Working overtime is a fact of life for US designers

Just right.
Just right.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Between agonizing over a new concept, perfecting a presentation, or dealing with the occasional equipment glitch, designers always have plenty of reasons for working late. As the results of AIGA’s Design Census reflects, putting in extra hours is a fact of life for most professional designers in the US.

In the first survey about the state of the American design industry, more than half of the 9,514 respondents reported working more than 40 hours a week, with the average logging in four extra hours over what’s legally required of full-time workers in the US. Of the design industries surveyed, those working in design education, public relations, environmental graphics, and architecture logged the most overtime hours.

Burning the midnight oil is common for designers, no matter what stage they’re at in their career, attests Lynda Decker, a graphic designer who founded her own design firm in New York City. “If you’re an ambitious designer in the early years, you’re trying to learn new ideas, new methodologies, or researching outside of the office,” she says. When Decker was a junior designer, she recalls voluntarily working on designs for a logo late into the night, even if she wasn’t allowed to bill the client for any of her time. It doesn’t really go away when a designer gets promoted to senior positions or start their own business, as Decker did. At this stage, days are filled with meetings and deep thinking is typically relegated to quiet hours early in the morning or late at night.

It may start in art schools, where design students tweak and toil until their work feels ”right.” Surviving sleepless nights can even be a point of pride for creatives. To advertise his practice, illustrator James Victore once wrote he was open 23 hours.

The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Americans. Italian art director Ramon Pezzarini has entire seasons where he gets little sleep. To finish one magazine issue, for example, he and his team worked 10–12 hour days for a several months. “That was including weekends,” he adds. Because some ideas materialize in minutes, and some entail months of toil, Pezzarini says keeping a true tally of hours dedicated to a project is challenging.

Counting billable hours is useful for running a business and predicting costs but isn’t the most accurate predictor of creative effort or worth, as Pezzarini suggests. Even after leaving the office, designers never stop fretting about how to improve an idea, or worrying if a vendor is going to deliver a critical component of the project on time. And even on holiday, designers are often gathering ideas—picking up bits of inspiration and researching new methods—for the next job.

In his 2014 essay “The Case Against Paying Designers by the Hour,” designer Ken Carbone laments the fallacy of hourly billing in creative services.”Someone, somewhere, at some time decided that the value of design directly correlates to the time spent solving a client’s problem…. But anyone who works in a creative field knows that creativity isn’t something that starts when you punch a clock,” writes Carbone.

Working long hours doesn’t always bring in more money for designers, and the average annual salary for US designers is $67,424 according to the design census. What keeps them going? For Decker it’s the intellectual variety that each assignment brings. “If you love to learn, being a designer is the perfect career,” she muses. For Pezzarini, “it’s all passion…I love being challenged.”

And indeed, when probed if they were happy at their current job, a resounding 80% of design census respondents said yes.