and the makers. Previously, the difficulty of launching a successful crowdfunding campaign was worth it; it may have taken over your entire life for a few months, but the returns were large enough to warrant the effort. In fact, so many of our own readers were struggling to tame the Kickstarter beast, that we published a two-part how-to guide, and solicited so many secrets from the Crowdsourceress (plus why the NASA Standards Manual was successful).
But if the rush has left you feeling a little drained, you’re not alone. Regardless of what platform you’re on, crowdfunding is steadily becoming a less viable option. Even previously successful campaigners are seeing higher rates of failure. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but you might set your goal lower to start, and be mindful of the growing “Please fund me!” fatigue. So what’s the alternative? So far the subscriber-based membership model of funding has been slow on the uptake. Platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter’s Drip (which will soon be replaced by something yet-to-be-named) launched with the promise of sustainable funding for ongoing ventures (as opposed to one-off products or publications), but the response has been tepid. The platforms are new, their stability is uncertain, and it can still feel like too much of ask for most people. We’re seeing more serious businesses create their own unique membership “portals,” particularly in the publishing space, but most are still feeling out their revenue diversification strategies, and don’t necessarily want to commit to an expensive custom development project in a changing landscape.
Paid internships are in. Protections against paycheck precarity are in, too.
There is one previously under-funded group that’s finally making money moves: interns. Since we put out the bat signal last year for designers to please pay their interns fairly, intern pay rates have continued to rise. The upswing isn’t as high as we’d like to see, but as long as it doesn’t stagnate, we’re still in better shape than we once were. Progress?
Speaking of equitable pay, the world is coming around to the idea of a Universal Basic Income, a concept that was introduced decades ago, but never picked up enough steam to be put into practice. Critics of UBI say it would disincentivize workers, but supporters point out that UBI would only cover enough to prevent people from falling into poverty, not enough to actually live on. And now, with the growing anxiety over whether robots will take our jobs, more and more people are getting on board; nearly half of all Americans surveyed in one study were in favor of UBI for those who lose their jobs to AI.
But it’s not just the robots that are driving more people into a state of precarity: it’s the woeful state of labor conditions in the creative industry in general, particularly for freelancers. We’ve seen a variety of responses; in Amsterdam, experimental graphic design studio The Rodina staged a performance. Tereza Ruller, who co-founded the studio, explains how her design-led performance was the best way for her to visually communicate the problem, as she sees it. “I wanted to create a situation where I could talk to people, where I can express my opinion and be transparent about the topic of working conditions and labor,” says Ruller. “That’s why I imprisoned myself in a shelving structure for more than six hours, three days in a row. It’s very uncomfortable.
Over in Germany, a labor agreement for freelance graphic designers has been in effect since 1977, and remains the only document of its kind in Europe. “Over nearly 180 pages, the 2015 edition explains the general value of design and how to calculate rights of use; provides an overview of the design process; and exhaustively lists the services and potential hours involved in producing anything from digital media design to illustration to fashion design.The overview of services, required time, and recommended fees.” It’s a great start, but it only goes so far. Safeguarding freelancers from the German welfare state is an ongoing struggle that has stagnated in recent years. Will freelance designers join forces, or fracture?
Back at home, we started investigating this ourselves by exploring the standard American union model, and sussing out what designers might borrow from it in order to create some sort of structure for establishing their own protections. The good news is that freelancers have more bargaining power than ever, but their efforts are scattershot; they are either focused solely on themselves or on just a small group of people. Taken collectively, though, what might that look like? How could freelancers band together to draw some lines in the sand?
First, they have to agree on what those lines are. While it’s no easy task for thousands of people to all agree on the same thing, we felt the payoff made it worth a try. So this year we kicked off the Eye on Design Collective with a community event that brought diverging voices together to workshop some potential solutions and ways to move ahead. The design research is currently underway, and we’re excited to bring our work out into the light later in 2019. Onward!