Graphic Design Tough Topics: The Pros and Cons of Contract Employment

Written By Liz Achanta
So you’re a graphic designer, and you’re working a new contract job. You hit the ground running, and are putting all of your best efforts and designs forward to make a good impression. And just when you’re starting to become comfortable in your role and make friends with your team members . . . your contract ends, and now you have to start looking for a new job.

For many graphic designers, this situation can be frustrating – especially to those who were hoping for their contract to be extended, or were trying to work towards a full-time gig. If you’ve found yourself in this situation before, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. According to ColorLib, there were 265,000 Graphic Designers employed in the US in 2021, with 90% of those designers working contract or freelance. This brings us to question if there’s such a large need for graphic design, why aren’t businesses hiring us permanently?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but common theories in the design industry relate to overhead costs to onboarding new employees (compared to the more cost-effective way of hiring designers, like Freelancers), and the fear of a designer’s style not matching the company’s brand (no one wants to be stuck with a bad designer).

While contract work lacks the stability of full-time employment, being contract isn’t always a bad thing. As a matter of fact, according to IBISWorld 90% of Graphic Designers prefer working freelance. Check out our pros and cons list below:

Pros & Cons of Contract Design Jobs

Pro: You can negotiate a higher base salary due to the lack of benefits you don’t receive from being contract. Typically with contract work, you don’t receive the normal benefits a regular employee would receive: like health insurance or paid holidays. Use these ‘cons’ to help you negotiate a higher salary to make up for what you’re anticipating to pay out of pocket for these expenses (or, if you’re married and your health insurance comes from your spouse, pocket that extra cash to pay for the unpaid vacation you’re planning on taking!).

Con: You don’t get paid holidays or vacation time – so you need to save enough to cover these unpaid times off. Some contract companies offer a few days of paid sick leave, but this is not always guaranteed as well – so make sure you ask about this benefit while you’re interviewing with your recruiter.

Pro: You have more flexibility over your schedule. Unlike regular exempt employees, your work schedule really can stop at 40 hours if you want it to (or you can cash in on that overtime pay). With most contract workers, you can decide when you work and for how long – giving you more autonomy over your personal and work life.

Con: You have a shorter amount of time to learn the job. Since you’re employed for a short amount of time, the expectation is that you get as much done as possible, so you have to hit the ground running starting day one.

Pro: Your employment is relatively secure during the length of your contract. Contract workers are generally hired for specific projects or services that employers anticipate to last for a short period of time. That means the employer has funds reserved specifically for you, for that project, so you can typically anticipate no surprises during the course of your contract, which also means you know exactly when to start looking for a new job as your contract wraps up.

Con: Contractors are usually the first to go during corporate downsizing. While this isn’t always the case – like General Motors, who offered early retirement as a first option to their corporate downsizing in 2019 – the seniority structure of the “last to arrive is the first to go” is usually an easy-out for companies looking to decrease their headcount. And since contractors aren’t regular, full-time employees, well . . . you get the picture.

Pro: You can get your foot in the door with certain companies. Have dreams of working for a large tech company or a Big Three, but are having a hard time finding full time employment with them? Working through a contract company and showing your value as an irregular employee is a great way to show your value, and express your interest in working for them on a full-time basis. If your employer likes you and your work, there’s always the possibility of extending the contract or working contract-to-hire.

Con: If you want training and development, you’ll have to pay for it yourself. For full-time employees, paid T&D or tuition reimbursement is becoming the new “norm” as a benefit for working with a company – according to Georgetown University, employers spend $177 billion annually on formal training, and $413 billion on informal on-the-job training. Unfortunately if you want to stay competitive with your colleagues and relevant in the newest software, you’re going to have to save a portion of your paycheck to pay for these classes.

How to land that full-time gig:

Start freelancing to bulk up your portfolio & resume. By showing off your versatile skills as a contract designer, you’re telling potential employers you’re able to adapt quickly to their needs and could start designing right away. Need help setting up your online portfolio? Check out our related blog post here.

Join a professional design community like AIGA or the International Council of Design to make professional connections, like independent design agencies or heads of design departments.

Build on the relationships you already have: hit up that old manager you had two jobs ago to see how they’re doing (and if they’re hiring anyone on their team), or post a catch-all status on LinkedIn saying how you’re looking for a new position.

Learn all about UX design (and how to put the customer first). On average, UX designers earn more than the typical Graphic designer, with a base salary of $95,577 compared to the $58,260 mean annual salary of other occupations in the US. You can get started learning more about UX design by earning a Google UX Design Professional Certificate, which is free if you complete the course in 7 days, or by taking professional classes at your local community college or university.

Here’s some places where you can find full-time Graphic Design jobs:

Graphic Design Tough Topics: How to combat the “isms” of the workplace

Written By Liz Achanta

As a designer, the stereotypical expectation is that we are the creative masterminds of the workplace. But what happens when we don’t look like everyone else?
Most leadership would agree that diversity and inclusion is important in design work – especially given recent movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. However, when it comes to inside the office, challenges can occur when creative employees don’t look like the stereogype for their role or like their non-creative employees.

Keep reading to learn about the common “too creative” types in the design space, and how to shift the paradigm.


Common “isms” in the Creative Workplace & how to battle them:

Ageism: is discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. Ageism in the workplace is so common that in a 2005 study, Ageism was found to be a larger problem than sexism, racism, and discrimination based on disabilities – with the only age group to not experience the discrimination being those aged 35 to 44, who are “too old for negative youth stereotyping and too young for prejudice based on advancing years.”

In the design world, ageism is often seen by employers not hiring younger professionals due to “lack of experience,” but not hiring older professionals because age signifies not knowing how to use the latest software or not having new ideas – both instances we know, of course, are simply not true. In order to understand what designers are saying regarding ageism, AIGA put together a Design Census for members to share their age, gender, and salary. Of the 9K+ participants, only 279 contributors were over the age of 60 (3%!) – and 50 survey-takers responded that they felt ageism was a critical issue in the industry.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • Show off your technological skills: this goes beyond throwing random software names on your resume. In your design portfolio, give credit to what types of programs you used to create your designs – and when. If you’re verbalizing that you’re using a software that just released last year, you’re also showing off that you’re staying on-trend with the latest and greatest in the design field

  • Dictate your experience: regardless if you’re a new grad or you’ve got 20+ years of experience under your belt, showing off who you are and what you can do is a critical piece of fighting creative ageism. Even better is if you can quantify how long a singular project took you to complete: for example, if you created an awesome reel for a new project and it only took you 4 hours to make, add that piece of information to your portfolio! Remember: experience means you now know how to work smarter, not harder.

  • Prove that you’re constantly learning and growing: name-drop a recent creative seminar you attended, and put down any new certifications you’ve received on your resume: the secret to avoiding age discrimination is showing your relevancy in design.

Sexism: is the prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination – typically against women – on the basis of sex. According to Pew Research Center, roughly 42% of women have said they faced gender discrimination while on the job.

In the design world, 61% of working American designers are women – however females account for only 29% of creative directors, according to AIGA.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • When you’re interviewing, remember that interviewers are not allowed to ask you about your marital status, number and/or ages of children, or if you plan to have any children at all. If you come across these types of questions in your interview, know that you can respond by saying you do not wish to disclose that information, and you can report that employer to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission here.

  • Challenge the gender norm by showing your passions: regardless if you’re a male wanting to design for a doll factory or a female who wants to design for the next great motorcycle magazine, prove to your interviewers and potential employers that you’re a designer who knows their stuff. In your portfolio, show a wide range of design work that includes masculine- and feminine-type qualities to show your versatility, and if there’s an industry that you really have a passion for, make sure that passion is expressed in your design.

Racism: is the discrimination against individuals on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority. The recent Covid pandemic showed us that racism in the workplace is still very relevant, with one study showing that 42% of Black respondents saying they’d experienced an increase in race-based hostility at work since the start of the pandemic.

In the design world, Zippia tells us that 76% of designers are white, followed by 10% of designers being Hispanic or Latino, 7.5% Asian, and 3.5% of designers being Black or African American.

Ways to battle the ism:

  • Use design to educate and foster empathy by practicing inclusive design. Venngage offers a great list of questions to ask yourself when it comes to diversity and inclusion, which you can find here. Similarly, the Illinois News Bureau released an article on how to identify racialized design.

  • If you see something, say something: call out racist behaviors or racist designs you see both at work or in the wild. If you’re experiencing racism in the workplace, remember that it’s important to document the event, report to HR, and, when in doubt, consider filing a complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Other Creative Discrimination: So you’ve got some body art, or your hair is hot pink: you’re a graphic designer who isn’t customer-facing, so who cares? If anything, this shows your managers that if you’re able to sit through 16 hours of getting a tattoo, you’re equally able to sit through a painful 2-hour meeting.

Unfortunately, having tattoos, piercings, colored hair, or other forms of body art is not a protected classification under the US federal law – except in rare cases where these forms of expression directly relate to one’s religious practices, like the 2005 court case where Red Robin fired an employee for their religious tattoos. While there’s no clear path forward for these types of creatives when it comes to the workplace, ProfSpeak provides insights into when an employer can – or can’t – discriminate against certain grooming policies.

Graphic Design Tough Topics: Graphic Designers aren’t seen as “strategic”

It’s a been-there, done-that scenario: your boss walks up to you and says “I need 10 new designs for this new product, pronto!” then walks away with no additional information. Apparently this new product has been in the works for a while, but you’re hearing about it at the last minute – and you have to start doing a lot of digging on your own to understand the product. Time and time again, graphic designers are brought in at the end of the strategy cycle and are just told what to do – being perceived as ‘worker bees’ rather than strategic brand ambassadors.

The fact of the matter is, we graphic designers do a lot more than just draw pretty pictures on the computer. Unlike artists, whose job is to focus on aesthetics, graphic design dives deeper and creates visual messaging to support a brand – which in and of itself is a strategy.

So why aren’t leaders and clients seeing us graphic designers as strategic? It’s true – graphic design isn’t marketing, and we don’t analyze data to create contingency plans. However, we can all agree that it would make our jobs as graphic designers a lot easier if we were brought in at the beginning of the product lifecycle so we can give creative ideas along the way and discussing what is and is not possible – leading to an overall better strategy.

The largest reason why leaders don’t see graphic designers as strategic is from lack of understanding – and since it’s hard to give importance to things we don’t understand, graphic design is often an afterthought. And while the online graphic design software offering free logo- or brochure-making service certainly doesn’t help the paradigm of graphic design being an ‘easy’ or ‘non-strategic’ job, the graphic design industry has a lot more work to do to show our true value to leaders and C-Suite executives.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do on an individual level to change the status quo for Graphic Designers as a whole. However, there is a lot you can do on a personal level to rebrand yourself to become more than “just” a graphic designer. Check out our tips below:

  1. Ask your leader to be brought in at the beginning of project meetings – or at the same time they bring in their marketing team. Not only does this help you understand the entire scope of the project, but you can start sharing your ideas at the same time as everyone else, changing other’s perspective of you as “just the graphic designer”
  2. Title yourself as a “Brand Strategist” instead of a Graphic Designer. The more you showcase your talents in strategy, the more others will believe it – and it starts with how you define yourself.
  3. Demonstrate your strategy skills: execute an innovative project that’s outside your current job function, or show how your designs helped a campaign become successful. The more you’re showcasing your skills, the more likely you’re to be top-of-mind.
  4. Become Certified: there are plenty of free strategic planning certifications online to help add fuel to your fire. Check out HubSpot Academy, which offers content strategy courses, or Coursera>, which also offers free strategy-related courses to build out your resume.

Graphic Design Tough Topics: if the demand for graphic designers is high, then why doesn’t the salary match?

Written By Liz Achanta

A tough topic for employees in all industries lately has been “am I getting paid what I deserve?” With inflation in the US having risen over 7% from 2020 to 2022, it’s a fair question for any employee to ask. Historically, however, this has been a question Graphic Designers have been asking for ages.

A recent ZipRecruiter job search for the title ‘Graphic Designer’ yielded over 33,000 open positions in the US – yet the average salary range ZipRecruiter reports is only $30-72K a year. Similarly, Indeed tells us the average salary for a Graphic Designer is $20.28/hr, which equates to $42,000/year. Not a lot of money – especially considering the median household income in the US in 2021 was $70,784, according to the US Census Bureau. So we have to ask: if the demand for graphic designers is so high, then why are we getting paid so little?

There can never be a one-size fits all answer to this question, although there’s plenty of theories as to why Graphic Design salaries are below-average. Check out our top three theories below:

  1. Easier Access to Free Graphic Design Tools

    Graphic Designers have a love/hate relationship with tools like Canva, which offer free services to individuals and businesses like logo creation and reel-making – a service that would normally have been hired out to a graphic designer. Similarly, individuals can learn basic graphic designing skills online – either via YouTube or through other eLearning websites. While this “I can do it myself for free” attitude from small business owners can certainly weed out the lower-quality jobs from your requisition pile, it also makes it more difficult to demand a fair wage for your expertise.

  2. The Competition is High

    Remember what we said about learning how to become a Graphic Designer online? The rise of free learning has also led to a rise in amateur designers; so while the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us there’s 204K Graphic Designers in the US, this number could actually be a lot higher. Additionally, in many career cases, having a University Degree isn’t required to create a branding package for a startup company, which can make landing that next great gig difficult. To combat this, make sure your work speaks for itself – and put together an awesome portfolio that shows how you stand out from the riffraff.

  3. Some Clients don’t take Graphic Designers Seriously

    Rather than being seen as a professional service that takes years to perfect – just like lawyers or dentists – many small businesses believe that either they can’t afford graphic design services, or that they aren’t worth the expenditure (which we know can negatively impact their brand in the long run).

What you can do to make sure you’re paid what you’re worth

    1. Build confidence in yourself and your work: remember, you’re a professional, and as the saying goes, “you don’t pay me for the 5 minutes I spent to do it, you pay me for the 10 years I spent learning how to do it in 5 minutes.”
    2. Make sure your client understands how they’re being billed, or what goes into calculating your costs. Regardless of whether you charge by the hour or by the project, showing your client price transparency can help them understand your value. Check out our blog post How Much Should You Charge for Your Design Services? for more info.
    3. Narrow your scope. Sure, pitching to only high-paying clients sounds like the sure-fire way of getting paid what you want, but it’s not entirely realistic (and you can bet your competition is doing the same thing). Instead, create a ‘buyer persona:’ a fictionalized client whose needs meet your design skills (and can afford what you’re charging). Then, focus your services and talent into finding those specific individuals.
    4. Create residual income. Residual income doesn’t have to be just for landlords or the already independently wealthy: creating and selling niche graphic design items like templates, online workshops, or fun printables is a great way to do the work once and reap the benefits for months to come. Having a set price for these products not only guarantees that you’re being paid for the work, but you can use this cash to pay for other needed items while you focus on nailing the bigger fish: like long-term contracts.