When Designers Run Out of Jobs

when designers run out of jobsPhoto credit

If you’re a famous and well-established designer, you probably have loads of work lined up and clients calling and emailing to give you more. Congratulations. But if you’re just a little fish starting out like me, the term “client famine” begins to take on its original meaning sans client, and you start wishing you charged a higher fee for that logo project you wrapped up three weeks ago. I am grateful I have a semi-regular job doing a monthly magazine’s design and layout for a group online. It helps pay the bills, but who wouldn’t be grateful for more design work coming their way? It gets to the point where you’re seriously considering applying for that $30 “quick logo job” on Craigslist.

Brandon Moore, on my previous post left a comment saying he takes chances at Crowdspring when work slows down. It is indeed very tempting to go the spec direction when one is desperate for work, when bills are piling up and there isn’t any money on the way. I can’t blame him. A lot of potential clients hang out on design contest sites, and so do a lot of amateur designers whom we are sure we can easily beat.

But having overcome that spec temptation, I prefer to spend any downtime reading up on design, learning to draw, learning to blog, sending emails and generally learning new things. I believe all these will pay off in the long run anyway, and so much better than if I worked for free on spec.

Not that I’m wishing you the same fate (Heaven forbid!), but I’d like to think that I’m not the only designer who goes through dry seasons so I ask, have you ever run out of jobs or clients? How do you spend your time during periods of joblessness? Go ahead and tell us all about it in the comments.




  • May 3rd, 2011 /

18 Comments to β€œWhen Designers Run Out of Jobs”

  1. John Beatty says:

    Again, your words ring so true, Grace!

    I was under the impression [promised work], that I had 3 really good jobs lined up at the end of December 2010, that would come to fruition in 2011.

    Promises, promises…

    Then as easy as I was told I would be “busy” the 3 jobs disappeared.

    I try to spend my down time in equal parts of looking for work, working on pieces of art to add to my portfolio, connecting with people who might refer me to work via networking, and doing work that will further my knowledge as you said, reading or learning something new.

    All of this energy usually leads to something unexpected. I’ll wake up some morning and there will be a query email.

    Now, I do have a group of people that I can do comic commissions for, but understand, these people have limited monies and I have to consider that. They are not corporations that have big budgets. But they are a source of some extra money at times.

    I don’t rely on them.

    I did used to rely on my biggest employer, DC Comics, but just heard last week they hired a “studio” to do the work that myself and a few others used to do. Hit the panic button, as I did not see this coming, and they didn’t ‘notify’ any of use. I found out thru on of my buddies who talked to someone there.

    That was “reality” for me!

    I worked on monthly comic books for 20 years. 1980-2000 and then went into the Licensing Dept. in 2004 and had steady work there until…I guess this year. I do not blame them…it is a numbers game and when the suits look over the numbers and finder cheaper workers, they will go with that…in most cases. My only hope is that they find the studio they hired does not have the practical experience that I do in the field they are working in and realize that while they might have saved a few dollars, the work is not up to par.

    My fault to put my faith in “one” basket to much. Now I’m paying for that mistake. So anyone out there reading this…don’t just polarize your client list and that one that gives you 90% of your work…they will leave YOU if they need to.


    It’s teaching me to hustle, to think harder and to move faster.

    I’m so happy I found your blog, Grace. You are putting things out there to be talked about.

    You are talking about the “elephant” in the room. Good for you!

    I have one contact I need to speak with about some work at the end of this week. It might lead to something, or nothing…but I got the lead and the contact thru “social media” twitter and facebook!

    Bless the work you do here, it’s good stuff!

  2. Tariq Hassan says:

    I think that designers need to do R&D. You should always be looking past the horizon.

    It’s difficult, especially when your instincts are to dig into the project that you’re currently working with, but you should always realize that “this situation will not last forever”.

    So you should never stop making connections, and you should always keep in mind, what’s my next step.

    When clients dry up, it should be a wake up call that you need to “diversify your portfolio”, like John Said above. If all of your income is coming from one source, you need to find some other, smaller clients just to start making other connections.

    Never stop updating your portfolio, and don’t let your marketing, especially online and social media, get behind..

    Dedicate about 30 minutes to that everyday..

    And most importantly, never burn bridges- even with people that may have burned you a bit- you never know when it might be prudent to call them up and seek some work.. ( you may never do it, but when you’re feeling broke, those past transgressions don’t seem as awful)

    And most importantly keep things in perspective. Design is great and Art is wonderful, but in the end they’re perks. Your health, family, and friends are an asset much more difficult to replace. And having a positive attitude is one of the biggest assets in finding that next job.



  3. Grace Oris says:

    John β€” I put up this post in the hopes that we can all learn from each other and gain encouragement and support through trying times, so thank you so much for sharing your experience. Here’s hoping with you that that contact will lead to something. I’ll be waiting to hear from you how that turns out πŸ™‚

    Tariq β€” Welcome to my blog. Lots of great advice in there, thank you. I’d highlight the last one: “having a positive attitude”. Allowing ourselves to get depressed won’t help one bit. Thanks for coming over and sharing.

  4. John Beatty says:

    Welcome, Riq! Good to see you here at Grace’s place. She’s a very talented, and knowledgeable lady!

    I’ve burned many a bridge, some on purpose, others not.

    This was before I realized that sometimes you just have to deal with people you don’t get a long with, so just to keep the work…me being quite from dealing with their, and my personal likes/dislikes, etc, can be kept out of the job we need to work on together.

    Altho it’s so hard sometimes. The ones I’ve burnt on purpose were worth the fire, as I really never wanted to go back into the situation the ‘bridge’ put me in.

    Others I burnt not on purpose…well…let’s just say that the fire can and will spread to other ‘bridges’ and those will never give you a chance to cross over them, due to the ashes from the previous ones.

    Lessons learned. It’s all about living life with “grace” and Grace knows what I speak of! πŸ˜‰

  5. David Airey says:

    Hi Grace, I also have periods when I’m not actively working on client projects. In fact, I think it’s important. Burning ourselves out does no-one any good.

    It’s one reason why it’s so important to value your skills appropriately, and to charge adequately. Then it’s easier to allow for such “down-times.”

    It compares to what we factor into our costs when working with a client. We don’t simply invoice for design (regardless of what level of detail is actually stipulated on our invoices). We also charge for time spent communicating with clients, for research, brainstorming, thinking, drafting, presenting, revising… and so on.

    You have the same approach as me when it comes to time-off from clients. In the long-run, it’s hugely beneficial to continue building an online presence, to spend some time on side-projects, and to keep your portfolio work up-to-date.

    Bye for now.

  6. John Beatty says:

    Good stuff.

    Enjoyed your book, too, BTW!

  7. David Airey says:

    Thanks very much for reading, John. Glad you enjoyed it.

  8. Jamie Maing says:

    A very different article than what I’m used to reading. I like how you feel the learning and education part is necessary, it’s always the part that most designers miss – and end up falling behind. What are you thoughts about marketing during slow times – to promote yourself and bring in more work?

  9. Keisha says:

    Great article! I think it’s also a good idea to keep up side projects during downtime. Constant learning is key.

  10. paul says:

    Designers have lost all clout. Was it not Grace Kelley who in a Hitchcock movie of the 50’s said she worked as as industrial designer. Today no one knows what a industrial designer is. Design is dead and so is the economy. No problem jus t open up a eatery and design it well and then you can have a income because if you are good you may be guaranteed that there is no place or work for you as the status quo does not value creativity, beauty, and prettiness, they jsut want gimmicks.

  11. Wendy Sheridan says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been out of work not by my own choice (I’m on year 3 of a long-term contract job doing graphic design and technical writing) – my spouse OTOH, has been in client famine for over 2 years now (he has a home theater business that’s been destroyed by the economic crash in the US).

    What I am working on in my “spare time” are avenues of “passive income” – these are things like books, white papers, quilt patterns (I am also a fiber artist), and music that are created once and sold many times – creating a revenue stream that is coming in whether I’m actively working or not. If you have enough of these irons in the fire, they could very easily tide you over the gaps between jobs.

    I also have worked very very hard to keep 6 months to 1 year’s worth of living expenses in the bank (this took YEARS to accomplish), to manage cash flow for cyclical freelance business. This money has kept us afloat during my husband’s drought period, but we’re at the point where he has to try to find a “real” job, because that cushion is almost gone now.

    I would love some down time, but I can’t afford it right now. I would work on my own personal branding, revamp my online presence (my portfolio isn’t what it should be) and finish up and release 3 quilt patterns that are in the works.

  12. The VMCA says:

    When I have down time, I use it to catch up on my own web presence/facebook page etc and then also on reading up on design, and also doing online tuts, to refresh my programme skills, sometimes there is a quicker way to do something either through the use of short cuts or just different ways of doing things (in InDesign for example) and it helps to refresh my memory, rather than just falling into habits, that could possibly be improved upon.

  13. Rick Tracy says:

    Hi Grace,

    I ran across your blog through a LinkedIn email and find it very interesting. My guess is that most of the designers that have commented on this topic are younger than me. I have been in the design biz for a while, but we all go through the downtimes that can be frustrating.

    I am the Creative Director of a small design studio and it is very difficult to keep up with the marketing efforts needed so there is less downtime. It’s tough when a good client gets acquired or their budget has been cut and all their work disappears with very little warning while we were busy designing for them and not marketing ourselves.

    I know this is nothing new, but it’s making me rethink how to approach the structure of my studio because I’ve run into this scenario where this occurred with three different clients within a four month period. You can imagine my frustration.

    And this crowdsourcing design thing is bad for the design industry. It treats design as a commodity and we know it’s far from that. I encourage designers not to get involved doing this spec work. You are better off spending the time marketing your services to TARGETED clients. Figure out who your audience is and in the long run you’ll have more success.

    That leads me to what I’m thinking of doing going forward. This is still a rough concept, but I want to work with the large resource of talented designers out there on the web to create a virtual design studio where the designers will know upfront how much they will be paid for their work. I want it to be organized so designers can be paid a fair value for their work, everyone profit and supply the clients a valuable service. I’m tired of creative talent not getting paid fairly for their work as in the crowdsourcing movement.

    I’d be interested in hearing comments about this idea and who would be interested in participating in a venture like this.

  14. ngw says:

    Very good policy. I bet you won’t be a small fish for long.

  15. Grace Oris says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Right on, John! Grace it is πŸ™‚

    All good points, David. I had not thought of burnout, it’s definitely not good and would likely even kill creativity. Great to see you (again) on my blog. Thanks for sharing.

    Jaime, I’ve always loved learning new things. I taught myself most things and every time I start learning something, I always realize there’s so much more to learn about it so I never stop. Studying always pays and is never wasted time. As for marketing, I decided to have this blog as my main marketing tool so during slow times, part of it is spent on working on this blog. Thanks for your visit.

    Keisha, yes I agree doing side projects are important too and I get to use software other than Illustrator!

    Paul, I’m sure there are clients out there who know better and look for and are willing to pay for value. Although maybe putting up an eatery on the side may not be such a bad idea :D. Thanks for stopping by.

    Having passive income to get you through is a great idea, Wendy. Good for you. But I hope you can get some good “down-time” soon because as David said, “burning out does no one any good.”

    Vanessa, I’ve also found it’s always good to know how to do things differently. Helps me decide early on how to best approach some projects. Love your site.

    Hi Rick. Glad you found your way here. Thank you for your comments. I’d be interested to know more about your venture (as long as it isn’t another bidding site!) and might be able to offer some suggestions too. Let me know how I can help.

    ngw, that’s very encouraging, thanks!

  16. Laurel Black says:

    Hi Rick –

    Your idea of a virtual agency has a lot of promise. I’d certainly be interested in hearing more about how you would solicit work for its group of creatives. And you’re right on about crowdsourcing. I’d rather wait tables. At least there would be some alignment between what I was doing and what I was being paid. — And now I must get back to my tutorials πŸ™‚ .

  17. Connor Gaughan says:

    I spend most of my downtime working on personal projects. Creating sketchbooks and learning new binding techniques. It’s interesting to me to take such a physical approach to things in my down time considering I’m a web designer. I feel as though, even though I’m not bringing in any money at the time, I’m adding a valuable skill set that can potentially bring in new clients later on down the road.

    Continually building my skill sets will help fill the gaps with my clients given that I can offer a more versed and varied approach to things.

  18. Grace Oris says:

    Welcome to my blog, Connor. I agree that gaining skills even in areas not directly related to what we do will add something to our work and make it much better. Sketchbooks and binding, you’ve given me an idea about what else to do πŸ™‚