You’re greedy and you don’t value your staff

Freelance designer Sandy Armitage explains the pitfalls of high-commission pay structures

I have spent three decades working within the luxury KBB retail market and have made a point of only working for independent specialists who pay a basic salary plus commission. True specialists, whose sales ethos is design-led for customer satisfaction – fewer clients, higher spend threshold, built on personal service.

Most multiples have absolutely nothing to do with the word ‘specialist’. They know their client is probably easily led. They work on the numbers game, pitching themselves at the low-to-middle market with plenty of targeted advertising.

For me, seeing a job advertised as ‘commission only’ says a number of things about a company:

  • It’s not design-led, but is a ruthless sales-led company. Creatives beware.
  • It’s about the company never taking the risk and the employee taking all of the risk.
  • It’s all about you meeting targets no matter how ropy the leads may be.
  • It’s going to be very stressful for you and you’ll probably be very unhappy.
  • You’re on your own and the system will ensure continued detachment.
  • Any errors will always be your fault and the company will look for any reason to not pay you, as you are the easy target.
  • Compassion for the client is not on the radar – the customer is a unit of worth.
  • Only shallow, greedy and desperate psychopaths need apply.
Sandy Armitage
Sandy Armitage

OK, I’m cynical but there are some truths in there.

However, I did agree to a ‘commission-only’ consultancy with Nicholas Anthony that netted me the best pay that I have ever known – but it came from having amassed a wealth of experience as a designer, having strong self-belief, knowing the brand, having a free rein to be creative and of knowing their proven volume and quality of client base.


In my experience, the truly happiest staff are paid a really decent basic salary plus commission and the company should employ designers who will sell. Creatives are essential in the ‘specialist’ market, because the individual client wants individual and personal service.

It’s not black and white. I think commission-only has its place. As I said, it worked for me, but I had already worked for Tony Nicholas for five years on a basic plus commission basis, so we knew each other’s ‘ways’ very well. I went on to work for him for a further four years on commission only and they were great times, but I think commission only has become too much the norm and greedy companies who don’t value their staff use it to dangle the carrot.

There is an awful lot of bulls**t going on out there. Look at some of those who manufacture and sell their own bespoke, handmade furniture… they’re always recruiting. Why is that, children? Sure as eggs is eggs, they will be horrid and soulless to work for because the ‘designers’ will simply be homogenised CAD box-round-the-room throwers.

That’s why I have stuck to quality independents. Big enough to cater for the client’s demands and small enough to care.

Once one has a wealth of experience across the board, has a responsible, capable and robust mentality (high enough placed to imagine being the boss) and one is not purely driven by greed for more money and cares about the detail and the client – that is the time to consider commission only.

I should also respond here to designer Nicholas McColgan of Snug Kitchens in Newbury [kbbreview, November, pgs 88-90]. His idea about a “sliding scale” of pay, based upon client satisfaction, seemed like a horrible idea. That to me sounded like he’d not really learnt anything from his ‘commission-only’ experiences.

Client satisfaction is so subjective. After working hard to build the client rapport, the good could be lost in a heartbeat. How well the project concludes is based upon a vast number of factors that could have nothing to do with the designer and are out of their control.

The designer’s job is already an incredibly responsible one. They have a constant expectation to deliver the perfect project and have nowhere to hide with any errors scrutinised, whether it’s their error or someone else’s.

Give it a rest, Nicholas. Just pay your staff, there’s a good chap.

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