RDA 2006: South

By Eve Kahn
A renowned chronicler of his native South, Faulkner declared, “The
past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” But in the graphic
design realm, at least, his summary now seems dead wrong. The
region’s design scene has never been more globalized, more
aggressively up-to-the-minute, less nostalgic or hidebound. Southern
designers, whether based in bustling capitals or remote hamlets, just
want to talk about how they serve clients worldwide with solutions that
build brands rather than boutique signatures.

“In this region,
you don’t necessarily have the luxury of developing your own
style,” says Brad White, the executive creative director at Luckie
& Co. in Birmingham, Alabama. “We have to work harder to make
believers out of people. We’re proving to clients that really
smart work can come out of Birmingham. There’s a geographic
impediment to how the South is perceived, conscious or

Luckie’s business is booming, White adds,
with clients as sizable as Blue Cross and BellSouth. And his colleagues
from Covington, Kentucky, to Key West likewise report healthy numbers.
In fact some have doubled their billings since 2004 or 2005 and need
more hands on board. “I just hired three more people and
I’ll probably add a few more by the end of the year,”
reports Julio Lima, head of Orlando’s say it loud!.
“We’ve developed an international look. Someone logging on
to the website won’t know immediately that we’re in Orlando.
I’d like them to think the work’s coming maybe from
Amsterdam or London.”

Even in Katrina-devastated areas, graphic
designers report profits at least holding steady, especially thanks to
non-Southern customers. “I haven’t heard of any studios that
closed down, but the freelancers seem to have all left town,”
notes Tom Varisco of the eponymous firm in New Orleans.
“We’re the same size we were before the storm. We’ve
been very lucky; we got back into our building 19 days after Katrina.
We’ve been able to focus on clients outside the area: Central Park
SummerStage, an investment fund in Los Angeles, a San Francisco owner of
French vineyards.”

Web promotions—“anything from
podcasting to viral videos,” says Ben Johnson of Memphis’s
Tactical Magic—are especially easy to produce for faraway
customers you’ve never met. “We’re finding clients are
more and more willing to engage with the more nimble forms of media, to
go outside their comfort zone,” reports Ron Randle, creative
director of Enventys in Charlotte. “We’re being
super-creative in stretching their dollars across broadcast, print,
radio, and online.”

Though the bulk of graphic-design revenue
for Southerners lately seems to come from other regions, the thriving
local real estate developers are also providing considerable business.
“When I got here in 1995, you wouldn’t even go to midtown,
let alone buy property there,” says W. Todd Vaught of sky design
in Atlanta. “Now midtown is booming, along with downtown and
Buckhead. With all the growth in Atlanta, there’s no better place
for a designer now.” The firm produced Deco-flavored, arched and
rounded environmental graphics for Atlantic Station, a 138-acre former
steel plant being turned into $2 billion worth of offices, residences,
stores, and hotels.

In the re-burgeoning downtowns and expanding
sub-divisions, the new roads are already lined with billboards.
“We’re doing more outdoor than ever,” Randle explains.
“It’s such a visible media vehicle. We worked for a church
that was moving into a new building, and with an emphasis on outdoor in
the campaign, the attendance numbers from the beginning have been off
the charts.” Restored buildings on Main Streets are meanwhile
filling with restaurants, spas, theaters, museums, and bars, all in need
of graphics. “You can make a living here from the club scene and
the zines alone,” says Michael Shavalier, art director of Miami
New Times
. The local agencies, he adds, are serving more customers
lately in Europe and South and Central America.

As the non-Southern
customers and practitioners flow in, and the images produced spread to
the far edges of the blogosphere, Southern design will undoubtedly look
ever more cosmopolitan. Southerners sound relieved about the fading of
local color, and in fact many interviewees practically bristled when
asked, “Is there a regional style?” The only observers sorry
about the globalization seem to be transplanted Yankees like David
Carson, who moved his studio from New York to Charleston in 2002.
He’s restless now, partly due to disappointment with the lack of
detectable regionalism, despite his own busy international

“I’ve redesigned a city magazine for Aspen,
I’m working on a magazine launch out of London, I’ve done
BMW posters, and I’ve got a big packaging commission for a new
line of fat-free snacks,” he says. “I wish I could tell you
there’s some great movement in the scene here, but there only
seems to be motion or energy in the letterpress one-off posters. I hate
to see the trend continuing of real solid B-level work that could come
from anywhere. I think you should be able to tell, when you look at
something, that it comes from South Carolina.”