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Designers’ job satisfaction is plummeting. But why?

“There are lots of great jobs out here, but they’re getting swallowed up by huge companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.” 

Designers’ job satisfaction is plummeting. But why?
[Photo: Maskot/Getty Images]

Are you worried about your job? How would you rate its stability, from “rock solid” to “I keep my things in a box”? What about happiness—how satisfied are you at work on a scale from “ready to quit” to “extremely satisfied”?

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These are among the questions the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) posed to nearly 10,000 designers this year in its annual Design Census, which has tracked the evolution of the design industry through surveys of professionals each year since the inaugural census in 2016. The latest iteration of the census, which was released this week online, collected insights from 9,400 designers, who answered questions about everything from their salaries and benefits (10% make less than $25,000; 2% make more than $200,000) to their opinions about the future of the profession (hot: AI and machine learning. Not: parametric design). According to the results, design remains stubbornly homogeneous when it comes to diversity, though it does show some small signs of improvement; 71% of respondents reported themselves as white, compared to 73% in 2017.

[Image: courtesy AIGA]

The census also polls designers on job satisfaction and stability, and the third iteration of the report allowed its creators to compare how those responses have changed since 2016. Job satisfaction decreased quite a bit between 2017—when 82% felt satisfied—and 2019, when 65% said so. A twin metric that saw a sharp decline? Designers feeling stable in their jobs. Where 25% reported feeling “rock solid” in 2017, just 4% responded that way this year.

“The number of designers who feel worried about their job more than tripled from 2017, with the vast majority of designers saying they feel concerned about the stability of their current position,” says Liz Stinson, managing editor of AIGA’s Eye on Design, via email.

While the report hints at the threat of automation being a factor, Stinson points to another emerging influence on the profession: the acquisition of small design studios by megacompanies like Google and Facebook. After all, independent design studios like Universal and Map, which were both acquired by much larger companies in 2018, and Argodesign, which sold to a $22 billion tech company later in the same year, are being swallowed up by tech. Hannah Hoffman, a 30-year-old associate design director at Artefact, offered this quote to the census:

There are lots of great jobs out here, but they’re getting swallowed up by huge companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. That’s disheartening because you feel like it’s only a matter of time before more shops close and will be swallowed up by these giants.

Stinson cautions that measuring job satisfaction is tricky: “We tried to contextualize it as best we could with data around why people are generally satisfied or unsatisfied.” For instance, people who reported feeling satisfied saw their big challenges at work as not being paid enough, being too busy, and not having benefits. The unsatisfied designers picked reasons like “I don’t respect the people I work with” and “My role is not valid.”

[Image: courtesy AIGA]

Could it be that designers who have more control over their work and clients are more satisfied than those who don’t have a choice about who they work with and why? Perhaps. “It’s interesting to me that small business owners are some of the happiest designers, despite working the most (60+ hours),” Stinson adds. “It’s pure speculation, but I imagine that some of that enjoyment comes from autonomy and ownership over what they’re doing, creative freedom, etc.”

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It’s too soon to say exactly how these changing metrics will transform the face of the profession. For now, the census authors are inviting designers to download the raw data and run their own analyses and visualizations. You can check it out here.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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