RDA 2007: Midwest

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Five years ago, if midwestern designers had been able to look into a crystal ball to see the forces that would pull their businesses out of their malaise, they would not have believed their eyes. Not only is business brisk, but studios are expanding into work that is related to, but decidedly outside of, the fence line of traditional design.

Archrival, in Lincoln, Nebraska, for instance, is a business partner in Nomad Lounge, a new upscale bar in Omaha; the firm’s designers created every graphic detail, including drink packaging and decor. By hosting and participating in corporate creative leadership seminars, Willoughby Design Group, in Kansas City, Missouri, has taken advantage of a stream of business from in-house divisions of firms that need outside training. “Our charge is to help companies clarify their strategies, and in addition, to inspire in-house teams to reach their goals,” explains principal Ann Willoughby.

Then there’s the shift in clients’ attitudes toward experimenting with new ways to expand beyond the typical print pieces—which are showing less and less return—as designers try more unexpected methods. Brokaw, in Cleveland, hired two teams of Santas to appear around town promoting a fitness equipment retailer: a “before” group sporting the traditional bowl-full-of-jelly look, and an “after” group of in-shape Santas. “We decided to do a guerrilla effort—more of an invented form of media—to reach people in different ways,” says associate creative director Steve McKeown.

A clear trend among clients is the desire for websites that are more user-friendly, as well as a demand for more e-newsletters. Bill Sattler, creative director for Madhouse, in Perrysburg, Ohio, says, “We’re empowering the clients by building more applications instead of promotional sites.” Sattler points to the demand for online shopping, blogs, and podcasts, even from small clients, as an example of this new direction.

Some clients are preferring to work with smaller firms instead of big agencies. This may be the result of tighter budgets, but it might also be due to the human factor: Clients in hierarchical, meeting-heavy companies have no desire to work with large agencies that are dealing with the same albatrosses. “In large design firms, when a smaller job comes in, they might put their newest hire on it. In a small firm, the client gets the full attention of the lead designers. Clients will go where the talent is,” says Lars Lawson of Timber Design Co., a one-man shop in Indianapolis.

There are still start-up clients to be had, but they are of a more serious nature, reports Eric Block, a managing partner of Duffy & Partners in Minneapolis. These companies tend to have financial backing and a developed business plan, not just a dream. “They are taking a more holistic approach,” he says. “Whereas start-ups used to come in for just a logo or a brochure to get started, now they know they need to inform [their customers] about all aspects of their business.”

Among the most encouraging factors midwestern designers cited were the vibrant art scenes that have developed in the area. Kansas City and its enclave of Hallmark artists; St. Louis and its redeveloping downtown; and Minneapolis, with its long-term support of the arts, are among the torch-bearers. “Corporate leaders here support the arts,” says Ingred Sidie, of Design Ranch in Kansas City. “New architecture is coming into the Crossroads district and premier buildings are being developed, such as the new Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.” And quality of life, albeit a midwestern cliché, cannot be easily dismissed. The region has a lower cost of living and a slower pace of life than coastal cities, even as firms are attracting clients from around the world.

Notwithstanding the flourishing of these cultural districts, the visual trends seen in entries from the Midwest remained largely derivative: lots of fake library cards in pockets (indicative perhaps of people’s need for the tactile); plenty of curlicue lines and ornate floral silhouetting; chunky type; and more skulls and bones than you can shake a tibia at.

Despite the best efforts of midwestern designers, plum projects still manage to escape to the coasts. “Clients can select from nationally recognized design firms right here in Cleveland. I’m not sure the corporate crowd would know that to be the case,” said one aggravated Ohio designer. “Frankly, it’s frustrating to see some important projects of local importance get sent out to firms in other major cities. The perception, apparently, is that there isn’t a firm in Cleveland that specializes in a particular discipline—for example, corporate identity. So in a way, we become victims of our own flexibility.”

But Tom Culbertson of Mission Creative of Dubuque, Iowa, says, “There is opportunity all around you. It’s just a matter of how involved you want to be. Many midwestern markets are untapped, and many local businesses would prefer a midwestern designer to tap them.”