Digital design is now a real job

Andrew Hogan
Insights & Analysis at Figma

We know what you’re thinking. You’ve been a digital designer for years. You’ve designed apps, websites, maybe even browser-based applications—of course it’s a real job!

We also know it’s a real job. (If it weren’t, Figma wouldn’t be here right now.) But it wasn’t until this year that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics decided it was, too. Up until this point, “web and digital interface designer” either hadn’t been tracked or had been grouped with web developers.

This may seem like a small change in a big government agency report, but it reflects a broader, more important shift. Despite the fact that digital design has dramatically reshaped the way we experience our day-to-day world over the last several decades, the designers who manufacture those experiences haven't gotten the same acknowledgment as other designer-related professions tracked by BLS, like architecture, graphic design, interior design, or industrial design.

Why the change?

Government employment surveys don’t just change on a whim. They reflect fundamental statistical shifts in the workforce. So the addition of web and digital interface designers as a category is a signal that BLS thinks the demand for this type of job has increased significantly, and that it will likely continue to do so. The agency has also revised projections for its old web developers and digital designers category; it now projects the category will grow almost 40% between 2020 and 2030, validating the demand that so many people working across the tech and design industries have been feeling for years.

BLS projects for web development and digital design jobs in 2030 keep increasing. The initial pre-pandemic projection was 188,000 before being revised up to 207,000 in September of 2020 and revised again to 225,000 in February of 2022.
Digital design jobs aren't slowing down

“The need for designers is off the charts,” says Judy Wert of Wert&Co, a design industry recruiting firm that has worked with companies like Airbnb, Frog, Sonos, and Marriott. “More and more leaders care about design and feel that there’s something about design that’s going to be important to the success of their business. There’s a running faucet of opportunities at every level.” Wert says inquiry volume from companies is up 3x over the last few years. “In my 25 years, I’ve never seen it like this before.”

The demand for design is global, too. Over the last two years, Linkedin released data that design and UX research jobs were some of the fastest growing categories in the UK, France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and India. We recently surveyed 280 enterprise companies across four countries and found most of the businesses increased the size of their design teams between 2019 and 2022 by 31% on average.

What’s driving the trend?

In 2020 Andreessen Horowitz partner (and Figma investor) Peter Levine predicted that, in the next decade, “companies would live or die by their product design and design literacy.” And based on the BLS projections, it seems like Levine’s prediction is coming true.

There are a lot of reasons for that. First, there’s the ongoing rise in the number of interactions we have with apps and sites, not just in our personal lives but at work, too. And it’s not just the volume of interactions, it’s also their importance. These interactions dictate how we manage our money, organize and complete work, get therapy, watch shows and movies, find new books, and even do end-of-life planning. But while sheer proliferation drives demand for design, the impact design has on how companies operate is more dramatic.

All those digital interactions take place with companies and organizations that increasingly sell their services as subscriptions or rely on user engagement. This makes user retention more important than in the past. Combine that with how individuals and companies have come to expect (or at least tolerate) consistent updates, and you have a vital set of incentives for businesses to make design improvements that react to user feedback quickly.

These changes have also put design at the center of how businesses function as a whole and have created less resistance to the work of design than in the past. Approaches like design thinking, the Stanford’s approach to democratizing design methods, and Net Promoter Score, a way of measuring customer loyalty, have been adopted by businesses across the globe. Terms and practices like personas, prototypes, and user research—once the domain of a highly specialized design niche—are now widely accepted as best practices.

In fact, research conducted by McKinsey found that companies with high-performing design practices have as much as doubled their revenue growth compared to their competitors. McKinsey also found evidence that non-designers were now more likely to have “intrinsic design literacy,” showing many types of employees are more conscious of design. All this awareness means requests for user research or time to explore directions are more likely to be understood and encouraged, rather than disregarded.

Lastly—and this has become a particularly important factor during the pandemic—design’s emphasis on visual collaboration, artifacts, and consistent feedback improves hybrid and remote work. Teams that are apart or working asynchronously often have more trouble collaborating. Co-creating prototypes and diagrams—something that’s endemic to the design practice—greatly improves the experience of working remotely.

5 factors drive even more focus on design in the 2020s: 1. Number of digital interactions. 2. Importance of those interactions. 3. Subscription businesses and cloud-based services allow for more updates. 4. More agreement that design is important. 5. Hybrid work rewards digital collaboration.
A handful of factors are driving change 

What’s next?

Mundane government surveys are also exciting (we swear!) because they give us a glimpse of what might come next.

First, there’s huge potential to increase access and awareness of digital product design jobs. For those close to tech, design might seem like an obvious and viable profession, but for many awareness is still an issue. British newspaper the Guardian recently reported on the jobs that students in the UK are interested in and the difficulties their parents face in helping them prepare. They interviewed an 18-year-old named Leon Martin who asked his parents for advice on how to pursue his dream of becoming a UX designer; they were “flummoxed” by the question, saying they “didn’t have the first idea” of what their son was asking about.

Adding web and digital interface design as a tracked occupation means the job will be more clearly visible to more people, along with salary expectations and a description of day-to-day tasks like “develop and test layouts” or “facilitate the human-computer interaction and maximize the usability of digital devices, websites, and software.”

As exposure to designers and design increases, the most interesting shift may be the way in which design methodology starts insinuating itself into every facet of work. After all, many jobs benefit from being able to visualize a problem or architect a solution, give and get feedback, and convince people of a new idea developed through observation and imagination. Certainly none of this replaces trained designers, but design fluency could even become expected like comfort with spreadsheets or word processors are today. Think about great sales people who test and try new things, about the best product person you know who’s always listening to users, or about that person who always gives great, actionable feedback—these are skills deeply entrenched in the design process, and they make everyone’s work better.

From a mundane change in government statistics to a shift in the core skills of work, we think this “new” job is actually pretty exciting.