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A Designer’s Survival Guide to Economic Uncertainty – Built In

April 25, 2024

With a recession looming, here’s how designers can adapt and thrive.
Last month, marketing designer Frances Taylor got news no one wants to hear: She had been laid off.
It wasn’t the first time. She got caught in another wave of layoffs at a different company during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, when she got word from her manager that Truepill was getting ready to cut staff, she was ready for it.
“The news that I was laid off definitely stung, but I was able to process and pivot pretty quickly only because I had experienced it before,” she told Built In.
Indeed, companies are laying off people at the highest rates since 2020. At least a dozen major tech firms have made significant cuts to their staff and frozen hiring efforts over the last several weeks. We appear to be hurtling toward a recession, the likes of which we have not seen since the dot-com crash of the early 2000s.
While nerve-wracking, times like these can also be quite interesting, said Jan Takács, an economist by training who now works as the head of product design at insurtech bolttech. Now that companies aren’t focused on hyper-growth anymore, they can turn inward and focus on innovation.
“This is a fantastic time to be a lot more proactive in finding ways where you can add value as a designer,” he told Built In.
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The value of a designer is not one that is always understood or recognized, especially in times of economic uncertainty. Often, designers are relegated to the nice-to-have column of business strategy, their work considered to be nothing more than just “making things look pretty,” Kevin Kelley, a longtime strategic designer and co-founder of design firm Shook Kelley, told Built In.
“Some would even go so far as to call us frivolous,” he said. This misconception can be dangerous for designers, especially in times like these when companies are cutting back and being more careful with their spending. “We’re generally the first to get hurt. The first to get cut, the first to get dropped.”
Kelley should know. He’s survived nearly a half-dozen economic calamities throughout his career, including the savings and loan crisis of the late eighties and early nineties, the Great Recession of 2008 and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic — reportedly the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. 
All of these times were uniquely “terrifying” and “horrible,” but he is “hopeful” and even “upbeat” about this looming recession, Kelley said. “I think this storm we’re heading into — the attitude and the mindset is so much different than previous [recessions].”
Much of this can be attributed to the general fatigue we’re all feeling as a result of the pandemic. Companies and consumers alike are tired of having to restrict themselves, they want to get back to normal again. But, at the same time, consumer behaviors have fundamentally changed since March of 2020. And, whether we’re in a recession or not, companies will need to innovate in order to profit from those changed behaviors. This can be very good news for designers.
“Many companies are realizing the power of having not just a digital presence, but the impact of having a digital presence or experience that actually works,” Sarah Doody, a longtime UX researcher and the head of UX accelerator and recruiting firm Career Strategy Lab, told Built In. “Sometimes you need these moments to push you over the edge.”
More on Designing Amid Economic UncertaintyThe Job of the UX Designer Is About to Undergo Radical Change
As companies continue to tighten their belts, everyone is going to feel the effects, including design teams. And while this might sound challenging, or even scary, remember that this time can also be used as a way to get creative, and apply your skills as a designer in a whole new way. 
Here are some tips on ways to stay relevant in your current role, and even increase your value as a designer overall.
Sure, coming up with beautiful, innovative solutions is wonderful. But all the work that went into accomplishing that isn’t worth much if it cannot be backed up with cold, hard data. This means designers should put their finance caps on. Learn the ins and outs of how the company makes its money, and identify ways you can help.
“Business savviness for designers has been one of the most important topics during the last couple of years. But right now, the importance of it is elevated,” Takács said. “If designers actually want to help achieve profitability in startups or businesses, they also need to understand how the business spends money. What areas of the business are actually in the biggest need of help?”
“The word ‘metrics’ is not a word that most designers live in, although they should.”
It’s also important to understand how your role as a designer benefits your company’s bottom line — be it financially or otherwise. How did that UX impact user engagement? Did that graphic help the sales team land more customers? Gather as much quantifiable proof as you can to demonstrate your value as a designer.
“I look at every project as a case study. I want to know if what we did made a difference,” Kelley said. “The word ‘metrics’ is not a word that most designers live in, although they should.”
Of course, designers are known for their work in ensuring apps are beautiful, easy to use and even fun. But their unique skill set can be a useful asset throughout the company, especially when it comes to optimization and efficiency.
“Designers are uniquely positioned to help in a lot more things than maybe they even think,” Takács said. “Now is a fantastic time to pivot and be more part of the bigger business itself, rather than have a narrow point of view in terms of the work [they] do.”
Designers are keen researchers, which makes them good at both identifying problems and coming up with creative solutions. For instance, they can implement design systems to help make sure everything in the organization is standardized and unified on the front end, thus saving on development costs. Or, they can teach other teams across the company to apply visual design and visual communication in their messages, pitches and proposals, which could fuel more sales or attract more users.
“People who are not proactive and basically do the bare minimum at work, it’s usually not going to end up so well when [companies are] making decisions in terms of maybe who they need to let go.”
In other words: Make yourself as useful as possible to as many people as possible.
“People who are not proactive and basically do the bare minimum at work, it’s usually not going to end up so well when [companies are] making decisions in terms of maybe who they need to let go, et cetera,” Takács said. “This is a fantastic time to be a lot more proactive in finding ways where you can add value as a designer.”
Although many designers are comfortable with being in their own little world at work, times like these call for a much more integrated approach. Embed yourself into your organization’s larger structure, collaborate with other teams and, if there’s a certain area of the business where you think you can add a lot of value, “don’t be afraid to sell yourself to the right people,” Takács said.
“You should absolutely reach out to those people who work in that department or part of the business and explain what you do. Explain how you can help them. That’s critical. Because they may not even know that there’s a person in the organization that can help them,” he continued.
But don’t bulldoze them. Remember, you aren’t an expert in their field, so there’s no way you can know everything about how they operate and what their goals are. So be open to learning about other departments, too, and pay attention to what they are prioritizing in the midst of this economic downturn. You can learn from them just as much as they can learn from you.
“It’s really, really good to pay a lot more attention to what’s happening around you and understand what people need and what the biggest priorities [are],” Takács said. “What we consider the most important thing in the world for us, as designers, may not actually be the most important thing for a broader audience overall.”
Although it may not seem like it, Doody said this is actually an excellent time to negotiate higher pay or better benefits in your current design role. After all, it’s much easier (and cheaper) for companies to retain good employees than search for new ones to replace those that decide to go elsewhere. Therefore, you should be giving as much attention to your performance reviews as you would an interview for a new job.
“If you go in with a kind of sales hat on and prepare in advance and make a case for yourself … You might get a yes,” Doody said. “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. And I think a lot of people are leaving money on the table.”
Advocating for yourself also means looking out for your best interests career-wise. So, even if you’re happy in your current position, pay close attention to how your industry is fairing, and be ready to jump ship if you have to. In Taylor’s case at Truepill, she was fortunate enough to get a day’s heads up before she was officially laid off, thanks to her manager. So she was able to exchange contact information with co-workers and make sure her resume, website and LinkedIn were all prepped.
Matthew Cunningham, a design executive at Kyndryl, said your resume should always be up to date. “And it doesn’t hurt to have informational interviews with somebody,” he told Built In. “Leverage your own network, and talk to other people in different industries about what’s out there.”
In the event you do lose your job and need to look for work, here’s a bit of good news: Now is actually a great time to be in the design field.
“Companies are realizing the impact that a great user experience can have on the bottom line, on productivity. So they’re slowly starting to want to invest in this,” Doody said. 
Here are some tips to help you take advantage of all the opportunities that are out there right now.
The first step should always be to figure out what you want your next job to be, Doody said. 
“When you’re laid off, most people go into panic mode. They start to play the numbers game, and they apply to every job with whatever keyword is in the job title that relates to their skill,” Doody said.
But that can lead to a lot of wasted time and energy. Instead, she suggests taking a step back, making a pro-con list of your previous job, and then building a profile of what kind of job you want in the future. “This should not just be salary and job titles. It should be things like what industry you want to work in, what you need in a manager, what size of a team, work from home. All these things that go into your overall quality of life and experience,” she said.
This might mean you stay in the design field, or you might not. Economic downturns like these are the “perfect moment” for designers and other tech professionals to reflect on the direction they want to go in their careers, Takács said.
“This situation gives us a moment for reflection to understand where we want to grow, what we want to do,” he said. “Is this something that [you] still want to be doing five, 10 years down the road?”
Once you’ve figured out what you want in your next job, don’t be afraid to let the people in your professional network know you’ve been laid off and are searching for work
“A lot of people have shame if they’re laid off. But they have to remember that it is not a reflection of you and your skills and your worth as a human,” Doody said. 
But, when you post on LinkedIn or Twitter, don’t just say “I lost my job and am looking for work, let me know if you hear of an opportunity.” That’s just about the “worst thing you can post,” according to Doody. You have to be as specific as possible to ensure that you’re being sent the right leads and aren’t wasting your time applying for jobs you don’t want.
“It’s kind of like buying a house. If you tell everyone, ‘Hey guys, I’m moving to wherever and I want to buy a house,’ you’re probably not going to get that many recommendations because it was too broad,” Doody said. “But if you say, ‘It needs to have a backyard and this school district and a pool,’ you’re probably going to have a lot more options and waste less time on opportunities that aren’t a fit.”
Now that you have a bit more free time, it may be a good idea to hone your skills as a designer. Amid the doom and gloom and job loss, it’s important to remember that this is also an opportune moment to develop yourself professionally.
Yes, this can mean learning to code, or gaining proficiency in a new design software. But Takács said designers should pay special attention to sharpening their soft skills, such as writing, communication, critical thinking and leadership.
“This can move mountains for designers,” he said. “Even the best designers in the world, if they can’t really explain themselves well or communicate about what they do and how they do it, you’re going to have a really difficult time.”
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OK, so you’ve done some soul-searching, leaned on your network, honed your skills and have just discovered your dream job. But there’s a ton of competition out there, so you’re considering firing off a quick message to the hiring manager to voice your interest and get your foot in the door.
Cunningham said it’s fine to do this — just be careful how you go about it. Often, for legal reasons, companies can’t step outside of the boundaries of the application process to interview people or review candidates. So, if you want to shoot a LinkedIn message or email to someone about a specific job you’re interested in, be sure you’ve already applied.
“It’s great that people want to reach out,” he said. “But apply first, then reach out.”
Or, if you aren’t sure you want to apply for a particular position yet, ask for an informational interview or an informal chat instead.
The portfolio is the cornerstone of pretty much every design application. It’s a way to put all your hard work on full display and show employers what you can do. But there is an art to making your portfolio stand out against the rest.
“I don’t want to be inundated with five or six different case studies or proof points.”
Cunningham likens a good portfolio to a business card — it’s an entry point, providing just enough information to pique someone’s interest.
“I don’t need a ton of information,” he said. “I don’t want to be inundated with five or six different case studies or proof points. Just get one to show how [you] think, and how you use visual language, and tell a story. … That’s what I’m looking for these days. How quickly can I figure out who you are?”
By that same token, Takács said any work you do show off in your portfolio shouldn’t be formatted as a clean, step-by-step process, because that’s very rarely how an actual design project goes down. So, “be very authentic,” he suggested, “and talk more about problem-solving than the beauty of your design. … It can explain your value a little better than an ‘ideal’ design process.”
Finally, Doody said a design portfolio should tell a “consistent story” about who you are and what you can bring to the table. It shouldn’t just say what you did in a given role or project, but also why and how you did it, and what the outcomes were. And don’t try to cram everything into a seven-point font to fit it onto a page. Give yourself room to let your personality shine through.


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