RDA 2008: Far West

Hold the buzzwords, please. Organic, slow
food, no-impact, corporate responsibility, carbon
footprint, DIY—designers out West have
been talking this talk and walking this walk
for years. What was once a unique way of life
for Westerners is becoming the norm around
the country. From Denver and Los Angeles to
Bozeman, Montana, and Boise, Idaho, designers
are reporting a banner year for work
that not only looks good but feels good, too.

With a recession looming, however,
Western design firms are staying small and
diversifying. Bozeman-based Entropy Brands
has been able to combat the downturn by
offering more services, such as commercial
production, photography, and custom packaging.
Doug Lowell, executive creative director of ID Branding in Portland, says the
agency completely changed its direction and
aspirations, which meant finding new clients
who were more interested in partnering with
an agency rather than using it as a vendor.
“With our clients today, we are working on
big-picture initiatives, and are more engaged
at a strategic level, rather than a tactical
one, and doing creative work that is far more
ambitious,” he says.

In San Francisco, Katie Jain and Joel
Templin started a new firm (Hatch Design) and
created their own wine brand (JAQK Cellars).
Los Angeles–based studio Commune has been
carving out time to address product development
for its own Commune brand which, in
the early stages, will include furniture, lighting,
textiles, and accessories. “Let’s just say we’re
happily very busy!” says partner and creative
director Roman Alonso.

The “d-word” did eventually find its
way into client meetings. “At the end of 2007,
the economic downturn became even more
noticeable,” says David Stoyan Wooters of
Stoyan Design in Costa Mesa, California. “Our
clients were starting to feel it. Some of our
retail and consumer clients were preparing
for large layoffs.” A few small shops have
managed to turn the economic slowdown
to their advantage. “We have benefited
from accounts from larger companies that
are looking for less costly solutions,” says
Jonathan Schoenberg, partner at TDA in
Boulder, Colorado.

Despite the bad news, work from major
industries out West held steady, and even in
the wake of the writers’ strike, Hollywood
seems eternally resilient. “The entertainment
industry is fairly healthy compared with other
types of businesses in our country right now,”
says Doug Lloyd, marketing director at Lionsgate
in Los Angeles. And believe it or not, the
recording industry is not dead, cautions Don
Clark of Invisible Creature in Seattle. “We
are finding that many bands are coming to us
direct, skipping the label altogether,” he says.
Designers even report a backlash to the digital
revolution with an increase in poster and
vinyl art. “The one exciting thing I see is more
recordings out on vinyl,” says poster designer
Jason Munn of The Small Stakes in Oakland,
California. “It’s nice to see that again.”

The trend rippled down the coast to
Los Angeles, where The Journal of Aesthetics
and Protest
released a remarkable series
of short-run publications. Jessica Fleischmann,
the Journal’s designer, argues that print is
a visual opportunity, especially for expressive
type. “Print is still the most efficient method
for delivering design,” she says. In 2007, San
Francisco–based Meatpaper tapped into a
less-is-more zeitgeist for their journal of meat
culture. “Our pared-down layout and typography
allow the writing and visuals to speak
for themselves,” says co-editor Sasha Wizansky.
And the public is paying attention. Jen Bilik,
creative director of the Venice, California-based firm Knock Knock, calls it the “aesthetic
revolution”: Consumers are appreciating (and
demanding) tactile details like letterpress,
even on mass-market items.

And then there’s that other revolution.
“Almost all of our clients are concerned with
sustainability in a real way,” says Schoenberg.
“At this point, they don’t even brag about it
because it is so expected.” Firms from Fort
Collins, Colorado, to San Diego say that clients
are ready and willing to pay extra for recycled,
uncoated, or post-consumer stock. “At the
same time, we have found that a lot of clients
view it as a marketing ploy rather than a moral
issue,” says Ryan Goodwin, co-president of
Struck in Salt Lake City. Some of Struck’s
clients, Goodwin says, eschew “going green”
because they’re afraid their message will get
lost in a sea of sustainability.

Designers out West are also taking
pro bono work to the next level by working
with causes they care about, and small (or
young) firms are realizing this is a great way
to get noticed. “We have a bit of a reputation
for working with nonprofits to help them
telegraph their messages in unique ways,” says
Jeremy Mende of San Francisco’s MendeDesign. Case in point: Mende produced a book
that opens from each side, with its narratives
meeting in the middle, to represent the mission
of The 1%, an organization that connects
architects and nonprofits.

So call it what you will: eco, green,
sustainable, ethical, politically motivated, socially
conscious. “Isn’t it just called ‘being a
good person’?” muses Christopher Simmons
of MineSF. “Yes, we pick projects differently
now. We still work for banks and ad agencies,
but we spend most of our time working for
groups concentrating on creating a long-term
benefit to humanity. We’ve structured our
fees and overhead in a way that allows us to
do the kind of work we want to do.”

Once again, it appears that the West
is on to something.

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of