Michael Bierut | Essays

Designing Through the Recession

Lester Beall, Poster for the Rural Electrification Administration, 1937

It actually doesn't seem that long ago that the only problem was getting all the work done and finding people places to sit. Back in the middle of that seemingly endless string of 60-hour-work-weeks, not one, not two, but (um) several clients called to ask if I wouldn't mind billing them in full, in advance, for work we hadn't yet begun, just so they could commit their budgets and get the money off their books. And then at least one of them just seemed to forget about the project altogether.

I mentioned to this at the time to a friend who's been a hedge fund manager from before the time when anyone had ever heard of hedge funds. "Yeah, that's the kind of shit that happens just before everything goes horribly wrong," he said, looking pained. "That's why I'm getting out."

Even if you don't know much about the economy, you've probably noticed that something went horribly wrong in 2008. And 2009 doesn't look much better. I've been working as a designer for over 28 years, and depending on how you count, this is either my fourth or fifth recession. Here's what happens, and a few things you can do about it.

What happens in a recession

1 Everything slows down.
On October 19, 1987, I was talking on the phone to a client about a potential project. Suddenly she went silent and then said, "Wow. The stock market just went down 700 points. Let me get back to you." It was a long time before she got back to me. In a recession, it takes forever to get things off the ground. Clients take their time gathering (lots of brutally competitive) proposals, interviewing (lots of hungrier-than-usual) prospective design firms, calling back and forth with minute (and trivial) revisions to the proposals, and finally selecting the (perhaps-not-so-lucky) design firm to get the assignment. Then they go back and renegotiate all the terms of the proposal. Then they delay the start of work several times, put the project on hold several more times once it's underway, and generally take lots of time to brood over every decision every step of the way. Once the project is delivered, they wait longer to launch, print, or build it. And then when you submit the invoice...well, you get the idea.

2 Everyone acts busy.
Yet, in the midst of all this molasses-like slow motion, everyone acts busier than ever. One reason is is because of layoffs, fewer people are around, and those left behind have to do the work of their fallen colleagues. But another reason is that everyone knows that it's idle people who get laid off, so looking busy is the best defense. Things that used to be settled with an email need a phone call, what used to be a phone call is now a meeting, a 30-minute meeting now takes four hours, and so forth. If you're afraid of losing your job, asking your design firm to visit with three dozen iterations of a brochure cover to spread out on a conference room table certainly seems like a way to signal to the powers-that-be that you've got way too much on your plate to be axed.

3 Nothing is certain.
Even if you've just presented three dozen iterations, your client can still get fired, and your project can still be put on hold. This makes planning anything completely maddening. I remember back in the 1991 recession going to a meeting in suburban Washington DC with one of my partners for a new business presentation to a senior marketing person at a client company with a name you'd recognize today. We presented ourselves all bright and cheerful to the receptionist and said, "We're here for our 10 o'clock meeting with Ms. Magillicutty [not her real name]." The receptionist looked blankly at us for a minute, then looked vaguely terrified, then asked to to sit down in the lobby, then moved us to a small conference room. After a long time, a young fellow came in and said, "Hello, I'm Joe Blow [not his real name]. Ms. Magillicutty can't be here, and she asked me to help you." We showed this polite but baffled guy our wares and left. What everyone knew, and no one wanted to say, was that Ms. Magillicutty had been fired sometime between making the appointment and our arrival. Needless to say, we didn't get the assignment, which had probably been eliminated along with Ms. Magillicutty. Joe, however, was quite skillful in the situation, and, if he's still there, is probably busier than ever.

What you can do

1 Be frugal.
Whether you're a freelancer at a kitchen table or a principal in a big consultancy, you've got overhead, not the work you do, but the other stuff you need (or think you need) to do the work: the printer paper, the rent, the $120,000-a-year business development consultant. This is a chance to get back to basics. Ask yourself: what do I really need to do my work? Then get rid of everything else.

2 Be careful.
In your desperation to compete for work, you'll be tempted to do things that you might not do when times are good: take on work for a shady client, start a project without a contract, ship a finished job to someone who's fallen behind on an agreed payment schedule. Do not do these things. Not only will they not help, they will almost certainly end in tears, probably your own.

3 Be creative.
The modern design studio can't help but subscribe to the cult of asap. But while working at full speed is great for profit margins, it's not so good for quality control. A design solution almost always benefits from a second, third or fourth look. Take advantage of the slower pace of a recession by remembering what it was like in design school to spend a full semester on a single project. What seemed then like torture may now feel like a luxury, and your work will benefit. And don't forget that recessions are a great time for the kind of research and development that manifests itself in self-initiated projects, work that takes a longer view than the next deadline. As Michael Cannell writes in today's New York Times , "However dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems." In the same article, Cranbrook's Reed Kroloff agrees, saying we could be "standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever."

4 Be sociable
In boom times, no one has time to talk. "Let's have lunch" can be an empty pleasantry, and even if you make a date with a friend, it will be rescheduled three times before you both silently agree to forget about it altogether. Congratulations! You now have time for lunch. (Somewhere cheap, of course.) Use the gift of time to reconnect with others. But don't, if you can help it, think of this as merely something as deliberate and goal-oriented as networking. This takes the fun out of it for both you and your date. If you make time for people you like with no agenda except the simple joys of human companionship, trust me, something good will come of it.

5 Be patient.
My friend the ex-hedge fund guy (he did get out in time) told me recently, "In the middle of every boom, people say, 'This one is different, it's never going to come down.' But it always does." This was true with dot-coms, and it was true with real estate. "In recessions, they fear the same thing: this one is different. But it will eventually turn around after all the crap gets worked out." And it will, eventually. Just hold on tight.

You may have noticed something interesting: all of these tips for what to do in a recession will work just as well in good times. Or even better. So the final lesson is to use this downturn as a learning experience. If you've got this discipline to survive, or even thrive, in the next year or so, you'll be mastering skills that will serve you well forever. Good luck.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [57]

Great Post. Good advice here.

One link that didn't get connect was the NYT article by Michael Cannell.

Here it is here: Link
Joanne Kaliontzis

Thanks a lot for writing this! I'm graduating in a couple months with my BFA in graphic design, and even though I do not know exactly what to expect, (most likely working in a warehouse) it's really nice to hear from you that this will all get worked out.
Scott Sullivan

ex-hedge fund guy is absolutely right. this is my first recession, but I have read enough on trends to know this one is no different. still, it sucks.

This is going to be our third one. All your observations are so pertinent even in this part of the world. Conversions are very slow, work that started with tight deadlines does not seem so urgent anymore and some clients are friendlier than ever as they see the axe hanging over their head. The good thing about working for yourself is that you don"t get fired. The bad thing?
Ashwini Deshpande

Ohhh, so good to read this. I've been craving for someone who has been through these tough times before to address what we should expect. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

This is a great post, which I will share via Twitter.

I have also gone through multiple recessions, both freelancing and as a fulltimer and now will again in entrepreneurial mode.

To your 5 suggestions I would like to add that this is a perfect time to increase and widen your skill set. Set time aside to learn new techniques, especially if there seems to be more time on your hands than projects. Open source software is free and there are plenty that compete with expensive packages, if you don't have the funds to buy the latest and greatest. Demo versions also are helpful, and at least are free for a good month or so.

And, as you mentioned, networking, both within your field and other places (thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other ways to find birds of a feather and fellow travelers) puts contact, humor and sharing the load part of our daily experience--until we all become too busy again!

So..let's all stay in touch,

Dean Meyers
[email protected]
Dean Meyers

@ Scott
Designing Through the Recession
1 Be frugal.
2 Be careful.
3 Be creative.
4 Be sociable.
5 Be patient.
Yes! And it doesn't hurt to be a teacher.
Carl W. Smith

excellent post. Thanks.


Thanks for sharing this with us, as a relatively young agency it's good to know there is light at the end of the tunnel

Sizzle Creative Agency Manchester

It's hard to argue with a lot of your points as you've stated you've been through this type of downturn a couple times. Most of your points actually remind me of being a designer in Canada even in the good times. You alluded to the fact that even the bad times go back up “"In recessions, they fear the same thing: this one is different. But it will eventually turn around after all the crap gets worked out." And it will, eventually. Just hold on tight.” What really bothers me about this just hold tight philosophy that I've read here and elsewhere is that the way communication happens is fundamentally evolving in a way that most graphic designers want to ignore. When things become necessary to hire a person for design work in the not so distant future, it's not going to be the graphic designer. It's the developer that knows more about how to get something on a page vs the person that knows why it should be on the page and read. And when I mean page I'm actually talking about a screen. I'm not happy about this, but until the graphic design community realizes the situation is kinda different from the last economic shock we're toast.
Michael Surtees

Now is the time for non-profit work(?)
pat Taylor

I assume the Rural Electrification Administration was a non-profit client for Lester Beall. That seemed to turn out well.
Michael Bierut

lovely and sober, Michael. Happy New Year.
E. Tage Larsen

"...there will be less design, but much better design" Ms. Antonelli, from aforementioned NYTimes article.

Tip #6: Be liberal
One of the new things I like to do is go around to all the hurting local businesses and offer them free design & illustration just as they are going belly up. That way in three years I can do it all again, with a free cup of joe.

felix sockwell

What's so great about this entry is that most of it sounds completely obvious, but none of it is. I'm not an economist so I don't have any legit insight into what causes booms and busts, but then again, clearly many economists (Greenspan, anyone?) don't really get it either. I've always wondered if frugality during boom times--which are characterized by excess typically--would sustain them, or at least mitigate the inevitable slow-down.

Years ago I read a column in Fast Company written by a consultant (maybe one of those former Bain guys?) who didn't understand why so many companies immediately cut marketing budgets when times got tough. His rationale was the same as yours: NOW is the time to solidify your position and develop recognition/awareness when competitors are quieter. It's still a pipe-dream. Everybody cuts.
Brad Gutting

Thanks for the advice. More artists should follow it. These are really tough times and we all just have to do what we can to get by. Hopefully things will improve in the near future.
Nikki - Logo Design Guru

#7 Go hide out in school in London to get a Masters and rack up student loans again.

Thanks Michael, this recession has been coming on for a long time. It will take a little longer to recover. I know it is of some comfort that even Pentagram has to deal with this. It is so easy to believe that you would never hit a bump the way that the rest of us do.

This is a great time to learn those parts of Creative Suite that we have hired other people to do. That way we can offer the geek work along with the thought process.
Michelle French

Your piece is indeed timely and on-the-button. When the 1990-1991 recession hit my small business in London, I remained in denial for 18 months that things had changed. I kept paying for the office in Soho, the big car, the two people we 'needed' to staff the space, my long-haul trips to scout for new business... I remember handing over the keys to the Benz, having sold it back to the dealer at a huge loss, and thinking, "I'll get another one in a few months...". That self-delusion cost me everything - and then some. The "downturn" that melted away my business, then, was the bursting of the bubble economy in Japan: That took 12 years to play out - and Japan is in even more dire straits today, after a short recovery, than it was then.
Based on that lesson, I passionately endorse your action item 1, "Be Frugal". I say: start with the kitchen table - and stay there. I am writing from a fine kitchen table that used to adorn the boardroom (it sounds so embarassing in retrospect) of my last-but-one business-in-a-fancy-office. The statement that "it will eventually turn around after all the crap gets worked out" may be true - but it's a safer bet to assume that business conditions will be like now, only much worse, for years to come. It's surely better to travel ultra-light than sink under the weight of misplaced expectations.
I have to go: we need the kitchen table for an especially delicious winter soup.
john thackara

Thank you for this article! It's great to read some economy related news from someone who isn't an economist. My students will definitely be curious about how they're going to get new, better jobs after graduation, with the economy the way it is.
John Mindiola III

Ah yes... The desperate temptations... Great advice and wonderful article as always. So when can we do a annual Blog book of this site?
ian b shimkoviak


You couldn't have told us at the time what your hedge fund friend was saying?


PS: This one is different. Wait until oil goes back to $160, and then keeps on going.
John Massengale

And if you're in the "Holy crap! Now what?" boat… Brian Unger has some great Tips For Enjoying 2009 Without A Job.

Joe Moran

Having been through those four or five recessions too, I have only these thoughts to add to Michael's great article:

1. Now is the time to write and design that book you've had in the back of your mind. By the time you've written it and it's ready to go, the recession will be over and you'll have something to show for it.

2. Stick around children. You won't remember that month you couldn't pay the corporate credit card, but you will remember lying in a pig pile with your nieces and nephews.

3. Listen to Mozart. Loud.
Natalia Ilyin

The two comments you made which I think are the most important considering the reasons behind this downturn (and future ones) are:

Be Creative and be sociable.

The comment you included by Michael Cannell is very poignant: "However dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems."

Design should help flip this economic downturn through examining different ways of solving and communicating issues (outside of just printing something out) and emerge as a different profession. Historically we saw this during the IT boom. We are in now, what Thomas Friedman called the ET (energy tech) boom.

Part of this recession has to do with natural resources we use/mismanage and will be completely about resources as it goes forward. Our profession uses quite a bit of these in the form of water, oil (for ink/transport) and paper pulp. These resources are needed for our atmosphere and future economies. New outcomes of our work must be discussed and executed by our profession so that we emerge leading the dialogue.

If this recession ends and we're still producing the same stuff in the same way we always did, we truly haven't learned our lessons and leave ourselves the inevitably worse-off position than before. Instead of thinkers and innovators we will simply be a service industry and always first to let go when times are rough.

So let's talk, act!
Eric Benson

Thanks for this post, Michael.
Ricardo Cordoba

Thanks for the “Designing Through the Recession” piece, Michael.
I certainly agree with your five suggestions and would like to add one more, if I may: (quoted from an article in The Economist around 2002) “Be prepared for the unexpected.” One needs to be resilient enough to absorb the expected moderate turbulence.

The next 18 to 36 months will be an excellent time to prove that genuine design is the only tool to generate cost-effective and high quality end-results.

Roger van den Bergh
Onoma, LLC
New York
Roger van den Bergh

Thank you. That was the most soothing piece I've read since the you-know-what hit the fan. And it was professional. Professional not in "people are willing to pay for it," but in the way that a professional should have something to profess. It helped.
Eric Diamond

Great read. Micheal, its no question that you're one of the greats. I'm hoping to be a great designer like yourself one day. This is a job i'm trying for

Art Director - HUGE

Any tips on how i can achieve my goals?


Great post, a really interesting read thanks
creativedge - logo design

Ha! I'm reading this while freelancing! At my kitchen table! Thank god it's paid for!

Thanks for this.

Thank you for this post. I agree with the "be careful". Knowing myself, if I hadn't read this I would probably make that mistake just for the sake of keeping myself busy.

As for "be creative", I guess I can see that. But I do not agree that recession make designers more productive. For well known professionals may be. But in the age of Adobe, during recession companies are willing to settle for a lot less beautiful design, coming from less experience designers (freelance and student), for less price.

I am getting a lot more job during this time. And every job I got it's always come with the "our regular used to..." I always try to do the best design possible no matter what (because I want to build my portfolio). But I know a lot of other freelance students who would cut corners and settle for lowest common denominators.
Panasit Ch

Articles like this are why we all keep coming back here. Great post!

#2 Be careful - good advice. I'm wrestling with whether to accept work I'd NEVER do under other circumstances. The client is nice enough but completely disorganized and scatterbrained and the work could not interest me less. I.e. it will not end up in the portfolio. On the other hand, I don't feel in a position to turn down anything... so I'm trying to shape this so that the terms are acceptable to me.
Patricia Fabricant

and it's true, things will turn around. I have been thru this before, been at companies that downsized by 2/3 only to grow again a few years later. It is a good time to perhaps expand your skills into areas that are more likely to grow in the future. That would be a good use of the slow time.
Patricia Fabricant

Thanks Michael for passing this wisdom along. I wish someone had been there with such encouraging advice for us during the early '90s recession. Our mantra was from the song TextNobody Knows You When You're Down and Out:Text "If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I'm gonna hang on to it till that old eagle grins."
Nancy Skolos

Great advice on getting rid of marketing staff. Better to just wait and see what kind of work walks through the door. After all, there's plenty of work out there, right?

Actually, go ahead and do it. It will make it easier for those of who plan on continuing to market ourselves aggressively (and intelligently) during this recession.
Esteban Mendez

- Great Post Michael -
Sash Fernando

Amen, Michael.

The first recession I endured (probably the same one as yours) taught me -- the hard way -- to avoid people who had no clue. The ones who were particularly useless as clients were the ones we all thought we could "convert" to being "real" clients when things "got better."


They weren't, of course, and proved to be the biggest money-losers we had ever endured.

I'm spending my time "off" to expand my art, learn new software, and write all the print and radio documentaries I should have been working on the in the last few years.

L.M. Cunningham

Finally i see some light at the end of the tunnel! It's really cool of you. Thanks for sharing. Times are still bad! I've learn something today.You really made my day. Anyways I saw this site. http://www.jobstaxi.com
They have couple of design jobs i suppose.
Good day


This was a great read. Thanks for the post... now I have to call up all my laid off friends and treat them to lunch next week,
Alex Valich

And remember, it could be worse. You could be a journalist.
Virginia Postrel

I couldn't resist joining in on the design fight. Read "Design Glut Loves a Depression" - http://bit.ly/Wm2W
Design Glut

Thanks, Michael,

I thought it was just me! Potential clients are now also asking me (in their rfp) to present design ideas before choosing a designer, for no fee. Yikes!

James Reyman

I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to read this article. It was like a therapy session where you are completely understood by somebody and also learning what you haven't realized. When so many people are looking for a job in a season like this, young people like myself with 1 to 3 years of experience are likely to be put aside. But I know that my turn to be appreciated will also come at some point. Yes, I'll stay creative, or more. Thanks, again.
Meilee Seong

Great stuff, thanks
Byron Blocker

I could buy a NICE home with all the money Marketing types have asked me to bill them in advance for future work. That then never materializes. And forget trying to give the money back, they freak out if you even mention it!

Those days are sure over!

Sometimes we need this reassurance to think about the times, and the situations around us to get us through. It's funny because these are tips we can use when out of a recession, but we get so caught up in the finish-this-project-and-get-to-the-next mentality that we simply forget about life and what will ultimately makes us happy. Great design comes from happy designers. Here's to 2009.

this would be my first impression of a recession, and all i know is it hit me in perfect bad time. i graduated in late 2007 and worked hard as an intern for a design firm spending from my savings hoping i would get a job. well, that didn't happen for obvious reason. now i have to move back to my parent's broke and busted. i understand recession, you understand recession, but does my mom?

nevertheless, great post Michael. like always.

Great article! Thanks for the insight!


Great post, Michael. It's actually very uplifting. Cheers!
Kevin Burr

Greetings and thanks for the informative read.

I'm currently a college student and will be graduating with my bachelors next year, then probably will stay for my masters. I'm interested (and kind of scared) to see what the economic state the US will be in when i get into the 'real world' job market.

As for now i'm going to just hold on tight, as per request, in hopes of a better market and a solid job in 3 years.
Phil LaPier

Rural electrification was depression-design, not recession-design . . . doesn’t that change everything . . . ??
Peter Ross

Great advise. I'm not freelance, but I am the graphic design department for a small publishing company and the drop in advertising does have us all amping up the customer service.

Special requests that would have made me laugh in someone's face last year are suddenly, "Let's see what we can do" - because every customer counts.

But an interesting phenomena that I did not expect (but my boss, who has been doing this for years, did) is that lots of laid off people are starting NEW businesses that need advertising. And people who NEVER advertised before suddenly think, "Maybe I should get the word out."

Spending a lot of time on a single project always makes it come out better for me. That's the worst part about working on someone else's timetable is you have to rush to be done when they need it.
Jonathan patterson

Great little piece of realistic writing here that I think everyone can relate to at this point. I was released of my first job in October of 2007 and for about 6-7 weeks, looked for work and wound up freelancing for this agency in Florida for about 3 months before THEY got slow. I later was offered a position in Boulder (Spring 2008) at a reputable agency and moved out here to Colorado at the end of May but was laid off again in September when this agency trimmed 15 people from their design team. It was a somber day for all of us. I struggled for months looking for work between Denver and Boulder and although there are a lot of top notch companies here, I couldn't find anyone willing to take the risk of hiring.

I've been using my time now to do a lot more drawing, reading, writing, theater, etc and I feel it's helping me come back to my roots and understand why I wanted to become a designer in the first place. I'm finding that all these little techniques and perspectives that were once ditched after graduate school for the relentless time managing that goes on in the office are once again being introduced in my life again and I'm feeling liberated. Why was I struggling to get back into an environment working 60 hours a week for someone else and with little gratitude from the clients? Uggh.

For a time, I was disillusioned and wanted to quit this profession all together but it's giving me a rare opportunity that under normal economic circumstances would be next to impossible to achieve. My home is approaching foreclosure and in addition to my mortgage, I have rent out here in Colorado, vehicle payments, art school loans, credit cards, living expenses, etc. and only $200 a week unemployment benefits. Freelance work is hard to come by and when you do, people are looking for 5 rounds of logos and only want to dole out $300; and oh yeah, can I have that by the end of the week? I think I'll start up my own studio and work from home.

Restorative Justice is an alternative approach to dealing with crime that involves bringing together those who are directly affected to understand and address the harm that has been done, with emphasis on personal accountability and transformation. Some models also seek to change the conditions in which harmful actions occurred.
fire pit

Again excellent post and was wondering if there are any other sources of information people might have in mind on the topic, that I may find useful as I am focusing my university dissertation around designing for a recession and any help would be much appreciated. thanks
Darren Palmer

Jobs | July 18