RDA 2006: East

This native of the East is happy to report that the
region’s boom continues. “We’re
slammed,” says Kim Fox, a designer who also works as a
project manager at a Pittsburgh studio. “And when
you’re slammed and getting to do good work, you know
that’s a good indicator.” Up in Watertown,
Massachusetts, Michael McPherson of Corey McPherson Nash
agrees. “We’re getting lots of calls, lots of
leads,” he says. “We’re connecting with
clients at the right level. Whereas three years ago we’d
be getting calls from a junior assistant, now we’re
hearing from the VP of marketing.” Ronald Younts, design
director at Ashton Design in Baltimore, says that things have
been “almost too good.” Filling any new positions,
he says, could actually prove a challenge: “It’s
difficult to find great designers.”

Finding acceptable
clients, on the other hand, is going smoothly for most. Firms
of every size are adding clients and courting new kinds of
businesses. David Grigg, president and creative director of
Happy Dog Advertising in Bridgeport, Connecticut, just landed
the northeast distributor of Sub-Zero refrigerators, and says
this is a departure. “Our previous big client was in
interiors and furniture,” he says. “Our client base
has definitely changed a lot this year.” New genres of
work have also come to Alec Beckett, creative partner of
Providence-based Nail Communications: “We just started
working for a political candidate,” he reports.
“We’re doing it because political advertising is
famously horrible. We’ll probably produce the best
political advertising in Rhode Island!” Jake Lefebure,
co-owner of Design Army in Washington, D.C., is one of many who
has seen growth in an already familiar client sector:
“The hospitality industry is picking up,” he says.
“They all kind of know about us, and pass us
around.” Similarly, McPherson has gained work from
cultural organizations. “They’ve been struggling,
but they need the edge,” he says.

Clued-in clients (or
lack thereof) have long been part of the conversation with
designers in the East. Some in more rural locales remain
stereotypically recalcitrant: “Small clients, especially
in the Connecticut area, are all bottom-line,” says
Griggs. In the cities, the designers are seeing greater
investment in the process. “People seem to be more savvy, and to care about the work,” says Brian Liu,
principal at Toolbox Creative in D.C. “Clients used to
say ‘Just get it done.’” According to Rick
Heffner, principal at fuszion Collaborative in Alexandria,
“Clients are pushing us—they’re asking us to
one-up ourselves, whether it’s to redo an ad campaign or
launch an annual report.” Increased client awareness has
a dark side, though. Heffner says he misses being able to
make changes without letting the client in on the secret.
“They’ve become a little too savvy!” he
says. As Fox puts it, “Education of clients can go either
way—they can use it for your benefit or for

One worrying trend seems to bear this out:
Some clients have started to buy their own printing, often with
disastrous results. “We’re pretty much just handing
over files,” says Younts, decrying the loss of project
control. “We’re getting a lot fewer print sales
reps. They’re going straight to the clients.”
Heffner has also seen his clients try to take over printing.
“They don’t understand that the process
doesn’t stop once they hand over the disk,” he says. “You wouldn’t buy a Porsche and then get
it serviced at Joe’s Auto Body.”

Luckily, the
majority of clients seem to be steering clear of such mistakes.
“So far, I’ve not seen clients willing to forgo
quality for price,” says Brenda Brodsky, associate
creative director at Buck & Pulleyn in Pittsford, New York. A
few businesses are even insisting on more costly aspects of
production, especially when it comes to sustainable design. Fox
reports that some of her local clients have specifically asked
for recycled paper—they’re looking for a way to
give back, she says, and boost their image in the market at the
same time.

A growing interest in sustainability is just one
of many interesting recent developments in the Pittsburgh
community. Culturally and economically, the city seems to be
making a comeback. Says Fox, “There’s a sense of
optimism in Pittsburgh right now.” Robert Kiernan,
creative director of Actual Size Creative, agrees that
Pittsburgh is on the upswing, thanks to local designers who are
shaking off an overweening modesty. “People in other
cities aren’t afraid to do something flashy,” he
says. “Here, they were afraid to be boastful. I think
that’s changing.”

As for Eastern style, Jake
Lefebure says that there’s been a lot more illustration
over the past few years, and sees design getting “cleaner
and cleaner.” That can prove a mixed bag for young
designers looking to express themselves. “I try to submit
something a little funky, but my clients are more
conservative,” says Boston designer Kris Greene.
“They say, ‘I think it’s a good idea, but I
don’t think it’s gonna fly.’”
Ultimately, no one style is sweeping the region; and
that’s fine by Michael McPherson: “There
aren’t any big new trends,” he says. “And I
think that’s a good thing.”