Field Guide 2020: Our Opportunity

4 years ago by

This Field Guide article is part of a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally. 
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. 
The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, six illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency

Supported by Creative New Zealand

The artwork to accompany this article (Above) is by Carol Green a freelance illustrator who creates a range of work – from posters and communication-assistance resources, to live sketching and illustrations for storytelling.

Some Context…

My name is Nicole Arnett Phillips; my work sits at the intersection of design and writing. (I am a: book designer / typographer / printmaker / publisher / writer / editor). I studied Art and Design at AUT and started my career in Auckland. My husband (then fiancée) and I moved overseas in 2004. I worked in AUS / UK and the US in design, architecture, publishing, fashion and the government sectors. Since coming home to NZ in 2018, most of my work comes from those same channels and those same countries.
My income has always experienced peaks around the March and June End of financial years as clients spend budgets. In the 12 years, I have been self-employed the four months from Feb-June is typically when I make 50% of my annual income. I prioritise design for clients when it is available and when that contracts, I spend more time publishing and printing (which make me less revenue). The balance of sectors I work in, and /slashes/ of services I offer, come together to make an interesting and relatively stable mix of work, that sustains me financially and creatively.
This January, I had three books underway and two about to start. Production budgets and publishing schedules were under enormous pressure, due to the COVID response extending the new year closures at printers in China, and the Australian bush fires causing supply chain issues down-under.
By the time we entered lockdown, 60% of my work had been cancelled or postponed – all the Built Environment projects I had in the pipeline either disappeared, were delayed or had funding cut. Like 65% of you, I took the wage subsidy and was incredibly grateful that was available to the self-employed. I felt like the government was wrapping its “be kind” mandate around our creative community.

The New Zealand government showed strength and leadership – and while we were navigating strange and uncertain waters, it felt distinctly like Aotearoa had a capable captain steering our ship. Jacinda said we would work together, we would be kind, we would go hard and we would go early. The collective team spirit drew us closer together – we shared resources, we shared advice, we shared a drink over zoom, and we shared banana bread recipes and sourdough starter tips.
The sentiment in Aotearoa was overwhelmingly positive. Our community spoke of this time being a positive turning point in our practice. 2020 presented an opportunity to define a new and better normal. Despite 85% of us having less paid work we put in the mahi and kept busy. I spent lockdown supporting existing clients, reshaping my business plan and developing a new (self-initiated) project to use design for social good. I also dialled in via forums, and social channels to listen and learn from my peers here in NZ and overseas.

I admired Aotearoa design’s enthusiasm to reshape our practice – the energy in our community buoyed me. You all helped me feel optimistic and grateful. But my twitter feed was aflutter with designers further afield calling for more support as (particularly those self-employed) fell through government safety nets. Designers in the US, UK and Australia had vastly different experiences to those we had here.

It has been said comparison is the thief of joy…

When I speak at events I often tell a lame typographic ‘dick’ joke. I show a slide with DICK in a bunch of different typefaces – which are all dramatically different scales despite being the same point size. The punchline of the joke is about the importance of not comparing yourself to others – but this essay is precisely about that. I want to put a lens on how our peers overseas are doing right now, looking to the contrasts between overseas studies and our local data… to see how we are placed and what we can learn. (The irony is not lost on me).


81% of you experienced a loss of income, and 45% of design businesses expect revenue for the financial year to be significantly lower than the previous year. Infometrics forecast for the creative sector to March 2021, predicts a decline of $11,168,000 to $9,341,000 (a drop of -16.4%). Statistics NZ forecasts employment decline of 9.8% across the economy. Still, modelling predicts the creative sector will decrease by 11.7% in the year to March 2021, which represents a loss of more than 11,000 jobs. The contraction is reflected in the Aotearoa Design survey data. 11% of our respondents have already downsized their workforce. As I mentioned above, 65% of us applied for the wage subsidy and other government support packages. But 71% of our industry felt confident in their ability to meet their financial obligations. During lockdown, 33% of you identified general anxiety about the situation as being the biggest challenge you faced, and 30% of you struggled to prioritise your mental & physical wellbeing during the lockdown.
Our most resilient sectors (June) were:

  • Fast Consumer Goods (including Food & Beverage)
  • Education
  • Healthcare


UK: The sector expects a £74 billion revenue drop in 2020. 90% of designers in the UK said they are not earning enough to meet their financial obligations. 56.8% of Freelancers stated they are underemployed, 38% predict their annual income to fall by 75% or more. 50% of currently unemployed designers lost their job due to coronavirus and of those still employed 70% are at least moderately worried about their job security. A study by Oxford Economics released June 2020, (commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation) suggests despite the government’s Job Retention Scheme, as a direct result of the COVID emergency the UK will loose 406,000 creative jobs (that number represents 20% of their creative workforce). “The Creative Industries Federation puts the job losses into context… stating the 406,000 job losses amount to nine times the entire workforce of British Airways.” Half of those self-employed say that their business will not survive more than three months without a significant surge in the economy or further government intervention. “The UK’s creative sector was previously growing at five times the rate of the wider economy, employing over 2 million people and contributing £111.7 billion to the economy – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.”
UK & EUROPE most resilient sectors (May)

  • Healthcare
  • Construction
  • Energy


US: 94.4% of 18,522 creatives surveyed in the Arts America study experienced a loss of income. They are reporting on average a loss of $23,725.4 (USD) each for this financial year (a projected combined loss of $416,309,421.4 (USD), those numbers are staggering. 61% (11,398) of respondents said they are unemployed due to COVID. Yet the social security payments available are a state-by-state “patchwork” where what you get depends on where you live. 27% of respondents had no savings and were living week to week. 31% of people have taken on work outside of the creative industries to support their income during the pandemic response. 65% were experiencing stress, anxiety or depression about “the state of the world” citing the pandemic, economy, and social unrest as catalysts. 61% said their productivity had drastically decreased. But 42% said the crisis inspired them or sparked new ideas, and 55.5% said using design for social good feels vital at this moment, so they felt obligated to contribute/produce more.
US most resilient sectors (April)

  • Utilities and Energy
  • Scientific, and Technical Services, (includes healthcare and social assistance)
  • Retail (includes gasoline stations)

Australia: 80% of the design council survey respondents have experienced a loss of income. Over 70% of design businesses expect their revenue to decrease, from anywhere between 20% to 60%. The government Jobkeeper allowance is helping businesses cover some wages in the short term, but 40% of design businesses were assessing the viability of their business going forward. 14% of respondents are struggling with their Mental health. As the authors of the Design Council findings point out; the impacts of stress and mental health should not be underestimated, as the resilience of our industry depends on the wellness of our people.
AUSTRALIA most resilient sectors (May)

  • Healthcare
  • Public Sector (Federal, State and Local Government)
  • Education


Adversity is often the catalyst for positive change.

Commonalities between regions include hardship, disruption and uncertainty; but now that our economy has restarted, our design are strategists reporting a significant uptick in work as they help their clients meet the new market conditions. This work will funnel through to opportunities for design production.
I feel a sense of privilege and gratitude that I am starting to see publishing work come back online slowly, and I am hopeful that my architectural work will pick up again soon. But challenging times bring with them difficult questions. Do I want everything to just go back to how it was prior? Are those same /slashes/ of service I deliver import or relevant? How do I want to go about business? We as a design community need to think about our value (what we offer) but also our values (what is important to us)… How do we move forward? Many designers, (myself included) are questioning whether things should return to ‘business as usual’ or if instead, we should adapt and advance our practice…

This essay isn’t intended to be political – or to be smug – but the COVID health Crisis is a once-and a lifetime global event, which has affected different countries differently. There is a disparity in government policy, containment of the virus and in the scale of economic impact. Aotearoa took action quickly and thanks to our collective efforts to flatten the pandemic curve, we have commercial and practice-based advantages. I believe Aotearoa Design is well-positioned (ahead of our peers) to influence the global effort to rebuild and recover. We can assist in defining our ‘new normal’, and I feel energised by that prospect.

“This pandemic brings into sharp focus the fragility of our balance with nature, the inequity of the current financial systems and the complexity of the impacts of globalisation. But, as we have seen with the incredible responses of individuals, industry and governments in the past weeks, it also shows that human ingenuity is limitless and that we are very capable of making far-reaching changes quickly. This is perhaps the most important opportunity of our lifetimes for humanity to make course corrections.”

So how do we prosper after the downturn? We reflect and we make change. This crisis is a reset. We have an opportunity to seek workplace flexibility, openness, inclusivity, equality; we can push for better remuneration, better environmental stewardship, better design outcomes. Aotearoa design can establish a more vibrant and more diverse space for our practice leading the way for our peers globally.

If this is our call to action, how do we the Aotearoa design community capitalise on this advantage? What are the positive changes we are making? What do we want to see advance? In the next instalment in this series of essays, we will start to explore the opportunities our community identified and look to reimagine our future.


The data has been sourced from DA’s COVID and You Aotearoa Design Survey, Creative Pool, The Design Council, It’s Nice That, Creative Pool, Oxford Economics, The Creative Industries Federation, The International Design Council, Americans for the Arts, Mckinsey, The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Stats NZ; other government organisations, including the Ministry of Culture & Heritage, The Treasury, Ministry of Social Development. Please note Americans for the Arts survey was still collecting data at date of publication of this essay so reported figures may vary.


Tags : Carol GreenField Guide 2020Nicole Arnett Phillips

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