RDA 2008: Southwest

This summer, most of the country was panicking
as the price of gas hovered around
$4 per gallon. But in Texas, the whirling
numbers at the pump looked more like cherries
lin ing up on a slot machine. The oil and
gas industry is flush, and windfall profits
have trickled down, buoying local economies—
including the design community.
“Being in Texas, the recession hasn’t hurt so
much,” says Mark Platt of Kendall Creative
in Dallas. “With my clients elsewhere, it’s
much different.” His sentiment was echoed
almost unanimously across Texas, where
even small design studios often count among
their clients energy companies or firms that
serve Big Oil. That isn’t true throughout the
Southwest. Arizona’s designers, for example,
have seen their billings drag. But other cities and regions at a remove from Dallas and
Houston, such as Austin and New Mexico,
have defied the national slump, thanks to
flourishing local industries.

Meanwhile, the Texas energy boom sits
oddly next to the year’s biggest trend: green
design. Even compared to years past, 2008
seemed to be the point at which mainstream
awareness (if not understanding) of sustainability issues reached a boiling point, and many companies are rushing to tout a burgeoning eco-consciousness. Consequently,
designers are adjusting to the role of educator—
walking the clients through all aspects
of green printing, for example, or sounding
a (gentle) alarm about greenwashing, with
the simple admonishment that clients
begin with legitimate claims to environmental
awareness. Brandon Murphy of Squires
Company in Dallas points out that clients
don’t necessarily know what certification
logos mean, “but they know the marketing
value. You can see why. Many of these
companies, especially oil and gas, have a lot
of attention on them. … And they have the
profits to do good.” Jim Mousner of Origin
Design in Houston notes a similar theme.
“There’s no question that there’s an explosion.
Our clients are asking questions they’ve never
asked before,” he says. But he also sees the
shadow of a bubble. “Is the message getting
diluted? Everyone’s seeing green, and it’s
no longer distinctive.”

Designers pointed to some subtle
aesthetic shifts at work. Arizona and New
Mexico have a deeply rooted folk-art vernacular.
At worst, this means purple sunsets,
coiled rattlesnakes, and the inextricable
pairing of teal and pink. But these motifs
were nowhere to be seen in the design submissions, which often seemed directed at
a savvy national audience, despite lean budgets.
As far as local tropes are concerned,
Texas was another story—the place seems
forever linked to cattle-brand logotypes and
ersatz charred edges. “You keep waiting for
that style to jump the shark, but it still gets
recombined in new ways,” says Murphy.

Still, a few sophisticated clients seem
to be shifting toward cleaner, more up-to-date
styles. “The marketers being hired are
younger and more relaxed about their corporate
feel,” says Linda Limb of Limb Design
in Houston. “They want to be innovative,
and they have better taste.” Cesar Sanchez,
of Imaginaria in Plano, a suburb of Dallas,
concurs: “Texas has always been about an
organic look. But things are simplifying.
And that makes having a bolder message
more important.”

Some people were willing to venture
a psychological explanation for the return
to simplicity. A troubling political situation
and news of an economic slowdown have
brought sober-minded design into vogue.
But there are practical reasons for the change
as well. For one, the lessons of uncluttered
design, as preached by Target and Apple,
have coalesced into common wisdom. Clients
are more receptive to boldness, in small
doses—bright colors or radically simplified
branding, for example. Of course, clean
design might simply be pragmatic. Branding
across many different media outlets requires
that every design be flexible. Colors and
logos must translate to the web and PDAs.
Less is more—and more versatile.

“Less” isn’t just an aesthetic trend—
there’s also the decline of print. Designers
consistently pointed out that clients are
calling for less printed matter—from annual
reports to branded collateral—preferring
instead to post material on their websites,
without the help of outside designers. Environmental
concerns are sometimes given
as the reason, but it really comes down to
money. Those who do order printed goods
have tried to lower costs by making arrangements
directly with printers, rather than
through graphic designers, or contractually
limiting fees for print supervision. Shrewd
designers have responded by trying to steer
clients toward more complex (and higher-billing)
online efforts. Meanwhile, another
former cash cow has run dry: Fewer and
fewer clients see the value of a commissioned
photo shoot. “Our clients are getting
smarter about the industry and photography,
so they’re going to the cheap stock agencies
themselves,” says Platt. “More and more,
we’re having to teach them about the value
of doing something custom.” In a region with
dynamic economies, designers have to keep
limber at all times; the ones represented here
have figured out more than a few tricks.

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of