Designing through a recession

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The UK press and politicians would have you believe it’s all doom and gloom. But as an independent designer, I’m in good shape to take advantage of the “credit crunch.”

Here are a few thoughts from talented designers on working in today’s economy.

“My advice to you: learn how to run projects, learn how to run a business, learn about and adopt uncompromising professionalism. Whether you’re a freelancer or an agency designer, there’s an opportunity here for you to leverage your online blog/portfolio reputation and build yourself a strong place in the profession.”

Andy writes a compelling piece on why we should be optimistic, and I agree with much of what he says.

“How do we go about replacing clients or gaining new ones at a time when people are at their most cautious? Does being a studio with premises give you an advantage over someone who works from home? Being a freelancer at this point could give you an advantage over a studio as you have fewer overheads, but studios have the physical presence which acts as a 24/7 billboard advert to draw in new clients.”

Sarah mentions how some of her clients are taking longer to pay as they tighten their belts. My most common payment structure of taking 50% in advance, with the remainder upon completion — and just before original artwork is supplied — has meant I’ve not seen any of this. Are you experiencing anything different?

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Image copyright Aaron Russell

“The truth is, as freelance web designers we have good reason to be optimistic. With slashed budgets, marketers may increasingly turn to email, viral and web marketing as they seek better value for money and return on investment. And when companies begin to lay off staff, it is often the freelancer who benefits when they step in to complete the work that starts overflowing.”

Regular readers Shaun Barnes, Brian Yerkes and Andrew Kelsall briefly share their own experiences in the comments of Aaron’s article.

“…though we are in a hard and trying time, I feel that it is the businesses that strive to be innovative and market their products well that will see through the current economic downturn. Whilst businesses that bury their heads’ in the sand and ignore the situation will fail.”
— SCOTT MALLINSON (broken link removed, 2014)

How the recession has affected me

I can increasingly attract identity design clients who put significant value on my service, but I believe this has more to do with improved online visibility, and less to do with current market trends. I receive one or two solid enquiries each week. There are normally five or six short email approaches in the same time period, but the majority of those are looking for cheaper options.

The third and fourth quarters of 2008 have seen a decent upward curve, and given the international visibility of my website, I’m quietly confident it’ll continue into 2009. But I’m cautious and not spending more than my income.

Other design-related posts about the recession

How have you been affected? Have you seen a change in the way you or your clients are doing business? If you’re clever about your marketing and don’t turn design into a commodity, I reckon you’ve a lot to look forward to.

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49 responses

  1. Thanks for linking through to my own article and showing my own thoughts alongside others. Since writing that article I have noticed slightly fewer enquiries coming through, although I’m not sure whether that’s a result of the recession or just a result of slowing down for Christmas. Saying that, I’ve just booked in a job leaving me at capacity well into January. Remaining positive :)

  2. I agree that this could be an exciting time for designers. My personal opinion is that there is a great opportunity for new business. Companies that would not have considered switching firms are now open to other options. At the same time my own clients may consider shopping around. So I make a point to remind them about the value a bring.

  3. Personally I am loving the recession. Nearly all of my clients are based in the USA and the exchange rate USD$1.55 to our AUD$1 means I get another bonus for my hard work.

    I have also found that the last quarter of 2008 has been the best of the year, but this is most probably due to my increased visibility on the web not because of the recession.

    I know that the late December and January periods are going to be slow as usual… but I’ll be on holidays in Thailand so won’t have to worry about that. Have you got any more travel plans David now that you’ve settled in your new house?

  4. Hello David,

    Thanks for the link and thanks for the article that really confirms what I’ve been thinking and writing about recently.

    Every recession is different and this one is a world apart from the dip (not recession) of the early naughties and the downturn of the early nineties. Those last two hit freelancers hard and early; this one certainly doesn’t seem so bad.

    There are two reasons for this that I can think of:

    1. Open any marketing or business text book and look up recession in the index and it will tell you to increase marketing spend during the bad times – maybe this advice has hit home and certain organisations are trying to find reliable freelancers for various projects.

    2. Most importantly, increased networking via the web means freelancers can draw easily from a pool of talent helping them to take larger and more complex tasks. I am increasingly outsourcing parts of jobs or whole jobs to contacts I have made through my website and it’s been working very well.

    And in general terms freelancers are cheaper than agencies and will therefore get more work when budgets are tight.

    (Also, is it only me, but there are areas of the economy that really aren’t doing too badly? I sometimes think that the media are in danger of making the downturn a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you still have your job (as most people do) then all that’s happened is prices are coming down for you and you are paying less for your mortgage. It’s only the news that’s causing economic negativity.)

    So, all in all, I would cautiously say that this is a good time for a switched-on freelance designer. Although I won’t offer a definition of “switched-on” here and now!

    Certainly web projects are to the fore and the print side is quiet. I feel for some design agencies that I’ve worked for. Some of them I remember had all their work in the financial services industry and only did print design. I guess some of them will go under. But then, when they go under, who gets the work that they had been doing?

    These will be good times for some people.

  5. Aaron, good point about Christmas. I’m sure many cut spending due to Santa’s imminent arrival. Great news with your new project.

    Jacob, the increased strength of the dollar and the weakening of the pound is helping here, too. No upcoming travel plans, but I’ll be on the house hunt come the new year.

    Rob, great comment. I agree with about the media causing uncertainty, and I’ve also been outsourcing from time-to-time. The online design community has helped tremendously.

    George, sorry to learn that. Are you finding a lack of enquiries?

  6. Great Article. I thought Sarah’s comments were interesting. It seems to me that an online presence is a 24/7 way of keeping people interested/updated on what you’re doing more than a physical building.

    Maybe the studio is there for them to see everytime they go downtown etc but if you can find ways to get them to come back to your site frequently, they’ll be there at least once a day- maybe more.

    Thats why every freelancer needs to be blogging- and constantly putting new info out there for their clients and others.

  7. Yeah, I too am enjoying the benefit of our poor currency at the moment – the majority of my clients are US based, and I’m getting considerably better pay at the moment. It makes a big difference with the larger projects.

    I’ve noticed that both potential and ongoing UK clients seem to have slowed right down and are acting fairly cautiously. I’ve found it more difficult to attract local business over the past few months. US based clients, in my experience, haven’t changed, despite their similiar situation overseas.

    Judging by other people’s comments, it seems that the recession is a mixed blessing, depending on whether one relies more on local business or international markets. Those solely accustomed to working with clients within their own country may need to look further afield.

  8. Really like the articles and takes on this recession.

    I must apologize for my country (USA) for causing this dilemma. Or rather, the combining of bad leadership (Bush), spending too much (Americans), that are borrowing too much (using houses as ATMs), and got full of themselves (with wars.) By some reasoned accounts, we as a nation are 10 Trillion in National Debt, with 52T+ in overall debt.

    China, not terrorism, is truly the enemy to American economic dominance, if such a thing were preferable round the world. To be blunt, we might be the 1st empire to go from peak (1945) to trough (2020) within a century’s time.

    As far as affect, we are on the precipice of either an absolute fall ( I pray not) or an opportunity to turn the page on 30+ seasons of discontent, fighting and the like.

    Some days I just don’t want to get out of bed.

  9. I certainly noticed the difference in the strength of the uk pound to the usa dollar. It’s great if you get work from the usa but not so great if you have to pay for something in usa dollars from a uk account. I had looked at getting more work from the usa but there does seem to be a lesser expected budget for logo design for businesses in the usa as there are so many american based budget design companies especially on the web.
    I really like the optimistic points within the articles, it makes a refreshing change when the news is all so negative at the moment. Thank you for sharing everybody.

  10. Recession actually is great time for every designer, who wants to start a new project not spending much too. And I think for freelancers this is a beautiful time to creep under other studio charges, and get more clients – not very solid ones maybe, but money is money.

  11. Damien, glad you’re making the most of the exchange rate. I’ve just secured another UK client, so I’m not noticing much of a local difference (yet). It helps to look further afield, I agree. There shouldn’t be a restriction on physical location, unless there’s a language barrier.

    Jason, good of you, but there’s really no need to apologise. Overspending was a huge factor here in the UK, and it’s been happening for many years. Stay positive friend.

    bubble, I don’t think clients in the US (on the whole) expect to pay less for logo design. You’ll find budget logo companies everywhere, so it all depends on your own market positioning.

    Dainis, yep, as Andy (Rutledge) points out, large firms will be looking for other options besides those agenices they’ve depended upon for years. A great time to brush up on your professionalism.

  12. Recession? What recession? For some curious reason I’m having my best year, both financially and in terms of the interesting work that’s been coming in. I’m in the unprecedented (for me) position of having to turn down any more new projects before the new year and I think that having a client list that spans a wide variety of industries helps, particularly in these credit-crunch times. I definitely get the impression that clients are looking to save money and assume that freelancers will be more cost-effective than a larger company with bigger overheads. I also know of one or two larger design firms who’ve put expansion plans on hold for now, so it would seem that it’s the one-man-bands and smaller partnerships who will better weather the storm.

  13. It’s good to see a post looking at this subject. Things have started to get a bit rocky but in some cases we’re finding that clients are looking to invest in creative media to help promote themselves to stay on top of new business.

    But, as you imply – a lot of financial measures to take should be considered whether there’s a recession or not!

  14. Hey David, I been a big fan of your blog and your assistance to other designers in the past. I too am in the same boat with still getting the same amount of requests for design work, just alot of people are trying to low-ball us designers. I think their is something to be gained from this learning how to run a business as a freelance designer is crucial to being able to create new businesses. This holistic ability that you touched on from one of your quotes is probably the single most important thing from getting larger pieces of business these days.

    Keep up the good logo work and happy holidays!


  15. Personally, I’ve never been AS busy lately. One of my regular clients are requiring more work to acquire a more professional image so they themselves can solicit third party contractors through the impending recession.

    Like Rob Cubbon stated, clients are turning to freelancers more frequently. Soon, I am to start on a new project designing marketing material for yet another driving school — a sign that marketing is the top-notch way for business’s to gain customers…and we designers gain too.

    BTW thanks David for the link.

  16. As with Andrew, we’ve never been as busy, especially undertaking work for forward-looking businesses in the finance ‘industry’, and our work on longer-term projects is still going ahead. Perhaps weirdly, we’re getting more ongoing contracts, too.

    Indeed, with those becoming redundant wanting to start businesses of their own, we get a fair share of start-ups, too – a smaller budget than most of our work, but it gives a lot of variation and still adds up.

    From the viewpoint of having an office/studio, it is an overhead cost, but for us it promotes our stability to clients, which is important, and, in my opinion, a worthwhile expense – it certainly seems to guarantee larger projects for us.

  17. Great article, just the other day I was just thinking about how designers are dealing with the current economy. I have to agree this is a good time for freelancers to get some work over agency’s but I have also ran into some clients who want work done faster and cheaper at the same time. Even as slow as the economy is at the moment I find myself refusing to sell myself short to these clients who want good fast cheap work, I would rather wait another week or two for hopefully a better inquiry.

  18. Thanks for the interesting site David – enjoy dropping in to see what the new topic for discussion is. Found your site through the article that HOW featured your site in. Anyway – re the recession… the point has been made and I will reiterate it; the companies that think they can get through the hard times by doing nothing and spending no dosh will do two things – make themselves invisible to a more discerning customer base while simultaneously giving their competition what amounts an own goal. Hoping it all goes away will let the competition steal a march simply by doing nothing at all. Instead, my advice has been to clients, that more than ever you need to be sure your marketing, branding and visual communications are as effective and innovative as you can possibly make them. Sure tighten the belt, but use your marketing budget wisely – the scatter gun approach will only waste precious resources. As for me, I have to say things have just gotten busier and busier – picking up the odd foreign client along the way – with frequent burning of the midnight oil to meet deadlines. Sometimes I feel a little economic slowdown would be a welcome relief and give me back a life – but the need to create is always a great motivator. That and the ever present nag that it could all end tomorrow so making hay while the sun shines becomes a fairly motivating factor too, no matter how frantic things seem to get. Keep up the great site.

  19. In Spring I observed a significant downturn in my business for about three months solid, so I did a ton of seo work during the time when I didn’t have as much work, and doubled my monthly site traffic.

    I haven’t had an issue since and projects have been flooding through the door since early summer, I’ve been very busy for some time now, and it’s looking good for the forseeable future.

    I believe this is more to do with my own actions rather than that the ecomonic climate is ‘fine’, but it goes to show how much control you have over your own success.

    I haven’t experienced any slow paying clients, they all pay on time as usual for 99% of invoices, and those that are a bit late pay up once I send my chaser. Same as always.

  20. What many people fail to understand is that economic recession is simply a normal part of the regular cycle of the business world. Although some recessions are more dramatic than others, the bottom line is that economic recessions happen regularly.

    Look on the positive side guys.
    Recession always brings new opportunities.

  21. Hello, David! I’m a long and regular reader of your blog. Thank you for your interesting posts!

    And I want to say about the situation in Russia. The financial downturn has spread not only to Europe, USA, but the whole world, including Ukraine and Russia. It felt like a recession sometime last month and now. Large purchases (such as homes and cars) are rare. Most people are in uncertainty – what will happen next, in New Year?

    As for me, in my work it is the other way around – an increase of orders (perhaps this is related to the upcoming holidays), it is likely a temporary phenomenon.

    Let us hope and believe that it’ll all be for the better!

  22. Thank you David,
    I read Andy’s blog post on my last day at my Job. I was laid off from my position as a web designer, the reason being “they needed to tighten their purse stings”, and couldn’t afford to keep paying me.

    I’m scared out of my wits to be entering the world of freelance. There was something so comforting in receiving a paycheck every two weeks and as a single Mom, I looked forward too.

    So… I just wanted to thank-you to you and Andy for giving me that extra inspiration and hope during this time.

  23. Even though we’re in tough times, that doesn’t mean everyone will suffer, it means a lot more caution on the part of the spending public.
    I have recently gone on a website and found that with a little help from some friends that my business has actually started to not only recover but go up.

  24. I have seen a slight increase in freelance opportunities as well. Many of my older clients have recently come back and asked for a header/footer package for their emails. It seem that in order to cut cost they want to send email rather than fax which is generally pay per impression on leased copiers, or rather than send post due to its outrageous costs.

    I have also seen an increase in clients interested in digital media like e-book covers and boxes for sales of digital products.

    I think being a freelancer rather that a studio artist is helpful for sales as many people may be considering it a cheaper option

  25. At every down turn there is always someone in an up turn looking to capitalize. Although business itself hasn’t slowed down for me, client payments have. I find them making excuses ‘stretching’ the project out before finalizing, anything to make that last 50% of the payment!.. but I can and do sympathize.

    The point I wanted to make was that I have been getting a lot of logo design requests from new (rather fly by night) debt consolidators and loan assistance type businesses online, mainly in the US. For them, business is through the roof apparently!

    Thanks again, David, and your readers for the helpful insight. Hope you all the best.

    – Raja

  26. Times are tough and businesses are having to find creative ways to get the same amount of work done with less laborers. That’s why we’re seeing such an increase in freelancers. My field in general, Virtual Assistance, is growing immensely. People who find themselves without work are finding freelancing as Virtual Assistants a good source of income and business owners who can’t afford full time help are finding Virtual Assistants to be invaluable resources. It’s a win-win situation at a time when wins are hard to find.

  27. I was cut down to part-time at my job due to the small ad agency I was working at being effect ed by the recession. I however took it as an open door and a kick in the butt to do what I have been dreaming of doing for years. I am now starting my own solo design/illustration gig. I was planning on doing it soon enough.. (well waiting for the guts to!) but this forced me to take the leaps I was chickening out on. I am excited but also intimidated. I know i have talent but the whole marketing myself at this level is new to me but I am catching on. I have been hearing alot of designers saying alot of what has already been said. That this time could be good for us. There is a need for design work and freelancers might just have what is in need during this time. Good luck to everyone.

  28. I found your article interesting and spot on. I also agree with you the payment issue. As independents, we must make sure we are not relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to collecting on our invoices.

    As a Virtual Assistant with specialties in legal, nonprofit and medical areas, I feel the recession works in my favor. Paying me for the work I actually do is far more profitable than having to provide office personnel with equipment and benefits 52 weeks a year when you only need their services for a few hours a week. I look forward to working with new clients who value my skills and abilities as well as the cost savings my services provide.

    The obvious key to success — as in any field — is hiring only those who are highly skilled and self-motivated. Once you find someone you are comfortable working with, maintain that relationship. In that way you continue to build your company while lightening your financial load.

  29. Andrew, great news. Glad you’re keeping busy, and you’re more than welcome.

    Richard, likewise, it’s great you’re so busy. I don’t find the lack of a dedicated office-space away from my home a restriction.

    Alexander, I appreciate you saying where you arrived from, and also your encouragement. Try not to burn that midnight oil too often. All the best.

    Amanda, your SEO work is a closely guarded secret — I often see you alongside or above my site for search terms. You’re doing something right, well done.

    Paul, thanks for your take on the Russian situation. I’m glad work is continuing for you.

    Jody, it was a nervous time for me too, back when I started. I’m convinced I made the right move, and I wish you all the best for going it alone. If you think I can be of any help don’t hesitate to ask.

    Lindsey, likewise for you with your freelance gigs. Good luck.

    Raja, good point about businesses making the most of the economy, such as debt consolidators.

    To everyone else who took time to comment, thank you.

  30. David,

    I have to thank you for writing your blog, and this entry in particular. As a recent college grad in the design field, I’ve been relying on blogs for their great advice.

    In my (very limited) experience, the job market for staff designers has EVAPORATED. This is getting to be rather difficult for me. With a limited portfolio (just 6 months out of college, with only internship and pro-bono work in there), I was really hoping to land some smaller position as a designer where I could gain valuable experience. Instead, it looks like I’m going to be making my living through freelance.

    As a print designer, the world of Web is a little daunting. I have taught myself the basics of web design (and built my own website from scratch!), and am attempting to use the web to the best of my ability to bring attention to my work.

    At the moment, I’m designing Christmas cards and things to bring my family and friends up to date with my need for clients. I have found many valuable assets within my list of contacts. I can only hope I can continue to build up clients and take jobs. Life depends on it.

    Thank you for your great information and words of hope. They mean more than I can express.


  31. Hi Austen,

    You’re more than welcome for my articles. Thanks for reading them.

    Those cards you’re designing show a pro-active nature, which will no doubt stand you in good stead for self-employment. You never know who, from friends and family, can lead you towards new clients.

    Good luck.

  32. One thing that you might find out a a designer, and you can correct me if I am wrong, but there are a lot of opportunities still out there, but the keywords have shifted, What I mean by that is that there is a new outlook, and so sites might need to be updated, rebuilt, or even scrapped and rebuilt all over again to fit the current financial mood. If I were selling advertising yesterday, I would tell you that you could be doing as good as so and so by using my ads. Today I would say that you could save hundreds, even thousands of dollars (sorry pounds) to reach the same prospects using my ads as opposed to “X”. I have found that the worst thing on line is dead silence. We do have to adjust, but lets just hope it never has to come to lowering rates to compete.

  33. Excellent article, it is nice to see a handful of designers with such positive attitudes about the current economic climate. I personally have noticed an interesting trend not in the number of requests for work, which has increased, but in the type of request that I have been receiving. I have been in contact with several new clients over the past few months, business professionals who because of the economic conditions have turned to some form of entrepreneurship as an alternative. Instead of scrambling to find a job with the competing marketing firm down the street, they have made the decision to go into business for themselves.

    Based on these experiences I would say that now is a great time for designers and developers (especially freelancers and small firms) as every new start up needs your services. Whether it be logo design or web development, there are quite a few people out there looking to put a brand on their business.

  34. Timothy,

    I don’t think you’re wrong at all. There are plenty of opportunities, in many industries other than design. Sadly, a lot of people are losing their jobs, but I don’t believe the employment has gone — just moved to another sector.


    I’ve also had more approaches from startups. They won’t commit as readily as established businesses, but they’re certainly looking for design work.

  35. Yes, great post. It’s good to see the optimism. I try to tell myself that anyone in design can have a great year – it’s just a matter of great you are at pitching it to your clients! ;) So to sum up, restaraunt owner = bad, designer = all good.

  36. this is a nice post as usual. you know how to make people interested on a subject. i appreciate you. you must keep going. wish you all the best.

  37. I am currently coming to the end of my third year at university, and i am focusing my final major project on how the recession is affecting design companies and freelancers. Everyone’s comments have been so helpful, and extremely interesting. I am really pleased for all the people doing so well in this tough time of the recession, I feel a lot more confident entering the big world after graduation!
    So thank you!!

  38. Really enjoyed your thoughts about the effect of a financial downturn on a freelancer, particularly in creative industries. As a freelancer myself I have seen lots of new opportunities as a result cutbacks and have personally found the platform I work from is easier to adapt to uncertain times.
    Thanks for the positive take on being a designer in a recession!

  39. I went from being a freelancer to a full service (but small) agency in 2008. Right smack dab in the middle of the recession in the midwest, we were booming. 2009 wasn’t as pretty for us. Loyal clients, who I’d had for years, began ignoring bills or making up their own payment terms. Everyone wanted something for free. Our agency’s rates are already at freelancer prices, so I can’t afford to create free design work—which is exactly what a lot of my time turned into.

    During this recession, we have seen, however, that people are spending their marketing dollars wisely with much consideration. If you can back up your solid design with education to the client, resources to help them make that decision, and friendly payment policies (but ones that help you!), you’ll keep and gain clients.

    Our goal for 2010 is to become more visible and remain loyal to our current client base by contacting them on a regular basis to check in. Both are good practices we should have been living by even before the downturn in the economy. …But, I guess it’s the tough times that make you sit back and evaluate these kinds of things.

    Thank you for this wonderful resource of conversation.

  40. Really enjoyed reading this, its a nice take on the economic client effecting the creative industries. As myself I feel that just getting a bit more exposure, has basically offset any decrease in sales. I feel I have adapted well to these times.
    Thanks for this great positive take.

  41. I have done some work for a couple of people, and some fast food joints, but that’s not the point the point is that if people are struggling to get a job, how is it gonna be once I graduate, by the way I only got 4 more quarters to go for. Oh no!! but I have faith that everything will get better soon!

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