In every market, there are trends within trends, and the market for designers is no exception. We’re seeing a number of factors coming together to create continuing trends. There are a couple in particular that are dominating our business at the moment; the continued rise of the digital product designer, and a further developing swing towards contracting.

A number of years ago, we saw start-ups in Silicon Valley hiring designers who were taking products from early-stage research and discovery through to final, polished designs and prototypes. That same hiring approach has now been firmly adopted in London and fits perfectly with the ambition of many “visual” designers to have more involvement in UX. As a result, the most in-demand skill-set for us is the middle ground – Product and UX/UI design roles at a senior to lead level makes up about 80% of our current workload. 

This trend is also being driven by a couple of other factors. The first is companies’ continued desire to take design in-house, rather than employing agencies to do it all. Hiring a design capability internally allows designers to sit much closer to the business, and its customers – but because businesses are building new teams and structures from the ground up, they can capitalise on hiring Product or UX/UI designers, as they don’t have to be mindful of an existing structure (e.g. seeing UX and Visual Design as separate disciplines). We’re now seeing more and more design teams in-house, often sitting within businesses that aren’t traditionally design-led, but who recognise that designers need different conditions to other employees. No doubt that there will always be a big market for agencies, but they’ve certainly had to adapt their business models in response. 

Changing expectations

We also continue to see changing expectations designers have of where they want to work. Of course, designers join companies for different reasons, but increasingly we’re seeing people wanting to work for businesses that have ‘positive impact’ – although what “positive impact” means is of course subjective. For many designers, though, it has meant moving into areas such as Health-Tech, Ed-Tech, or Green Energy, all of which are prime sectors for start-ups. 

Very early stage start-ups are still often an acquired taste for senior-lead level Product Designers, partly because of the level of risk involved, but also because salaries and benefits sometimes aren’t at the same level of a more established business. On top of this, the traditional start-up substitute – equity – isn’t that appealing for designers, because it often takes a long time for it to be worth anything, and such a small percentage of start-ups actually “make it”. 

This is one of the reasons that more established businesses are still a draw. The other truth is that having a larger, well-respected design-led business on your CV still opens doors for you when you move on. 

Contracting expands

The other continuing trend in the market is the growth of contracting. For us, the balance of the market is 60/40 in favour of contracting, and we are seeing that push further. As with the trend towards Product / UX/UI Designers, there are a number of factors driving the change… 

Firstly, while employers in the most interesting, most attractive sectors rarely need to work with contractors – they will find it easiest to recruit the staff they want into permanent roles – for many businesses, hiring contractors is a better option. It may sound harsh, but if they have very high standards but are unable to attract the best designers into permanent jobs, then hiring contractors will often deliver better results. It means that they will be able to attract a better calibre of designer, and often get better output – freelancers are just more flexible in the businesses that they work for. There are also of course businesses where utilising freelancers is baked into their business model – for example, agencies whose workload spikes and dips often have to vary their staffing levels to meet demand, so contractors are great for this. 

On the candidate side, the lifestyle benefits and earning potential are definitely a pull, but there is also a hard truth to be faced here. In my opinion, you have to be good enough to be a successful contractor and to live that lifestyle. In the permanent market, there are often more jobs than there are good, interested and available candidates. In the contract market, there are more contractors than there are contract jobs available, so it’s really competitive. For the best designers, contracting can feel almost risk-free at times, but for many, it is a challenging slog.

The digital design space is really exciting at the moment. Companies of all shapes and sizes are embracing the power of design, and I think 2019 will see continued growth in the sector.

The world of design can be a contentious one, so whether you agree with the above, or you think I've missed the mark, I'm always interested in a discussion. If you'd like to talk more about changing expectations in the sector or find out more about the contracting market, say hello at toby@wearefutureheads.co.uk, or take a look at our latest digital design roles.

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