America's Leading Design Cities

New York and L.A. aren't the only epicenters for graphic designers, architects, and fashion designers. 

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Gary Yim/Shutterstock.com

From the enduring consumer electronics influence of Apple all the way to the rise of small-scale 3D printing businesses, design skills now sit at the core of new and old U.S. industries alike. 

Design is also a key piece of the creative economy, providing a way for artistically inclined workers to make a living. Some design fields like architecture require an advanced degree, while others can be entered through apprenticeships or other less traditional schooling paths. 

But where are the key clusters and geographic centers of design in America? Which are its leading design cities?

To get at this, I worked with occupational data provided to me by the labor market data and research firm EMSI to study the design sector nationally and identify its major geographic clusters and locations. Our analysis focused on the key occupations that make up the design sector: architects and landscape architects; commercial and industrial designers, graphic designers, fashion designers, interior designers, set and exhibit designers, and others. We looked at both designers employed in established companies and freelancers who are self-employed.

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Let’s start with some key facts on the scope and extent of the design industry nationally.

  • Overall, roughly 625,000 Americans were employed in design occupations in 2013. This marks a slight decline—of about 15,000—since 2009, the trough of the recession and the baseline year in EMSI’s analysis.
  • Of these, about 70 percent are employed by firms and other businesses, while 175,000 are self-employed. The number of self-employed designers has contracted 6 percent since 2009. The number of traditionally employed design workers has also fallen by about 1 percent.
  • Employed designers earn a median hourly wage of $24.55, well above EMSI’s threshold for high-wage jobs, while self-employed designers earn a slightly lower median hourly wage of $18.79, putting these in the ranks of mid-wage jobs.
  • Graphic design is the biggest sector of all design workers by far. There were nearly 200,000 traditionally employed graphic designers and almost another 75,000 self-employed graphic designers in 2013.
  • Architecture is the second-largest sector, with 85,000 working in firms and another 23,000 self-employed. There were another 21,000 landscape designers, about a quarter of whom were self-employed.
  • Interior design, which can require fewer years of training and formal education before professional licensing, is an occupational group that is, interestingly, about evenly split between self-employed and traditionally employed workers—about 40,000 of each in 2013.

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To zero in on the major cities and clusters of design, EMSI provided data on the number, median wages and, importantly, relative regional share of designers for the largest 51 U.S. metros (those with more than a million people). This last statistic is determined using the standard metric for assessing regional concentrations, the location quotient, which in this case measures the concentration of a given occupation in a metro area to its concentration across the country. An LQ of 1 means the occupation’s share matches the national average, an LQ of 2 is double that, and so on. This enables us to identify which metros specialize in design overall and certain design sectors specifically. 

Zara Matheson

The map above shows the major clusters of employed designers overall across the United States. While it is commonly assumed that the media and fashion mecca of New York or the movie capital of Los Angeles have the leading design clusters, they actually came in second and third, respectively. San Francisco is the nation’s leading design capital, with an LQ of 1.8.

New York was second with an LQ of 1.6, and L.A. was third with an LQ of 1.6. The rest of the top locations for employed designers are a mix of cities with strong knowledge economies: Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Portland, Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City. Just below the top ten were Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Detroit—the latter few postindustrial cities showing signs of creative rebirth.

And though these are not particularly recession-proof industries, in nearly all of these metros the numbers of employed designers stayed relatively stable or even grew slightly between 2009 and 2013. Washington, D.C., was the only metro among the top 10 that saw its number of employed designers decline over this period.

But, like many creative industries, a relatively large share of designers are self-employed. The map below charts the geography of these self-employed designers.

Zara Matheson

Here, New York and Los Angeles slip even further—behind the tech hubs of San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, and Austin.

Digging a little deeper, several trends emerged when we focused in on specific design sectors.

Zara Matheson

Graphic design, by far the biggest segment of designers, had a far less coastal orientation than you might expect. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul tops the list of regular employed designers with an LQ of 1.7, perhaps driven by its long-standing strength as a center for marketing and advertising. San Francisco was second and New York third, followed by Chicago, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Jose, and Kansas City, home to Hallmark.

San Francisco again tops the list for self-employed graphic designers, and leading tech hubs dominate the rest of the list as well.  Nearby Silicon Valley’s San Jose is second, followed by New York, Austin, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Boston. Graphic design is an occupation that has changed a lot over the last decades, as the rise of tech and internet companies creates new demand, and workers have begun to gravitate towards these places. 

Zara Matheson

Architects are the highest paid group of designers, and they are also generally the most highly educated. Architects employed in firms earned median hourly wages of $35.30, while their self-employed counterparts earned $22.90. But, when looking in terms of concentration, the nation’s leading clusters for architects may not be what you think. Seattle tops the list for regular employed architects with an LQ of 2.4, followed by San Francisco. Going down the list, Denver, Washington, Boston, Raleigh, Portland, and St. Louis all had higher LQs for employee architects than New York, which came in tenth, and Los Angeles, which came in twentieth.

Zara Matheson

The map above focuses on commercial and industrial designers, an occupation that has a strikingly different geography from other design clusters. Employed commercial and industrial designers, who help design manufactured products like cars, toys, and appliances, and whose numbers total nearly 30,000, are largely centered in the old industrial Midwest. Detroit is first with an LQ of 5.7, and the number of these designers in the city actually grew 29 percent between 2009 and 2013. Cincinnati, Providence, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis round out the top five, while Los Angeles is seventh, San Francisco is ninth, and New York doesn’t even crack the top twenty.

Zara Matheson

The one area of design where New York and L.A. continue to dominate is, not surprisingly, fashion. New York leads with a whopping LQ of 6.2, followed by L.A., which had an LQ of 4.8. There was also a sizeable concentration in Columbus, Ohio, the site of the headquarters for DSW; L Brands (formerly The Limited), which owns Victoria’s Secret; and former Limited property Abercrombie & Fitch. Other sizeable concentrations existed in San Francisco and, somewhat unexpectedly, Milwaukee.

Design is clearly very concentrated geographically. But its key spikes are a bit surprising, especially when we look at the relative concentrations of occupations in different metros. While New York and L.A. lead in fashion, design more broadly is concentrated in tech hubs like the Bay Area, Austin, and Seattle. And industrial centers like Detroit and Cincinnati continue to have leading clusters of industrial and commercial designers, providing a key talent asset off of which these cities can build. The geography of design in America suggests that this industry is far from faddish, frivolous, or ephemeral. It is less about trendy designs and more about clusters of technology and end-user industries. This combination of design, high tech, and industry will be a key asset in these places’ overall economic and regional competitiveness going forward.

Top Image: gary yim/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here