RDA 2006: Midwest

Just by driving north through the Midwest and looking out the car
window, one can feel the pace of the design business slacken as the
miles go by. In Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the weather and business
are hot. Through Ohio, manufacturing plants are shuttered. Entering
Michigan and Minnesota, one senses a recovery, but the economy
hasn’t quite returned to where it was a decade ago.

Sussner, founder of Sussner Design Company, says that business in
Minneapolis is steady or flat. But he’s optimistic: Firms in his
area that almost went under have righted themselves and are actively
searching for new projects. Better yet, his customers are doing well.
“We’ve gotten calls from clients we haven’t heard from
in three or four years who are ready to update,” he says.

Thares of Wink, Minneapolis, reports that the firm’s tempo is
about the same as last year but says he’s encouraged: He and
partner Richard Boynton are now working with higher-profile clients. He
adds that new design companies continue to open up in Minnesota, so
there seems to be enough work for everyone.

For Planet Propaganda in
Madison, Wisconsin, the fastest growth is in film and motion graphics.
Clients want multiple applications—broadcast, online, sales
presentations—for their money, says principal Kevin Wade. But some
clients aren’t comfortable with the costs of such projects.
“It’s all new to them,” Wade observes. “But
they’re slowly gravitating to it.”

In smaller markets like
Sioux City, Iowa, offices such as Jeff Gordon Advertising are finding
clients outside of their immediate areas. Local, smaller businesses
often can’t afford to hire an agency to do their design work,
Gordon notes.

For BBK, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the pace of business
has picked up since 2005, reports partner Yang Kim. Furniture clients
are coming back, and there’s much more web work. BBK is hiring
again, and good people are in high demand in the area. “We may
have to resort to a headhunter,” she says.

When a locale is
perceived to be remote, it can be hard to find just the right person
with just the right qualifications. In fact, several principals we spoke
to asked that their ongoing, fruitless searches for qualified designers
be publicized through this article. “Only brilliant people need
apply,” said one, not entirely in jest. A firm in Indiana has
hired an additional person every six to eight weeks for all of

Ohio firms, which in the past few years have suffered very hard
times, are staffing up again, too. But taking on new personnel is a
gradual process. One art director noted that her Columbus studio can
draw talent from the East Coast, but keeping positions filled is a game
of musical chairs.

Creatives willing to dip their toes into new waters
seem to be multiplying. For instance, many Midwestern designers noted
that they had had their first experiences with environmental design only

“We’ve seen a big increase in brand development
and environmental graphics,” says Arlene Watson, art director at
Cleveland’s Möbius Grey. The trick here is to help clients find
new solutions to old problems, says Walt Herrip of Herrip Associates in
Peninsula, Ohio. “Now we’re designing ‘messaging
boards’ along freeways. We used to call those

Some kinds of projects have simply
gone away, all or in part, across the Midwest—among them,
luxurious annual reports; stationery systems (a business card will do);
catalogs and sales brochures (easier to put them on the internet);
broadcast graphics; and larger print runs of just about everything.

Chicago, Steve Liska reports that membership in creative organizations
seems to be at an all-time high. “There is more of
cross-pollination among photographers, ad people, and designers where
these people used to be more siloed. We’re realizing that we all
rely on each other and have even been partnering with other firms such
as sign manufacturers to get the work done,” he says.

City’s First Fridays continue to be an enormous draw to local
creatives, and KC’s Ad Club and AIGA get rave reviews for their
efforts to inform, enlighten, and amuse the community. The art, design,
and music worlds all mesh here: There are several events and openings
every month, and many designers do double-duty as fine artists, fashion
designers, musicians, or work in other creative fields, according to
Sarah Smitka of The Pink Pear Design Company in Independence, Missouri.
Her mother and sister, both inspired by the local scene, are studying
for their design degrees now and will soon join Smitka’s

Nebraska, too, is finding success in pulling its creative
communities together. A recent show in Lincoln of 400 music posters
brought in 2,000 visitors in two weeks.

Finally, it’s worth
noting that after years of talent being bled away to both coasts, the
process has started to reverse: Seeking more affordable lifestyles and
real estate, designers are moving to the Midwest. “There are a lot
of people who have moved here from other big-time agencies in Dallas,
Las Vegas, and so on,” says Tony Fannin, creative director of
2Fold in Indianapolis.

Some are coming home; some are looking for