The Trick to Recession-proofing Your Design Practice? Try Something New

Julian Glander This story is the first in a series that explores the results of the 2019 Design Census. 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.” “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.” 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, 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. 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…

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