RDA 2007: Intro

Each year, during the final weeks of closing PRINT’s Regional Design Annual—an issue we’ve affectionately dubbed “our September Vogue”—I gather all 200-plus pages of the competition and go through them one last time. After five months of collecting, judging, organizing, designing, reporting, editing, and fact-checking, it’s time to step back and assess what this issue reveals about the overall picture of design and business across the country. My editorial inclination is to look for the dramatic in the words and pictures—the sweeping statement, the grand gesture.

As it turns out, the biggest story this year was the small one. Designers across the country noticed that businesses and their employees gravitated toward the smaller—not just smaller budgets and project sizes (though both are a reality for many), but a more compact, scaled-down, and personal approach to work and life. It’s a truism that clients assume that small shops have a creative edge over larger ones, and many designers reported a real surge of interest in those more diminutive firms in 2007, leading some to set up boutiques within their company and others to flee big agencies to start their own enterprises.

Many U.S. designers also pointed to the emergence of small, nimble groups of freelancers who assemble in powerful teams to complete one-off creative projects or provide special services like qualitative market research. And clients, conscious of the proliferation of media channels competing for viewers’ attention, are clamoring for smaller, shallower websites—microsites—to make a bigger splash with individual product promotions.

The skyrocketing costs of real estate in major cities, particularly those urban centers on the coasts, have fueled the growth of many smaller markets across the country. That’s a boon for designers who prefer to live, work, and teach outside the 212 or 310 area codes. Midsize cities like Philadelphia, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Kansas City, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City are revitalizing downtown areas and attracting new businesses, sports teams, and cultural institutions—all of which require identity programs, websites, and printed collateral to reach new demographics. Designers in these cities are not only enjoying these fresh work opportunities but are playing key roles in forming and developing the creative and cultural populations in those areas.

Not surprisingly, having a deeper level of community engagement has elevated designers’ standard of living, sense of well-being, and awareness of important local and national issues. A major facet of all those concerns is the fate of the environment, both global and local. In previous years, designers were often frustrated in their goal of providing greener solutions for clients, because of financial and technological obstacles. This year, we’re glad to report, there was ample evidence that American designers are using impassioned and informed arguments about sustainability to steer clients toward more responsible choices in inks, paper, and materials.

Visually, too, a serious engagement with the environment manifested itself in the abundance of natural-themed visual motifs throughout our six regions. A tree grew in Brooklyn—and in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and countless other areas. Trees are appearing not only on book covers, company stationery, and newspaper pages with a clear environmental connection, but also in store logos, T-shirts, calendars, and greeting cards. Meanwhile, birds continue to enjoy their popularity as a hip, nature-evoking device; they’re flocking and pecking on CD packages, music posters, gift tags, ads, and self-promotional booklets.

The predilection for outdoor imagery dovetails with designers’ continuing worship of ornamentation and elaborate script—here, decorating shopping bags, indie-band record covers, magazine layouts, and promotions for design schools. It’s as though designers want to lead us into a visual thicket of leaves, fleurons, swashes, and curlicues; a forest of layer and detail. Perhaps anxiety about the fate of the natural world and fear of looming corporations can be alleviated with a bit of intricate pattern and flourishing type—reassuring evidence of the hand of the individual, human designer in the work as well as a resurgent need to let things be open to expressive interpretation.

The most unexpected trend the PRINT staff and Regional judges observed this year, however, is that of the silhouetted head, the striking 18th-century art form that recalls a time before machines could record the human face. Silhouettes were everywhere, from dinner plates in Minneapolis to business cards in New York City. In Portland, Oregon, Dotzero Design combined all three of this year’s signature images—birds, heads, and trees—into one beautiful logo, composed of a head in profile made of branches with a single bird perched on a limb. What to make of this cerebral affair, this conjoining of man and nature? Perhaps in some way, it’s a celebration of the vision of one person, of the essence of creativity, of a new rootedness. Designers around the country seem to be turning inward to a quieter, more grounded place. For the viewer, the result is a calming sense of vast possibility. The number one may be a small figure, but it’s certainly not the loneliest. Together with more than 1,025 others in this issue, the single silhouette becomes a powerful statement of many wonderful minds converging, unified and bound together with a common goal: to make beautiful objects, keep the clients happy, and treat kindly the planet where we live and work.


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