RDA 2008: Midwest

“My work ethic, process, and philosophy
are all born from my Midwestern roots,”
says Eric Kass of Funnel in Indianapolis. It’s
a pride that is echoed by designers across
the region. Midwesterners benefit from the
many advantages of living in the middle of
the country, including an enviably low cost
of living. But it’s been a tough year as well,
one that included flooding, real-estate woes,
and a general financial slowdown. “Stuck in
the middle with no voice, no coast; nothing
but a river and a shoreline,” sings The Ike
Reilly Assassination, a Chicago band whose
name appears on a poster from One Lucky
Guitar of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Matt Kelley,
the poster’s designer, cites these lyrics as a
testament to the people who make do and
make it happen in the Midwest.

Most everyone surveyed for this
“state of the region” expressed a carefully
measured optimism. Things are holding
steady and business is generally good, but
“cautious and realistic” describes the mood
of most designers, says Katie Kirk of Minneapolis’s
Eighthourday. Derek Sussner of
Sussner Design Company, another Minneapolis
firm, agrees. “We are secretly bracing
for a slowdown and trying to be frugal
with spending where it makes sense,” he
says. “However, we are enthusiastic and optimistic
about next year.”

Across the Midwest, designers note
the capability of small firms to succeed where
larger companies struggle. “The ability to
move like a speedboat versus a cruise ship is
turning out to be the desired approach,” says
Jay Miller, creative director at Minneapolis’s
Imagehaus. Eric Kass points out that a small,
streamlined studio has “the power to be fluid,
adapt able, and diversified—but focused.”

Even clients are getting sharper. Several
designers are thrilled that they can now
go places that were previously off-limits,
within typically conservative assignments.
They are enjoying “an environment where
clients are willing to sign off on concepts
that three or four years ago they were not,”
says Indianapolis designer Matt Ganser of
Foundry. Matt Kelley loves the increasing
openness toward “the weird, the wild, and
the wacky. You don’t have to sneak it in
any longer,” he says.

“As designers we have the obligation
to make change and use creativity to drive
our clients to success,” says Stefan Hartung
of HartungKemp Design Agency. According
to Chicago’s Guy Villa, more clients are receptive
to suggestions of environmentally
friendly papers and vendors. “In my own practice,
I am making efforts to incorporate the
reuse or alternative use of found or normally
discarded materials,” he says.

“Designers can’t just be designers
anymore,” says Rob Jackson, principal
at Extra Credit Projects in Grand Rapids,
Michigan. In these lean times, branding,
tech development, consulting, even interior
design are increasingly expected to be involved in a firm’s services. Ken Hejduk of
Cleveland’s Little Jacket posits, “As both
the public and private sector start to rethink
how they plan the future, it seems likely
that smaller, smarter firms with a fresh perspective
on marketing and a more integrated
approach to communication and problem-solving
will be chosen as partners.”

Revitalized small- and medium-size
towns across the Midwest help create desirable,
design-friendly communities. “When
people move here they fall in love with how
easy it is to live in the Midwest, and they stay
for quite some time,” says Tad Carpenter of
Kansas City, Missouri.

Technology, obviously, allows for
a global business to exist just about anywhere.
“Regions and states don’t seem to
matter anymore in the age of websites,” says
Neal Aspinall from his illustration studio in
Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Praising his reliable
internet connection, Michael Stanard, of
One Zero Charlie in McHenry County in rural
Illinois, owns and operates a small airport—
as well as his design company—on the land
of a former dairy farm; his studio is in a
building off the runway.

Straight economics plays the largest
role in this trend. “Designers moving to
the Midwest enjoy being able to work at a
respectable agency and save money for
traveling, advanced education, entertainment,
and buying a home,” says Joe Napier
of Cincinnati. Though gas prices remain
enviably low in Missouri, even a one-person
studio suffers from the high cost of shipping,
a trickle-down effect of inflation at the pump.
“It’s my only complaint, as I send many of
my posters all over the world,” says Springfield, Missouri, letterpress artist Doug Wilson
of On Paper Wings.

This year, we noticed an abundance of
layered and three-dimensional entries: paper
cutouts, added-on bits of tape or tags, fold-your-
own origami toys, rotating circles of
multilayered cardstock for a wheel of fortune.
Cleverness, wit, and a childlike playfulness
recurred throughout the submissions, along
with an ’80s-inspired return to the hottest
of hot fluorescent oranges and pinks. The
aesthetic good mood is welcomed, since
uncertainty, mixed with hope, looms. “We
keep trekking along with one eye down the
path and one looking for a safe place to land
if we fall,” says Clint! Runge, of Archrival in
Lincoln, Nebraska. Katie Kirk has a back-up
tack: “It’s never bad to plan for a rainy day or
know what to pawn.”

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of