Designers on Demand at All Types of Agencies

LOS ANGELES Pedigree’s sponsored Nascar vehicle is replete with Combos, Snickers and M&M logos for Pedigree parent Mars. TBWA\Chiat\Day designed the graphics on the car as well as on the driver’s racing coveralls, tailoring them to make the brand logos read better on TV. But when it came to redesigning Pedigree’s own packaging, TBWA\Worldwide global director of media arts Lee Clow wanted to “un-Nascar,” or simplify things, said Erik Miller, design director at TBWA\C\D. Designers at Chiat started stripping away most of Pedigree’s busy, distracting messages, leaving “a simple picture of a dog that pops against the yellow and ties heavily into print,” he explained.

Thinking through design has become a priority at the Playa del Rey, Calif.-based shop. Case in point: When Miller started in 2002, he was the lone, dedicated designer; today he has two cohorts, plus five more collaborators at Tequila.

TBWA\C\D’s Pedigree work — both for Nascar and the pet brand’s packaging — was not atypical. The desire to imbue all touch points of integrated campaigns with a common aesthetic is leading to a design boom at many top, traditional shops. The growing emphasis on design at the front lines of communicating the “big idea” is the reason agencies and design recruiters from Aquent, The Creative Group, 24 Seven and Gale Executive Recruiting said the designer’s star is on the rise, and that salaries are stretching to meet it.

“Design is migrating up to the strategic level,” said John Winsor, head of design at MDC Partners’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky, in Boulder, Colo., where the network has three dedicated designers, two strategists and a business analyst — double the size of the design department two years ago. “It goes along with getting the product and the brand narrative right,” Winsor said.

“Advertising is following the lead of design in a weird way,” said John Butler, partner and ecd at Butler Shine Stern & Partners, Sausalito, Calif. The agency is creating in-store, interactive work and packaging for Epson and the online Baby Center destination of Johnson & Johnson’s

“We believe that design is branding. It starts there before advertising and controls the look and feel of it,” said Butler. He added that the definition of “designer” has evolved with the growth of interactive design and the changing role of art directors, some of whom are more involved in overall design than ever before. By his count, the agency has about 17 people doing design today, compared to only four in 2003.

And interactive designers have gone from being valued mostly for their technical skills to being sought out for their traditional design chops, noted Keith Anderson, director of design at Omnicom’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. “I’ve seen a big change in the last year and a half in the larger influence of design in culture,” he said.

Anderson’s team of 10 dedicated designers worked with the creative department to make a graphic language representing the HP Technology Solutions Group globally.

At TBWA\C\D, designers not only touch every brand, they’ve crossed the transom to their client’s work environment, from designing the presumptive office of the fictitious Uncle Ben (of Uncle Ben’s rice) to designing the wallpaper for the San Francisco office of Method, the design-oriented cleaning products maker.

Francesca Schuler, head of marketing at Method, said that as the company matures it’s letting design speak for the brand and looking less to its agency for advertising.

“Our products are the No. 1 marketing vehicle,” she said, “the agency a collaborator at the table — an extension of us.”

The Creative Group recruiting firm’s 2008 Salary Guide surveyed general market and design agencies as well as corporations with internal design departments on their planned hires in design during the next 12 months. Topping the list, in order of demand: graphic designers (wanted by 83 percent of agencies) with starting salaries ranging from $36,000-61,000; Web site designers (60 percent), $47,000-69,000; and copywriters (56 percent), $37,000-97,000.

The salaries of freelance designers, owner/partners/principals, creative/design directors, art directors, designers, senior designers, Web designers, Web programmers/developers and Web producers/senior producers/executive producers rose a robust 13 percent to 41 percent in 2007, according to the annual survey by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Aquent. Entry-level designers enjoyed steady, single-digit rises since 2004.

“Salaries are increasing beyond simple supply and demand,” said Bridget Soden, incoming president of the Orange County, Calif., chapter of AIGA.

“We’re seeing higher demand for well-trained, experienced designers who are up on social networking and immersed in the culture of design — not the lab rat with tunnel vision,” said Soden. That’s a reference to the days, she added, when agencies were “filling bodies in front of computers, not hiring trained, creative designers and visualists.”

Butler agreed, remembering days when “people were in such demand anybody was getting jobs. And when the jobs went away, the mediocre people did, too. Today, you don’t have VCs offering you millions to be the No. 1 resource for paper clips on the Web — and you had to assign bodies.”

Susie Hall, a recruiter at Aquent, Los Angeles, added, “Back then, put ‘HTML’ on your resume and you got $60,000. That was all you needed. [Agencies] didn’t know what makes a great Web designer. Today they absolutely know and the laundry list [of skills] is getting longer and longer.”

The recruiters said agencies were becoming popular destinations among prospects because candidates perceive diverse, integrated work to be good for their portfolios. “They can broaden their skills vertically,” said Hall.