RDA 2006: Southwest

By Angela Voulangas
We knew something was up. The first indication was a substantial
increase in submissions from all over the region; then, as we started
contacting the winners, they confirmed, with surprising consistency,
what we had started to suspect: Things are hot in the Southwest (and
we’re not talking about the weather). “I’m trying to
find time to respond to your email,” wrote Jeff Breazeale, a
partner at The Matchbox Studio in Dallas, “but I’ve been
buried under work—too busy!” Russ Wall of Squeeze in Phoenix
reports happily, “All of a sudden, we have a bunch of clients who
actually get it—and want it.” Practically all of the
designers who actually had a few spare moments to talk to us spoke with
enthusiasm about new prospects, new strategies, and packed schedules.

One of the factors fueling this design boom may be the uptick in the
local web market, which most of those canvassed described as
“huge.” Deuce Creative, a recent addition to the Houston
scene, has several web redesigns under way as clients have been asking
for the “next wave of online presence.” Linda Limb of Limb
Design, also in Houston, finds almost universally that clients are
“re-evaluating web strategies,” and becoming clearer and
more focused on their web-related goals. Explains Shannon Carter, the
president and chief creative officer of Austin’s Cartis Group,
“They’re much more search-engine-savvy, more
sophisticated.” Sites are being stripped down to basics and
rebuilt with more clear functionality and less busy, distracting
animation. Everyone agrees that users should not have to keep pressing
that “skip intro” button.

Back in the print world, there
was noticeable evidence of a “low-fi” look amid the
Southwest’s entries—two-color printing and uncoated stocks
appeared repeatedly. From Dallas-based Slant’s cleverly
streamlined letterhead to the fastidiously low-tech production of
Tulsa-based thinkdesignco’s John 3:16 Mission annual report (which
incorporated paper bags, cardboard and newsprint), these pieces wink at
the budget approach. Butler Looney, principal of Looney Design Lab in
Dallas, thinks his city is “loving paper” at the moment;
more than ever, he sees Dallas designers trying tip-ons and
out-of-the-way stocks. Tim McGrath and Sam Maclay of new design studio 3
in Albuquerque speak of the growing tendency to increase dimension in
print work through the use of handcrafted add-ons, embossing, and
perforations. Rough tactility was also rife in Albuquerque-based Thielan
Designs’ Art Center Design College “Poker Vite” and in
the many strong silkscreen works by Texans Dirk Fowler and Erick Montes,
among others. This is the kind of work that doesn’t scream
“special effect”; instead, it conveys a low-key

There may be reasons beyond stylistic synchronicity for
this pervasive tactile “craftiness.” Looney, for one, sees a
possible explanation in the “long period when people didn’t
want to spend money.” He remembers that as a time when designers
learned an important lesson: “So much can be done with so
little.” Unfortunately, there are clients who seem to remember
those days, too. Some designers comment that although there’s been
a steady rise in available work, clients have grown used to the smaller
budgets and lower fees of those leaner times. Thielen Designs references
this enforced design-on-a-shoestring aesthetic by “slashing
prices” and making a witty identity system out of a
bargain-basement retail tag.

On another stylistic note, Aimee Smith,
of Deuce Creative, speaks of what she sees as design’s shift away
from many years of minimalism toward the more ornate. She sees plenty of
room for integrated ornamentation “even on corporate
levels.” The firm’s sleek pieces for chemical concern
Champion Technologies layer mechanical line drawings of “machinery
found out in the field” in a range of unusual color choices.
It’s a surprising visual direction for a Houston-based company
that one would otherwise assume would stay well within the traditional
corporate arena. Speaking of which, it should be mentioned that, while
handmade style and ornamentation have obviously become well-rooted,
clean, business-oriented design continues to be well represented in this
year’s Regional, as embodied in such entries as the MedSynergies
brochure from Dallas firm MasonBaronet. With business and development on
the rise across the Southwest, such pieces should be ensured a place for
years to come.

Other trends in the Southwest design community will
probably prove more fleeting. For instance, it seems highly unlikely
that we’ll see another period when, as happened this year, more
than one designer felt the urge to reflect on things tonsorial.
Commenting on a certain aesthetic in his area, Jim Foley of Loudthought
in Dallas proclaims, “The new men’s hairstyles, and
beards—bad!” At the same time, just 196 Texan miles away,
Bryan Keplesky of Austin-based Door Number 3 asserts (probably not with
a straight face), “I’ve found that if you have a mustache it
adds a certain air of sophistication to your work.” That’s
the Southwest this year: finding strength through difference.