Lester Beall, Poster for the Rural Electrification Administration, 1937
It actually doesn't seem that long ago that the only problem was getting all the work done and finding people places to sit. Back in the middle of that seemingly endless string of 60-hour-work-weeks, not one, not two, but (um) several clients called to ask if I wouldn't mind billing them in full, in advance, for work we hadn't yet begun, just so they could commit their budgets and get the money off their books. And then at least one of them just seemed to forget about the project altogether.
I mentioned to this at the time to a friend who's been a hedge fund manager from before the time when anyone had ever heard of hedge funds. "Yeah, that's the kind of shit that happens just before everything goes horribly wrong," he said, looking pained. "That's why I'm getting out."
Even if you don't know much about the economy, you've probably noticed that something went horribly wrong in 2008. And 2009 doesn't look much better. I've been working as a designer for over 28 years, and depending on how you count, this is either my fourth or fifth recession. Here's what happens, and a few things you can do about it.
What happens in a recession
1 Everything slows down.
On October 19, 1987, I was talking on the phone to a client about a potential project. Suddenly she went silent and then said, "Wow. The stock market just went down 700 points. Let me get back to you." It was a long time before she got back to me. In a recession, it takes forever to get things off the ground. Clients take their time gathering (lots of brutally competitive) proposals, interviewing (lots of hungrier-than-usual) prospective design firms, calling back and forth with minute (and trivial) revisions to the proposals, and finally selecting the (perhaps-not-so-lucky) design firm to get the assignment. Then they go back and renegotiate all the terms of the proposal. Then they delay the start of work several times, put the project on hold several more times once it's underway, and generally take lots of time to brood over every decision every step of the way. Once the project is delivered, they wait longer to launch, print, or build it. And then when you submit the invoice...well, you get the idea.
2 Everyone acts busy.
Yet, in the midst of all this molasses-like slow motion, everyone acts busier than ever. One reason is is because of layoffs, fewer people are around, and those left behind have to do the work of their fallen colleagues. But another reason is that everyone knows that it's idle people who get laid off, so looking busy is the best defense. Things that used to be settled with an email need a phone call, what used to be a phone call is now a meeting, a 30-minute meeting now takes four hours, and so forth. If you're afraid of losing your job, asking your design firm to visit with three dozen iterations of a brochure cover to spread out on a conference room table certainly seems like a way to signal to the powers-that-be that you've got way too much on your plate to be axed.
3 Nothing is certain.
Even if you've just presented three dozen iterations, your client can still get fired, and your project can still be put on hold. This makes planning anything completely maddening. I remember back in the 1991 recession going to a meeting in suburban Washington DC with one of my partners for a new business presentation to a senior marketing person at a client company with a name you'd recognize today. We presented ourselves all bright and cheerful to the receptionist and said, "We're here for our 10 o'clock meeting with Ms. Magillicutty [not her real name]." The receptionist looked blankly at us for a minute, then looked vaguely terrified, then asked to to sit down in the lobby, then moved us to a small conference room. After a long time, a young fellow came in and said, "Hello, I'm Joe Blow [not his real name]. Ms. Magillicutty can't be here, and she asked me to help you." We showed this polite but baffled guy our wares and left. What everyone knew, and no one wanted to say, was that Ms. Magillicutty had been fired sometime between making the appointment and our arrival. Needless to say, we didn't get the assignment, which had probably been eliminated along with Ms. Magillicutty. Joe, however, was quite skillful in the situation, and, if he's still there, is probably busier than ever.
What you can do
1 Be frugal.
Whether you're a freelancer at a kitchen table or a principal in a big consultancy, you've got overhead, not the work you do, but the other stuff you need (or think you need) to do the work: the printer paper, the rent, the $120,000-a-year business development consultant. This is a chance to get back to basics. Ask yourself: what do I really need to do my work? Then get rid of everything else.
2 Be careful.
In your desperation to compete for work, you'll be tempted to do things that you might not do when times are good: take on work for a shady client, start a project without a contract, ship a finished job to someone who's fallen behind on an agreed payment schedule. Do not do these things. Not only will they not help, they will almost certainly end in tears, probably your own.
3 Be creative.
The modern design studio can't help but subscribe to the cult of asap. But while working at full speed is great for profit margins, it's not so good for quality control. A design solution almost always benefits from a second, third or fourth look. Take advantage of the slower pace of a recession by remembering what it was like in design school to spend a full semester on a single project. What seemed then like torture may now feel like a luxury, and your work will benefit. And don't forget that recessions are a great time for the kind of research and development that manifests itself in self-initiated projects, work that takes a longer view than the next deadline. As Michael Cannell writes in today's New York Times , "However dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems." In the same article, Cranbrook's Reed Kroloff agrees, saying we could be "standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever."
4 Be sociable.
In boom times, no one has time to talk. "Let's have lunch" can be an empty pleasantry, and even if you make a date with a friend, it will be rescheduled three times before you both silently agree to forget about it altogether. Congratulations! You now have time for lunch. (Somewhere cheap, of course.) Use the gift of time to reconnect with others. But don't, if you can help it, think of this as merely something as deliberate and goal-oriented as networking. This takes the fun out of it for both you and your date. If you make time for people you like with no agenda except the simple joys of human companionship, trust me, something good will come of it.
5 Be patient.
My friend the ex-hedge fund guy (he did get out in time) told me recently, "In the middle of every boom, people say, 'This one is different, it's never going to come down.' But it always does." This was true with dot-coms, and it was true with real estate. "In recessions, they fear the same thing: this one is different. But it will eventually turn around after all the crap gets worked out." And it will, eventually. Just hold on tight.
You may have noticed something interesting: all of these tips for what to do in a recession will work just as well in good times. Or even better. So the final lesson is to use this downturn as a learning experience. If you've got this discipline to survive, or even thrive, in the next year or so, you'll be mastering skills that will serve you well forever. Good luck.