Can I afford a junior designer?

It’s no news flash there’s a dearth of mid-to-senior designers. My social channels are full of good studios looking for talent. Problem is – with the shortage – as one studio/agency hires, another has to start looking. It’s definitely a candidate’s market.

The one constant is a ready supply of graduates … so, what about hiring a junior?
Is that an option? Can you afford a junior designer? Not just the money, but the time investment?

Here’s some things to consider…

Deciding to employ

Making the decision to employ is a big one. A new staff member will double the size of solo-operator; rapidly increase the capacity of a small design team; and has the ability to completely shift the dynamic of a larger team.

There are many options to weigh up, and 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.

This topic is top of mind because last week we met with the founders of a two-person studio – creative and strategy/client service – whose workload is unsustainable. They’ve been advertising for a mid-weight with no luck, so discussion turned to the possibility of hiring a junior.

How much does a junior cost?

Like many creative business owners, their initial reaction to accepting a junior designer was not great — mainly due to their time constraints — but in reality, it didn’t take long for their skepticism to be swayed by some quick number crunching. Truth is, juniors do cost less and outlaying less money is sometimes seen as the least risky solution. But is it the best solution?

Here’s some rough figures comparing the hire of a junior designer (graduate) to a designer five years out of uni.
The figures are general but you’ll get the idea…

Junior designer
 5 yrs experience
Average salary* 47-65K
Let’s say $52K + super
Let’s say $75K + super
Productivity 30-50%
Assume 40% first 3 months
Benchmark is 70%
Average billable hrs pa 736 1280
Salary cost per hour $77 @ 40% productivity
$62 @ 50% productivity
$52 @ 60% productivity
$34 @ 90% productivity

*quoted from What’s a fair wage, exploring the roles and rewards in a creative business.

A word about productivity

No-one can be 100% productive every day of every week. It’s unsustainable.

70% productivity is a realistic, conservative figure for a midweight designer, fact is many reach 80%. The other 20-30% consists of the bum-scratching/wandering/chatting first half an hour of each day, going for coffee(s), off-topic discussions with colleagues and other non-billable activities.

Juniors tend to be the most productive because they do the most transactional work. Work that has been scoped and prepared ‘ready-to-go’. Work devoid of problem solving: like building 20 web banners based on the same design; or 30 differently sized press ads with common content; or 10 bar graphs using different data. If there’s enough work, junior designers can fairly easily attain 90% productivity.

On the other hand, senior designers can struggle to reach 70%. Productivity reduces as designers jump between projects; do more admin/management and/or art direct others. (Yup, many of these tasks should be billable but often are not).

It’s not just the money

You know, and I know, hiring and rewarding people is not just about the money.

Shameless plug here for What’s a fair wage, an ebook available from our store that:

  • lists benchmark wages for a range of positions in the creative industry,
  • outlines the competencies needed to get from the lowest wage in that range to the highest,
  • discusses alternative ways to reward employees and their success rate
  • and shares other ways (apart from money) used to keep good employees.

But I digress.

What the figures above demonstrate is the cost of hiring a graduate will be higher than employing a more experienced designer at the beginning. And that’s just the salary – I’ve not included your time; mentoring, encouraging, helping and explaining. Graduates are not meant to work solo – the more time you spend with them, the quicker they become a (more) productive team member.

But, and it’s a big but … the ‘expense’ of employment does decrease quickly and investing in a junior is rewarding.

The mix that begins as a ratio of

  • 10% shadowing (letting the junior observe as others meet/present or perform tasks);
  • 40% mentoring, (advising, explaining and checking) and
  • 50% being productive

quickly evolves to 20% mentoring and 80% productivity (even if they are a little slower than others with more experience.)


If you are clazy clazy busy and you need help NOW, employing a graduate is possibly not the best option for you, or them.

That said, in a full employment market, employing a junior is a very viable option. Absolutely, it takes investment but returns are quick. And there are added benefits: younger designers help make a studio sustainable because they introduce fresh ideas and can look at existing ideas (and clients) from a different perspective.

Apart from all of that, we all have to start somewhere and giving a graduate a break is a great place to start. I’m a firm believer at giving back to the industry.

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol or Greg.


Carol Mackay

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About Carol

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
Her current work can be viewed at and

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