When Lesley Carter*, 26, first saw the salaries listed in the Graphic Design Salary Transparency Spreadsheet in January 2020, she took several screenshots. Carter, a graphic designer in New York City, had been looking for a job for several months, but she wasn’t sure what a fair salary for her particular skill level should look like.
For Carter, the information in the spreadsheet was a revelation: The median salary for her skill level in New York was much higher than at her previous place of employment. “I kept the screenshots on my desktop to help remind myself every day what my skills are worth,” she says. Then, when Carter was offered a new job in motion graphics at an ad-tech firm in the city, she was able to increase its offer by $5,000 using the information that she had gathered.
“Before taking that job, I had several employers offer me 42 percent below the average,” Carter continues. “If I didn’t keep faith in my research, I would have begun to think that my skills were worth what they were offering.”
Nearly 2,800 designers anonymously disclosed their earnings to the public in the open source document that Eye on Design released in December 2019, alongside information about their age, location, skill level, job title, gender, race, and more. Inspired by similar initiatives across media, art, and advertising, we set up the spreadsheet to encourage open conversations about money: Eliminating salary speculation helps narrow gender and race pay gaps, and it pressures managers to create clearer rationales for compensation. Now, nearly two year on, we were interested in hearing more about how salary transparency has aided designers in their own negotiations.
When it comes to negotiating, employers tend to hold all the cards—it’s often in their interest to keep rates opaque, given that they can’t always justify salary differences. Job listings are regularly elusive about compensation, even though—as a recent survey by UK-based jobs board If You Could found—98 percent of creatives are likely to apply to a job when a salary is disclosed, versus 50 percent when it’s undisclosed.
The information collected on the salary transparency sheet, however, provides specific insights into the wages of graphic design workers at a range of companies and institutions. According to its findings, for instance, a Pentagram graphic designer in New York City earns $45,000 annually, a Refinery29 design intern earns $31,000, a New York-based senior designer at Penguin Random House earns $65,000, and a senior visual designer at Google earns $182,000.
The sheet also highlights a number of drastic pay gaps between leadership roles and other skilled workers: For example, a graphic designer at Nike apparently earns $90,000 while a design director earns $200,000. As Design Action Collective and Partners & Partners recently discussed in a recent article for Eye on Design on worker-owned studios, there’s a prevalent and “inverted relationship between the executive class, who hold the decision-making power, and the young, hungry underlings who execute much of the labor.” For these two co-op studios dedicated to “transparency, equity, and fair pay,” every single one of their owners and employees earns between $62,000 and $80,000.
“Previously when negotiating, I just never had a benchmark,” says Jens Schnitzler, 31, a graphic designer based out of Berlin, Germany. “Also, I’ve just finished studying and so everything is quite precarious—it’s hard to demand money when you’re just starting out.”
Before graduating, Schnitzler spoke to a couple of close friends, and he found that one was earning $695 a month for an internship at a prominent studio while another of a similar age and study background was charging $695 as a day rate. “The discrepancy is so confusing. I decided I needed to better understand what’s appropriate to ask for in different client situations,” says Schnitzler. He began parsing through Google spreadsheets dedicated to salary transparency in the arts.
A year on, and the designer has taken the data from our own Graphic Design Salary Transparency sheet—as well as others such as Design Intern Club, a largely European-based spreadsheet listing internship compensation—and organized their results into an easily digestible table. With Schnitzler’s project, entitled Fruits of Work, you can filter salaries by job title, business type, educational level, industry, location, company name, and more. A series of different data visualizations—including bar charts and a three-dimensional globe—organize the data into broader categories.
“It’s quite hard to dig into the information using Google’s structure,” says Schnitzler, who wanted to create a platform that designers could easily navigate to encourage more open conversation about compensation. “Salary transparency isn’t just about raising our own individual salaries. It’s about our community: If everyone is in the shadow about what is an okay price, we’re constantly in competition with one another and employers take advantage of that,” he says.
Schnitzler also points out that those who are able to take on a job for less—often people from higher socio-economic backgrounds—also end up lowering industry averages. As a result, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to get in a foot in the door: As a recent report by PEC (The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Center) found, in the UK, 52 percent of creative workers are from families with high and stable income—with only 26 percent coming from the working class.
Using Schnitzler’s tool, it’s easy for designers to filter the information to find average wages for those in similar career circumstances. It’s important to emphasize that what is average doesn’t always equate to what is fair: For example, the information suggests that many design interns in the US earn around $20,000 per annum while living in cities in which the living wage is far higher. But for many, being able to gage what others in comparative situations earn helps counter exploitation.
For Courtney Cotton, 31, a graphic designer in Nashville, Tennessee, salary transparency has empowered her to face her fears of negotiating—something she’s found “frightening” in the past. “When I first saw the Graphic Design Salary Transparency spreadsheet, it really put things into perspective,” says Cotton. “I was working for a company that really benefited from low pay and hiding salaries from employees. No one wanted to lose their job, and asking for more was scary in a place with such a high turnover.”
Realizing that she was doing “great work for pennies,” Cotton set out to find a better paying job. Last month, she referred to the spreadsheet while negotiating for a new position. “I looked at actual people in Nashville with my range of experience and job title, and felt confident knowing what they were making. Then I did my own calculations for expenses, and took a number to my interview.” Her new job provides her with $23,000 per year more than her previous place of employment—even though she’s “doing much of the same thing.”
“Knowing the actual salaries of my peers helped me hold out for the right job and pay I know I am worth,” Cotton said. While information about average salaries is available—research from AIGA’s Design POV report, for example, found that in 2020, the median entry level salary for graphic designers in the US was 48,000, and $100,000 for directors—comparing herself to individuals in her own city and with the same skill set helped give Cotton the specific information she needed to feel confident. “Plus, seeing people actually make six figures is an inspiring goal for me to have.”
The Design POV confirmed that there are still significant wage gaps across gender, race, and ability in graphic design. While cis men earn an average of $82,000 per annum (across all ranges of experience and job titles), cis women earn $70,000, and trans, agender, non-binary, and gender nonconfirming folk earn $61,000). It takes 22 months for Latina designers to earn the same amount as a white man does in 12. Also according to the survey, Black designers earn an average of around $5,750 less than their white colleagues, and those who self-identify as a person with a disability earn an average of $8,250 less than able-bodied designers. Looking at the data from our own spreadsheet, it seems the wage gap and salary transparency is an issue that’s close to female respondents’ hearts: The number of women who submitted salaries to the form is nearly double that of men.
For Miriam Taylor*, 33, a brand and web designer in Chicago, Illinois, negotiating has always caused her anxiety. “I am a woman, and women historically undervalue themselves when it comes to asking for more,” she says. “On top of this, I grew up in an economically strained household and I see a huge difference mentally in how I approach negotiations in comparison to friends who come from well-off families.” In the past, Taylor has felt “greedy” asking for more, as if she should be “grateful” to be paid to do a job she loves in the first place. “Rather than understanding that negotiating is another step in the process, it feels weirdly risky,” she says.“Will they be angry? Will they rescind their offer?”
Like Cotton and Carter, the Graphic Design Salary Transparency spreadsheet confirmed to Taylor that she was underpaid. “What stood out the most was how others with less experience in similar-sized companies were getting paid more than what I had for years,” she says. In her new job, Taylor has now been able to negotiate successfully for a $5,000 annual increase—not as much as she would have liked, but a start.
For some, the choice to ask for more money is too risky to even consider. One designer interviewed for this piece explained that she can’t afford to demand more: The salary transparency spreadsheet confirmed that she’s severely underpaid, but she doesn’t have the financial security to “rock the boat” since she’s weighed down by significant student debt. Seeing the spreadsheet’s numbers made her feel taken advantage of; rather than empowerment, she now feels demotivated and stuck in a job that doesn’t appreciate her.
“One of the limitations with these spreadsheets is that they can obscure bad labor practices other than low pay,” says Schnitzler. “People experience work in very different ways.” In particular, he finds the anonymously submitted reports of actual workplace experiences listed on the Design Intern Club spreadsheet useful, as they help potential future interns avoid toxic work environments. While some interns receive what could be considered fair pay, an additional tab on the sheet with detailed “reviews” of studios report instances of bullying, harassment, overwork, and more. “It’s not just about how much you earn,” says Schnitzler.
Ultimately though, financial transparency can alleviate some of the exploitation prevalent in the industry. For Carter, designers in negotiating situations should “put their trust in crowd sourced information.” When negotiating, Cotton advises that you should “do your research”—and make sure to “calculate your cost of living.” “Always ask for time to think on a number so that you can truly gather your thoughts and make sure an offer suits you before you say yes,” she adds. And importantly, to put pressure on employers to become more transparent, it’s vital that workers keep disclosing their salaries to one another—either anonymously online, or in person with friends and colleagues.
* Some names have been changed for privacy