It's interesting to think about how the topic of money ended up as such a taboo. Culturally, it is one of the most talked-about, outspoken topics of all time. It's in the language and metaphors we use: "Money makes the world go round," "Put your money where your mouth is," and "Time is money." It's the driving force behind countless movie plots (SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!) and TV shows (shut up and take my money!). Money is what bands wrote hit songs about, again and again, and again. It's at the root of wars, love, hate, life, and death. Yet somehow, when it comes to our daily, personal lives, the conversation suddenly goes silent.
Try opening up a conversation about how much you make, how much rent you pay, or even how much you spend on groceries, and you're most likely to encounter a side-eye. It's considered rude.
Money is the main reference point to which we are all aligned — measuring ourselves, comparing ourselves to others, and, unfortunately, defining our self-worth. It's probably what makes it so stressful and anxiety-inducing to discuss. This is where we're stepping in to try and offer something else because, let's face it: money, and the economics of being a designer, are too important a topic to overlook.
Have you ever considered how money plays into your life as a designer? Of course, there is the undeniable bottom line: how much you make at the end of the month. But of no less importance are the themes and ideas that go beyond your bank account.
The intricacies of finance and the creative industry are ones we should all explore, as a community as well as individuals. In order to encourage this dialogue, we raised some money questions to fellow designers. We spoke with Geoffrey Bunting, a print designer specializing in book design and branding; Dominic Livingston, product designer and creative director and Morphe from Morphe Digital Design about why they decided to become designers, what their school days were like, the transition to the real world, and what the future holds.
Design as a Financial Decision
Shelly Peleg: Unlike other career paths out there, getting into the creative industry is rarely a financial decision but more about following your passion. But does that mean we should ignore this aspect of our choice? Should schools have a responsibility to educate students about it?
Geoffrey Bunting: I went into university having been told that graphic design was a highly employable field. The alleged employability and decent salaries drove me to design.
In university, employability was such a minor part of our course, and certainly, none of it was mandatory or presented within core lectures. We were given nothing about the current state of the design industry or the economic implications of that state. I graduated right at the start of the gig economy starting to flourish — it was a great time to warn students how it would be changing the industry (especially for young designers and freelancers) and the dangers of the sites that were cropping up.
Some information about how hard it would be or how little value people had in design would have helped. Even if it was only in a casual way from my tutors rather than in a structured lecture. Instead, I had to learn all that the hard way — the tough way.
Dominic Livingston: Before attending school, I understood what graphic design was as a topic, but never in the sense of a career. I had no idea how much a designer makes. I didn't make a move into being a designer because of financial gain — I didn't care about that. But I still understood the importance of knowing that I'm compensated for my worth, skills, and talent.
Name Your Price
SP: Post-graduation, most designers are thrown into the creative industry's deep waters, with little to no financial understanding of the market, making for a very daunting experience. How is one expected to know what to ask and charge for?
Dominic Livingston: When I just started, I set a benchmark price that I discovered while conducting research of what a full-time designer would make and made a markup being freelance. So my first ever day rate began at around £150, then to £225 in under a year.
Morphe: It was definitely trial and error at the start and learning from your mistakes. Eventually, you get to a point where you don't even have to think about it; it comes naturally. I would be more experienced in some fields and therefore charge more, and in some other fields, less experienced and therefore charge less.
Geoffrey Bunting: Advice is thin on how to price work on a freelance basis. Everything is vague and unhelpful when people really want concrete numbers. It's hard to give that because you don't know someone's circumstances. When I was younger, I went lower because stuff took longer. Now I'm able to have more confidence in my fixed prices and the kind of work I should be putting into them.
SP: The problem with pricing stems from the bigger issue: no open conversation — not with your colleagues, your classmates, or your teachers. How do you find the discourse around it?
Dominic Livingston: When I started freelancing, I felt there wasn't much advice to go around. Other freelance designers lacked business insight and were far too casual about how they did their work. But I lend my insight and experience to upcoming designers now because when I started out, no one with experience would even speak to me.
Geoffrey Bunting: If anyone asks about how I price my work or how I handle that kind of thing, I'm happy to share. We get nothing in university, and we're all in this together as amateurs. We're designers, not accountants. I don't want to be in a position where I'm doing more finance work than design work, and I don't want young designers to be overwhelmed by that side of things because nobody's talking about it bluntly.
SP: What is your hope for the industry's future?
Geoffrey Bunting: In an ideal world, people would value what we do. We wouldn't have to work so hard on how we price our work and make the concessions necessary to get work in a gig economy. It'd be great if universities gave realistic impressions of how the industry is shaping up. It might not be easy when tutors tend to be on the older side and probably aren't actively practicing as much, but that doesn't mean you can't find people to come in and talk. Young designers need to know the reality before they graduate so they can prepare. More than that, we need real reform in how jobs are structured. Junior design jobs aren't junior design jobs anymore. Instead, they require experience and are being filled by desperate experienced designers. The whole industry is falling for not valuing itself.
Thank you to Geoffrey, Dominic, and Morphe for sharing their views with us. We will continue to explore this ever-important topic, so stay tuned!