RDA 2006: Far West

Western designers, with their mellow rhythm and keen enjoyment of the
outdoors, may be the only people I’ve heard use the phrase
“quality of life” with such authority and frequency. It was
true even after the high-tech boom—based in the West—went
bust a few years ago, and it’s especially true now: The designers
represented in the following pages unanimously report good business.

“Good business,” however, means more than just additional
revenue. Peggy Burke, creative director and principal of 1185 Design in
Palo Alto, California, says that clients were not as willing to take
risks during the recession. “We can’t do brilliant work when
they’re in that mode,” she says. But as of 18 months ago,
her clients began to “invest in high-end design again, so
we’re relieved.” In San Diego, Sallie Reynolds Allen of
Reynolds + Allen observes, “Clients are more open than before;
they’re not pulling the reins so hard.”

If clients are
more open to designers’ creative impulses, they are also more
demanding. Victor Rodriguez, one of the owners of eurie creative in Las
Vegas, reports that in recent years, budgets have shrunk while the
requirements have remained the same. He attributes this to consolidation
of Vegas casinos. “Now, three companies own The Strip,” he
says. “There’s less competition, so budgets are
smaller.” This dynamic is affecting bigger markets, too. In San
Francisco, Vince Engel of ad agency BuderEngel and Friends says his
clients are “screaming poverty—they spend less and expect

Another demand is speed, even in laid-back San Diego,
where Josh Higgins works at Miriello Grafico. He says that turnaround
times are accelerated now. “Clients need more and they need it
faster.” But he’s come to terms with this arrangement.
“It teaches us to be more efficient.” Up the road in Laguna
Beach, Tim Vangilder, a designer at high-end bicycle-components maker
crankbrothers, agrees that the pace has picked up there as well.
“Growth is happening here,” he notes.

In fact,
crankbrothers is exemplary of the Western trend toward more in-house
design. Up in Sacramento, Casey Catlett of Maloof Sports & Entertainment
says that more companies are realizing that it’s beneficial to
have a design team in-house. Why? “It’s easier,” he
says. “Turnaround is quick.” Robert Nakata, design director
of the boutique ad agency 72andSunny in El Segundo, California, finds
that the rise in excellent in-house work by Nike and others challenges
the old, client-makes-widgets/ agency-is-creative status quo.
“Who’s the creative now? The landscape is more
muddied,” he says. While it’s always been true that good
work reflects a good client, he concludes, “It’s more
literal now.” Steve Whittier of Denver’s Factory Design Labs
says some of the best work he sees is done in-house, because it’s
“organic to the company’s culture and not

As a whole, designers in the West report,
as they did last year, that graphic design has become more visual than
ever, and that the balance between the field’s two core
elements—images and words—has tilted heavily toward images.
Stan Byers, an art director at The Rose Glenn Group, a Reno ad agency,
has followed and embraced this change. He’s been buying Art
Directors Club publications from the ’70s and ’80s on eBay
that illustrate this difference: “Back then, the headline was the
art.” But in his agency, he says, “Copy is not king. Being
more visually oriented makes it easier to jump into broadcast and Flash
on the web, where the payoff is more visual than copy-driven.” The
production values in the pre-digital age were particularly suited for
ads that relied heavily on copy. Now, new tools, serving a new medium,
allow more aggressively visual work. But Steve Whittier, who is an art
director on the advertising side of things, is less sanguine.
“There’s not a lot of great body copy,” he says.
Instead, “Everyone comes up with some crazy visual
solution—cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”

epicenter of this rumbling is found in Santa Monica and Venice,
California, where young designers in motion-graphics studios are forging
what Brad Bartlett, who runs his own studio and teaches at Art Center
College of Design in Pasadena, describes as a new ethos in which the
visual effect is much more important than content. “It
becomes the content,” he says.

While experienced
designers are impressed, even awed, by the emerging talent, they
complain that the younger generation suffers a serious weakness in
typography. Peggy Burke says that young designers’
“technical skills are incredible,” but that their work often
lacks “Design 101” elements such as an underlying grid to
organize type. “They just stick it on a page,” she says. Not
literally, of course, but with software, on a screen. Vince Engel echoes
this sentiment: “It’s all ‘Set to Fit,’ and
whatever comes out is fine these days.”

As our world rewards
speed and ease, is artful language in design and advertising, then, a
dying art? Steve Watson, of the Seattle-based design firm Turnstyle,
proposes a synthesis of the old school and the new “Set to
Fit” approach: “I’d challenge students to see
letterforms visually, as pieces of 2-D sculpture, as pieces of
art like photography and other imagery. Graphic design always has been
and will be the meshing of words and images.”