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RANT: Designers and crappy jobs

When we started Adaptive Path, we set out to create the kind of services firm we wanted to work for. And much of this was in reaction to common practice in services firms. There are many things we reacted to, but this rant focuses on one thing – how employees are (mis)treated.

One of the things I’ve seen among many in the design profession is a willingness to put up with crappy jobs. Jobs where their talent and labor is exploited (this is doubtless true in other fields, but I suspect it’s especially true in ours) . The thing that cheeses me off most is overwork. It’s not uncommon for services firms to have their staff work 50+ hour weeks. I wouldn’t mind that if people were compensated accordingly. But most are simply compensated for “full-time” — there’s no over time. The thing is, I know their employer is billing out every one of those extra hours to the client. Which means that person is bringing a LOT of money into the firm, and not seeing it herself.

The thing I’m trying to understand is why so many put up with this. And the only thing I can think of is that folks in the design profession have low work-self-esteem. I think they feel so fortunate that they get to do something “fun” for their careers that their willing to put up with this mistreatment.

The companies that are worst offenders are often the services firms that get the “sexiest” projects, because many (most?) designers will put up with *anything* to work on sexy. (There’s one company in particular I’m thinking of here. And no, I’m not going to write their name here. But I’ll happily tell you over beers.)

So, yes, designers are definitely responsible for getting into these situations… When I get in these proselytizing moods, I want to shake these designers by their lapels (do designers wear lapels?) and say, “You’re being exploited! Don’t you care?!”

Apart from offending my sense of common decency, what upsets me is that this contributes to the marginalization and dimunition of the design profession, as such treatment demonstrates a lack of respect for the value designers bring to the project. It’s most upsetting because it comes from those who ought to be championing the role of design, the heads of these design firms. While their staff toils away over weekends to get deliverables ready for clients, the executives reap the benefits of those profits.

I suspect many folks working in services firms don’t fully grok the economics of the business, and assume that this just must be how it has to be.

So, to those working in services firms — challenge your employers about the conditions you’re working under. If you routinely work 50+ hour weeks, ask them when you’re going to see some of that extra scratch your earning for them (or, if you’d like a live/work balance, ask them why they can’t plan their projects so as not to burn out the staff). Make sure you know the rate you’re billing out at, figure out how much money you’re bringing into the company, and how much of that you are seeing. If you’re utilized more than 80% of the time (and that’s already probably too high…) ask about when you’re supposed to find the time to develop your skills, recharge your batteries, evolve. Find out what your company’s profit margin is, and what the company is doing with those profits. You don’t need to put up with bullshit in order to work on sexy projects — I know design firms that land great work AND treat their employees well. If you find yourself grousing about losing another weekend, start looking around — there are companies out there that deserve you.

  1. It’s comparable to creating art. If you are passionate about it, then you will welcome unhealthy work hours.

    It’s not just designers. It’s programmers, too. It’s reliving college days of all-nighters. My am somewhat susceptible to the temptation, because of my personality and feeling needed. Just praise me enough and you will get your blood from this turnip.

    It’s easy to be passive and live through someone else’s goals, especially in a team environment.

  2. I agree with Stephen James that this applies to programmers / engineers as well.

    I’ve seen engineers at the company I work at kept on being made to provide half a year of work in 2 months because the projects have a fixed deadline but decisions could not be made ahead enough to allow the projects be built.

    That said, as a designer, I totally get you. Two firms came to mind that appear to have the reputation of over-utilizing their designers: R/GA and Pentagram. Email me if I’m right… or remote this paragraph from the comment area if this is not ‘neutral’ enough to post.


  3. Is the design/development community exceptional in this? Or is it common throughout this society to work more and more hours?

    I think you’re totally right, though. No need to put up with this unless you are desperate.

  4. The exploitation of labor is not …”doubtless true in other fields” It is absolutely true thoughout the world and throughout history. It was what finally led to Communism, Socialism and Unionization. All of which are heavily discredited in these United States. Don’t we all resent the entertainment guilds and pro sports unions for being so greedy as to strike for more salary and benefits? As a member of the WGA you can’t imagine the recent rants I heard against that union. Next month, SAG.

    Is there room for solidarity in the Internet? Or is everybody having too much fun to bother?

  5. I remember I recently mentioned to you that at Simple Dynamics, everyone who works for us is a contractor, with a nominal business entity, who bills us on his own terms.

    Your post is one of the reasons I’m proud of that. Nate and I also set out to create the kind of company we’d like to work for. If workers are really into the contracting mindset, they tend to treat themselves better (and in case you’re wondering, there aren’t 1099-compliance problems, because they really do the work in a contractor style. Did I also mention that it tends to produce more robust modular software?)

  6. Trav–What is the contracting mindset? And how are these sub-contractors protected from uber-contractor exploitation of their time and labor?

    Peter–How many beers does it take to loosen your tongue?

  7. Peter,

    thank you for being a leader and speaking out about this-i don’t personally have this issue where i work, but i’ve seen it (and left jobs because of it)-it’s useful for someone like you to speak out and send the empowerment message- 🙂 it’s important for all of us-the more taking advantage of that is accepted, the more it will occur

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