RDA 2008: Introduction

It’s 3:15 p.m., a much anticipated, joyous moment in the workday for those of us at PRINT, for it signals the arrival of silence. Since early June, when we began producing this year’s Regional Design Annual, we’ve suffered through seven hours of daily nonstop blasting and hammering—the preliminaries for a 19-story hotel to be built adjacent to our office building in lower midtown Manhattan. The vibration from the machinery permeates our workspaces and rattles our physical beings with an intensity that feels as though it could loosen the fillings from our molars.

When work is completed next spring, the Gansevoort Park will open its doors and begin booking luxury rooms that start at $500 a night. In a city where hotel occupancy is up 7 percent from last year and the average price of a Manhattan apartment recently hit $1.4 million, it may appear as though somebody missed that memo about the economic downturn. Those of us working in the trenches
(or near them), however, know a reality that’s different
from the one spun by the gossip girls and real housewives
on TV. We have endless discussions about the rising
costs of food, transportation, and other necessities,
and about what will happen when a full-fledged recession
hits, the construction stops, the euro drops, and all
those empty hotel rooms are auctioned off on Priceline.

But still, we marvel at the unrelenting development
that surrounds us, even as we fear what lurks
around the corner (beyond the real danger of falling
sheet glass and crane cabs). All the clanging and banging
is annoyingly disruptive, but it’s also the sound
of continued economic growth and steely optimism—the
storm before the calm, if you will.

Many designers across the country experienced
this same sort of dissonance during the past year, and
they benefited for as long as they could. Quite a few of those we interviewed for this issue reported feeling
relatively flush in their business, especially the creatives
lucky enough to be located in thriving cities
least affected by the slump the subprime mortgage crisis
created, such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver; and
Seattle. And designers working in Dallas, Houston, and
other parts of Texas also received a boost from a strong
local economy fueled by huge profits generated in the
energy sector.

Those designers in markets hit harder by the
downturn were still finding they were able to grow
their businesses—albeit more slowly than in the recent
past—by offering nimble, cost-conscious solutions to
clients, thereby winning accounts away from their big-agency brethren. As the economy evolved, so did designers’
flexibility and range of skills, as they added
branding, photography, illustration, production, and
packaging to their menu of creative offerings. They were
also positioning themselves more definitively as a strategic
resource—a tactic that’s been discussed a lot in
the past five years but is being put more solidly into
action as times get tougher.

The latter strategy has become especially crucial
as designers nationwide work even harder to push their
clients toward the use of more sustainable materials and
processes. Many designers report that their clients were
gladly complying with—and even embracing—green design
initiatives, but, disappointingly, some of those clients
still view environmentally friendly design primarily in
terms of its marketing benefits.

Even so, designers’ focus on sustainability, for
their clients’ projects and in their own promotions, was
widely apparent in this year’s Regional, not only through
materials but also through an aesthetic that perpetuates
the use of nature-based images and theple asures of
handcrafted design. Overall, cleaner design still dominates—
no doubt continuing the influence of design-driven
retailers like Target and Apple—but, as several designers
suggest, bolder, streamlined work translates to the web
more easily. In this age, the ability to create solutions
that work efficiently across a range of media is
especially critical as budgets grow ever tighter.

It’s clear that the web has evolved from its supporting
role into print’s equal partner as a communications
tool. In publishing, especially, the rising costs
of paper, postage, and shipping have forced magazines to
cut pages and parlay lost content into an ever-expanding
digital arena. While one doesn’t doubt the value of
logging on to see daily updates on areas of interest or
the undeniable fun of reading blog posts, only time will
tell if people really will continue to migrate en masse
to the web for the majority of their reading, or if this
vision of the idyllic digital future is merely an excuse
for cost cutting.

For now, however, the volume of entries into
this year’s Regional Design Annual—a tribute to traditional
media if there ever was one—attests to the value
of print for delivering a tactile, portable, beautiful
message that can be easily read, referenced, and archived.
As the floodgates opened in April and the thousands
of boxes arrived in our office so that we could
sift through the tens of thousands of entries, eventually
winnowing them down to this year’s final selections,
we witnessed print in all its glory once again. For now,
we’ll pause during the cacophony going on next door to
toast this year’s 863 winners—and our cheers are still
louder than the din.

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of