5 Challenges Designers Face in Today’s Creative Economy

As a profession, graphic design has been enjoying growth and recognition for many years. Enrollment in graphic design programs seems to consistently increase every year, while graphic design conferences like HOW Design Live see more attendees every year.

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Photo from Unsplash

But many graphic designers will tell you about their troubles and fears for the industry if you take the time to ask them; despite the appearance that the industry has it better than ever, the struggle for creative professions is still very real. Here are five challenges creative professionals face in today’s economy:

  • Job Market Saturation and Increasing Competition
  • Crowdsourcing and the Gig Economy
  • Generalists vs. Specialists
  • Everybody Wants to Be a Designer
  • Freelancing and Traditional Stable Employment

Oversaturation

With so many people becoming graphic designers, it’s not surprising that there is increased competition—and even oversaturation—in the market. While I maintain there is more than enough work to go around, the issue sometimes comes down to geography. Every company has not embraced technology in their employment workflow, and so many companies prefer employees to work on site, which means there may not be enough local graphic design jobs to support all of the local talent.

As for young people just entering the field, many find themselves in the awkward situation of competing for positions with displaced workers with a decade of experience. This can be discouraging when getting your start—and for older designers who are displaced by younger creatives.

This market saturation also affects how designers are hired and fired—and of course salary negotiations. When your skills are commoditized, it is harder to demand a competitive salary or to hang on to your current job. There is always someone ready and willing to replace you, or who is so desperate for a job, they will do it for considerably less.

There is a silver lining: In any market, oversaturation usually means that the majority of what is available is only of average quality at best. Cream tends to rise to the top, and so if you can outperform your competition, then you tend not to worry about how many people you’re competing against.

[Further reading: The 2017 Designer Salary Guide | Negotiating Your Graphic Design Salary: Questions to Ask]

Crowdsourcing and the Gig Economy

The gig economy is a reality that isn’t going away any time soon. The ability to outsource to freelancers at lower rates (usually outside of the U.S. and U.K.) and capacity to crowdsource and have nearly limited options, is appealing to some businesses, particularly small businesses and entrepreneurs. However, it does “tank” the marketplace when it comes to creative professionals. Creative professionals, particularly those in the developed world have more cost and expenses in many cases when it comes to producing their work, as well as the cost of living. Competing for clients in the global economy is a challenge, but it is also a fact of life.

“Designers” Everywhere

It would be easy to lay the bulk of designers problems and fears at the door of crowdsourcing sites or cheap gig sites like Fiverr. However, that ignores another concerning problem: the abuse of the label “designer.” There are many people with no design education, formally or informally, that call themselves designers because they utilize the same tools as creative professionals.

This is not a new problem in the industry, as bootleg versions of design software like Photoshop have always been in circulation, but paid amateurs and hobbyist want the same recognition and respect as industry professionals, and sometimes even market themselves as professionals. This isn’t about pretension or pedigree, but about marketplace confusion. It is becoming hard for those making buying decisions to understand the value of established designers vs. talented creators with little to know experience, and this means their experience of working with professional designers and the cost/value of that gets diluted.

Professionals will tell you they have heard: “That costs too much.” or “I can get that same thing for $60 from some kid on the internet.”

The lack of a clear and common distinction between who is and is not a professional designer creates this problem as the marketplace becomes more and more saturated. There was a point when that distinction was marked by certifications and degrees, but this is not valued in the way it once was (for good reason).

Generalists Favored Over Specialists

The Jack or Jill of all Trades/Master of None narrative hasn’t been serving designers well as of late. While the popular phrase “the riches are in the niches,” sounds encouraging and under particular circumstances can be true, it does not reflect the mindset of the person writing a check to an employee. The person writing the check wants the most bang for his or her buck.

Gone are the days of art departments full of creatives doing exploratory work in between projects, or doing research or image sourcing for future projects. If you are working a 9 to 5 design gig, your employer will be trying to wring every ounce of ROI out of your paycheck, even if it means having you do a ton of non-design work. As a result, designers find themselves working outside the scope of their specialty and forced to learn new skills on the fly, including social media, website management, project management and even technical tasks.

Can specialists still make it in the creative industry? They can, but the demand for them is shrinking as more decision-makers look to cut costs, so it takes exceptional talent to do so.

The Rise of Freelancers

While design jobs aren’t entirely going away, employers are becoming more comfortable hiring freelance creatives for what would otherwise be in-house projects. Technology has gotten to a point where many companies don’t necessarily need a team of full-time designers and can’t load them up with enough tasks to justify a 40 hour work week. It becomes more practical to hire on a project-by-project basis. (This is not just limited to creatives either.)

The increase in freelancing also is representative of traditional in-house design positions decreasing in the small business sector, while the demand and higher levels of talent will always be needed within larger companies. Established designers may not feel the pinch of “design jobs going away,” but those entering the marketplace may feel like there isn’t a wealth of opportunity and that they may be undervalued. Traditionally, designers would enter into a low-level position, work their way up over the course of a few years, and if they had the talent and established a good reputation, they might decide to become a full-time freelancer.

We are now seeing a shift happen, as the opportunities shrink for new designers in the traditional employment marketplace. It’s hard to compete for regular employment when you are just getting started, and designers are applying for the same jobs with vastly more experience. So many designers are starting their careers as freelancers to prove themselves and build their reputation and credentials before applying for traditional full-time employment. This was not unheard-of in the past, but it is now becoming the “new normal.”

Some Advice for Struggling Designers

If you are a struggling designer, the best advice I can give you is to accept that while it is possible to be successful in this industry regardless of the shifting sand, it will just take more work than you might have anticipated. Facing the industry’s challenges is the measure of your ability to make it as a designer and the key to your success. Your motivation and resolve will be tested—by employers, clients, and contemporaries day in and day out.

Diversify your skills where possible and look into opportunities for passive income. Hedge your bets when working in traditional employment situations by building a strong personal brand and developing a powerful network of contacts that might be useful in the future. The gig economy and crowdsourcing aren’t going away. Learn to market and sell your services on value and not price, and how to leverage these things instead of directly competing with them. Remember that quality still matters, and that regardless of how many people compete in the field, the top is still sparse. Set your sites on climbing the mountain.


Diversify your skill set with these online certificate programs from HOW Design University: 

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