Inflation Architecture

At a somewhat casual information architecture event put on by NYC-CHI at Remote Lounge on the Bowery last night, I heard the featured speakers — a recruiter, an “information design consultant,” information architecture managers from Organic, Avenue A/Razorfish and Hot Jobs — give their views on ‘What’s going on with I.A. in New York.’ Their comments were fairly illuminating, but I balked when one of them mentioned that he’d seen some under-qualified I.A.s charge as much as US$125 per hour and some over-qualified I.A.s charge as little as US$75 per hour. The last bit, he said almost in a scoffing manner, and the audience, twenty or thirty I.A.’s from all over the city, seemed to nod in agreement — US$75 is way too little.

Math Rock

I did a little math on my friend’s calculator and at that rate, an I.A. would earn US$156,000 per year, which, to me, is nothing to brush off. Even assuming that, as a freelancer billing hourly, an I.A. would work only two-thirds of the year, that would still work out to about US$117,000 for a nine-month work year. If you know of a position that pays that much and allows me to summer in the Hamptons, please let me know immediately. I’m warming up Visio right now.

When it came time for the Q & A, I put this question to the panelists, trying to make sure we were all talking about the real reality, the one in which my bank account resides. Did these panelists really think that a buck and a half a year was chump change in a still-recovering economy? They demurred a bit and then qualified their statements, saying that those figures referred to contract work which naturally pays higher rates in order to accommodate for irregular work, and didn’t necessarily translate to a full-time, salaried position.

Still, I maintain that there was the distinct implication in the room that US$75 was on the low-end, and if I go back to my argument that working that low end for nine months is still a sweet deal. If my dismissive tone implies bad faith on their part, it’s not meant to. I’m sure they intended nothing deceptive, and when pressed, at least one of them admitted that he would never pay as much as US$125 per hour, and that his hiring budgets allow for salaries around US$70,000. Much more realistic.

I’m all for everyone earning as much as they possibly can, but at Behavior we consider US$75 a very healthy rate, and it made me shudder to think of a pool of I.A. candidates walking into our offices with the idea that if we don’t pay at least in that ballpark then we’re cheapskates.

It’s Lonely (and Lucrative) at the Top

But I wasn’t trying to be an asshole just for the monetary interests of my design studio. What really bugged me was the idea that these selected speakers, who were ostensibly giving their impressions on the state of the I.A. economy, were unintentionally creating a narrow and inflationary mindset among their peers. In recounting their recent projects, the majority of them were in service to Fortune 1,000 corporations — companies with huge budgets to spend on massively complex information systems. Companies that can perhaps afford to pay high-end rates.

In essence, we were listening to the state of information architecture from the perspective of the elite. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seemed to exclude a significant segment of the industry trying to make usable systems for companies with limited budgets. In describing what’s happening in information architecture in New York today, it seemed like the practice has become a tool intended only for improving the fortunes of large companies. Small studios sometimes can’t convince a client of the wisdom of adding an I.A. to a project, and it’s not for lack of trying. How come I didn’t hear anything about that last night?



  1. The NYC marketplace is one of a kind. In Seattle I’d get laughed at if I asked for that much, but my experience level is still on the lower end. Even after considering NYC inflation, that rate still sounds high. Are these people exceptionally experienced, or am I naive?

    For small scale projects/budgets isn’t it possible to subtly build it into the design process and to try to use resources that have complimentary skills? Designers who have some IA abilities. Or to use your IA resource to consult on the project with the goal of selling the outcome to the client so that next time they might want to spend a little more.

  2. As long as you’re doing the math, you should factor in that freelancers pay their own health insurance and taxes out of their rate. Depending on the arrangement, they may also pay for their own overhead, software, and hardware.

  3. Let’s say all of that stuff together comes to $20,000 — which I know is a high estimate, because I’ve done the math for health coverage, overhead, software and hardware. That still leaves as much as $97,000 if a $75/hour I.A. works nine months a year. What about paying their own taxes? Well all of those costs above are tax-deductible. Some need to be depreciated over several years, but find a crafty CPA and that schedule is mitigated. Every way you look at it, it’s still a very good and, in my opinion, a still pretty unrealistic deal.

  4. I have been a freelance IA and UED officially for about 4 years now. Granted I have been doing all my work on the West Coast so cost of living is possibly different, I have pulled in anywhere from $65 – $150 an hour for my services. The caveat is that I dont work more than 9 months out of the year (Summer is almost always dead) and I am usually only billing the higher end of my rates for fewer hours than the lower end of my rates. So it all averages out… and def get a good CPA to write all your expenses off! I hired on FT at a company for an extended contract and they would only pay me $50 an hour and no benefits… but I got paid weekly… so it made it very easy for me to do my books. If your looking for FT work in California… dont expect to get any more than $45 – 55 an hour before taxes… and thats a good salary!

  5. I’ve been a hired gun since I moved out to the SF-Bay area in March 2001. I was lucky to get a firm to pay my way out here. I moved to San Francisco and then I promptly got laided off from the Industrial / Interaction Design firm that paid my way out to the left coast. This was all happening as the bubble was popping at the end of the Dot Com boom. Within a month, I picked up a stready consulting gig at a struggling Dot Com billing $75 an hour for 30 – 40 hours a week. Not bad when many people around me were packing up and moving back to where ever they came from originally. Then 9-11 happened and that ride was over. Then I landed a gig a Fortune 500 company as a consultant logging 40 hours a week at roughly $60 hour. Not a bad way to weather the biggest employment storm that has hit our industry since I started as a visual designer 12+ years ago. Back in the Dot Bomb days, I was being billed out at about $225+ an hour by the Internet Consulting firm I work at in Virginia, but those days are long gone — at least for now. In the near term, I think the salaries will fall somewhere towards to lower end of the scale we’ve talked about here for most work, but towards the higher-end for the conceptual and strategic thinking of IA or UX design.

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