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Worried about the next recession? Here’s how to prepare your design business

Designers who worked through the last crash share their advice on being ready for another downturn. For starters? Try something new.

Worried about the next recession? Here’s how to prepare your design business
[Illustration: Julian Glander/courtesy AIGA Eye on Design]

This story originally appeared on AIGA’s Eye On Design.

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In 2008, Katie Denton was three years out of college, working at a small branding studio in New York City. Denton had graduated with a degree in graphic design from the University of the Arts, going through what she describes as a “pretty typical” design program. “We did lots of very basic fundamentals,” she says. “Hand lettering…really a lot of that rich graphic design, Swiss tradition stuff.”

A few months into the job—her second since graduating— the economy collapsed in what turned out to be the most devastating global economic downturn since the great depression. “My memory of it is that times started getting tough pretty quickly,” she said. “It was like somebody flipped a switch.” The agency she worked for employed around 25 people, and it became clear that they’d have to downsize to keep things afloat. But instead of laying people off, the agency decided to issue a 20% pay cut to all employees to ensure nobody lost their job. “The founder thought it would be a storm we could weather together if we all kind of just nodded our heads, looked at each other in the eyes, hunkered down and said, ‘We can make this work,'” Denton said.

At the time, Denton felt fortunate. “I felt like I was one of the lucky ones because I had a job,” she said. “But I was just keeping my head above water.” And maybe she was lucky. In 2008, designers’ confidence in their industry hit an all-time low. The Confidence Index, a quarterly survey of design leaders that measures the business health of the industry, plummeted from 98% in January 2007 to 70% in January 2008. By October 2008, confidence in the industry’s business prospects dipped to 50%. Things were not looking good.

By now you know how the story goes. Slowly, but surely, the economy rebounded, design hit its stride and is now part of the corporate business vernacular of Fortune 500 companies, tech behemoths, and global consultancies. But design’s close ties to commerce has historically been a double-edged sword—design’s star and stability rises when the economy is booming, but what happens when everything goes bust? During the 2008 recession, design’s tenuous relationship with the business world’s whims became readily apparent.

“We’ve been very fragile as an industry,” said Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, who has her own version of a recession story that includes two job changes and a stint as a freelance designer. “We’re supported by commerce, and we’re supported by good economy. Anything that is in the service industry that has to do with creative—those things becomes optional.”

Jen presents that doomsday scenario with a silver lining. By many accounts, design as a profession is healthier than ever. According to this year’s Design Census, the AIGA’s bi-annual survey of design professionals, the average designer is making more than they were two years ago, and the kinds of jobs designers are being tapped for is constantly expanding. Yet at the same time, there’s a growing sense of instability, with only 25% of designers saying they feel stable in their careers and overall designer satisfaction dropping.

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So what gives? As the specter of another possible economic downturn looms, the question of, “What happens when things go bust?” is once again relevant. It also gives rise to a whole new set of questions, like: Can designers future-proof their practice? And how is today different than ten years ago? The short answer is a little disappointing. There’s no foolproof shortcut to ensure prosperous longevity in a notoriously tumultuous industry—feeling prepared often means feeling a little uncomfortable and taking chances on a new skillset.

The way Jason Shupbach sees it, things are different today than they were in 2009. At the tail end of the last downturn, Schupbach joined the National Endowment of the Arts as the head of design, where he got a broad overview of the industry at a national scale. Today, he’s the director of the Design School at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University’s Design School, where he’s launching a new Master’s program in Science, Innovation and Venture Development. The business-meets-design curriculum is a joint effort between the design, engineering, and business schools and is something that Shupbach hopes will give students an education that prepares them for the real world.

Generally speaking, Shupbach says, the students in ASU’s design program program are less interested in narrow disciplines like pure graphic design, and more concerned with developing entrepreneurial and transferable skills—things that Shupbach calls “super human power skills” like problem solving, languages, and public speaking. “I think the way you recession-proof yourself is that you understand that your design skills can apply in a multitude of situations. And that you can position yourself as a designer just doing design, but also be part of a team working on all kinds of things,” he said. “We think we’re going to be producing designers that get jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Back in 2008, the design landscape could be described as slightly more traditional. The iPhone had only recently launched, tablets were still a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye, and UX design was considered a niche discipline. At the time, Jen of Pentagram had been working at the studio 2×4 as a creative director. When the economy took a turn, she decided to preemptively start looking around for a new gig that would provide her more security in case things went really south.
She landed at SYPartners, the strategy firm started by Keith Yamashita. After nine months, she left the strategy world and went freelance for a period—she missed the craft and daily work of designing—but it taught her an important lesson about how flexible she was as a designer. “It was an opportunity to rediscover my own strengths,” she said. “I went through a whole gamut of very different roles, and what I learned was that I am really curious, and that curiosity actually helped me to work within those different kinds of projects.”

Tough times have a way of making people reevaluate, and oftentimes that’s reflected in the career paths they forge. Denton says the recession drove her to another small digital agency where she learned how to design for tablets and ship software—a skillset that ultimately propelled her into a leadership position at Doberman, where she and her colleagues are constantly thinking about how to offer their clients a fresh perspective on new trends and technologies (Right now, they’re interested in artificial intelligence). Denton’s career was a serendipitous mix of good—or, from a different perspective, bad—timing and a willingness to take chances. The latter of which is something that Denton worries isn’t happening enough with today’s young crop of designers, many of whom are graduating straight into an ecosystem flush with well-paid roles in big tech.

She’s seen the change firsthand working at Doberman. Her company has felt the shift towards big companies hiring in-house designers instead of bringing in outside consultants. The follow-on effect is felt in her recruitment efforts, which she says has necessarily become more about finding the right kind of curious designer who’s willing to trade ultra-cushy comforts of big company jobs for a tight-knit learning environment. For a certain kind of designer, that tradeoff is a gamble they can’t afford to take. For certain others, it’s a lifeline to what Denton argues is a different, and in her view a more fulfilling career. “Maybe I’m just old school about it, but I crave a little bit more of that design community of people who are taking jobs because it’s the right next step for them as career growth,” she says. “I think when things get tough, or when you have to make decisions that aren’t financially motivated as a top priority, we might find ourselves in more interesting places.”

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“More interesting” is obviously subjective, but the point is, a lot of instability is a bad thing, but a little can mean you’re pushing yourself in a new direction. That’s not to say the average graphic designer working on branding and communication design has to go out and get a degree in computer science. Jen says that despite graphic design feeling precarious at times, she’s seen something like the horizontal partnership structure at Pentagram work as a buoy for the company during downturns’ and that’s something even young graphic designers can use when thinking about how to structure their careers.

“Here our risks are completely shared because we have a ‘socialist’ business model,” she says. “So you’ll have someone who is doing slightly better, and then the majority who aren’t doing so great, but when everything is combined together equally, everything is shared—the risks, the pain, and the joy.”

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About the author

Liz Stinson is a writer covering where design intersects with the wider world. She’s currently the managing editor of Eye On Design.

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