• Steven Heller

Design Data Deluge

Graphic Designers Surveyed, a book of data about graphic design experience, is published by the London-based GraphicDesign& and edited by Lucienne Roberts, Rebecca Wright and Jessie Price, with contributions from Nikandre Kopcke and Stefanie Posavec. It is a fascinating book for stat nerds and designers who are interested in their peers. The content was developed from the many hundreds of designers who took the time to answer a rather long survey. I asked Lucienne Roberts how this unprecedented thick little volume came to be and what the data tells us.

What kind of survey is this? What questions were key? Our questions were wide-ranging. We followed our instincts in asking some of what we ourselves were itching to know but also asked colleagues and associates to suggest additional avenues we might explore. We asked designers what hours they work, the wages they earn and whether they’re content; we tried to tease out some of the differences between men and women, and what it’s really like to be a designer working or studying in the UK and the US; we cheekily asked if designers archived their work in the hope of a future retrospective, and what their favorite Pantone might be and, more seriously, posed questions designed to explore how economically viable the activity of graphic design actually is. From ethics to education, money to motivation, clients to creativity—it’s all here. While the results are statistical, to our knowledge this level of questioning has not been undertaken before, making this a unique representation of the industry of today and one that goes some way in confirming and dispelling assumptions about design and designers.

And the responses made sense? Some of the things our respondents told us included the following:

– 88% held an undergraduate degree or higher.

– On average, they earned less than their partners but worked longer hours.

– 70% had voted in their last eligible election.

– 83% would recommend a career in graphic design, although only 55% said they were satisfied with their career.

– Favorite Pantones tended towards oranges, reds and black.

– 38% thought their work better than their peers, while 20% said the opposite.

– 70% said that they thought in 10 years’ time print would still be alive and well.

– 45% reported feeling positive about active client involvement, although 93% thought designers need to be able to withstand rejection in order to succeed.

Of course, this is not just a book of statistics. There are plenty of bar charts and big numbers, but there are also more general findings, observations made by us as editors, and many pages of designers’ long-form answers to ‘what is the best/worst thing about being a designer’ (clients, sitting at a computer, creativity and making a difference all crop up many times …). Then there is the design of the book itself, of course. We asked data designer Stefanie Posavec to take some key data and bring a more experimental approach to their visual in terpretation. Among the challenges she faced was how to present data on favorite Pantone colors in only black and white!

What is your goal, and what was your inspiration in making this a book? In our roles as designers and educators, we have often wanted information about our industry—or had students ask for information—that simply wasn’t available. The UK’s Design Council industry reports are an extremely valuable resource, for example, but they are about the wider design industry, not just graphic design. Our survey also took a slightly different (dare we say, nosier) approach. We wanted to get answers to some of our questions, and in the process create a body of information not available anywhere else. Collaborating with a social scientist gave our research a rigour we couldn’t have achieved alone. In part, our intention was to give designers a collective voice, to encourage conversation and reflection both within the industry, and with clients/other industries.

We published our findings as a book because we wanted to produce something people would keep, and continue to dip into. In such a dynamic industry there’s no doubt that the picture is constantly changing: Graphic Designers Surveyed is a snapshot, a portrait of the industry at a particular time, but in order to allow people to engage with the data properly we thought it necessary to present it in a fixed format. The sheer volume of information we wanted to present also lent itself to a physical presentation, allowing a reader to process a spread at a time, or take in the full sweep of information as they might wish.

Tell me how you captured this data? In all GraphicDesign& (GD&) projects we work closely with an expert from another subject area, and with Graphic Designers Surveyed, social scientist Nikandre Kopcke was involved right from the start. We explained to her that we wanted to know about graphic designers—who we are and what we do—and she suggested that a survey would be the best way to collect the kind of information we were interested in.

Nikandre set out the questions that any good social scientist would ask about age, gender and income while, under her watchful eye, we added questions specific to our field. She advised that surveying two comparator populations would be most revealing, so we chose to survey the UK and US for their scale and internationally diverse design communities.

The online survey went live on 25 February 2015 and ran for two months. It was featured on UK- and US-based design-orientated websites, and we emailed and tweeted to get the word out. Respondents were therefore self-selecting, which of course does have a bearing on those whose information we captured.

Nikandre’s view on surveying designers was interesting, to say the least! To quote directly from her introduction: “Designers are a nightmare to survey. They frequently disregard instructions and give answers that can best be described, fittingly, as creative.” Nonetheless, having aimed for around 1,000 responses, we were delighted to have ended up with nearly double that. Then it was time to process the data—another big task.

How does this project fit into your indie book publishing company? GD& was set up to explore how graphic design connects with, and brings value to, other subjects. Our first book, Page 1: Great Expectations, was a GD& Literature title. Our second, Golden Meaning, was a GD& Mathematics book. In both, the focus was on what graphic design brings to another subject. For our third publication, we decided to turn this relationship around. The focus of Graphic Designers Surveyed is us—graphic designers—but seen through the lens of social science.

All of our projects (whether books, exhibitions or events) are based on original research that will be of interest to both graphic designers and non-designers. Graphic Designers Surveyed is an interesting and informative book for designers, but the research is also part of a wider discussion about creative professions and education.

There is just so much to absorb. Do we as a design culture have that luxury of contemplation and analysis? There are lots of ways to read this book; our intention is that it can be absorbed piecemeal, rather than in one sitting. It is organized into sections, each of which has an introduction summarizing some of the key findings. You could start by reading all the introductions, which wouldn’t take too long and would give an overview of the entirety. However, one of the principles of the book’s design is that a reader can open almost any spread and it will make sense in and of itself. We hope that readers will keep coming back to Graphic Designers Surveyed as a source of information and provocation about the industry and so, while being a very rich and multi-layered read, it is also highly accessible and digestible.

As we mentioned earlier, our sense is that lots of designers do want to know more about the shape of the industry—about wages, hours, clients, awards, and so on—and so we anticipate that Graphic Designers Surveyed will feed existing conversations and act as a prompt to new. We are inquisitive people, we are obsessed by what we do (so our survey tells us) and we happily consider what works and what doesn’t in graphic design culture, and how things might be improved. Seen in this light, contemplation and analysis are not a luxury, they are essential.

Furthermore, we think that the book is interesting to people “outside” design culture. One of GD&’s aims is to demystify and promote the value of graphic design, and this picture of what designers look like helps give tangible form to an “under-surveyed” industry that nevertheless shapes so much of the world that we all inhabit.

What is next in your publishing plan? We’ll soon be publishing a book that has been long in the pipeline: Looking Good. This is a GD& Religion title and is a guide to the nun’s habit! Many of us identify nuns by their form of dress—few of us understand, however, that the habit is a form of code and so in in this next book graphic design and illustration are employed to decipher this most enduring form of visual identity. Our researcher is theology graduate Veronica Bennett, working closely with illustrator Ryan Todd.

Get the 2015 RDA Today—and Save on Entries for the 2016 Competition The 2015 Regional Design Annual—a collection of nearly 350 of the best pieces of American design from the year—is available now. Meanwhile, the 2016 RDA, featuring judges Gail Anderson, Marc English, Timothy Goodman, Bill Grant, Jennifer Morla and Jessica Walsh, is officially accepting entries. Enter today for early bird rates and a chance to see your work featured in PRINT magazine.

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