AIGA Design Census 2016: The Puzzle of Pay

The third in a series analyzing the 2016 AIGA Design Census.
Part One and Part Two.


Transparency on the subject of compensation is some of the most sought after in the design industry. As it stands, 34.6% of all AIGA Design Census Gallery submissions include data points around salary [Note A]. Even before the Design Census, AIGA maintained an annual survey dedicated entirely to salary information.

Below is an analysis of year-one Design Census data relating to pay [Note B]. Patterns in the numbers re-affirm conclusions made in Part One regarding low census participation, and also reveal characteristics of designers themselves when it comes to their relationship with pay…

Figure 1. Average Annual Salary, US Regions, 2016

Figure 1 presents the average annual salary of all US census participants — including those who identified themselves as unemployed — covering the first twenty years of work experience [Note C].

Although there is a loose trend correlating pay with years experience, closer inspection of the numbers highlights irregular behaviors worth investigating:

  • Sharp pay increases:
    Year Two: +$10.1K; 
    Year Seven: +$16.3K; 
    Year 19: +$49.2K.
  • Sudden pay drops:
    Year Three: -$2.1K;
    Year Ten: -$13.0K;
    Year 20: -$56.6K.

These discrepancies occur enough to conclude that year one salary data is ‘noisy’ and, most likely, unreliable [Note D]. However, in defense of the data these characteristics may also be due to unique factors attributed to the design industry. In order to develop a better understanding of these numbers it is important to build additional context into the dataset.

Figure 2. Average Annual Salary vs. Years Experience (0–20 Years), Participation Bubble Chart, US Regions, 2016

Figure 2 presents an expanded view of Figure 1 by including participation levels for each year. The bubble chart acts like a heat-map, visualizing the number of participants via bubble size, and allowing the following observations to be made:

  • There is no consistent balance of participation across years. Participation levels range from 75–687 people (Year Nineteen and Three, respectively). This makes it challenging to pull any true salary trends out of the data.
  • 42.1% of all US census participants are in the first five years of their career: an average of 540 participants for each years 0–5. Any salary trends derived from this data as a whole will be significantly weighted to emerging designers.
  • Extending the years shown in Figure 2, the combined participants across years 11–50+ only represent 33.5% of all US census participants: an average of 66 participants for each year; an 88% decrease compared to years 0–5. Salary trends drawn from this period are highly likely to be less accurate.
  • There are noticeable increases in the number of participants at the 5, 10, 15, and 20 year marks, suggesting that designers are possibly rounding their years experience when filling out the census questionnaire. This potentially explains some of the behaviors described alongside Figure 1.

Figure 3. Average Annual Salary vs. Years Experience (0–20 Years) vs. Organization Type, Participation Bubble Chart, US Regions, 2016

Figure 3 segments data by organization type, making it possible to see if salary averages are weighted by a specific sector. The bubble charts highlights:

  • Top-3 organization types:
    1. In-House (Brand/Company) | 2255 participants | 29.3%
    2. Agency (11+ Employees) | 1585 participants | 20.6%
    3. Freelance / Self-Employed | 1184 participants | 15.4%
     — organization types combine to represent 65.3% of all US census data. Designers working in these organization types are more likely to find relevant data relating to pay.
  • Participation is lower than 75 people per year across all sectors —except for the first five years of In-House and Agency, which is higher. Designers looking for specific salary information relating to their organization type should be wary of sector-specific numbers until there is more data collected in future years.
  • Participation is not high enough to state with confidence, but there is a possible trend within the US that Software Companies offer the highest pay, and College/Universities offer the lowest pay [Note E].


This brief analysis of the annual salary data concludes that although some data noise is likely the product of low sample sizes, it can perhaps help us observe the following:

  • Designers are unsure of (or exaggerating) how to measure their career experience. In defense of designers, a career in design doesn’t exactly compare to the same institutional ladder seen in other industries. This is the likely source of some of the noise present in the data (such as participants rounding to the nearest five years worked). This noise is further amplified in the census by the fact the questionnaire is self-assessed by participants. E.G. The designer discerns the difference between zero-years worked and one-year worked [Note F].
  • Designers are unsure of how to value both themselves, and design.
    To a certain degree this is understandable. After all: the value of a logo is in theory the same if it’s been created by a designer one year into their career compared to a designer 10 years into their career. Design is, to some extent, a commodity. I.E. The market rate of ‘design’ is relative to what others are charging for their services and is thus, always changing. This would potentially explain, the wide-ranging pay scale in Figure 3’s Freelance segment.
  • The landscape of design is widening, and evolving. In his 2017 Design in Tech Report, John Maeda remarks that “design is blending with engineering talent”. The recent prominence of roles such as ‘User Experience Designer’ are anecdotal evidence of this, but on a wider scale design is evolving from being considered a craft, into a skillset of critical thinking and problem-solving; as evidenced by the growing demand for Design Thinking also referenced in Maeda’s Design in Tech Report. This widening landscape of design is good for design, but makes it harder to state with confidence what a designer’s salary should be at any given point in their career without collecting further data and breaking it down into individual organization types and disciplines.

Next Steps

One of the goals of the Design Census is for the data it collects to be a tool Designers can use to their benefit, especially in the area of pay. Due to a small and noisy data set the conclusions in this piece are open ended. However, eliminating noise in future years of the census is not simply a case of getting more participants. There are important practical questions that all designers can engage with that will not only benefit them immediately, but also improve the quality of the Design Census data in future years:

  • What has been your career journey so far and where are you at present? A strong understanding of past work experience is both affirming of current skill sets, and informative guidance for future growth. Buisiness News Daily breaks down career mapping as follows:
  • How well do you understand your value, and the value of design? Jessica Hische outlines a valuable process to help designers build a more confident approach to pay
  • How transparent are you with others about this information? Designers can be positively impacted in their careers by having more information readily at hand from a peer or mentor. Alternatively, awareness of resources such as the Otis Report on the Creative Economy is essential — who just released their 2017 report!


[Note A] As of May 10, 2017

[Note B] It should be noted that the subjects of Gender and Ethnicity are consciously excluded. These topics are large, important, and will be explored in future pieces.

[Note C] Participation levels covering 21–50+ years worked were consistently lower than 75 people for each year — some as low as zero. For this reason, only the 0–20 years worked data is included in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

[Note D] One likely source of data unreliability: 26 of 91 census participants claiming a $1,000,000+ annual salary stated they were in the first five years of their careers.

[Note E] Further analysis would be required to determine how clean the College/Universities data is, and if it only includes paid employees within the education sector and not also enrolled students.

[Note F] For this same reason, the census category ‘Seniority’ (determining a designer to be Junior / Mid-Level / Senior) was intentionally excluded from this analysis.

Archie Bagnall is a British Designer and In-House Design Lead based in Southern California, and is the current President of AIGA Orange County. 
Dollar-dollar-billz are his jam.

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