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British Design Talent: Underpaid, Undervalued and Undermined?

Lucy Wills argues that the design industry needs to do more to support the talent it depends upon

There is a common perception that working in the creative industries is a privilege, and that design as a vocation is more rewarding or enjoyable than many other lines of work. It is also considered a field where it is possible to progress rapidly, and where many opportunities lie for the taking.  As a result, vast number of design graduates leave education with the expectation that they will be able to make their way in the industry through talent and hard work, and that their efforts will be recognised and rewarded with decent pay and career opportunities. But are these expectations realistic, and are the pathways into design employment that new entrants increasingly have to use undermining the industry as a whole?

Though on the surface the creative industries appear healthy, growing in size, producing an abundance of innovative work and needing a wide range of talent to do so, when more closely examined, things are much less rosy, particularly in terms of employment practices. Design businesses, by their nature, are often based around networks of trust, long-term relations and friendship - a reflection of the collaborative nature of much of the work. As a result, many of the people they hire for internships and junior roles have some kind of personal connection with the business. Such positions are the standard route by which new graduates enter the industry and are also, increasingly unpaid. Legally of course there is a crucial difference between offering a student a work placement during study and expecting a graduate entering the job market to do the work of a paid employee for nothing. But this legal distinction is being constantly blurred and ignored by creative businesses, while interns themselves, desperate to get a start in the industry and well aware of the competition, are prepared to accept it, and all too often without complaint.

In the long term, this matters not just on the grounds of equality, but also to employers and the competitiveness of the industry as whole. The sector needs a constant supply of new ideas, people with diverse backgrounds and talents to remain vibrant and resilient, but this is at risk if the need for personal means and family support limit the number of entrants. A healthy, diverse creative workforce does not arise naturally in the design or any other industry – it requires a wide range of people to be able to enter, to afford to work and to progress. But just at the point when designers should be developing their craft and moving up in seniority, they are at risk of dropping out – burnt out from under-paid work, lack of recogntion and without the resources to continue.

Creative agencies frequently make the case to both clients and the wider economy of the critical value of design in product development, innovation and marketing. They protest against the escalation of ‘audition culture’ and the fact that more and more agencies are being asked to produce significant amounts of finished work for prospective clients  ‘on spec', in the hope of winning the contract. But their position is undermined if agencies themselves don't value young designers and pay them properly. The design industry is also being given more responsibility than ever to provide economic return and to help solve pressing global problems. We need more of “the kind of design that changes people’s lives” as John Mathers, Chief Executive at the Design Council, has put it. But we can’t do this with an underpaid, homogenous and under-valued workforce.

By contrast, paid internships allow people to compete on a more even footing and attract applications from a broader range of backgrounds – many of whom respond with greater loyalty and dedication to their industry. Recent years have seen a number of campaigns to raise attention to and address the problem. Shelly Asquith, president of the University of the Arts London Student Union has led the successful campaign to end unpaid placements from all of the UAL colleges, while groups such as stop working for free and intern aware are acting as rallying points for those who are not willing or able to work for free.

Such campaigning, along with legal support for exploited workers and the actions of trade unions and design industry groups are all important actions. But ultimately both clients and design agencies need to be prepared to pay for creativity and invest in its future. Creative businesses need to attract talented designers, train and reward them accordingly, and provide them with job security and career progression – or risk undermining their own success, and jeopardising the future of what is still one of the UK’s leading industries.

This article was written by Lucy Wills, @re_present





3 people have had something to say so far

Excellent article and your comments are all so true!
One incident I know of where an employer asked the potential employee to produce vast amounts of work before being given an interview; personally this borders on exploitation; especially if it flavoured around future work load of the employer and can be used by the company.
In this instance the young lady produced the work and then was given a day's trial; she was then put in a room which was no bigger than a small cupboard and told that is where she had to work; by mid-day she was in tears and at the end of the day left as she felt she had been treated abominably.
This was supposed to be a "cool" company and anything goes!!
Posted on 26/05/14 13:25.
Thank you for your comment Susan. Sadly these stories are far too common, and this kind of behaviour is widely tolerated if not condoned.

It could be argued that this is merely typical of an industry where an oversupply of graduates is the norm - but this misses point. Not only are people being expected to work for free, they are also expected to hand the work overin it's entireity, whether they are given the role or not. This now happening at all levels of the industry and is incredibly destructive in the long term.

Could I ask what discipline this was in??
Posted on 26/05/14 15:36 in reply to Susan Collins.
Thank you for highlighting this issue which has far wider implications than the design industry, The self same issues apply across all the creative industries, and more crucially in the now rapidly developing web-based design, arts, games and media industries. With Amazon setting up an online studio which pays less than 20% of the traditional market value for new writing, and Agencies such as Talent House offer little more that a credit when people work for big brands, the area of exploitation is online and global.

We need to come up with new business models, a stronger sense of collective IP rights, online development support, and effective mentoring of new talent. If we do not then the new era will not only rob talent of opportunities, but those which do exist will put creatives back in the 19th century, dependent on the patronage of big brands.
Posted on 21/06/14 07:21.

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