Supply and demand of digital product designers

12 years and 1 day ago, a group of 7 founded Adaptive Path. If you look at the NASDAQ 100 around that time, you’ll see just how far things had fallen, and they actually got worse over the course of the following year.

But, no matter how bad the internet economy was, there was always work for digital product designers. Even with layoffs or companies dissolving, I never knew any designer who went long without work. It might not have been the most desirable work, designers might have felt continually compelled to prove our ROI, but there were always jobs.

What I realized then was that, even at its lowest point, there were still more jobs than there were designers to fill them. Up until 1995, design for software meant working on packaged goods, and there simply wasn’t as much need. Beginning in 1995, the web created a sea change in the job market, and then the launch of iPhone in 2007, and iPad in 2010, has lead to successive waves of need for digital product design.

So now, supply and demand in the market of designers is frighteningly out of whack. The competition for designers is fierce. I remember getting paid $60,000 in 1997, roughly 4-5 years into my career. That is the equivalent of $87,000 today, and I can tell you that capable designers with 4-5 years experience are earning much more than that.

There is a paradoxical risk when designers are in such demand. The demand reflects the value that is seen in design work. But, with such demand, most organizations have too few designers given what they’re trying to deliver. That means those designers are spread too thin, and are focused on execution that keeps the light on. Which means design isn’t being used to its fullest extent, driving not just execution, but product strategy and definition.

Because designers are seen as so valuable, they are not able to deliver their ultimate value.

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