RDA 2006: New York City

“I think we should finally put a stake through the heart of the
bloodless, objective view of graphic design as a problem-solving
activity,” says Brian Collins, executive creative director of
Ogilvy & Mather’s Brand Innovation Group. “We’re more
than plumbers, and we’re more than the local Roto-Rooter guy. We
should be inventing things, not trying to plug holes in people’s

That spirit of transcending the banal
was a defining quality of “artisanal” work created by New
York City design firms in 2005, evidenced by projects in which designers
carefully fashioned each detail of texture, ornamentation, illustration,
and type. Collins speculates that such work “recognizes that any
time you create something, you bring your own personal point of view to
it, and in fact, the communication becomes amplified when your passion
is involved with it.” Examples ranged from Sony BMG Music’s
box set of the Johnny Cash oeuvre to an identity system and packaging
created by Mucca Design for the restaurant Sant Ambroeus, a traditional
Milanese eatery.

Mucca, in particular, brought a level of
minutiae-focused artistry and production sophistication to all its
design projects, five of them shown in these pages. The firm created two
custom typefaces for the exquisitely printed Sant Ambroeus packaging and
did the same for the cover and interior of One Letter Words, an
ingenious dictionary by Craig Conley. “I like to have work that
feels crafted,” observes Matteo Bologna, Mucca’s founder and
creative director, “from the genesis of the design to the final
moment when somebody touches the piece and discovers some interesting
paper or some interesting printing technique.”

By most reports,
New York design firms had a very good year during 2005. Bologna’s
studio moved to new offices and expanded from seven designers to
sixteen. Collins had so much business, he says, “I couldn’t
stay on top of it.” Brooklyn-based mgmt. design had steady growth
in ’05, and added exhibition design to its many offerings. Alicia
Cheng, one of mgmt.’s founding partners, notes proudly, “We
had repeat customers, larger contracts, and new clients.” Projects
for the studio included information-design pieces for the New York Times
Op-Ed page as well as ongoing work for the International Center of

Of course, not everyone had a resounding success in
2005. Good Graphic Designer’s Jose A. Contreras was pining for
more work, a sentiment he expressed in a charming postcard showing empty
toilet-paper rolls that form the words, “I’m Bored
Here.” A-Men Project’s Kapo Ng, designer of the hauntingly
poetic cover for the Nicole Krauss novel The History of Love, also
wasn’t as busy as he wanted to be. But this was only because,
after leaving a full-time position at Random House to freelance, Ng
hadn’t yet had a chance to create a self-promotion. Fortunately,
since Krauss’s critically admired novel did so well in bookstores
and on the publicity circuit, Ng’s cover became a de facto calling

Magazine illustrators and editorial designers did stellar work
during 2005, but there was nothing that suggested the beginning of a new
era in editorial design. Book covers provided both delight and
disappointment. Susan Mitchell, senior vice president and art director
at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, admits that she’s been
“feeling hungry for something different,” but didn’t
notice any identifiable trends in ’05. She recently did an
informal study of bestsellers. Her conclusion? “Nothing new to
report except that religion and dogs sell,” she says. “The
design front was rather sad. Can only small-run ‘niche’
titles afford groundbreaking, high-concept design? The public will never
grow their tastes if they are served the same old fare.”

thing that has gone unmentioned in previous surveys of New York design
is the continually compelling work done by MTV and other divisions of
Viacom. Like, loathe, or envy them, the Viacom design corps create work
attuned to the zeitgeist. In a promotion created by G2 Worldwide, Kmart
showed an aspiration toward that sensibility, typically monopolized in
big-box retailing by Target.

Another trend apparent in this
year’s entries is the very particular esthetic of Brooklyn
designers. Though mgmt.’s Cheng resisted the classification, work
from Brooklyn seemed edgier—more conceptual, perhaps—than
Manhattan design. Projects such as City That Bleeds’ apparel
designs and sichtwerk’s limited-edition book 13 Riddles, 13
felt as though they emerged from a distinctly separate design

About the online forums that are now shaping the
contemporary design discourse, many New York City designers, while
offering praise for sites such as Speak Up and various book-cover
showcases including covers.fwis.com, felt ambivalent. “The
discourse tends to be too marginal, too bitchy, and far too
whiny,” observes Collins. “What I hope is that the hype
could become a tool for politicizing the design community around issues
that are more important than trying to argue whether or not someone
liked the thickness of a serif on a new logo.”