When to employ?

This month I’ve had similar conversations with a number of design studio owners.
The gist of it is: I’m busy. I need help. What should I do? Who should I employ?

Deciding to employ someone is a big step at any level. It will double the size of the studio for a solo-operator, rapidly increase the capacity of a small design team and may completely change the dynamic of a larger team.

There are many options to weigh up. The process is further complicated because what’s right for one studio may not be right for another – there is no formula to follow. The skill is in assessing the level of competence best suited to a studio at that time.

One of my meetings was with a two-person studio – creative and strategy/client service – who had the workload to employ another designer. Like most ‘young’ studios they hired a junior, because that was the least expensive option. Needing less monetary outlay seems to be the least risky solution, but was it the best solution?

I’ve put together some figures to compare the value of employing a graduate to a designer five years out of uni.
Yep, they’re general but you’ll get the idea…

Graduate 5 years out
Average salary 38-50K. Let’s say $45K 50-65K – let’s say 55K
Productivity* 30-50%. Let’s say 40% 70%
Average billable hours per year* 736 1280
‘Real’ cost per hour $61 $42

What these figures demonstrate is the real cost of hiring a graduate is actually higher than employing a designer with more experience. And that’s just the salary – I’ve not included the time another designer or design manager should spend with the graduate, mentoring, helping, explaining. Graduates are not meant to work solo – the more time you spend with them, the quicker they will get from 30% productivity to full productivity.

As an aside, of all studio employees, a junior designer can be the most productive. That’s because they tend to do more transactional work, for example: building 20 web banners based on this design; 30 similar press ads of different sizes or 10 graphs to the same design using different data. Junior designers can fairly easily get to 90% productivity if you keep the work up to them. It’s as we swap between projects and clients our productivity reduces.

So, if you are busy, and you need help NOW, employing a graduate is possibly not the best option.


I am certainly not arguing employing graduates is a bad option. All my career we’ve had a graduate as part of our team. They make a studio sustainable because they introduce fresh ideas or look at existing ideas from a different perspective. And I’m a firm believer at giving back to the industry. It’s just that in this situation, maybe not.

The call to action 🙂

This is exactly the type of information we’ll be covering in Business of Design week Masterclass 7: 6 levers to create more value in your design studio. It’s a day focused on different ways to improve your studio’s profits by identifying and manipulating different aspects, like pricing, productivity, sales volume, services, cost of sales and fixed costs. It’s information of value to any size studio and relevant to studio owners or anyone responsible for budgets.

Love you to join us.

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol or Greg.


Carol Mackay

Want more information like this delivered to your inbox every Wednesday?
The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.


After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council she uses her experience, and research, to help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement  paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

In 2018 Carol co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019

An archive of her design work at mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.