2008 Design Salary Report

In the past two years, gas prices have gone up, grocery prices have gone up … and if you’re a designer, your salary has gone up, too. Nationwide, designers saw bigger bumps in their paychecks since 2006 than they saw between 2004 and 2006.

That’s the big news in HOW’s 2008 Design Salary Survey. We polled the U.S. design community via an online survey that ran from April 28 through July 18; 2,254 designers responded. HOW conducts the survey every two years, using the same questions, to examine trends in designers’ salaries, benefits and bonuses. Nationwide, designers overall saw an average 8.1% increase in their take-home pay from 2006 to 2008; that compares to 6.2% in the previous two-year period.

Here are the key findings; you can download the full report for free.

According to the HOW survey, four interesting trends have emerged involving big-city designers, in-house creatives, freelancers and web designers.

Big-City Designers

First, the news isn’t great for designers in New York City and San Francisco. Those creative hotbeds have seen flat or declining salary trends in the past two years (the average salary in San Francisco decreased just over 3% since 2006; NYC saw no change). In New York, the flat trend may be a function of the now-slowing economy, notes Sarah Durham, principal of Big Duck in Brooklyn. “There’s a sense that the market has eased up and that it’s harder for designers to find desirable positions, especially during the current economic climate,” Durham says. “I know more and more designers who are opting to freelance instead.” The flip side for employers, Durham says, is that the wealth of designers looking for work means it’s getting easier to find good help, and at reasonable wages.

By contrast, paychecks in the Northeast and South increased by 13.9% and 19%, respectively. Compensation in all regions except NYC and San Francisco outpaced the growth we saw in the 2006 survey.

In-House Designers

Second, the wage gap between in-house designers and their agency peers has all but disappeared (it’s currently less than $100). That continues a pattern that this survey revealed in 2004 and 2006: In-house salaries have caught up to design-firm salaries.

Freelance Designers
Third, freelance designers, whose salaries have in recent years lagged behind creatives working in corporations, firms and advertising agencies, reported the biggest spike in this year’s survey, a whopping 21% change from 2006. The average freelancer’s salary in 2008 is more than $9,000 higher than in 2006 (freelancers made up similar proportions of the survey group in both years). For the first time since 2002, independent creatives are making more than their peers working for others.

Web Designers

Finally, the double-digit growth in salaries for web designers that we saw between 2004 and 2006 (15%) has cooled to 4.4% between 2006 and 2008. While the survey doesn’t pinpoint regional differences for web designers, it’s possible that salaries for these creatives may vary by market. In Dallas, for example, web designers are hot commodities according to Phillip Carpenter with Redonk Marketing, which specializes in online marketing. “Because client budgets have shifted to more accountable online channels, print designers have not been a ongoing need,” Carpenter says, noting that his firm has found it difficult to find new hires recently. “Web and interactive designers are in high demand, and it’s been a challenge to fill open positions.”

HOW encourages designers to use this salary information for reference, taking into consideration their own locations and situations. Since the information was produced for publication, the economic picture has shifted dramatically.