Who’s Disrupting Now? The Endless Cost of Being a Product Designer.

Jonathan Patterson
7 min readAug 21, 2023

Less than about a decade ago, to be a designer you just needed the graphics program of your choice, an email client, and perhaps an internet connection. Software that many of us used to do our jobs like Photoshop, and Illustrator, were still under the Creative Suite moniker and cost “only” $699 out-the-door — some of us even never paid (you know who you are.) Sketch reigned supreme, Dribbble was still by-invite only, and Slack wasn’t even a thing.

A great deal has changed since then.

Today, the product designer’s software stack is diverse. It’s also expensive. We’re hooked on using Figma for prototyping, myriad Creative Cloud apps for graphical editing, Framer and Webflow for web development, and Spline for browser-based 3D, to name a few. To land the best jobs and ship products, we must know and use these tools.

But let me take a second to make myself clear. I’m not here to regale you with some romanticized narrative about the nostalgia of designing products in the past. Besides, today is an even better day to be involved in product design; accessibility, interoperability, and evolved design acumen have drastically improved how products look and work. Rather, this article is about something else we’re all beginning to notice. Something more pernicious.

Today, to do our jobs we subscribe to the software we’ve become accustomed to using, and there’s no end in sight. We pay monthly for prototyping software. We pay monthly for Slack to manage our projects. We pay monthly for SSLs to keep our websites in SEO’s good graces. We pay monthly to upload the ideal file types to Dribbble. We pay monthly on social media to be “verified.”

Groan.

The swell of the software stack, and the perpetual expenses that come with it are an unavoidable cost of doing business these days. Companies have flipped the script—product designers are no longer doing the disrupting. Instead of harnessing the currents, we are now the ones going with the flow.

Rain delay

The phrase “move fast and break things” was coined by Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, err Meta (some old habits die hard.) Zuckerberg has famously advocated for the idea of “moving fast and breaking things” as a way of encouraging innovation and exploration. That mindset was emblematic of other companies’ c-suite and investment firms. At that time you were able to buy software and keep using it for practically as long as you wanted. That, or at least until someone sent you a Photoshop file saved with a newer version than what you were on. Only then did we shell out a few more hundred bucks to upgrade. It wouldn’t be uncommon to go 2 or 3 major version releases before you decided to upgrade. CS6 fo’ life. From our Appl… Ding! Hold on for a minute…

Sorry about that. A notification popped up and I was just renewing my Marvel app subscription so a legacy client could access their design files. I digress.

From our Apple wallets, companies have moved beyond just mere fingertips — they now hold an iron grip. The alluring facade of “free forever” often translates to “forever”, with upsell after upsell leading us to choose the premium plan in order to get the job done. All the while companies are making bank.

Here’s a scenario; you fire up Canva (just kidding) Figma to prototype an idea. Things are starting to come together but you want to get some feedback from a trusted peer before you show your client. Stop right there. You’re on Figma’s Starter plan, and you’ve already used up all of your allocated sharable files. Time for an upgrade. Or, you jump into Webflow to start working on a new website when you realize you’ve reached the site limit of your current subscription plan. Get ready to pay up.

As we attempt to fulfill the promises of great product design the metaphorical raindrops pour down halting our design progress. But let me be clear, this is not a criticism of any one platform—inclement business models in software design are industry-wide.

Rising costs, lower barrier to entry

The tactics used by many companies in order to keep customers spending more are varied and often cleverly disguised. Right around the time we decide to shell out the extra few bucks to complete a project, these tactics emerge. A big one is anchoring, which encourages us to find the best value and compromise between our monthly budget and the features we need. Another technique is decoy pricing, where three items in a similar tier are offered, with one being overpriced to make us select the higher-priced option without it feeling too expensive. For example, a company might offer a one-month subscription for a low cost, one-year subscription for a medium cost, and a three-year subscription for a higher cost. Even though the one-year subscription may seem like the best deal, we’re encouraged to buy the three-year subscription because of the decoy price. Scarcity tactics, limited-time or limited-quantity offers, and FOMO are other positioning devices that urge us to select more expensive packages too. And carrying costs add up. The product design stack has ballooned to nearly $2,000 per year in subscriptions!

One app in Creative Cloud can cost $35/mo, or shell out $54.99 per month to get the whole suite which most of us need these days. Figma goes from $12 per month to $45 per month to do things like adding video to a prototype. Want to upload a video to your Dribbble portfolio? — it’ll cost you $180 per year. Webflow jumps up from $16 per month to $35 per month if you want to keep more than 10 websites in your account — problematic if you’ve got a long history of projects under your belt — you’ll be paying to maintain access to sites you may rarely need. Plus $7 per month for Spline, $7 for Slack, and $7 more for X. Can you even afford to be a product designer this month?

Another day, another dollar

OpenAI will help democratize software design, bringing new tools, increasing competition and reducing costs. That said, it will be responsible for a SaaS boom, which can lead to acquisitions by larger companies, creating a nasty cycle. This has regulators worried too.

When Adobe acquired Figma for $2.3 billion, the U.S. government didn’t give it a second thought. Now, the Department of Justice has raised concerns about the potential anticompetitive impacts of the acquisition. They think Adobe could use their market power to stymie potential competitors and raise prices. This is decidedly possible, since XD, Adobe’s main prototyping software, didn’t have much market share compared to Figma. Since the acquisition, XD has been sunsetted — I bet you didn’t even hear about that — so only time will tell whether this turns out well for us.

Design on solid ground

As product designers, it’s our mission to improve products and services for our customers. But right under our noses, something else has seen a transformation too: our tools and processes. We do more, and we spend more doing it. So, as we part, I’ll offer some historical morsels of insight and modern remedies we can employ to keep costs in check.

R. Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, inventor, environmental processes designer, author, and futurist. He promoted the efficient use of resources, focusing on innovation and the need to reduce excess and waste. Fuller once said…

“Do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”

I believe there was some exaggeration meant there, but this line of thinking can also be applied to the product design stack.

To help keep our operating costs down, we can be more selective about which software we use, and focus on the programs that add the most value to our design process. We should research any program’s limitations before we begin a project. Canceling subscriptions may also result in discount opportunities too. We can weave in open source software like Blender for 3D, Gimp for photo editing, and Inkscape for vector graphics. Though we won’t, and probably shouldn’t, forgo the industry standards as they are necessary to collaborate and effectively work, we must stay attentive to the changing tides as the next newcomer might crash into our design stack like a rogue wave.

What software have you stopped, or started using? What techniques do you use to streamline your product design workflow? Feel free to post a comment below. And, for those of you interested in learning more about me, find me on X, and LinkedIn, (you probably saw that coming) or reach me via my website at www.jonathanpatterson.com with any product design inquiries or questions.

With a knowing nod, I’m signing off.

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Jonathan Patterson

Senior Product Design Generalist: I'm the hidden expert behind your everyday digital experiences.