First published in Visual Arts Trends

The new survivor game: keeping and finding work in an unsteady job market

Meagan Van Beest offers a volume of tips on how to survive and thrive in the current economic climate.

Meagan van Beest
Meagan van Beest is managing editor of Visual Arts Trends. She oversees the day-to-day editorial work on and its email supplements. Prior to joining Visual Arts Trends full-time in the fall of 2001, she was among its freelance correspondents, while working as the art director for two newspapers (a daily and a weekly) in northern Wisconsin, USA. Meagan graduated in 1997 with a BA in English Literature from Northland College, a private environmental–liberal arts school. A completely self-taught graphic designer, Meaganís interest in visual arts began in her first real-world job as an administrative assistant at a small non-profit organization. From there, she had a successful stint with another non-profit as a public relations manager before moving into the newspaper industry.

WITH the events of September 11, 2001 still hanging heavy in our minds and the US economy (along with those of many other countries) slowing down radically, many of you may be wondering whether the next bad thing you see will be a pink slip or contract cancellation. It’s no wonder these worries have taken over our industry, as job cuts have surged during the past few months. No matter how hard politicians preach optimism, the majority of economic experts agree that the hard times are here. As the negativity continues to invade the job market, it’s a good idea to take stock of your assets. What a creative has to offer and how he or she plays the game may mean the difference between a trip to the water cooler and a visit to the unemployment office.

Snip, snip
Job cuts—both before and after September 11—have stung the industry in many places, but nowhere more deeply than the internet. Of the 15,448 workers laid off in January 2001, 16 per cent have come from Internet consulting agencies, and 12 per cent from media and entertainment outlets.1 These cuts are still coming fast and furious: an inside source tells us that, the leading fashion portal, is laying off web creatives left and right—and this is by far not the only dot-com crisis to which we’ve been made privy. Many companies have decided to reduce jobs and projects as a cost-cutting measure. While these companies have put tremendous start-up resources into building their businesses, and creatives could be looking at a rebound in job availability in the coming years, today, this is not very comforting.
   Overall employment fell more sharply in October, with a non-farm payroll employment drop of 415,000, by far the largest loss in three consecutive monthly declines. The unemployment rate jumped to 5·4 per cent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the US Department of Labor. Although job cuts were spread fairly evenly across most industries, manufacturing and services (including, obviously, creative services) saw the largest declines.2 As the stock market continued its daily flip-flop, the job market became even more unstable than it had been prior to September—a time when many experts went on record with predictions of an economic downturn or even recession.

Survive and thrive
So, what does it take to stay afloat in such a fluctuating job market? The industry may have seen plenty of job cuts, but you don’t have to be the next person to clean out a desk. Whether a corporate drone, freelancer, or principal of your own company, here’s some advice for those who want to keep on working or find new projects to bolster waning business.

First and foremost: Make a plan
   Jerald Reichstein offers pointers on what creatives should consider in his article for, titled ‘Creative Services: Succeeding in the Post-Dot-Com World.’3 He covers essential business choices creatives should make now to stay competitive, including targeting larger companies that may be just starting up, and bringing marketing and business expertise to the table along with regular services.
   What Mr Reichstein is kind enough to not mention is the fact that an overwhelming majority of freelancers and small firms in our industry operate without a business plan. And if you don’t have a plan, you most certainly don’t have a contingency plan for hard times. If you are among this group, a word of caution: in difficult times, businesses and individuals tend to focus on short-term solutions, a tactic which should be avoided at all costs. Plan all your current activities with an eye to the future, making sure that whatever you decide to do now will not have detrimental effects after the downturn reverses.
    As to what constitutes a business plan, I am going to quote Julia Ptasznik, Visual Arts Trends’ editor-in-chief, who keeps repeating that it is not nearly as complicated as it may sound. As she told How magazine, ‘It all comes down to setting short- and long-term goals, making a list of strategies to help achieve those goals, and scheduling specific activities that support your strategies. After developing your business plan, constantly reassess it to make sure it’s taking you where you want to go.’4

Market yourself like mad
   This suggestion seems deceptively obvious. Clearly, everyone is going to put their efforts into attracting new business to make up for lost ground. However, that is precisely what makes marketing all the more important: with everyone doing it at the same time, you have to put more effort into getting noticed. When drawing up your plan, consider not only all the current ways you attract business, but also search out and use new methods. Even if your business hasn’t declined—which may well be the case, if you have a fairly stable international client base, are not located in the United States, and do not specialize in one industry or one type of service—don’t stop marketing. It’s a well-known mistake to decrease self-promotional activities when times are good, and now, doing so could be especially detrimental, given the fluctuating nature of global economies.
   When promoting yourself, remember to consider your costs. For example, while a glossy brochure or information packet may be desirable, a professional business card that directs potential clients to an online portfolio may be just as effective and significantly less costly in the short term. In addition, remember to check out avenues that you haven’t been able to use because the cost has been prohibitive in the past. Now, many media outlets are offering discounts to attract both new customers and more business. Done creatively, a one-shot marketing campaign could be milked for several months, a bonus for the price-conscious.
   Those employed full-time should test the waters (discreetly, so as not to affect current employment). Even if your job appears to be secure for the moment, things seem to be changing overnight. It is never a bad idea to keep yourself open to alternatives, irrespective of economic climate. Make sure your résumés are always up-to-date, and that your portfolio is making its rounds. You never know when an opportunity may come knocking. At the very least, you might cash in on some freelance work and earn a bit of extra cash.

Optimize your spending
   It goes without saying that this should be a policy of any business, no matter what the economic climate. Those that have been procrastinating on making their businesses less capital-intensive should take a good look at where their money is going right now.
   Are you paying market rates to your employees? Do all of your staff have to come into the office to do their jobs, or can some of them work virtually, thus enabling you to occupy a smaller office space and reduce overhead? Are all your vendors as cost-effective as they could be? These are only some of the questions you should be asking yourself now. For instance, if you are located in a large metropolitan area and work with print houses, chances are you have been working with those located nearest to you for turnaround reasons. However, consider this: now, clients would welcome a two-day delay in the delivery of their brochures in exchange for a lower production cost. Hence, it may be time to look outside your immediate geographic area for printing vendors; it may even pay to go as far as another country (e.g., if you compare average New York printing costs to those of Tampa, Florida, or Montréal, Québec, you will see a 20–40 per cent difference). Bear in mind that this is just one example. This type of an examination should be applied to every area of your business, and as a result, you should be able to identify several areas in which you are able to save a buck or two.
   For those in especially dire situations, now is also a good time to consider a small business loan. Just as many others, financial institutions are offering various incentives to attract new customers, from less stringent loan criteria to lower interest rates. As such, obtaining a loan now is easier than usual and stands to be less cost-prohibitive in the long term.

Evaluate pricing and offering incentives
   Tactics such as lowering prices or offering volume discounts should be carefully researched. These actions usually bring in a lot of initial business, but often backfire because clients get used to the lowered prices and ask for discounts throughout the rest of the working relationship. To avoid this, make sure that your project quotations clearly state that volume discounts only apply on projects of a certain magnitude, making sure that your clients see them for the standard business practice that they are, and not as a price-cutting tactic.
   Another, similar approach would be to bid on a given project with your usual rate and take the opportunity to pitch the client with a discount on, for the sake of argument, two or three upcoming projects. Such arrangements are most attractive to clients, as they guarantee lower rates in the immediate future. They also guarantee that you, as opposed to your competitor, are going to get these three projects, maintaining a steady flow of work and ensuring income for a couple of months. Just don’t forget to get it in writing before giving the discount.
   Retainer agreements, while generally yielding a lower annual income when compared to the same amount of work performed on a per-project basis, are another way of maintaining a steady cash flow. In recessionary times, negotiating retainer agreements is among the best ways of staying afloat: You may make a little less in the end, but a cheque will clear in your bank account every month.
   Slashing prices is not recommended, no matter how badly you might need the work. If your business is already running as lean as it should be, your pricing is likely to be highly competitive, and offering discounts will have a significant impact on your bottom line. Instead, think about adding extra services to a project at no charge (particularly less costly items). Do away with a couple of AAs, as opposed to lowering the project’s true cost. This way, clients see the benefits and your good will, without actually thinking they received a discount.

Offer your employer or client an alternative to layoffs or project cancellation
   If your job seems to be headed towards the scissors or your freelance project appears to be nearing termination, head off the worst-case scenario by offering other options. Recognizing that losing a valued employee may be detrimental in the long term, several companies we know have opted for a temporary salary cut for senior employees and partners. This is a sound tactic for business owners, as senior management are the people who can temporarily give up a small portion of their incomes without suffering drastic effects. Combined, several of these small portions may well add up to a couple of full-time salaries for lower-level employees, who will appreciate the company’s desire to keep them on, resulting in increased loyalty. On the other hand, if you are carrying dead weight, don’t let sentiment get in a way of getting rid of it, as now is the worst time to not address problems such as inadequate performance, etc.
   Full-time employees should be as proactive as possible during times like these. Those working for agencies should attempt to help in the company’s marketing efforts (it is a well-known fact that those who bring in business are the last to lose their jobs). Another option is assessing your job to make it as cost-effective as possible by suggesting, for example, how to reduce spending and/or man-hours associated with your assigned duties (if you save money for the company, it may well mean such savings going towards your paycheck). Finally, if you can’t come up with any ideas of your own, you may want to consider asking your supervisor what you can do to help the company.
   On the project side, if you feel that the client might terminate the assignment for financial reasons, try to prevent it by offering payment options other than the standard ‘net 30 days.’ For instance, a no- or low-interest payment plan may enable the client company to complete the project, while allowing you to collect the fee—and collecting over a span of a few months is better than losing the project completely.

Stay on top of technology developments
   Outdated technical skills are not a good thing at any time, as those who remain on the cutting edge are usually in higher demand than those who don’t. Now, this is more pronounced than ever, as companies continue to look for new ways of achieving the same old goals. Today, several opportunities are presented by technology alone. To name only a couple, there is an increasing demand for interactive and streaming media professionals, as well as new developments in the mobile technologies market. In fact, the latter is considered “the next big thing” by industry experts: with 60 per cent of wireless customers receptive to targeted advertising and the recent introduction of new, free microbrowsers, businesses are bound to be swarming to create effective ads and content for hand-held devices.5 Creatives who learn the ins and outs of this new electronic medium and keep in touch with potential clients stand to be much better off when advertising and content dollars start to reappear.
   There are also developments on the printing front. Since many companies are becoming wary of sending packages through the postal service, they will be turning toward the internet to disseminate their information. So, projects are not completely disappearing; they’re just changing form, with PDF, ebooks, and email newsletters leading the way. In fact, the previously declining online business may well experience an upsurge in the short term, due to its comparative cost-effectiveness. Since we cannot possibly tell you about all the opportunities afforded by new and not-so-new technologies, the bottom line here is: do your research to stay on top of them.

Diversify portfolios and services
   While not a new idea, offering more than just one type of service is gaining in popularity as creatives realize that specializing has detrimental effects during not only economic downturns, but also when something of note happens within their primary client industry or location.6 Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to diversify your offerings, so many creatives are diving in, computer first.
   For example, photographers are now offering graphic and web design, along with more expanded image manipulation, colour correction, and pre-press services.7 Illustrators are also dipping into the graphic design pot, and, in much the same way, designers are adding photography and illustration to their array of offerings. Firms that used to specialize solely in web and interactive work are now suffering, and many are turning back to print (those who do are in good company, as a recent TrendWatch survey found that print has pulled ahead of web site design by a margin of 65 to 50 per cent).8
   The bottom line: more services means clients can satisfy their urge for “one-stop shopping”, and creatives can cash in. However, creatives should be cautious of offering services they are not prepared or qualified for, since clients could come away dissatisfied, and never return for the artist’s better work.

Seek alternative sources of revenue
   While we’re on the subject of diversification, no one should lean too heavily on one source of income. Full-timers should freelance as much as possible to have a back-up source of cash, should they loose their day jobs. Freelancers should look to increase their client base, and have projects waiting in the wings for the times when the best customers pull their work.
   This applies as much to studios as it does to individuals: principals and business development managers should also look to find more potential customers, focusing on the industries that have remained relatively stable during the present crisis. An old school phrase, “grading on the curve”, comes to mind: although it is likely that most industries will experience the effects of the current economic slowdown, everything is relative; industries that have been top performers are likely to remain on top, generally speaking. Those who have not made it a priority should consider keeping up with stock market reports, statistics issued by local governments, and trade publications for industries that have proven to be steady sources of income for creatives. Once again, research is of paramount importance: Although this information is readily available, an effort has to be made to locate it and act on it.

Pay attention to where client contacts end up
   With job cuts coming in every sector of the economy, creatives may be losing friends and allies in their clients’ ranks—from marketing managers to art buyers, etc. When these people lose (or change) their jobs, creatives should try to remain in contact. Once established in a new company, long-time associates almost always go back to a reliable vendor, and may well be able to offer up a new client for the taking. In addition, client company representatives switching jobs may also leave word with their successors about the effective collaboration they have had with a particular creative contractor. Either way, creatives, as always, should strive to maintain good communication and rapport with their clients, so as to avoid any unexpected decline in the amount of work.

Look for the silver lining
   Remember the good old saying, ‘War is good for the economy?’ Not a pleasant thought; however, it is indisputable that the recent terrorist attacks in the US have brought an increase in certain types of projects particularly suited to the creative industries. Advertising has been readdressed by many a big corporation. Some US-based companies have completely redesigned their web sites, collateral, and even logos to reflect national pride. News outlets have not only increased editorial coverage, but also started posting photo galleries online due to increased public demand for up-to-date information on the war. Various charities, non-profits, and governmental organization have undertaken new initiatives requiring everything from publicity to design work—this segment is undergoing an explosive need for creative services, and, non-profit rates notwithstanding, there is work that needs doing. In short, an upsurge in projects related to current events shouldn’t be ignored.
   Before taking on such projects, however, creatives should consider the underlying motives of their client, and think about any negative effects the piece might have on their career. For centuries, wars have increased a demand for printed materials. From propaganda to protest pieces, many new print projects have been and will continue to be born from the events of September 11. Yet, just as any big event, there are already opportunists trying to take advantage of the situation. Creatives should consider all aspects of such projects and not just be swayed by an opportunity to make up for the loss of business.

Search and (career) rescue
If you do wind up with that dreaded little pink slip or your main contract gets killed, remember that, although jobs seem to be vanishing at a hyper-kinetic rate, companies are still creating new positions and offering projects. It’s just not happening very fast. February’s expert assessment of a creative job market where demand outstripped supply9 has gone with the wind. Today, a skilled visual artist needs to search hard to find a replacement position or project. However, no one should lose hope, since companies still have projects and jobs, with these going to the most inventive and innovative of the lot.

Flip through the usual channels
   Creatives who subscribe to industry magazines should check out the classifieds. They should also go to industry-specific job web sites, such as,, or, to name but a couple. These and similar sites offer not only project and job listings, but also résumé and portfolio posting services, all of which help in the job search process.
   In addition, more targeted job hunting has always delivered better results than responding to listed positions, and is likely to do the same despite the current economy. Making a list of the companies you would like to work for (or are best suited to) remains an excellent place to start, and sending out personalized, well-researched cover letters accompanied by samples of work is a good way of getting your foot in the door. At the very least, if these companies are not hiring at the moment, this tactic will get your information placed in their files for future reference—provided, of course, it is packaged well enough to get attention.

Start your search among companies and industries that are doing well
   Look for companies in industries or countries where some semblance of stability prevails. As mentioned before, one example is the current hunger for news, so newspapers and services are highly likely hiring for both staff and freelance positions, as well as working with vendors on a contract basis. Such jobs, and even projects, are usually posted right on each company’s web site.

Join and use the resources of industry organizations
   Many of the organizations that specialize in one creative discipline offer not only more targeted job listings, but also the chance to network and commiserate with like-minded creatives. These exist in every discipline and in practically every industrialized country, and many of the accessible resources do not require being a member. For example, the web site of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) offers a variety of free resources, from the ability to search for job seekers by state, city, and areas of practice, to listings of jobs currently available, as well as general career advice. There are dozens of others that offer free and paid services along the same lines, to both members and non-members.

Participate in online discussion forums
   A lot of professionals visit these boards to vent frustrations or trade industry information. Sometimes though, they also post position openings at their companies, or pass along job postings from other friends in the industry. This can be an excellent resource for unusual jobs and projects. Trust me on this one: it’s how I ended up here. I’ve never even met my boss in person.

Monitor business trends to identify opportunities
   It is hard to define this suggestion without giving practical examples, so here is one: In the beginning of this year, we ran an article on rebrands.10 A more recent look into this area reveals that thousands of companies seem to be undergoing an identity crisis, with nearly 4,000 corporations around the world having changed names, and thus identities, in 2000. With new collateral, catalogues, web sites, and other materials to produce, the name game is sure to be a boom for creatives. In particular, American corporations have reached a new high of 2,976 changes, up 9 per cent from 1999. Financial institutions, including commercial banks, thrifts, investment banks, brokerages and mutual funds, are an excellent group to monitor, as they accounted for the highest percentage (40) of identity changes.11
Another example is being on the lookout for private companies which intend to go public (i.e. an IPO), or have just done so. With new shareholders to keep updated, there is plenty of need for all types of materials, economic downturns notwithstanding.
   What is also very important is knowing which industries have historically provided the most business to your particular specialization, as they are likely to continue to do the same now. For example, the advertising and fashion industries have always been the top sources of income for photographers, and our October 2001 survey confirms that they have remained on top through the worst of the last few months. This information is easily found in your own files, and just as easily confirmed by minimal research.

Remain optimistic
While projects and jobs continue to disappear (with only temporary projects filling their void), creatives still have hope. Although there are going to be fewer clients in the future, Scott Kurnit, chairman and CEO of, believes the companies who emerge and continue on with ‘brilliant ideas will face far less competition than a year ago.’12 The upstart companies that had little talent, a lot of equipment, and a full roster of clients have already begun to realize that it takes more than claiming the title of ‘professional’ to maintain oneself in such an uncertain marketplace. Julia Ptasznik predicted the same in the beginning of this year, calling it the ‘death of amateurs’ and attributing it to a growing awareness among clients that price and turnaround are not the deciding factors when it comes to a company’s public image.
   In the end, the job market is still in flux, but everything is cyclical. It is only a matter of time before it settles down, although it may take years. Although this uncertainty is certainly not comforting, visual artists who plan for lulls in business such as this can and will survive. Until the economy returns to smoother times, creatives should keep their eyes on industry trends, stay on top of their crafts, and not forget to hold on with two hands. •

1. Carr: ‘Pink-slip nation’, The Industry Standard, February 2, 2001.
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), US Department of Labor: The Employment Situation: October 2001.
3. Reichstein: ‘Creative services: succeeding in the post-dot-com World’,
4. Knapp: ‘Weathering tough times,’ How Business Annual, December 2001.
5. Lewis: ‘Advertising and promotion advertising technology: high wireless’, SAM Magazine, January 2001.
6. For an example of how an unforeseen event on the client side can affect an entire region, see ‘USA: Bad news for Ohio and California design communities (and good news for Rhode Island)’, Visual Arts Trends, no. eS15.
7. Visual Arts Trends photography survey, October 2001. To be published in phot01, a state-of-the-industry report on photography, release date November 2001. More information and table of contents available online.
8. ‘TrendWatch notes shift in design opportunity,’ GAIN Weekly Headlines, January 11, 2001.
9. Kulman, Firor and Boser: ‘Job jitters? Stay calm. Hiring still outstrips firing,’ US News & World Report, February 26, 2001.
10. Ptasznik: ‘Baby needs a new pair of shoes’,, March 2001.
11. ‘Name and identity changes rise, dot com names fall,’ Graphic Design: USA, February 2001.
12. Feld: ‘Sunny times (far) ahead for dot-coms, say industry “wise men”’,, December 22, 2000.