How much do designers make? The 2014 HOW Design Salary Survey shows creative paychecks getting fatter— and the design job market heating back up.
Words by Michelle Taute
Design by Sally Carmichael
We’re not exaggerating when we say the results of the latest HOW graphic design salary survey make us want to jump up and down. And maybe let out a few screams of joy. Then sneak out of work early for an impromptu happy hour with our favorite designers. After some economically rough years, the sun is finally shining bright on designers: The national average salary for designers rose a full 8%—from $47,380 in 2012 to $51,206 in 2014.
Where did we get those amazing numbers? Every two years HOW polls designers around the country to find out how much they make, if they received raises or bonuses, and what kinds of benefits their employers offer. This year’s survey wrapped up in February and includes input from more than 700 designers. We’re especially excited about the rosy results, because both our 2010 and 2012 surveys showed design salaries dropping slightly, and pointed to flat or downright sluggish hiring environments.
To round out the 2014 survey numbers, we talked with hiring managers and industry insiders around the country. Each one told us a similar story: Demand for talented designers is strong at both agencies and in-house departments. “Unemployment rates within the creative space are significantly lower than the national average,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group. In fact, the staffing company conducted its own 2014 salary survey and found that starting salaries across all creative and marketing jobs rose 3.3% in the past year.
Good News All Around
The best part of this year’s survey: There doesn’t seem to be much, if any, bad news to report. There’s a healthy salary growth across nearly every region of the country. The one exception is San Francisco, which posted a 14.6% drop. Luckily, we’re confident that’s an inconclusive figure due to the small number of survey respondents from that city. In fact, Domeyer specifically named the city as one of the areas with the strongest demand for design talent—along with other major media centers on both coasts, and Chicago and Dallas in between.
There’s also glowing news from both the agency and inhouse sides of the industry. “We’ve grown quite a bit in the last couple years, so we’ve seen demand go up,” says Tracy Richards, director of talent acquisition at VSA Partners. From 2007 to now, the firm grew an average of 18% per year. And in the span between 2012 and 2013, design hiring went up 40% as VSA built a consumer marketing division, increased its footprint in New York, and added strategy and analytics.
As for in-house teams, “I think demand has been increasing over the past several years,” says Robin Colangelo, vice president of InSource and global director of creative services for White & Case, a global law firm. She noted that the 2013 In-House Creative Services Industry Report, which InSource helped create, showed an increase in the overall number of in-house teams. And when it comes to salaries? Colangelo estimates that the average in-house design salary has risen somewhere between 2% and 5% in the past year or so.
While there’s demand all around, there are definitely some skills employers have a harder time finding than others, and many of them, no surprise—relate to digital. Domeyer told us the list of hot skills right now includes responsive design, mobile, user experience, user interface, digital project managers, social media and SEO/SEM. On the agency side, there’s also an increased need for account managers. “People with the most in-demand skills have more choices,” Domeyer says. “Mobile is extra hot.”
In the in-house world, Colangelo says it’s difficult to find designers to create great infographics. “It’s a tough challenge for a lot of designers,” she says. “It’s all about information design.” Other good bets if you’re improving your skill set? Learn basic HTML and know how to create graphics for videos. To boost your salary, Colangelo recommends turning your attention to strategy, where you’re actually proving the value you add to the company.
At VSA, Richards says it can be challenging to recruit associate creative directors who are still hands-on with the work but also great at engaging with clients. These ACDs are typically groomed to become creative directors or executive creative directors, who aren’t as likely to be hired from outside. And while digital skills are hot, the firm looks for designers with broad skill sets. “The model that had people being specialists— digital or print—we’re moving away from that. … And looking for a well rounded designer who can work in different disciplines,” she says.
This robust job market might also be leading to more perks for design teams. “Employers are really looking for ways to retain their top talent,” Domeyer says. How? They’re offering a whole range of perks: good salaries, educational opportunities, work-life balance, telecommuting and more. Some agencies, for instance, focus on creating a fun environment or providing extra perks like on-site food. VSA, for instance, was holding a pi day pie competition the day we talked.
At Ziba in Portland, you might call everything from the gorgeous light-filled open office to regular on-site learning events a perk. “We focus on the idea of creating an environment where the experience is the perk,” says Patty Willert, ceative talent scout. Just one example: There’s an inspiration budget at Ziba for designers to spend on classes, travel, conferences or whatever they might need to help them grow professionally. The firm also gives designers the opportunity to stretch beyond their disciplines.
All in all, it’s a pretty fantastic time to be a designer, and hey, it might not be a bad time to ask for a raise or negotiate a better starting salary, either. Now when can we all schedule that celebratory happy hour?