Starting salaries are a contentious subject among designers, not least because of the grey areas that lie between placements, freelancing and permanent staff. The industry has changed dramatically over the last few years, but have starting salaries and options really kept up?
There are plenty of choices when starting out. Do you take a placement or do an internship? What kind of agency or studio environment do you want to work in? Or do you start out on your own? Within my first five years of work I'd done all three. All of these affect salary expectations, and it can be hard to be honest with ourselves about the importance of money when we are supposed to only care about the work.
Better than nothing?
I've heard conversations where the 'love versus money' issue is used as an excuse for underpaying designers. We're not 'doing it for the money', but neither should we have to start poor and shun the business end of the industry to be true to our craft.
D&AD has been campaigning on the issue of unpaid internships, which are rife in our sector. Because of this, most creatives are delighted to be paid anything once they start working, and often don't question their salary, believing it to be 'better than nothing'.
A few months down the line when the cost of living kicks in, it's a different story. I know some employers rotate through unpaid or poorly paid placements to keep within the law, but I've met juniors who have been paid nothing but travel and expenses for over a year, while they work the placement circuit. While it's good to get into prestigious places, it's not cool to be working for free, especially when no other roles in agencies and studios start in the same way.
Supply and demand
We're in a situation where there are more people coming out of design education than there are jobs, so although good people are always in demand, there is pressure to be priced down too. Then there's the decision to go to a bigger studio or a more boutique place. Theoretically, in our free market economy it's the availability of good labour that should determine salaries.
However, in reality, other factors come into play. A studio could have up to 100 people, and scores of clients. With savings on space and resource, and larger, longer contracts with clients, it can afford good salaries and perks. A smaller agency might struggle to provide basic resources such as desk space, so salaries will be pushed down too. This is not the fault of a small company, but a result of the cost of setting up and running a business. However, for those that like the small studio vibe, it's worth it.
The first experiences of a real working environment can be formative and terrifying, exhilarating and eye-opening. But while you may be learning, you're also doing valuable work. I would encourage all young creatives to engage with the practicalities of the business they want to enter, and remember that no one should have to work for free. Not even us artists.
Words: Laura Jordan Bambach
President of D&AD, Laura is also founder of She Says – the "only global creative network for women" – and a partner at Soho-based agency Mr President. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 223.
Read our exclusive interview with Bambach here (opens in new tab)
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