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The industry as seen by top designers.

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Designers in the Ghetto

Fair pay for essential work.

by Dora Ohrenstein (February 25, 2008)

Why are designers the lowest paid group in our industry? I have been asking this question for some time now, and the main factors I can discern are first, stiff competition for relatively few opportunities, and second, pressures from within yarn companies and publications to keep design fees low.

Design fees range from a low end of $50 for a project up to about $600. The fee structure for designing has not changed since the early 1980s; that is, there has been no raise for designers since that time. In fact, some people report that fees are lower. Twenty-five years ago, there was only a handful of working designers who, given their relative scarcity, were able to earn a living, though a meager one, by selling their work to magazines and yarn companies.

As knitting and crochet have gained in popularity, many more people are now designing. This vastly increases competition for the limited number of slots in magazines, and also means there is no incentive for the publishers to raise fees. There are always new designers seeking exposure and willing to accept a low fee to get their name in print.

It is commonly known that there are very few designers who make a living from their work, and those who do are very well-known names. But as I have come to know many designers personally, famous or not, I learn that even the elite of the profession have a hard time earning a living wage.

For example, one of the most revered designers in the industry, for whom hundreds of avid knitters and crocheter line up at trade shows, holds down a part time job as a legal proofreader in order to obtain health insurance, which she otherwise could not afford, for herself and two small children. This is not an atypical story, even for those with many years and credits in the industry.

The process of selling a design usually begins with submission of swatches and sketches to the yarn company or magazine editor: typically, designers submit from 3 to 10 proposals at a time to any one entity. In order for one to be accepted, the idea must have real merit a unique use of a yarn, stitch pattern, and/or great styling. Each swatch submitted represents several hours of work for the designer, with no gaurantee that the design will be accepted.

Once a proposal is accepted, the designer may be asked to rework the idea in a different yarn. Since quite often the yarn chosen is less suitable to the stitch pattern or project, this adds an additional burden for the designer. One must then create the sample and write the instructions according to the purchaser's template. If the project is a garment, at least three and as many as five or six sizes are required. Increasingly, designers are also expected to provide stitch diagrams and schematics. A very rough estimate of the time involved in all this, which necessarily varies depending on the project and designer, would be forty hours. At the average pay of $400, the designer is earning about $10/hour. Upper echelon fees might be double that, yielding the hourly rate of $20.

Does anyone within the industry think this is a fair wage for the work involved?

I cannot speak with expertise about the economics of publishing or yarn production, but have often been told by representatives from these companies that their budget for designs is limited, and that they are paying as much as they can. At the same time, companies obviously invest enormous amounts of money in advertising, promotion, and trade shows. None of these outlays have remained static over the years, of course. One yarn company executive told me that the expense for a single trade show was well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For magazine production, the model and photographer who work for one day on the shoot each earn more in a single day than the designer's fee.

What are patterns actually worth to magazine and yarn companies? We've all repeatedly heard that designs are needed to sell yarns. When a particular design generates so much excitement that the yarn company can't keep the colors in stock, does the designer get a check from the yarn company? If that's an unrealistic scenario, is there some way the industry could get together and calculate the overall value of patterns? Surely the expenses yarn companies pay in magazine ads suggests they understand the value of published patterns.

Wouldn't it be advantageous to the industry to have a real professional class of designers? We've all heard limitless complaints of poor pattern writing, shoddy designs, and missed deadlines. What else can be expected when the work goes to the lowest bidder? Are those who consistently produce great designs and well-written patterns rewarded accordingly?

Here's a dream I envision for the industry: a realization emerges that keeping designers in the ghetto may not be wise nor healthy for the industry. Designers' guilds are invited to join discussions at the highest levels of the industry on how to revise the current system. Design fees rise significantly to reflect the professionalism and labor required to do the job well. Perhaps several scales of fees are developed to reflect different designers' level of experience and expertise. As a result, a true class of professional designers emerges who are standard bearers for the industry, and who are able to devote themselves to their work in a less harried way, producing even higher quality designs. People at this level will be expert pattern writers, leading to fewer problems for the consumer. It's no secret that consumers are disgruntled with the number of errors in published patterns, and surely an improved reputation for the quality of patterns would be an industry plus.

Raising designers' fees need not send any company into bankruptcy. Like other costs of doing business, it would require re-allocation of funds. On the plus side, rewarding this talented, smart group of people would surely result in unforeseen benefits to the industry. Fair practices and respectful treatment can only result in positive outcomes.

(Note: Agree with Dora's comments? If so, what can be done about it? If you agree or disagree, send your thoughts to mike@clnonline.com. To read previous Designing Perspectives columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)



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