David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

On negotiating your design salary

I was chatting with Ted Leonhardt about his new book Nail It: Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence. Ted has compiled a collection of true stories about designers getting the salaries they deserve. I’ve excerpted one of the chapters below, followed by a few design salary resources.

Nail It

What am I worth?

I recently gave a talk to a group of design students on early career negotiations. Worth, and how to determine it, was very much on their minds. Three of the students shared their bargaining stories.

Margret
Focus: publication design. Region: Washington, DC.

Laid off from her first position out of school (the company closed), Margret was interviewed at another company, where they offered her $45K. Then they asked her what her previous employer paid. She told them the truth and said $38K, so they lowered their offer to $40K.

The drop caught her completely by surprise. She went from feeling good to feeling sick and jilted in a heartbeat. Her self-worth had just dropped $5K! The shock was physical; her chest clenched. What should she do?

My observations:

  • If she accepts the $40K, she’ll lose their respect.
  • If she asks for the original $45K, they’ll attempt to get her down to $42K-$43K.
  • If she asks for more, say $46K-$47K, they will be impressed with her confidence. She may not get the job, but she’ll walk out with their respect — and her own.

What happened:

Shocked and dismayed, Margret turned down the $40K. The meeting ended. She’s now expecting offers from two other employers. Above all, the experience helped her understand why she shouldn’t reveal her past salary history, and to always ask for what she needs.

Bridget
Focus: user experience. Region: San Francisco.

Shortly after graduation, Bridget was courted by some big firms in Seattle (where she attended design school) and eventually was offered slightly under $100K by two different firms in San Francisco. Naturally, these offers filled her with confidence. Better yet, one of them also offered Bridget an $18K signing bonus (although she favored the firm that had not offered the bonus). Both firms told her she couldn’t tell competitors what she’d been offered.

Are her hands truly tied? Should she use the signing bonus offer as leverage?

My observations:

  • With little experience, she needs all the advice she can get. She should turn to books, articles, friends, or family.
  • Bridget’s credibility is expanded significantly by the two offers.
  • Employers use their power to hold down salaries.
  • Bridget should absolutely use the signing bonus as leverage to get the position she wants, and on terms she is happy with.

What happened:

Bridget told the company she favored that she wanted to work for them, but that she was concerned about the high cost of living in the area. She also told them that another company had offered her an $18K signing bonus. They matched it and she accepted.

Andrew
Focus: Brand Design. Region: Chicago.

Andrew originally received two job offers. He told the first recruiter what his last position paid, and they offered him $2K more. Underwhelmed, Andrew declined. He then politely refused to tell a second recruiter what he’d been paid and was informed they couldn’t make an offer if he didn’t share his previous salary with them. The meeting ended. Andrew left with that sinking feeling you get when you suspect you pushed too hard. The next day they called and offered $20K more than he’d ever been paid. Why did that happen?

My observations:

  • Clearly, the recruiter was impressed with Andrew.
  • The recruiter’s offer, like all offers, needed to be based on an appreciation of Andrew, without the past salary as a reference point.
  • Andrew raised the recruiter’s respect by refusing to reveal his salary history.

What happened:

Andrew took the second position.

And, finally

Widely available salary surveys provide a way for determining your worth, and it’s important to know the range. Professional associations are the best place to start.

Still, developing the confidence to ask for what you need is an emotional skill, and harder to master than gathering pay-range facts. Learning to note and master your feelings during stressful situations is the real key to negotiation success, and with it you’ll gain respect as well. This book and others like it can help.

Ask yourself: Do I know what I need to succeed, and how to ask for it?

Nail It is available to buy on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Ted mentions salary surveys at the end of the excerpt, so I’ve linked to some useful info:

Design salary guide, by Coroflot (worldwide)
AIGA Aquent Survey of Design Salaries (US)
Are you earning the right amount? On Creative Review (2014)
On the money, on Creative Review (2013)
Design industry research 2010, by the Design Council (UK)
The Brand Republic jobs salary checker (UK)

My second book on Amazon

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14 comments about “On negotiating your design salary”

  1. Thanks for sharing! I will be graduating in a few years and truly appreciate the advice; this sounds like a great book to check out!

  2. This was great to read. It sort of helped me feel more grounded in my own job search. I have to question the reality of that situation though…

    Does anyone actually get offered jobs anymore? I just graduated last May as a graphic designer living in Philly. I don’t ever get offers. I have to go out of my way to hound and harass local firms. This is great advice but it makes it seem/sound so easy to just get good money right out of college.

    What gives you the right leverage or experience to know what you’re worth? I recently had an interviewer ask my past salary and I refused to answer the question. I thought my chances were over then and there but now I’m playing a cat and mouse email game with the company president. In this economy, is it smart to refuse any offers right out of college? I think all of these need a grain of salt.

  3. This was incredibly helpful. Thank you for giving perspective on what it means to stand your ground and also, examples of real-life experiences.

    Maybe in the future you could have some sort of post on what to do as a designer starting out. Maybe what the beginning salary points are and should be for people of different focus’ in design. That would be hugely helpful for me as a soon to be graduate with a graphic design degree.

  4. I sense that if you are not willing to negotiate that whomever is doing the hiring will give you a lowball number for a salary. I will always ask for more then what they are offering. Because we as designers have to know our worth and believe that we are worth it.

  5. Such a helpful read! I, too, have struggled with figuring out “what I’m worth” as a designer, and the negotiation process as a whole.

    I also appreciated the point about mastering the skill of asking for what we need. It is an emotional skill! :)

  6. As the owner and MD of a small design agency in the UK, which is now in it’s 22nd year, I always ask potential recruits in the interview what salary they would like to be paid. I then have to make my decision to hire based on their reply is. I would love to pay everyone a really great salary, BUT with clients slashing budgets I need to balance this with the long term requirements of the business and the rest of my employees. If we have a good year then I will pay a bonus based on the performance, profitability and contribution for each of the designers that work for me.

    We managed to get through the recession without having to lay off any staff, some of whom have been with me for over 10 years, something I’m still proud of.

  7. A bit of ‘Hard-ball’ goes a long way. 100K for ‘UI Design’ sounds about right. As far as I know there is a massive shortage of UI/Visual Communication designers in Silicon Valley/San Francisco at the moment. I think (especially in America) that a generation or two of young people have dived into coding, leaving a bit of a visual communications vacuum. Fantastic applications have been made – but some are lacking in usability and visual appeal.

    I second what ‘Megan R’ wrote:

    “Maybe in the future you could have some sort of post on what to do as a designer starting out. Maybe what the beginning salary points are and should be for people of different focus’ in design.”

    More in-depth articles on freelancing work please!

  8. I think both examples show a lack of experience in the field. No prospective employer needs to know what you made in your last position, unless they are a company within a company. That information is usually kept confidential through a human resources dept. I tell them what I believe I am worth and it has always landed me the job. Considering that I work for a large corporation right now, I also have contracted out design work for years and each client has paid me at or higher than what I believed to be my worth net pay. That’s what salaries are for, for negotiating.

  9. “Red//
    I think both examples show a lack of experience in the field. No prospective employer needs to know what you made in your last position, unless they are a company within a company.”

    It doesn’t matter what ‘field’ you are in. Not telling your previous salary to a potential employer is a basic tactic that can be used across all types of job interviews (not just design).

    Information is key. Keeping your ‘cards’ close to your chest is just good practice (in every part of your daily life – in general).

  10. Good luck with the job search, Jennifer. It wasn’t easy for me getting good money after I graduated. In fact it wasn’t until a few years into self-employment when I that happened. It’s great to get pointers from people with Ted’s experience, but take all advice with a grain of salt, and there’s a lot to be said for going with instinct, even if you make mistakes along the way.

    Hi Megan, Denis, was there something you were looking for in addition to the salary checkers I linked to?

    You should be proud, Chris. I have a lot of respect for good employers.

  11. This is a really helpful post. Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned professional, to value what you think you’re worth is a challenge. There is always some self doubt or fear. I think it’s too easy, maybe especially for women, to wait till someone values you and to view withholding information as a sign of not being honest.

  12. This just sent me on a marathon of reading related articles on the internet. This is a useful topic in ANY kind of occupation. Amazing how we go along with ideas that are not really correct, just because others go along.

  13. Denis, wanted to point out to you that UI is very different than user experience (UX). I myself am a UI art director and work very closely with user experience folks which are much more about digital architecture.

    100K for UX or UI fresh out of school does seem very high, esp since I work in NYC at a top design firm myself. I wonder what kind of shops were contacting her.

  14. This was very helpful to read, I currently am employed at a marketing firm working as their sole and first in-house graphic designer. This is also my first position out of college so I didn’t know really how to gauge how much I am able to make while here. At first I was proud of what I suggested, but after being here for a while I’ve come to realize that I am the least payed person other than interns. I asked for a raise however was turned down because of my lack of experience and some amateur mistakes that I have made while here because I am without a mentor/supervisor in GD. It hasn’t even been a full year since working here, but I am coming to realize my own value and worth within the projects and with the clients I’m dealing with.

Anything to add?

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