The Design Institute of Australia (DIA), Australia’s peak multi-disciplinary body for professional designers, has released an important discussion paper based on the results of surveying nearly 1000 Australian designers.

Comprising a baseline survey conducted in 2003 and a follow-up survey in 2011, the DIA surveys asked Australian design businesses, individuals and academics about the important issues they face, and what possible actions they would like taken to address those issues.

It has been revealed that the main area of concern identified by designers was the high level of competition within the industry, with the DIA discussion paper revealing that 160,000, or one in every 140 Australians, have tertiary qualifications in aesthetic-based design vocations.

Drawn from the 2011 Census, this number includes architects, interior designers and decorators, industrial designers, graphic designers, web designers, textile designers, fashion designers, jewellery designers, and landscape and urban designers.

Of these 160,000 potential designers, around 89,000 had jobs in an ANZSCO-listed design occupation.

However, the census does not reveal the many thousands who operate at the periphery of the design industry while being employed in other occupations.

“It is absolutely clear that the total number of designers in Australia far outstrips the realistic commercial demand for design services,” notes David Robertson LFDIA, author of the discussion paper, and a design business owner himself.

Image: DIA

According to Robertson, who is a multiple DIA past national president, this high level of competition is a result of many factors, with an increasing number of design graduates from educational institutions being just one driving force contributing to an oversupply of designers and design services in Australia.

“The proliferation of tertiary design education courses in Australia has contributed substantially to the problem, with a belief amongst students that the existence of a tertiary course implies the existence of employment relating to it. That is clearly not the case, but the design profession has no power to directly modify the number of graduates produced,” he explains.

“Only a clear message from the marketplace on job availability and remuneration levels will alter students’ decisions to purchase design educations.”

Other reasons for the competitive nature of the industry include an increasingly easy access to international outsourcing by customers, skills transfer through new technologies, and a shrinking Australian manufacturing sector.

In an undeniably connected world, improved digital communications make it possible for Australian designers to supply their services internationally. However, the reverse holds true, as purchasers become more comfortable with digital transactions that include no face-to-face contact.

The DIA discussion paper also highlights an average decline in income, skills atrophy, in-house design services, access to relevant media and communications, lack of skills recognition, maintenance and variability of education standards, demarcation, fee setting, and shifts in descriptive occupational terms as other key concerns.

In response, the paper recommends professional designers to increase their differentiation from other service providers through professional memberships, accreditation, CPD, best practice consulting processes, and actively displaying their credentials.

For instance, becoming a member of, and actively supporting a professional organisation like the DIA or AIA would allow designers to display their professional credibility, while giving a voice to their industry.

For professional membership organisations like the DIA, Robertson says the list of necessary actions is long and varied. Amongst them, a long overdue step is an objective, ‘warts and all’ assessment of the industry to secondary schools and parents of prospective design students to help avoid the over-promotion of design and its job prospects.