The Economic Value Of A Career

I believe that there has never been a better time to be a designer. Consumer expectations have raised the bar for design across the board; there are hardly any consumer products or services that haven't been affected. In response, businesses have hired designers in greater numbers and into more strategic leadership positions. Venture capital firms have hired designers as partners, and more startups have designers as co-founders than ever before. 

Designers are increasingly seen as a competitive advantage, and, in the marketplace of talent, command ever higher salaries. One could be forgiven for thinking that pursuing a career as a designer today is actually viable, if not desirable


I graduated from college 20 years ago in 1995, and I never thought that this was going to be the case. Back then, I think most designers went to art or design school because:

  1. They couldn't see themselves doing anything else. 
  2. They weren't good at anything else. 
  3. Some combination of 1 & 2. 

I'm Asian, in case you didn't already know, and the stereotype among college-bound Asians is that our parents tell us that we can be any kind of doctor or engineer we want to be. I'm still thankful to this day that my parents didn't conform to this stereotype, but they did confess that they thought that they'd have to support me financially for some time. Who could blame them? The economic value of a BFA degree in Art or Design didn't really promise much back then. 

During my final semester, I was simply hoping to get a job so I wouldn't have to go back to live with my parents and require their support to pay my student loans. I interviewed anywhere willing to talk to me: a couple small advertising companies to do graphic design or illustration; a company that made ceramic furniture shaped like stacks of books, Roman columns, etc. that you might have found in the SkyMall catalog; programs teaching English in Japan or China. This was before the Internet was used to look for work or be found by recruiters. You had to find job openings through the university career center, classified ads, bulletin boards, job fairs, or good ol' fashioned nepotism. I considered being a freelance illustrator or designer in NYC if all else failed, but I was seriously considering moving to Japan. I always wanted to get a black belt in aikido or karate. 

In the spring of 1995 I was able to get an on-campus interview with IBM when they were looking for a graphic designer, leading to an on-site interview a couple weeks later in San Jose, CA. I didn't even really think that there was anything for someone like me in the tech industry, so I never considered that as a possibility. I came home after my last final exam of my undergraduate college life to a message on my answering machine (remember those?) – getting a job offer just as my student experience ended was such a relief. My career as a designer had begun! 


Back in the early-to-mid 20th century, being a physician was a well-respected, but firmly middle class, profession. Due to rapid changes in healthcare and insurance policies starting in the 1960's (at least in the United States), their incomes rose dramatically. Even today, physicians rank among the highest-paid professions year after year. 

I wonder if the people who decided to become doctors before incomes rose were different than those that did after. Did the motivations of those going to medical school in the 1950's differ greatly than those that from the 1970's? Did the greater potential for high incomes attract different people? Did medical schools get better candidates?    

One could argue that the benefit to society is obvious: health standards have never been higher, life expectancy is longer, and modern medicine always seems to do what was impossible just years before. But is that simply correlation, not causation, and there are other factors to consider? 


Are higher salaries for designers having a similar effect? Are those who have recently graduated from design or art school motivated by different things than those who pursued it a generation before? Is the promise of a good income attracting those who would have pursued something else? Is it resulting in better design? Are students choosing to pursue art or design for reasons other than those I outline above? 

How about the ongoing argument that teacher salaries should be much higher as to make it a more attractive career option? I wonder if what happened with doctors (and lawyers, engineers, etc.) in the past and what's happening with designers now can give us some insight on how this may affect the discipline and the kinds of people who would pursue teaching. 

I am thankful that the design industry is going through this change now and that I'm extremely fortunate to be along for the ride. There has never been a better time to be a designer. I hope that, one day, I could say the same for teachers.