The State of the Creative Union

Note: This article was a collaborative effort between Jessica Kupferman of Pretty and Outgoing and myself. Thanks, Jessica!


We are all very fortunate to be living in a time that allows us all to witness huge breakthroughs in technology and ways we access the web. From the iPad, to the social media boom, to greater mobile and video functionality, our world is a world of web accessibility.

We wanted to survey some professionals in our field – web and graphic and motion designers, to find out their thoughts on how these changes in both technology and the economy have affected the work we do, our outlook, and what’s to come. With changes coming at us all so rapidly, we thought it would be prudent to take a “state of the union” of sorts: if for no other reason than to check current trends and thoughts of our colleagues.

1. What trends and advancements in technology do you see as the most exciting and how will those affect your work?

Almost every designer that took the survey had mobile as part of their answer to this question.  As mobile access becomes more popular, general consensus is that the web designer’s job will indeed become different and much more exciting.

“I’d say for web development it would be the rise of mobile as a real player. As phones & other mobile devices advance, clean, usable sites across platforms will be more in demand.” – Mike Conaty

“Mobile… I think we’re going to continue to see development in a broad variety of mobile devices. Once more organizations realize that content is being accessed and consumed in so many different ways, I believe there will be a push to deliver content based more on context than it is now.” – Michael Guill

Many designers also mentioned new and different types of web accessibility, such as the iPad, replacing desktops and even laptops. With breakthroughs in the ways consumers view the internet, not only will the technology change, but the sites and their accessibility will have to change as well.

“Computer as [an] appliance [is] finally here (and getting pretty cheap) – lots more people access services without all the hassles of a personal computer (use smart-phones, set-top-boxes, tablets etc. etc.)”
– Martin Luff

2. What is the single greatest challenge of our industry as you see it?

Predominately, designers  surveyed believe our greatest challenge is getting decently paid for quality work. Too many designers out there are offering sub-par design for rock bottom prices, making educated, talented designers left by the wayside.

“[The biggest challenge is] Getting profitable projects…marketing against the tide of cheap one-off offshore crowdsourced spec $99 canned commodities so prevalent online.”
– Catherine Azzarello

“Getting adequately compensated for our contributions and how we can bill for them.” – Leighton Hubbell

Another common concern was creativity in work – both getting creatively satisfying projects and having out creativity be in-bred and reused over and over. It’s true that many clients want something either so simple or so cheap that it’s impossible to have the ability to flex our talent muscles….and that many people template their work to death.

“Thinking outside the box and not being in-bred. We constantly cycle things around each other and then regurgitate some version of our friend bill-joe’s design and we really aren’t doing anything except creeping towards creativity.”
– Chad Engle

“Getting work that is creatively satisfying. Those projects come around a few times a year!”
– John Conaway

3. If you could tell the world one thing about your line of work, (whether it’s debunking myths or just a general statement) what would it be? (Listen up now, they’re really talking to you, the reader, here!)

Seems like our designer friends are often misunderstood for people who sit around dreaming up pretty things all day. Many of our survey recipients feel that the world needs to know that graphic and web design is a real job, an honest living, and that they actually work hard.

“No successful design ‘just happens’. Research, sketching, planning, iterating and testing are behind each successful design. THAT’s where the value in the design lies.”
– Catherine Azzarello

“I work [really] hard!  I may be sitting at a computer all day, but it’s work. Plus, about 75% of what I do is admin/sales, not design.”
– Nick Burman

“Yes, it’s a real job, complete with expenses, education, TPS reports, meetings, deadlines, and all the other BS.”
– Michael Guiil

“Although I love what I do more than anything, I want to be treated fairly and adequately compensated for my work.” – Leighton Hubbell

Is it possible that designers aren’t communicating that to their clients often enough? Is there a way we could communicate that to the world better, through the way we run our businesses or our accessibility? Why do we feel the need to shout this to the rooftops?

4. Do you think designers and creative professionals are born that way or can they be taught?

While pretty much anybody can load Photoshop on their laptop, make something, and call themselves a designer, the creativity and talent that supports the design profession is a topic with no clear answers. With so much information (blogs, tutorials, etc.) available to learn how to design things online today, there’s always the question if designs skills are inherent or learned. While some of our designers were trained at school and some entirely self-taught, almost everyone who responded believes design skills can be learned, but true creativity is there from the get-go:

“I believe everyone has creative capacity. However, the direction one focuses on one’s creativity and the level of interest are likely inherent. So, though ‘born’ with visual acumen, I was ‘taught’ the rules of the road. Being natively, visually creative feeds my passion, and knowing the who/what/where/why of visual arts feeds my success.” – Catherine Azzarello

“I think there is a talent and qualities that you are born with that contribute to a truly gifted designer or creative. However, if these qualities aren’t nurtured or trained, they may never be fully realized. There are plenty of ‘shoulda, woulda, couldas’ out there that never gave it a try, who may have been great designers. There are also plenty of people who went through the formal training and got their degrees, but have since quit the business. It’s not for everybody and eventually thins out the herd. Being a creative is not a job, it’s a lifestyle and should be treated as such.”
– Leighton Hubbell

“Creative thinking is something you are born with. Anyone can copy someone else and make something ‘creative.’”
– Chad Engle

Spending time teaching others about the creative industry gives one of our designers a much broader perspective on the taught vs inherent design argument.

“Being a professor in my field for the past 5 years has lead me to believe that anything can be learned. I’ve taught students that range from 18 – 50 years old and I’ve noticed that the older we get, our brains become the more wired and it’s harder to learn new things. When you’re young, your mind is more open to change and therefore learning comes more naturally, especially when it comes to computer technology.” – John Conway

5. What is the thing you love most about what you do?

One of the things everybody knows about designers is that for the most part, we love what we do. Some designers enjoy the creative freedom they have with their work, some enjoy working collaborative projects, and others love doing one specific thing. The non-monotonous flow of creative work seemed to be a popular benefit of being a designer in our survey.

“Collaborating with others, helping them to improve their lot, helping them to realise their dreams, seeing projects come to fruition and bringing benefit.” – Martin Luff

“Being able to create something from nothing but an idea for a business or organization in someone’s head, and making it more than they imagined.”
– Leighton Hubbell

“It’s always challenging and never the same.”
– Chad Engle

“Being a problem solver; I enjoy thinking that nothing is impossible.” – Michael Guill

6. Out of all the social media tools, has one of them stuck out as the “key” to getting more business for you? Has the development of social media allowed you to branch out your business in a way that hadn’t occurred to you when you began? How has social media and the ongoing ‘connection’ of everything affected your work and the industry overall?

Without a doubt, Twitter was the clear winner here. Most designers are on both Facebook and Twitter’s social networks and we were surprised to see that not only did nobody mention having any success with Facebook, most everyone lauded Twitter.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that both authors of this post reached out to many different designers, both personally and professionally, and the majority of those who answered came from a Twitter group called Designer Community Twitter Hours, or DCTH for short. It’s a weekly hour or so where designers ask each other questions on Twitter via hashtag following. During the time, they have a chance to sort out issues, get a general designer consensus, or just chat about new tools.

”Twitter. For sure! Facebook has become a big waste of time and a magnet for more spam and silliness than anything else, despite my best efforts to use it more for business.” – Nick Burman

“Twitter hands down. As a lead generation tool, sure but more importantly as the virtual water cooler that allows me to talk with awesome pros from around the world and discover different work from them I would never see otherwise. To a lesser, but more focused extent, Vimeo for building a network of video colleagues.”
– Mike Conaty

“Hands down, it’s Twitter. Being able to use Twitter to develop relationships, build a rapport, and become known as someone in the industry has helped me and my business more than all of my other marketing channels combined.” – Michael Guill

With so many specialties available under the umbrella of today’s creative industry, it’s usually a matter of time before designers begin to gravitate toward one field. Interaction between creative professionals is another way social media benefits designer, especially when they’re working in a freelance situation.

“Wish I could say social media is getting me more business. But so far, it hasn’t really brought in any clients. What social media HAS done is connect me with other industry professionals and give me a team. I’ve met and worked with people entirely online who’s skills compliment my own. That said, I use social media to leave a trail of expertise. Answering questions on LinkedIn, sending out links of interest on Twitter, and participating in #DCTH (Design Community Twitter Hours) all contribute to my professional validation. It’s also a great way to stay connected when you work alone!” – Catherine Azzarello

“Twitter has made a huge impact on my web presence across the board. It has made my websites more visible, helped my Facebook page, expanded my peer group and created connections that were never there before. I have a one-man shop out of my home. Before, I didn’t have much in the way of ‘watercooler chat’. Things like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have helped me with the creative isolation I sometimes feel and helped me learn tips and techniques I would have had trouble finding on my own.” – Leighton Hubbell


As the responses to our questionnaire show, designers today have many different views on what tools they prefer to work with, how marketing online through social media affects their work, and on the topic of design itself. The accessibility of information on design has never been as easy to find as it is today.

Designers face innovation and change on a daily basis, and being able to adapt to these new technologies and best practices is now part of the job. Twitter seems to be the winner as far as which social network is the most useful for the creatives that responded, and designers love what they do for a multitude of reasons. The various points of view that we see here are just a small representation of what issues affect professionals within the design community. Comment below with your take on our Creative Professionals Questionnaire.

Special thanks to the following designers for participating, and for being all-around friendly, smart and helpful people:

Catherine Azzarello, Azzcat Design

Mike Conaty, Brunswick Media

John Conway, C3 Motion Graphics

Chad Engle, Fuel Your Creativity

Michael Guill, 107 Designs

Leighton Hubbell

Martin Luff, Digimojo

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