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Inflation and the cost of living crisis’ impact on creative freelancers

While those working secure 9 to 5s have been offered a 5-15% pay rise to keep up with inflation, freelancers find their necessarily risen prices often rejected by clients not willing or able to pay more due to the rise in all other business and personal expenses.

Pippa Nissen, director of exhibition design studio Nissen Richards, adds that tighter budgets have prompted a more considered approach than usual.

She explains: “We’re all acutely aware at the moment that money is tight for clients and that we need to be very, very careful with budgets. ‘If it’s not necessary then it shouldn’t go ahead’ is the clear direction. Of course, this is always true, but where in the past we might have dug in our heels, we’re now seeing there’s no wiggle room at all, so we’re trimming our designs to suit.

If anything, calling it “cost of living” is almost offensive as we shouldn’t need to pay that much simply to have a roof over our heads, food and decent heating. However, this is a socialist model and the UK doesn’t exactly bide by those rules yet. Brexit has made it all the more devastating with countries like France and Spain seeing a 30-40% increase in electricity bill prices and the UK seeing a 300% increase (yes, you read that correctly)…

Furthermore, budgeting guides written by the wealthy may try to make us believe that a Netflix subscription or gym subscription (both crucial to mental and physical health) are frivolous luxuries to be foregone in favour of sensible asceticism. But this fails to consider the indisputable fact that, for many of us, culture is a necessary component of our survival. 

“Art was one of the things that people consumed most during lockdown,” says playwright Oliver Emanuel, from his house in rural Kinross. “Let’s remember that leaning towards art was an important element of how we survived.” 

For artists like Emanuel the increase in the cost of living will mean much the same as it does for everyone else: life, at its most basic, becoming more expensive for him and his young family. He talks about his electricity bill doubling from £150 to £300 a month; about using the car less; about pondering when he will have to start crunching the numbers on the food shop. Oliver mentions how a Universal Basic Income would help a lot – for everyone, not just creative workers. 

Designs in particular have spoken out about the difficulties this cost of living crisis is presenting creatives – whether freelance or part of an agency or larger consultancy. Chris Skelton, creative director at Thompson Brand Partners, highlights the problems for design studios, including office running costs and salary increases for staff.

He says: “Lots of studios have struggled throughout COVID, and for those still not quite back on their feet, high energy prices may force the decision to close their office space and go fully remote. Fuel cost may cause more people to question travelling in; despite many studios’ desire to start having more facetime with clients, video will remain a mainstay.

“The cost of living has the potential to delay things like salary increases for staff that may have been on hold, something we’ve been keen to address recently by reviewing pay across the board. Economic concern may also perpetuate worries over job security, making recruitment for top talent even tougher than it already is. This could force margins to be squeezed due to a higher reliance on freelance – the cost of which we’ve already seen increase.”

Freelance graphic designer Kieron Lewis highlights the increased pressure on freelance designers working with budget-conscious clients.

He says: “There can be a fine line between being smart with your budget and trying to get a lot, on the cheap. Almost ‘Del Boy-like’. This will always have a ripple effect on the final outcome. Using platforms such as Canva, once the designer has given a handover, is totally fine. Especially if it gives the client more control. However, from a design consistency perspective, it is very easy for elements to ‘slip through the cracks’.

“Certain design programs such as InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop are created specifically for design-related projects. By trying to use a version that is limited within design functions, could compromise on the final deliverable quality. Designers can spot these inconsistencies a mile away!

“When I am approached by a client, I’m always conscious of the above and I always do my best to be flexible on the finance front, whilst ensuring I charge fairly for my time. The key is to find the balance to make your freelance work sustainable.”

Another element to consider is how the crisis is affecting – by means of decreasing – the amount of diversity within the industry. ​​Graphic designer and educator Greg Bunbury worries that there may be a wider impact on the industry’s diversity efforts, which have been in focus over the last few years.

He says: “Such a rise in the cost of living has a causality that will likely impact diversity and inclusion across the creative industry. As consumers are forced to economise and be more discerning with their spending, we may see the brands and organisations driven by creativity, become far more conservative with their internal and external investment in diversity and inclusion (D&I). 

Culture, whether highbrow or (supposedly) lowbrow, is one of the first sectors to suffer during economic crises which is confusing as it is one of Britain’s most productive sectors both nationally and internationally. The only answer must be that a new government, one who respects the arts and the true work that the arts require, be welcomed into cabinet.

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