What follows is a selection of anecdotes on the micro-aggressions, insults, anxieties and danger experienced while working as precarious designers. The stories were gathered in order to be performed at the event "Dependent on Experience: Tales for an Accelerated Workforce", which was part of the Antiuniversity Now festival (London).
During an academic break I worked at an old, small design studio consisting only of two partners and myself. This was my first foray into the 'design industry'.
One day, one of the partners, who I had noticed seemed perennially on-edge, was agitated for some unknown reason and approached me:
'What brands do you like?' he barks.
'Erm...' I reply, caught completely off-guard.
'Come on. You're a brand designer now' he declares. 'What brands do you like?'
'I don't particularly like any brands' I reply.
He then leans towards me and grabs the shirt I was wearing by the chest, pulls on it aggressively, and demand an answer in a confrontational tone: 'What brand is this?'.
I quit the next week.
Making and eating lunch together as a studio, while it’s ostensibly ‘nice’, has caused me a lot of anxiety in my time. It doesn’t feel great being an unpaid intern, preparing lunch for everyone, including their potential boss. I have seen this end up with unpaid interns cooking ambitious things at home and bringing them in, not to mention potential interns coming to studios with homemade cakes or bread (I even once heard of someone buying a studio a toaster?!) in order to get an unpaid role.
What starts as a notion of equality and sharing often ends up, in my experience, with women and the lower waged/positioned bearing the responsibility of keeping a studio ‘nice’ – whether that’s doing the cleaning, cooking, childcare or looking after animals (I have done all of these while ostensibly working as a designer).
The job centre is supposed to support the unemployed with benefits they are entitled to until they find work in the industry they are qualified for. My experience as a graduate who was struggling to find design work was that instead of support as a jobseeker: I was encouraged to be realistic and duped into looking for bar work so they could get me off benefits as soon as possible. This gave them grounds to punish me with benefit sanctions for not applying to work at enough pubs, even though I had no experience in this field. One time I had to sign on before I got on a train to have (internship) interviews at some London studios. I had my luggage and portfolio with me, but because I turned off some setting on their archaic universal job match system and forgot to turn it back on, they were unable to view my job diary. I was sanctioned despite my protest and proof that I was going to London. I think the supervisor took a dislike to me over time probably because I took exception to being talked down to (she was the one who sanctioned me for not looking for bar staff jobs) and I always argued back. I was fortunate to still be living at home so I didn't rely on these benefits to live. The appeal system is a long process that can take weeks, and during that time your benefits are halved. This is also a delayed process. I imagine many people desperately relying on this money have to bite their tongue and take crap from someone who feels superior and is on a power trip being in this position of authority. Obviously, not everyone who works at the job centre is like this , but they have to meet their own targets imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions. These include a minimum target of nationwide sanctions which I imagine for some employees it’s morally stressful. Anyway, I went through the motions searching for design work and bar jobs, at times this itself felt like a full time job for my measly £75 per week allowance. When I did find a potential 6 month design placement at an art space, a bureaucratic mishap meant that I could not apply for it properly even though I was personally in touch with the employer and they wanted me for the role. However, the nature of schemes like this is that the job centre gives a grant (or something similar) to the employer and they pay YOU using this money. Basically, you are working for your benefits. I signed on for a total of 6 months but left shortly after as it ended up being compulsory for me to sign on every day. This meant that my job search activity was under daily scrutiny. After 6 months dealing with this every two weeks, having to do endure it everyday was not good for my mental health. This was also a chance for them to try and force me into taking on mandatory courses to 'improve' my chances of employment. For example, I had to talk my way out of doing a CV writing course one time. I asked them to point out what was wrong with my CV – they highlighted that it was the design. An opportunity presented itself. I negotiated to redesign it for next time since I was a designer and would flesh it out a bit more. I couldn't deal with this much longer though, I knew at some point I would be passed on to the work programme – similar to signing on but more strict (a major new payment-for-results welfare-to-work as described on gov.uk). When you are on the work programme you are also technically employed which helps to improve government unemployment statistics. So I chose to leave, went back to London and successfully found a low paid (£70 per week) design internship while crashing on a friend's sofa. After the past 6 months I was just grateful to be working and apart from the insultingly low pay it was a good experience that actually led to more freelance work due to being an active member of the studio and in contact with a publisher. I now hear that the studio pays interns minimum or London living wage which is a positive thing I guess. So, from my experience the dole didn't really help much at all. I'm just fortunate that I had the support plus friends to find work on my own terms, as this option isn’t available to everyone. But by purposefully signing off I helped the government reduce (and improve) their unemployment statistics...