Shockingly, a survey indicates that only 37 percent of people always negotiate their salaries, and 18 percent never do. Talking about money is one of the last taboos. For designers, this fear of negotiating — compounded by a career where we are doing what we love — exacerbates the risk that we don’t advocate for our worth. Let’s get designers confidently negotiating with our ultimate guide to salary negotiation.

Why negotiate?

Why is it so important to negotiate? For one thing, you want to ensure that you don’t leave money on the table throughout your career. Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University tells her students that by not negotiating at the beginning of their careers, they are losing out on up to $1.5 million over the course of a career. Especially for women, negotiation is a key factor in the gender pay gap. In a study by Babcock and Sara Laschever, they identified that only 7 percent of women negotiated their first salary, compared to 57 percent of men. It’s also important that you feel properly compensated for your work, as being unsatisfied in this regard can lead to resentment in the long run.

Negotiation mindsets

Lots of negotiation success relies on entering the negotiation with the right mindset. Many people make the mistake of seeing a negotiation as a conflict, where one side wins and the other side loses. Designers can leverage their familiarity and comfort with a collaborative approach and mindset in order to succeed at negotiations.

Seeing negotiation as a collaboration where you are aiming to design a win-win solution within the constraints of both parties can lessen the weight of negotiating. Your constraints might include your desired salary, vacation days, and other terms of your employment, and the organization’s constraints might include their budget for the role and existing precedents at the company. Taking your time to understand what matters to the other party and to facilitate reaching a mutually beneficial solution is a fun test of your facilitation skills.

When to negotiate

Just like in comedy, timing has a crucial role to play in negotiation. Typically, there are three opportune times to negotiate:

  • When you get an offer for a new role. You usually have the most leverage in this scenario, as the organization needs to make a hire for the role, and has invested time and energy in the hiring process. If you have reached the offer stage, it also means they are committed and interested in you specifically.
  • At a performance review. Performance reviews are often also a discussion and review of compensation. Your organization may have formalized frequency for salary reviews, such as annually or every six months. Setting up for success in this scenario means having a clear understanding of what is typical at an organization (e.g. whether there are salary bands or caps in place), and ensuring that you can demonstrate value.
  • When your role or responsibilities change. Whether this looks like getting a new title, or simply taking on more than you were doing before, it’s important to take a moment to ensure your salary is evolving in line with these changes. Arrange a conversation with your manager to discuss the topic, or piggyback on existing reviews or check-ins.

Know what you’re worth

For any negotiation, you want to be prepared. In a world where design roles and job titles are quickly evolving and confusing to navigate, it’s crucial to understand how you and your skill-sets fit into the job market. Being able to base what you are targeting in a salary negotiation on research and data will boost your confidence and ensure you are setting realistic expectations.

Do your research. Sites like Glassdoor’s Salary Calculator, Monster’s Salary Wizard, and Payscale are all great starting points that allow you to get personalized reports based on factors such as job title and location. A caveat here: while these are a good place to start, it’s crucial to get really specific to ensure you are comparing like with like. Consider also assessing the information based on factors like the size of company, or level of funding for startups. Cost-of-living calculators can also help add context to the information for places that may have less direct salary data available, e.g. non-major cities.

 The Creative Group's comprehensive and detailed salary guide includes salaries for a wide variety of digital, design and marketing positions.
The Creative Group‘s comprehensive and detailed salary guide includes salaries for a wide variety of digital, design and marketing positions.

The good news is that some more design-specific salary resources exist. Several professional organizations put out regular salary surveys, and these often provide more granular data. (By the way, do your fellow designers a favor and make a habit of responding to these. Information is power.) Coroflot has a large and ongoing design salary survey, covering a comprehensive range of design roles. The Creative Group publishes a comprehensive (and often quirkily themed and well-designed) report focused on creative and digital marketing jobs in the U.S. and Canada. O’Reilly has released a 2017 Design Salary Survey with respondents being mainly UX, product, and graphic designers. You can also download a raw data set of over 13,000 responses to the 2017 Design Census.

When using any of these resources, consider your specific context and ensure that the data you are basing your desired range on is up to date. Understand your own specific skill-sets and competitive advantage; for example, maybe you are a domain expert in a certain industry or are able to do a hybrid role due to HTML and front-end coding skills. You should also consider your track record and any proven and measurable results, such as reduced bounce rates on a site or increased time on page or engagement stats.

Define what you want

Now that you have done your research on the market, it’s time to connect with your personal purpose and identify what matters most to you. There is more to a job than compensation, so getting really clear on where your boundaries and priorities are will set you up to negotiate for what matters.

In negotiation, there are three crucial things to know going in: your target value, reservation value, and your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA). Your target value is what you are aiming for. Your reservation value is the lowest offer you will accept before resorting to your BATNA, which is your back-up plan or what you will do if you can’t reach a negotiated agreement. For example, your BATNA during a job offer might be to stay in your current role, which would be a status-quo BATNA.

When defining what you want, it’s important to think about non-salary components of your target value. For example, remote working or flexible hours agreements, number of paid vacation days or professional development opportunities might be part of what you are negotiating for. These are excellent bargaining chips to consider in circumstances where an organization might have constraints due to pay bands or budgets.

Prepare your case

Once you know what you want, it’s time to prepare your case for why you should get it. Understanding what’s important to the other side in the negotiation and what they see as valuable are key to making a compelling case during a negotiation. For example, has the hiring manager outlined key objectives for the role you are applying for? Have you been able to meet your KPIs (key performance indicators) over the last year?

You might want to prepare a brag sheet, which summarizes your achievements, awards, and client or co-worker testimonials. Use LinkedIn testimonials or your performance reviews, or even emails from clients or team members thanking you for a job well done. This is also a great confidence booster as you approach the negotiation.

Best of all is being able to demonstrate value you’ve delivered in quantifiable terms — for example, measurable outcomes of projects you’ve worked on, such as increasing conversion rates for an ecommerce flow, or designing a social media campaign that exceeded the desired engagement rates. Keeping track of these achievements throughout your career will ensure you have a strong case to go back to when you need to negotiate.

Preparation for a negotiation also involves practicing. Practice what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it. It’s important that you are able to articulate your side of the negotiation confidently. Practice naming your desired range based on your research and articulating the ways in which you will bring value that makes the investment in you worthwhile.

Ready, steady, negotiate

When it comes time to have the actual discussion and negotiate, staying calm and focused will lead to success. Have your target value, reservation value, and BATNA written down in front of you to refer to. Prior to the meeting or call, find some time to do some deep breathing, power poses, or your energizer of choice. Visualize the outcome you want from the conversation.

During the negotiation, have phrases ready to buy time. It’s OK to say, “I’ll need to think about that, would you be open to revisiting this at a later date?” if you feel the situation is becoming too high pressure. Silence can also be a powerful negotiation tool. Remembering that the negotiation is about coming to a win-win solution that works for both parties, and using “community-oriented language” such as “we” is helpful in moving away from an adversarial mindset during the negotiation.

Dealing with the salary expectation question

The salary expectation question is a very common one during negotiations for a new role. This question and your response to it often sets the tone for the negotiation, so it’s important to have strategies for answering it. If it’s early on, emphasize that you would like to wait until you have identified a mutual fit. Focus on being more interested in finding the right type of role and environment. You can say something like, “Let’s revisit this question when we are a bit further along in the process and have identified that this is a mutual fit. At this time, I’m more interested in making sure this is the right role.”

If you are asked again, or if the question comes up in the context of an offer, ask the person you are negotiating with to identify the budget that the organization has in mind for the role.  You can use framing like, “I was hoping you might be able to share the budget that the organization has in mind for the role. I would love to make sure we get to a number that works well for both of us.”

If pushed, think about this question as if you are being asked what you would like to make in the role. Do not make the mistake of disclosing your current or previous salaries, which are irrelevant. Base the range that you name on your research of the market, and indicate where within that range you expect to fall based on criteria such as your experience and prior performance. This is where all the preparation you have done comes into play. It’s also important to start high if you are pushed to give a number. Aim above your target value in order to allow some space for the other party to make a counter offer, which will likely be lower than the starting point you name.

Negotiation is a skill

While negotiating your salary and talking about money can seem like a scary thing to do, it’s up to you to advocate for yourself and make sure you are being paid what you are worth. Having the right mindset, timing the negotiation, being well prepared and knowing what you want will set you up for success. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. And as it turns out, many employers see negotiation as a desirable skill in the people they hire.

Further resources