RDA 2006: Far West

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—Western designers, with their mellow rhythm and keen enjoyment of theoutdoors, may be the only people I’ve heard use the phrase“quality of life” with such authority and frequency. It wastrue even after the high-tech boom—based in the West—wentbust a few years ago, and it’s especially true now: The designersrepresented in the following pages unanimously report good business.

“Good business,” however, means more than just additionalrevenue. Peggy Burke, creative director and principal of 1185 Design inPalo Alto, California, says that clients were not as willing to takerisks during the recession. “We can’t do brilliant work whenthey’re in that mode,” she says. But as of 18 months ago,her clients began to “invest in high-end design again, sowe’re relieved.” In San Diego, Sallie Reynolds Allen ofReynolds + Allen observes, “Clients are more open than before;they’re not pulling the reins so hard.”

If clients are more open to designers’ creative impulses, they are also moredemanding. Victor Rodriguez, one of the owners of eurie creative in LasVegas, reports that in recent years, budgets have shrunk while therequirements have remained the same. He attributes this to consolidationof Vegas casinos. “Now, three companies own The Strip,” hesays. “There’s less competition, so budgets aresmaller.” This dynamic is affecting bigger markets, too. In SanFrancisco, Vince Engel of ad agency BuderEngel and Friends says hisclients are “screaming poverty—they spend less and expectmore.”

Another demand is speed, even in laid-back San Diego,where Josh Higgins works at Miriello Grafico. He says that turnaroundtimes are accelerated now. “Clients need more and they need itfaster.” But he’s come to terms with this arrangement.“It teaches us to be more efficient.” Up the road in LagunaBeach, Tim Vangilder, a designer at high-end bicycle-components makercrankbrothers, agrees that the pace has picked up there as well.“Growth is happening here,” he notes.

In fact,crankbrothers is exemplary of the Western trend toward more in-housedesign. Up in Sacramento, Casey Catlett of Maloof Sports & Entertainmentsays that more companies are realizing that it’s beneficial tohave a design team in-house. Why? “It’s easier,” hesays. “Turnaround is quick.” Robert Nakata, design directorof the boutique ad agency 72andSunny in El Segundo, California, findsthat the rise in excellent in-house work by Nike and others challengesthe old, client-makes-widgets/ agency-is-creative status quo.“Who’s the creative now? The landscape is moremuddied,” he says. While it’s always been true that goodwork reflects a good client, he concludes, “It’s moreliteral now.” Steve Whittier of Denver’s Factory Design Labssays some of the best work he sees is done in-house, because it’s“organic to the company’s culture and not‘adsy.’”

As a whole, designers in the West report,as they did last year, that graphic design has become more visual thanever, and that the balance between the field’s two coreelements—images and words—has tilted heavily toward images.Stan Byers, an art director at The Rose Glenn Group, a Reno ad agency,has followed and embraced this change. He’s been buying ArtDirectors Club publications from the ’70s and ’80s on eBaythat illustrate this difference: “Back then, the headline was theart.” But in his agency, he says, “Copy is not king. Beingmore visually oriented makes it easier to jump into broadcast and Flashon the web, where the payoff is more visual than copy-driven.” Theproduction values in the pre-digital age were particularly suited forads that relied heavily on copy. Now, new tools, serving a new medium,allow more aggressively visual work. But Steve Whittier, who is an artdirector on the advertising side of things, is less sanguine.“There’s not a lot of great body copy,” he says.Instead, “Everyone comes up with some crazy visualsolution—cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”

The epicenter of this rumbling is found in Santa Monica and Venice,California, where young designers in motion-graphics studios are forgingwhat Brad Bartlett, who runs his own studio and teaches at Art CenterCollege of Design in Pasadena, describes as a new ethos in which thevisual effect is much more important than content. “Itbecomes the content,” he says.

While experienceddesigners are impressed, even awed, by the emerging talent, theycomplain that the younger generation suffers a serious weakness intypography. Peggy Burke says that young designers’“technical skills are incredible,” but that their work oftenlacks “Design 101” elements such as an underlying grid toorganize type. “They just stick it on a page,” she says. Notliterally, of course, but with software, on a screen. Vince Engel echoesthis sentiment: “It’s all ‘Set to Fit,’ andwhatever comes out is fine these days.”

As our world rewardsspeed and ease, is artful language in design and advertising, then, adying art? Steve Watson, of the Seattle-based design firm Turnstyle,proposes a synthesis of the old school and the new “Set toFit” approach: “I’d challenge students to seeletterforms visually, as pieces of 2-D sculpture, as pieces ofart like photography and other imagery. Graphic design always has beenand will be the meshing of words and images.”