It is never easy to make ends meet by being a designer. With the pandemic, the problems have been multiplied. Lockdown has revealed the limits and contradictions of the entire system of production and remuneration

For years the whole traditional design sector was based on an economic model known as royalties, in which designers gain a percentage on every unit sold. What happens if this system breaks down?

“The quarter we have just been through and the next one will be dramatic,” says Alberto Meda, industrial designer par excellence and an important figure in the history of Italian design. “When companies stop producing and selling products, royalties shrink or, in the worst cases, disappear completely. It is clear that those who work in connection with the economic life of the company will suffer in this sense.” If a designer has based his livelihood exclusively on this system there may be big problems in store: “Royalties tend to come at the end of the chain of production; if the chain is broken, so are our payments,” says Luca Nichetto, the famous designer who lives and works in Venice and Stockholm.

In any case, this is a dated, stagnant and overused economic model, already prior to the pandemic. “We are no longer in the 1960s when there were very few designers in circulation, and today there is a general climate of discontent,” says Fabio Calvi, founder of Calvi Brambilla, the multidisciplinary studio based in Milan, acting as the design curators of Flos. While in the past royalties offered abundant remuneration, in a present in which the range of the market has not changed, but the number of products and designers has increased, it can be hard to reach the end of the month in the black. “From my perspective, royalties are a rather obsolete method, where the percentages have remained the same, at the level of historical periods when there was a different type of market. The reason the percentages have not changed is because the number of designers has increased,” Nichetto continues. “In a moment like this one, having no idea what will happen with distribution, how many dealers will survive or vanish, working only for royalties is no longer sustainable.”

We have reached an impasse of the system, in which the virus has played a fundamental role as a catalyst, facing the creative community with considerations that could no longer be postponed. According to Calvi, “Very often the phase of development of the project is not compensated for the designer; very few companies do so. From this standpoint, the project fee is an issue, independent of royalties, and it needs discussion.” The point, then, is not to survive in a period of crisis, but to allow designers to be compensated for their work: “The furniture sector, when it commissions a work, should be ready to pay for the development of the project, paying the designer even if the product does not go into production,” Meda concludes.

These reflections go together, on one side, with the constant difficulty of the creative community to speak openly about certain issues, and on the other with a lack of interest on the part of companies. In this sense, the Covid emergency may seem like an opportunity for new dialogue: “It is an interesting situation, at least to try to understand if it is possible to rethink the types of contracts involved in the work of designers in general,” Nichetto says. “It is not only about how the designer presents himself; it is also a system. The first step has to be taken by creative talents who already have experience, who together with the companies should try to understand how to create a fair system of compensation.” Calvi agrees, saying that, “There should be a professional association to oversee the relations between designers and companies, and everyone should be part of it. There should be standard contracts to which everyone can refer, so that companies will know that if they want a designer, he or she is part of a given association working under specific conditions.” Though it is hard to make forecasts at this point, when companies have understood how the scenarios of distribution and sale are changing, it will be necessary to find a meeting point with designers that can provide guarantees of remuneration for their work.

To avoid falling back into the same old contradictions, apart from the economic issues another factor comes into play and is inseparably connected, namely that of sustainability. As Meda says, “It is important to work with companies whose objectives are in tune with yours; to try to produce items that are useful, without destroying the planet. To find a balance between sustainable economics and conservation of jobs, with requalification, is an in indispensable matter.”

Designers too have to rethink their role. “Designers will be called on to approach projects with different needs and rhythms,” Calvi says. “A good project always comes from a situation in which there are various questions to which we want to respond. We will simply have to have new types of questions.” Furthermore, a change of attitude is also needed. “In these situations, it is important for designers to apply their critical capacity, to not fall into production linked to pure business, and to avoid making products that end up in the trash,” Meda adds. The same sort of behavior is expected of companies. “Today, we will truly have to reflect on an economy based on businesses that also have a social dimension, not just oriented towards profit. This permits businesses not only to bring rewards to stockholders, but also to all the parties involved, producing a positive impact on the market.”

The situation caused by the virus has allowed us to assign the right value to themes that were pushed into the background in the past, and this could lead to new scenarios. Calvi hopes that, “the word consumer will increasingly lose its meaning. The time of consumption has to end, and we have to begin the time of purchasing. The way of designing products has to be revised: above all, we have to focus on quality and the production of things that last.” Meda, in turn, says that “we should not miss the opportunity to rethink what we have built until today in more critical terms. From this extreme circumstance, we have to extract ideas for the future, trying not to fall back into the old contradictions.” In this moment, it would seem, what is losing its appeal is the superfluous.


Cover photo, new studio of the biro+ designers in Bari.