The Present (and Future) of the Business of Design

Feels like just yesterday I was finishing college and struggling to find a job in design. Not many respectable studios were hiring and the ones were, well, less than desirable. I ended up working at Apple retail as a software and hardware trainer withering away as I grew increasingly discouraged about not landing a job in my field. My heart was in design and would settle for nothing less. Eventually, fed up, I left Apple and pursued independency as a freelance designer. A chance I took nearly three and a half years ago. Wow, three years ago;  how things have changed. Three years ago was good; last year excellent; this year: an unbelievable growth. Growing more curious I asked you freelance and agency Design Twitter and Google+ folk if you’ve also seen a growth. I received around 60 (and growing as I write this) responses all stating an increase.

Incredible! Happy for everyone! But where is this coming from? Why? Are more people using the web and seeing the true value of it’s earnings and reach finally? Does a majority of the recession reasoning the U.S. deal with the way business is changing and companies are growing online through collaborative consumption? How much of an impact does Dribbble have on the increase of jobs (I’m sure a lot but that doesn’t mean Dribbbble gives them the money to spend on us)? How much of an impact does Apple have on our professional (surely companies have noticed that good design does indeed make a difference)? Why, all of a sudden, have people been investing more in good, strategic design?

These are just a few of the many questions I’ve been asking myself lately. I too have nearly doubled from an already incredible year last year – not to mention we still have five months left in the year. I could answer these questions personally from the stance of my insights and business however I’m just one person giving my take on this dramatic increase. A better assessment would be getting more takes and stories on the matter; so I ask you, Designers, Freelancers, Agencies:

  • Have you seen an increase of work this year versus last? Much more? About the same? Less? A tad more? Come on spill the beans.
  • Where are your clients coming from? Word of mouth? Dribbble? Google searching? A little this and a little that?
  • What do you feel accounts for this increase?
  • US folk (or non if you like to also chime in): Why do you think our country is struggling financially, yet people are throwing money into our work?
  • If you see an increase of work, what type of work are you seeing the most of (ie: Startups? “Social” UI work? Church sites? etc.)
  • Are you marketing more or less?
  • Are you turning down more work than you take on?

Would love to make better sense of all this and your help would be appreciated (and also helpful for everyone).



Discussion and Comments

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  1. Peter says:

    Work has definitely ramped up for me, but that probably has more to do with the fact that I got a nice contract for about 2 yrs of work… Clients are coming from Google searching… I spent quite a bit of time a couple years ago optimizing my site and I’m very happy I did… it has paid itself off many fold. No marketing–just pure SEO for me. I wish I had time to market, etc.

  2. Dustin says:

    I’ve been seeing a nice increase lately, mainly through word of mouth and support through twitter. I’ve aslo done some pro bono work for a local marketing agency which has resulted in numerous quotes. I have also been working for a small start up event space, which has really been pushing me in my design work and will be updating their site soon.

    I think people are starting to see a lot of bad design from themselves and their competitors and are trying to get a leg up on some of their competition.

    Right now I’m not turning down work. I am always available for hire.

  3. David Airey says:

    Hi Brian, great to know business is going so well for you.

    Comparing this year with last I’ve been working with fewer clients. I’m charging more, though, which benefits me in two main ways:

    1/ Less clients means that those I work with receive a lot more of my attention during what’s generally a more efficient turnaround time.

    2/ I can spend more hours learning about brand identity design (what I enjoy most in the profession) and keeping my three blogs regularly updated.

    My clients generally contact me via word of mouth or after a little online research reveals my site(s).

    Here’s to a brilliant five remaining months in 2011 for you.

  4. Chris Porter says:

    I’ve actually seen a big decrease in big projects and more very small projects, which has hurt me a lot. Because of that, I had to move from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles in July just to rebuild my portfolio and hopefully make better money.

    Right now, I haven’t had much luck lately with freelance work or full time work for agencies. So now its getting to the point that I might have to take this Apple Retail job Sunday, even though I’ve been out of college since March 2009. Hopefully things pick up soon!

  5. Tim Smith says:

    I think it really depends on who you are and what type of reputation you build up. Brian, you’re an amazing designer so work will come.

    I’ve seen that with effort, hard work and a dedication to your craft, it’s possible to find great projects to work on.

  6. Bill Kenney says:

    I am glad to hear you are having a very similar experience to what we are going through. Last year was an amazing year for us and we are already passed that mark this year. I also ponder on the idea of what is the exact reasoning and if there is a specific at all.

    I do feel like we are indeed lucky in our trade where people are more and more willing to drop a pretty penny on the work we do. It is also the hard work we have put in like Tim has suggested. Hard work does payoff.

    Keep up the great work.

  7. Hi Brian, great post.

    When I quit my job in the middle of the recession last year to run my own studio, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand why every company did hear that Melissa was available for work and come knocking on my door. It was because of the documentation, transparency, and writing of you and a few other designers (Jeff Archibald of Paper Leaf included) that I was able to get guidance on client issues, organization, business tips, and productivity.

    I imagine that many of your readers/followers also value the resources and insight you provide and perhaps have been able to raise their rates and appear more professional to clients because of it. I know I have.

    Basically, I believe that much of your audience are beginner independent designers and have seen business grow because they’ve grown themselves.

    Perhaps business has gone up for the whole industry too, but don’t discount the fact that you’re a huge help and resource to the community of designers.

    Yes, business has gone up. And I owe a large thank you to you and many others in the community who are insightful and share their writing and experiences with us.

    -Melissa

  8. Great article Brian. I can’t believe you have been doing this for three years. I am glad to see you being successful in what you love doing.

    Here are my answers to your questions:

    Q1: Have you seen an increase of work this year versus last? Much more? About the same? Less? A tad more? Come on spill the beans.

    A1: I dont do freelance but our company Church Media Group has been growing. We have nearly doubled in the work compared to last year.

    Q2: Where are your clients coming from? Word of mouth? Dribbble? Google searching? A little this and a little that?

    A2: Our clients have pretty much been coming by word of mouth. We do not do any kind of marketing. Within the church community, pastors talk to pastors and thats how our word gets around.

    Q3: What do you feel accounts for this increase?

    A3: By providing the best for our clients in such a small budget.

    Q4: Why do you think our country is struggling financially, yet people are throwing money into our work?

    A4: Because people still need to get the word out about their company. Flyers, websites, logos and branding will always be needed.

    Q5: If you see an increase of work, what type of work are you seeing the most of (ie: Startups? “Social” UI work? Church sites?

    A5: I am seeing an increase of everything. With the rise of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Linkedin and seeing how much these social networks are worth, people want to be part of that and start something up that can make them lots of money. In our church bubble, we have seen an increase of sales for church websites. Not just through us but through our competitors.

    Q6: Are you marketing more or less?

    A6: Honestly we haven’t really marketed since we have started 5 years ago.

    Q7: Are you turning down more work than you take on?

    A7: We hate saying no so currently we are taking work all the time. Just this month in August, we are launching 14 church websites and I have 2 designers working their butts off. This also includes me LOL.

    Hopefully this was helpful.

    Ish

  9. Neil Pearce says:

    I haven’t been freelancing long enough to make a real contribution to this thread. However, i haven’t had trouble finding work and i have actually started to turn people away? But for me it’s all about self promo – twitter, Dribbble(not on there yet!), forrst and personal blogs, all contribute to your success.

    Happy days :)

  10. 1) Huge increases, easily doubled from last year

    2) My clients are a mixed bag really. Good chunk are re-ocurring agency clients, but I spend $250/month on link building and SEO work so Google helps a lot. Referrals don’t hurt either. I also get a lot of leads from $100/month Sortfolio featured profile. I’ve never gotten work through Dribbble though.

    3) Personally I think the Recession created an environment where more people took a chance at entrepreneurship and what’s becoming a more natural assumption, they all need websites, brands, etc… I think as well, most business owners are starting to click with the idea that good design matters as professional design creates credibility. Having said that, there are a lot of folks on places like Craigslist looking for work for free

    4) I’m Canadian :)

    5) I do a lot of work for startups and small business. Just lots of folks wanting to get their products and services online, which is cheaper than a traditional store front

    5) I am marketing much more than previous years

    6) I’m pretty picky about what types of projects I take on, so yes, I turn down a lot. I also don’t participate in RFP processes so I turn a lot of those down as well.

  11. Yaron Schoen says:

    “Why do you think our country is struggling financially, yet people are throwing money into our work?”

    I think the internet economy is very attractive. You can produce a ton of money (granted you need a good idea, service and some luck) but at the same time, you need less man power. This is a huge shift in our country’s economy as well. It’s almost as if the dooms day scenario of “the robots are taking away human jobs” is actually coming true. Though I really do not see this as a dooms day scenario, but as a positive thing. Sites like AirBNB and Etsy are really helping the masses *make* money. I feel this is where we are headed and because of this, we see more and more work on the internet.

    Wow, sorry this comment is way off topic… :)

  12. Justin Kropp says:

    Hi Brian -

    So glad to see that many are experiencing an increase in business. Over the last year I have seen a small increase in work, but I’ve only taken a small percentage of those new requests. Most of my work comes via word of mouth, and being a small studio I try to be quite selective about what projects I take on. Pairing up with the right project, as well as the right people behind that project, is key to prolonging the joy you get out of running your own business. When you’re small, everything is amplified—the good and the bad.

    I’ve noticed that much of that new work is coming from small businesses and startups. This culture seem to be paying more attention to what design can do for them, and the design I’m referring to here is more strategic and holistic rather than purely aesthetic.

    With the anxiety that is spreading through our global economy, let’s hope that all of us can continue to bring in work and support our passion.

  13. Mark says:

    I too have noticed an increase of clients this year, and I’ve also been in the game for roughly three years now. Although, I don’t think it has anything to do with companies placing more importance on web presence, or some other internet phenomenon, but rather simply that my business is taking it’s natural course as things continue.

    The new clients have mostly been word of mouth, instead of me going out to find them. I think this has to do with the fact that over the years I’ve done more and more websites, and the more you do the more likely it is they will recommend your business to others.

    Perhaps the reason is not as simple as this, but I like to think it is.

  14. Edwin says:

    Interesting post Brian and it is great to hear a fellow designer who has had a successful year in the biz. Here are my answers to your questions:

    1. Have you seen an increase of work this year versus last? Much more? About the same? Less? A tad more? Come on spill the beans.

    A1. I’m going to say more. This is due to slightly more online marketing through sites for internet marketers as well as taking on extra workers and outsourcing work through sites like freelancer.com

    2. Where are your clients coming from? Word of mouth? Dribbble? Google searching? A little this and a little that?

    A2. Google searching and referrals from existing clients. I do my best to make sure clients leave some sort of comment or referral for anyone else who is looking for a similar service down the line.

    3. What do you feel accounts for this increase?
    US folk (or non if you like to also chime in): Why do you think our country is struggling financially, yet people are throwing money into our work?

    A3. I think more and more people are turning to web based stuff and may feel the need for social proofing i.e. get a website because every other business has one. Or get a fancy letterhead because other business have one. Because of the exposure from the web, I believe there is more social proofing and so more people are jumping on the bandwagon of ‘must haves’ for their business.

    4. If you see an increase of work, what type of work are you seeing the most of (ie: Startups? “Social” UI work? Church sites? etc.)

    A4. For myself, more entrepreneurs and Internet Marketers

    5. Are you marketing more or less?

    A5. Actually less. This is because once I have found a system that works, it is a process of rinse and repeat and thus you don’t really need to advertise a lot to get that much more work. Hope that does not sound too confusing.

    6. Are you turning down more work than you take on?

    6A. At the moment, no. This is because I tend to outsource a good amount of my work as well.

    Keep up the good work Brian.

  15. Hey Brian,

    I actually left 4 years of independent work as a freelancer to take up the mantle as Head of Design for a well funded start up here in San Francisco because I wanted to impact more people and work on a series of related projects in great depth and detail.

    During my investigative phase in looking for the right fit, I had a really interesting conversation with the new CCO of McAfee about design and designers. He told me he felt that in the web world, Designers were now the new ‘Engineers’. To quote him directly, he said “if you have a great product, you can do without sales, marketing, and pretty much anything else, but you can’t do with out great engineering and great design and expect it to go anywhere.”

    I thought that was something to truly think about. I think your questions and this post are certainly hitting the head on the nail. It’s the middle of the longest recession this country has every seen and we are all thriving.

    One conclusion that can be extrapolated from all this is due to things being so tough right now, every little bit matters. The company next to yours who is investing in design, when you dont can be the company who puts you out of business. Or, has the world begun to recognize that Design does indeed actually matter? Has it reached critical mass with the success of sites like Dribbble. I think that it’s a combination of all of these.

    Great post.

  16. Philip L says:

    1. Have you seen an increase of work this year versus last? Much more? About the same? Less? A tad more? Come on spill the beans.

    A1. A slight decrease in the number of projects, but an increase in the size/scope of the projects. This is great since the little projects tend to be the unprofitable ones.

    2. Where are your clients coming from? Word of mouth? Dribbble? Google searching? A little this and a little that?

    A2. My best clients come from word of mouth, though a few have come to me through my website.

    3. What do you feel accounts for this increase?
    US folk (or non if you like to also chime in): Why do you think our country is struggling financially, yet people are throwing money into our work?

    A3. We are a visually stimulated culture and design is more important now than ever. Good design is no longer an afterthought, it’s a requirement.

    4. If you see an increase of work, what type of work are you seeing the most of (ie: Startups? “Social” UI work? Church sites? etc.)

    A4. More non profit clients. It’s ironic, because the organizations that are “not for profit” tend to be the ones that actually have money.

    5. Are you marketing more or less?

    A5. More indirect marketing, all through Dribbble.

    6. Are you turning down more work than you take on?

    6A. Yes, though this has always been the case. I’ve found that being selective when choosing clients and projects saves you a ton of heartache in the long run.

  17. Richard Ball says:

    What i growth? is it more customers or is it more revenue? i found this year a lot more profitable, but with the same amount of customers, if not less as last year.

    Happy days it looks all round!

  18. Jessica says:

    I have had a lot more work this year, more than I can handle (or want) actually. I am beginning to turn clients away, and cherry pick projects, a nice milestone for me. All my clients are word of mouth. Since the economic downturn people seem to be looking harder at what their web presence is doing for them and what it could be doing for them. A lot of businesses also seem to be a little insecure about integrating social media which also accounts for additional business for me. They need more help with it.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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