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Don’t allow yourself to be abused by employers (What I would tell interaction design students, #4 in a series)

We are entering the season of college recruiting. Across the country, design schools are inviting potential employers to meet their students. Students are burnishing their portfolios, preparing their spiels, all the while trying to maintain their overburdened academic load.

One of the things that saddens me about many designers is how little professional self-esteem they have. As long as they get to occasionally work on cool projects, they’re willing to put up with remarkable abuse. I suspect many don’t realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. So, to all the students out there looking for work, when the recruiter offers you the opening, “What questions do you have about us?”, ask questions like:

How many hours a week do you regularly expect people to work?

From what I’ve seen, most design firms, particularly name design firms, expect team members to regularly put in 60- or 70-hour weeks. They do this either because: a) they bill you out hourly, and so want you to generate as much revenue as possible or b) they’re terrible at planning projects, and overcommit within a particular timeframe. The problem is, if you’re a full-time employee, you’re not getting any extra cash for work beyond 40 hours a week. So, the company is benefiting from exploiting your time, but you are not.

What kinds of activities will I get to perform in this role?

In school, interaction design students typically engage across a range of activities, including user research, interaction design, product strategy, visual design, and prototyping. However, most employers tightly align a job title with a job description. And that job description is the box within which you can work. So if you’re an “interaction designer” or a “UX designer”, you might be just a workflow-and-wireframes jockey, because user research is done by people with the title “User Researcher”, and Flash prototyping is done by people with the title “Web developer”. Design firms do this so they can task people as if they are interchangeable cogs in a machine. It makes it a lot easier for planning, but it’s stultifying as an employee.

So find out what freedom you’ll have in your practice.

What do you expect for an employee’s utilization percentage?

(This is more for design services firms as opposed to working in-house.) Most people, if they’ve never worked for a services firm, don’t even know what a “utilization percentage” is. It’s the amount of time you spend doing billable work. Utilization percentage * billing rate = company revenue. As such, employers want that utilization rate to be very high.

I feel that a 75% rate is humane. Any expectation above 85% is out of line (particularly if they’re working you more than 40 hours a week). Some companies have 100% utilization targets. That’s crazy. Basically, it means you’re turning the crank all day. You have no time for internal business. No time to read, think, grow. No time to experiment, try new things. When you’re going beyond 85%, you’re basically sacrificing your professional growth in order to line your company’s owner’s pockets.

Will you own any intellectual property I develop during the time I work there, even if it’s created outside of work hours?

Some companies, and I know this can be hard to believe, lay claim to an employee’s entire creative output, regardless of whether it happens during work hours. Now, I’m no lawyer, and if memory serves, these claims are not defensible, but would you want to work for any company that attempted this, whether or not the attempt stuck?

What support will I get for expressing myself publicly, and engaging with a wider community?

Unless you are a senior employee, most design firms offer no support for, and some actively discourage, their staff members developing public personas and engaging with a wider community. I’ve heard countless stories from friends who have had to fight their companies in order to submit talks to conferences, or contribute articles in publications.

(If you’re talking to a design firm) Are you a public company, or owned by one?

Public companies require levels of growth and profitability that lead to policies which often run contrary to delivering high-quality design in a sane environment. If you find out the design firm you’re talking to is public, or owned by a public company, be wary, and be certain you have satisfactory answers to the previous questions.

It’s about treating you like a person, not a revenue-generating asset

The questions I’ve posed here all boils down to whether the employer will treat you as a person, a human with wants, needs, aspirations, and desire for happiness, or do they just see their staff as a means to making money? (And, let me be clear — I’m all for making money, but there’s a point beyond which it just becomes greedy.) Never except the answer “It’s just business.” There’s no reason humanity and business cannot mix.

  1. Sadly, these questions often go unasked by many experienced professionals, not just students.

    I would add a couple of things, more as directives than questions:

    1. When an offer is made, people should read the contract. It’s surprising how few do.

    2. Ask questions about anything that you are not comfortable with or that differs from what you discussed. Simply accepting the terms of a boilerplate contract is not necessary. If you are not comfortable with the terms, negotiate. Most companies will be open to reasonable changes. If the employer insists that there is no room for negotiation, or tries to pressure you to sign, you have a good idea of what your experience will be and how you will be treated.

    Much like a society, companies are judged by how they treat their weakest personnel, be they interns, contractors or employees.

    Thanks for sharing these questions, Peter. I’m certain you’ve spared someone from an abusive employer.


  2. These are all solid questions, but taken all together they have a slightly negative tone for a design student in this economy. Just don’t forget to add other questions that have a more positive note, as well, in between these questions. Something like, “Can you tell me about your favorite designer to manage – what made them successful?”

  3. Bravo, Peter, for voicing important yet often unspoken truths about employment in design industries.

    I know you’re familiar with my research on time use in interactive agencies ( ). Your comments here have a lot of the same dynamics as time use — design agencies are companies that are adrift in 21st century capitalism, just like everyone else.

    You rightly point out that being publicly traded affects working conditions deeply. The founder of SAS (Fortune’s No. 1 company to work for this year) told The Economist that he doesn’t want “some 28-year-old analyst” to tell him how to run his business. I agree.

    I would encourage you to write the other side of the coin: what design managers should provide new hires. No. 1 on that list, I argue, is an honest discussion about compensation. No one disputes the legitimacy of a company’s need to be profitable (well almost no one). Being honest about profitability / utilization rates is important.

    Additionally, design managers need to really know their values — and live them in hard situations. When you publicly declare that you value innovation above profits, you make certain kinds of decisions. I exhort all design managers to do an audit to understand the “virtue gap” between where they think they are and where they actually are.

  4. I agree with much of this. Kaleem is also wise to point out that employment agreements can be negotiated, within reason–ask to see the agreement before accepting the offer. Many companies will just hand it to you to sign along with the health insurance paperwork in your first day.

    One part of your advice I’d flavor a bit, Peter. It’s appalling to expect junior designers to kill themselves as many firms do, but it’s also important to recognize that a brand new designer may sometimes struggle to finish what a more experienced designer could do in 40 hours. Any consultancy, especially, requires a pretty high level of productivity. So…also consider asking how long it generally takes new designers to get down to the number of hours that are generally expected. A few months may be reasonable; a few years is not.

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