How Much Money Do Designers Make?

by on 7th January 2011 with 51 Comments

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Design isn’t about money, it’s about something higher. It’s about loving what you do, making the world more attractive and satisfying your never-ending need for intellectual stimulation. Good designers don’t see design as a job, but a lifestyle. We think about design constantly while looking at the things around us, our hobbies are design-centric, we read and write about design; on and on.

Who needs money when you have a passion like this? Me, that’s who. Don’t get me wrong, lots of that mumbo jumbo above describes me pretty accurately. But let’s face it folks, we all have mortgages, bills, student loans and other factors that ensure our need for green stays intact. Today we’re going to have some fun and see how much money we should be making!

Are We Allowed to Talk About This?

Designers are an interesting breed when it comes to income. Some of us make ridiculous amounts of money for doing very little, others work 60+ hour weeks while barely scraping rent together each month. The majority of us though are probably floating somewhere between these two extremes wondering how we rank with everyone else. We’re not sure whether we’re doing something very wrong or very right and it’s not always the most polite thing to start asking around to see what our peers on Twitter are pulling in each week.

So let’s talk about this shall we? Let’s throw political correctness to the wind, let our greedy sides show and figure out just how much we should be making. It’s not going to be easy because every situation is different (education, years of experience, location, etc.), but with a little research we should be able to arrive at some general estimates.

Ballpark It: Finding Industry Averages

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It’s always best to start with the easiest solution, so I googled “average salaries” to see where that would take me. I wound up on Salary.com, a website claiming to have accurate statistics for salaries in various fields. I began with the generic term “graphic designer” for which the website suggested “Graphic Design Specialist” (fair enough). I also told the site where I live (Phoenix, Arizona), this could have a significant impact on the results so you might want to check on your city as well.

The website showed me a few helpful statistics about education, company size, etc. but after clicking through that and a few ads I found what I was after. The chart below was what I received:

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This made things abundantly clear. According to Salary.com, the median salary for a graphic designer in my area $46,830. The low side of the scale wasn’t very far off at just over $35,000 and the high side was $60,000, with very few designers getting either of those extremes.

These number were for entry level “graphic design specialists.” I ran through the process again for “Sr. Graphic Design specialists,” which the site defined as those with 4+ years in the field, and got the following result.

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As you can see, with just a little experience your salary expectations start to get dramatically better. This time the median is just under $60,000 with the high just under $74,000. Translation: if you’re new, don’t worry, things get better!

Web Designer Salaries

Now, many of you are no doubt not just plain old graphic designers, but web designers. It’s no secret that web design is a much more promising field than print at the moment and the numbers show it. Check out the average wages for entry and senior level web designers below.

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Wow! Senior level graphic designers are pulling in around $78,000 on average and pushing $100,000 on the high side (How much do I make? Hint: not this much!). If you’re a web designer with 4-6 years of solid experience and a decent degree pulling in less than $50,000 per year, it may be time to start job hunting!

Checking Our Numbers

Never trust a single source, always do your fact checking! I looked around a little further and found CareerOverview.com, a site with a more generic overview of average salaries. Their chart for full-time graphic designers in the U.S. shows a median of just under $40,000.

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This is a bit lower than our initial $46,830 for graphic designers but Phoenix may have an inflated rate versus the U.S. as a whole. One more source, SimplyHired had this helpful chart:

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By putting all this together, we see trends emerge. Full-time graphic designers in the U.S. can expect to earn around $40,000-50,000 while web designers can hope for more along the lines of $50,000-$60,000.

These ballpark figures should help ease your questions about how much money you should be making and how much you can bet your designer pals are making. At this point you’re either ready to quit your job or have affirmed that you’re in a decent place. I hope it’s the latter!

Real Jobs with Real Salaries

The information above is helpful, but national salary averages don’t mean squat when you’re hitting the pavement with a resume in hand. If you really want to know what you’re worth as of today, take a look at some jobs and see what people are offering.

Let’s start with a free site that you may think sounds like a ghetto place to look for a job but is in fact a really great resource for positions of all kinds: Craigslist. Again, I’ll have to search in a specific location so to keep things consistent I went with Phoenix again.

Right off the bat I found a handful of listings with the compensation mentioned:

Web Developer
Experience/Skills: HTML/CSS/JavaScript/OOP
Compensation: $50,000-$60,000 + benefits

Graphic Designer / Production Artist
Experience/Skills: Bachelor’s degree, 2 years in print design, HTML
Compensation: $25,000-$30,000

Graphic Designer / Web Design
Experience/Skills: CSS, HTML, graphic design, web layout
Compensation: $12-$15/hr

Web Designer
Experience/Skills: Adobe Photoshop, Dreamweaver, HTML and CSS
Compensation: $13-$18/hr

Other Sources

These jobs are a little scattered with compensation, but hey, that’s the real world folks. If you find fifty versions of the same job, you’ll probably find five or more different ranges for pay grades. Again, it’s no good to check just one site so I hopped around a bit and found a few more real jobs. Here are the results:

Graphic Design Specialist: Arizona State University
Minimum Qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design or related field and four (4) years experience in graphic design and/or website design; OR, Eight (8) years experience in graphic design and/or website design; OR, Any equivalent combination of education and/or experience from which comparable knowledge, skills and abilities have been achieved.

Compensation: $40,000-$52,000 per year; DOE
Site: Monster.com

Graphic/Web Designer: Gould Staffing
Expertise level in: Adobe CS suite (Flash, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign, Illustrator) and Microsoft Office; Working Knowledge of: FTP, HTML/JSP, Javascript, Outlook, Thunderbird.

Compensation: $18-$22 per hour; DOE
Site: Jobing.com

Graphic Designer: Maricopa Community Colleges District Office
Knowledge of techniques, methods, procedures, equipment and current trends of graphic design,including visual communication, the use of illustrative process, website graphics, Flash animation, typography, 4-color process, and navigational and organizational design – Experience with Adobe CS Suite. Two (2) or more years of experience as a graphic designer in an agency or in-house setting.

Compensation: $35,601-$41,883; DOE
Site: Jobing.com

How Do I Make the Big Bucks?

Let’s face it, we’re designers, not CEOs. Most of us will unfortunately never drive an Aston Martin or own a yacht, we’re lucky to afford the computers and software we need to do our jobs! The numbers above prove that most of us make well under $100,000 per year and will probably continue this way for years to come.

So where do we go from here? Short of starting our own massively successful business or website, how do we reach our full income potential over the life of our careers?

If you want something to aim for, you could do a lot worse than becoming a Senior Art Director. This is the fancy job title for the guy/girl who bosses around graphic designers. This person has been where you are and worked their way to the top. They didn’t land the job right out of college, they’ve been in the game for 10+ years and possess not only a high level of design skill but some noteworthy management experience as well. They’re comfortable breaking outside the cubicle to run an entire office of designers and aren’t afraid to take the blame when a six month $300,000 project tanks.

Think you have what it takes? Let’s return to Salary.com with the term “Art Director” and see what we find. The result is the graph below:

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Here we see that almost half of the art directors in my area make around $100,000 per year, some as high $140,000. I don’t know about you, but for a lot of people, that’s dang good money. It may take ten years to get there, but having this sort of goal in mind helps get you through those early, low paying years when you are forced to tell your wife that a Little Caesar’s Hot and Ready Pizza and a Redbox movie rental is the best you can do for date night (total cost: $6).

Closing Thoughts

Now that we’ve played the part of greedy misers for a while, let’s jump back to reality and remember that how much money you make isn’t something that should define you or your worth as a human. If you blow away the numbers above, yahoo for you, send me something expensive. If you’re way under them, no big deal as long as you’re happy.

This article is merely meant to get your brain going and to encourage you to not settle for less if you genuinely want or need more income. If you’ve served your time, opportunities are out there and complacency is your biggest threat. If your employer is taking advantage of you, fire up Google and start looking around. I know first hand that it’s incredibly scary (I went through it last year) but in the end you can find yourself a lot better off.

For all of you newbies out there who came to this article out of curiosity to see what your income potential would be as a designer, these are the numbers. They’re not immensely encouraging but they’re not half bad either. I simply love being a designer and wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s quite the bonus that I can actually make a decent living doing it.

Most of the numbers above are accurate for my area, but may differ in yours. Leave a comment below and let us know what your research revealed for the area you live in. Were pay rates better or worse than Phoenix?

Comments & Discussion

51 Comments

  • http://www.creativeconceptsmediagroup.net Eddie Garrison

    Really enjoyed this piece Josh. I just started my design company back in June and I was able to actually make money each month of 2010. Not enough to write home about or anything like that, but I did take it as a good stepping stone into 2011 being able to make money each month.

    Very interesting graphs and salary averages from the websites you used. I’m going to do some research on salaries for here in Florida where I live. One day I hope to be up around those ranges. Well, back to the grind stone or my Aston Martin will go to someone else.

    • http://headturning sariah conner

      Your right but every one has there own sudjustments about art and by art I mean design we all should apresheat our own designs even though we may not appresheat others doesn’t mean we don’t have to love theres so why do people do this to others and to our selfs.

  • Ben Parlier

    This was probably the most informative and intriguing post that I’ve come across via the Smashing Network in roughly 2 months. Thanks for the hard work in researching income levels for designers…I’d like to add that if you are job hunting and get an offer, visit all of the sites Josh listed and gather the most relevant info you can. Then, use that research as bargaining power when discussing salary with the potential employer. Worked for me…convinced an employer to go significantly higher than what they intended. Great work, Josh!

  • http://www.david-riches.co.uk David Riches

    Love this article.. definatly something i’d back to again and again.

    As i’m from the uk i’ve got my currency converter out..
    Keep up the good work Josh

  • Joshua Johnson

    Thanks guys!

  • Mark

    “It may take ten years to get there…”

    I’ve worked for the same NYC-based company for the past 10 years (August 2000 to present). When I started out as an Associate Designer, my salary was $41k. I think that was pretty low at the time, considering it was the height of the first .com boom. Since then, it’s just gone up and up and up, and last year, I came short just a few dollars of $100k. This year I don’t think I’ll do much better (probably the same, actually). I’ve been a Web Design Manager for the past few years, but in title only. My hands get just as dirty every day as they did a decade ago.

    I feel like a lot of people in this industry encourage job-hopping to constantly get that pay bump. Maybe I’m old school, but I think if you find the right company, and you feel like you’re being treated right, continuing to keep looking is like russian roulette. I’d rather have the stability.

  • http://www.jasonagross.com Jason Gross

    Even if you live outside of the Pheonix area, Josh’s research can still come in handy for you. If you want to find the equivalent in your area without re-doing all of the salary searches you can use the Cost of Living Calculator on Payscale.com: http://www.payscale.com/cost-of-living-calculator

    Entering simple information such as Josh’s results of a Web Designer earning around 60,000 in Pheonix and then my city of residence yields a result that tells me that if I want to meet the baller status of Josh’s lifestyle I can get away with an income that is 11% lower. How do you like those apples Josh?

  • http://blakerdesign.com Niki Blaker

    Just curious as to why you didn’t source the AIGA/Aquent Salary survey for any of your numbers? Given that the information is taken from a yearly survey of actual designers across the country, I’m more likely to trust that as a source.

  • Joshua Johnson

    Niki, I’ve worked with Aquent before and simply didn’t know they had such a survey. Thanks for the tip!

    Here’s the link everyone:
    http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/salary-survey

  • http://blakerdesign.com Niki Blaker

    Awesome thanks for sharing that. Very informative article overall and glad it’s from a fellow Phoenix creative!

  • http://www.nocturnaldesign.com Ken Peters, AZ

    I learned a long time ago that working for somebody else wasn’t the path for me. When I opened my own studio, everything changed. In September of 2003, seven years post college, I was a senior designer at the number one design studio in Phoenix (as ranked by the Phoenix Business Journal) and making $65k, plus bonuses. It was unrewarding, unchallenging, and unfulfilling, so I quit and started my own studio.

    When I started my own business, I thought I was being ambitious by hoping to bring in $20k per quarter. Then, in my first month, I brought in $30k. In my first year of operations I doubled my old salary. I have continued to grow and increase income every year since.

    It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s a hell of a lot more rewarding than working for somebody else. And, it doesn’t feel like work.

    When I graduated from ASU in 1995 the job market was dismal. Rather than take a job I didn’t really want, I took an unpaid, three month internship with a top firm, hoping it would provide experience and open doors. It would. It was a humbling concession, but it turned out to be the right move.

    I think the moral of the story is that you just have to be honest with yourself, know what you want, and be willing to take risks to achieve it. You’re not going to get where you want to get in life if you spend your time worrying about what an employer is going to pay you. Make your own path.

  • http://greg-j.com Greg Johnson

    My advise: Choose a specialty.

    ‘Designer’ tends to be a very generic term, even in the context of ‘Web Designer’. If you’re truly interested in web design, put a focus on User Experience. It’s a hot market now, and US jobs ranging from User Experience Designer to User Experience Director are much higher paying than a standard Web Designer salary.

  • Miguel

    Damn it, this salary make me dream, i am a web designer but in Latin America just worth $7,500 per year working with an USA Enterprise.

  • http://gameswap.co.za game swap

    its not a tough industry to crack, but yo can end up earning a lot, especially by freelancing

  • http://www.KAGraphicDesigns.com Kelly

    Great article and very informative. I am getting into the game quite a bit later than the rest, but it still helps to see what I can, hopefully, expect to make at some point.

    Thanks again!

  • http://dalejcruse.com Dale Cruse

    There’s a lot of good information in this article, but it’s worth noting a few additional things:

    The salary information quoted doesn’t specify if it represents full-time perm salaries, contract salaries, or both. The fact is you can make more money as a contractor but you probably won’t get all the benefits or paid time off.

    Some industries pay better than others too. Education & government are notoriously low payers. If it’s a job everyone wants, the employer can drive the price down. About two years ago I interviewed for the assistant web master job for the Boston Celtics. The salary they quoted me was what I made 10 years ago. “Hey, everybody wants to work here,” the manager told me.

    If you work primarily as a contractor like I have done, here’s a method to get the clients you deserve & want to work with: On your next project, charge $5 more per hour than you currently do. On the project after that with a new client, charge $5 per hour more than *that*. Keep doing this until the market won’t bear you going any higher. Clients will pay you more if you’re good, but you’ve got to deliver.

    Good luck all.

  • http://www.eg-design.net Peter

    Hello all,

    The salary in America seems quite low. As a Graphic Designer freelance in Sydney Australia you would be looking at around $40-50 per hour or a salary between $70-80. This all depends on experience and does vary on project. These are just ball park figures and certainly can be more or less, depending on company or agency.
    Cheers Peter

  • http://thunderkick.us Tim Aidlin

    Thanks for the article. I’d definitely recommend checking the data for where you live. I’m in Seattle, and when doing the same queries came up with *significantly* different results.

  • Johnny

    Jesus Christ, I’m seriously considering moving to the US if you guys can make that much as a web designer.

    Either I’m not rating my skills high enough and haggling for a better wage or salaries in England are just awful.

    The last two to three years have seen a change in the job description “Web Designer” in England at least. I actually spend most of my time coding smarty and jQuery, I spend very little time these days actually being creative in terms of UI design.

    I might not be looking in the right place but the last agency that approached me about a job on the behalf of a large corporate wanted a “Web Designer” that could code PHP and jQuery as well as the usual HTML, CSS, Photoshop etc. I think most companies would rather try to get an all-rounder and try to save money on employing specific staff for specific roles.

    Interesting read and given me something to think about.

  • http://www.vivoocreative.co.uk Nottingham Web Design

    hmm interesting read!

  • http://www.sebque.com sebque

    Great article.

    Sad to say, a snr designer in Singapore will hardly make 40k USD.. an art director about 75.

  • Nathan

    So how much are people in the states charging for a web if they are making SO much money? I’m pretty sure it’s not the same in Europe.

  • Nichole

    I found this article interesting… and incredibly depressing. I’ve been in the field for about 8 years now and I’m making squat. I enjoy the job (somewhat) and it’s opened some opportunities for me (mostly pro bono work for nonprofits, which is rewarding, but not filling my bank account), but it’s not ideal.

    In my area, graphic design work seems hard to come by. I work for a manufacturer, not an agency, and it’s stable… but boring.

    I’m finally starting to freelance to support my Lego habit, but now, having worked corporate for so long, I’m finding it hard to figure out how much I’m worth so I know how much to charge people for my freelance work.

    I really need an article on that. What do I charge for logo design? Business cards? Invitations? Photo editing? The list goes on and on.

  • Jane

    It’s a good reading for me. I guess I’m similar situation with Nichole. I work for a non profits organization and trying to take a leap of faith to work in design industry. This organization is stable, but it is boring and back to reality check when now I have to support the family, since dad is retired.

    I have freelance work too, but having a full time job and then doing freelance work after i got home, sometimes is too much. I set the price for my freelance work but then again time is not on my side.

  • http://www.vertstudios.com/blog/ Vert Studios

    “Who needs money when you have a passion like this? Me, that’s who.”

    Haha! Brilliant. Very good read. Unfortunately, many designers still riding out their reputation from the 90s are making those 100k/year salaries. Name recognition can be such a drag sometimes…

  • http://www.abdouhammadi.com Abdou

    In Morocco a graphic designer get 2800$/year and in the 3 biggest cities 7100$/year xD

  • http://www.evrtstudio.com Brian

    I think what is most important for people to understand is you cannot entirely rely upon those sites. A lot of salary is going to be determined upon your capabilities, and if you are short in one area you might earn less.

    I will say that I am shocked to see that Salary.com considers 4 years of experience as a GD a Senior level. I don’t personally really agree with that, but I understand there can be exceptions. I just don’t think it should be a ‘standard’.

    Great article though!

  • http://www.apiestudio.co.cc Ifeanyi @ Apie Studio

    In Nigeria, a pro web designer could make as much as 10, 000$ or more a year if he/she knows the way around.

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  • http://www.NinjitsuWeb.com Matt

    3 principles that have worked for me:

    1. No one will ever pay you more than you ask for. Ask for more. Learn to negotiate. It’s scary at first, but gets easier with practice. Be bold. Fake confidence until you have it.

    2. Turning down work is valuable. Learn to say “No, thanks.” Get the clients/employers you want to work for, not the one you feel you need. Focus on what you really do best, don’t try to be everything to everyone who comes to your door with an offer.

    3. Your salary will scale with the size of the problems you solve. If you can solve big problems for people, you’ll get a big paycheck. Figure out their biggest problem and solve it. It really is that simple. (Unless their problem is that they don’t have any money. See point #2 above.)

    http://twitter.com/matt2000

  • http://headspacedesign.ca Kyle Racki

    In my experience, freelancing (which eventually became owning a small business with 3 employees) has been the critical move that has literally doubled my income in less than a year (back in 2008)

    I’m by no means rich, but thus far, no one in the agency world has been willing to pay me as much as I have been able to pay myself through client work.

    It has also brought about a great lifestyle, working hours that suit me, wherever I happen to be, and having control over the quality of work (depending on the client).

    Highly recommend it to designers who feel they’ve hit the glass ceiling at their job.

  • http://www.sethg.net seth g.

    As a freelancer, this article confirmed that an Agency position would ruin me! I don’t know how anyone in this industry would accept such low wages, as the salaries being reported in this research. I have been freelancing full-time for 2 years now, and made over six figures in both years. A lot of people coming out of college think they need to get a “job” with a salary, in order to make it in life. If you have the confidence to go your own way, it’s much more lucrative. Working in an Agency, you’ll just be leaving money on the table.

  • http://cocoonwebdesign.com Mandi

    I find that the sky can really be the limit if you start your own business and run it like a business. Too many designers get too close to their work and forget the value they offer their clients: to ultimately make them money. Artists are often bad business people, but the good news is that there is a lots of help available.

    -Choose the right clients and appeal to them
    -Sub-out work to get things done faster, cheaper and often times higher quality. The difference is profit in your pocket and a better result for you client.
    -build your network and get out there.

  • Afraid of getting lynched

    No, money does not define us as individuals… But, the average salary of a demographic does define the market value of that group of people. And colleagues, apparently we are cheap labor. Seriously, I know gardeners who make more money that what is outlined in this article. Design provides a valuable service to business, and even more so since web design has taken over as the main form of communication between consumers and businesses. One of the main issues I have seen holding our salaries back is the lack of legitimacy when claiming design will increase the return on investment (ROI) a business owner will receive. Look at sources like http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/about-design/Measuring-design/ for reasons why your work is valuable enough for your clients to invest in. I try to pitch my services to business people because, with them I can try to argue my work will result in higher profits which is a logical and quantifiable conversation.

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  • M4RK

    Just a really great article and fantastic comments. I’ve just left an OK design job to start free lancing. Wish me luck!

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  • parth

    guys i am a student in animation and graphic designing felid. can some one tell me howz the job market over there.
    is it easy to get a job if u have 2-3 years of experience.

    hoping for a positive answers.

  • Ted

    I’ve been a designer since ’94 and rarely been able to make more than $15k a year working for someone else. Freelancing in Houston is a nightmare and I’m miserable. I want out of this so bad. Almost 40 years old and nothing to show for it.

  • mizbha

    i need a ob

  • mizbha

    i need a job

  • Zmeister

    Dunno what this statistic is from, having been a designer for 15+ years, I am seeing this industry slowly dying, people just don’t wanna pay anything and wanna get everything fer free. Internet has Bombay competing with $5 dollars an hour doing a logo or banner design, now how are you gonna compete with these international low ballers and cloud sourcing where business just submit a design proposal and let the blood bath of hundreds of designer killing each other and low ball prices just to get that piece of meat? Good design is no longer appreciated when there are an army of starving artists willing to give it up fer free over the internet. Please, pretty soon there will be graphic design stockphoto-like sites that let you design your everything with ease and anyone even 3 years old can design a professional website, business card, brochure, stationary…..etc….. all fer a penny…

  • Try Harder

    Try harder! This is a lucrative field that pays very well. Expand your skills! Learn how to code PHP, JAVA, HTML, and expand your artistic abilities and you’ll make so much more.

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