Rewarding designers financially

Financially rewarding employees is vital. Everyone needs to feel fairly compensated for a job well done, but settling on what is ‘fair’ is difficult. And because most creative firms are small, there is a ceiling limit. It’s an unwritten rule – no employee should be paid more than an employer.

Employee retention is a real problem in any small business. Once you find the right employee, it’s difficult to keep them from exploring the next challenge.

The survival of a creative business centres on the founders and owners. They should financially rewarded for taking risks, shouldering responsibility and having the courage and confidence to build their dream. If they don’t have the means to survive, the business cannot survive.

“In case of a cabin pressure emergency, put on your own mask first before assisting others.”
A simple concept that makes sense.
You can’t help others for very long if you don’t take care of yourself first.

What is ‘fair’ compensation?

The creative industry has never been unionised or under a relevant State award, so pay rates have always been arbitrary. (The government sets ‘awards’ for a variety of industries, from pilots to aged care workers. An award includes minimum wages and conditions.)

Financial packages are based on market-demand and range widely from a graduate minimum wage to packages that include profit share and dividends. Generally, design studios pay less than larger agencies, and corporates pay more than small businesses. That said, the rates, and the hours vary significantly.

We’re currently writing an ebook documenting appropriate wage brackets and how they link to skill levels. It’s due for release around July 2021. Early research has uncovered a hornet’s nest!

It’s not only settling on a wage that’s a challenge. It’s being able to gradually increase the wage as skill level and value to the business increases. And what happens if you don’t have the cash flow to regularly increase salary or when the salary reaches the limit?

Reward with time

Job satisfaction doesn’t just come from remuneration. It comes from enjoying where you are working, the people you are working with and feeling valued.

One way to show an employee is valued is to reward with time. There’s a number of ways you can increase a salary without increasing overheads. Like offering:

  • their birthday as a bonus holiday
  • an additional 5 days holiday each year (increasing the base from four weeks to five)
  • a scheduled day off a month (an additional 11-12 days holiday each year)

None of these impact the bottom line of a business, and time off can often be swallowed up in productivity gains. By that I don’t mean working longer hours on the days you do work, I mean working smarter due to being refreshed and inspired.

Reward by investing

Job satisfaction also comes from the feeling of continually learning — not doing the same thing again and again. One way to build and maintain job satisfaction is to offer professional development. On-the-job learning can be practical and accessible.

In our experience, most creatives have a side-hustle – anything from a hobby to a fully-fledged freelance business. Most are interested in learning how to manage that side hustle better, so being transparent and sharing the challenges of managing a small business can be beneficial. And it’s a win:win.

Creatives who understand business are valuable. They’re good for your team because they understand the inherent constraints of a small business and they’re good for your client because they can talk return on investment.

Inhouse learning

Some studio’s offer professional development time in principle. Problem is it’s unstructured and often gets pushed aside when deadlines loom. And when a little time is available, it’s often spent learning software.

The most successful professional development we’ve seen is structured, and involves creatives learning as a team. Either researching individually and uniting to share knowledge, or investigating, discussing and exploring together. The learnings could be based on your business and existing clients, so everyone wins.

Avenues of learning could include:

  • research into new business marketing initiatives
  • inhouse practice sessions running HCD workshops
  • research into measuring design effectiveness and using the methodology on a current project
  • research into a specific industry sector
  • hiring us to run an inhouse workshop 😉

The possibilities really are endless.


This original article was the most popular in our 20+ years writing a weekly email. We took that as customer feedback and dived straight back into research.

The result is an ebook: What’s a fair wage?  It’s an ebook that talks money. We quote figures: benchmark wages and freelance rates researched from a variety of sources. And we flesh out other ways to reward loyal employees … sometimes it’s not just about the money.

It’s written from our experience, experience working with/mentoring a range of creative businesses and input/feedback from a range of recruitment agencies. Better still, it’s only $0 + GST. You can purchase it for download here.


What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I 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 research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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