RDA 2007: Southwest

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This year’s canvassing of designers across the Southwest yielded a rush of enthusiastic reports. Sentiments ranged from formal satisfaction (“Business is outstanding”) to harried excitement (“It’s been crazy here”) to giddy exuberance (“Through the roof!”). So it seems odd that this positive flush didn’t translate into a deluge of entries to the Annual. On the contrary, submissions were down for most areas of the Southwest. Few seemed able to offer any real insight into this apparent contradiction. Steve Sturges, partner at Visual Image Advertising in Oklahoma City, suggests, “Big agencies are feeling the pinch. Technology has allowed the best talent to migrate to smaller, more creative shops, but small agencies are less comfortable entering their work in award shows and design annuals.” Another explanation comes from Rex Peteet, partner at Sibley/Peteet Design in Austin: “The culprit may be that folks are just really busy.” Fair enough.

A population surge, a real estate boom, and a wealth of new businesses are recurring themes for the entire region. In particular, Austin and Albuquerque are experiencing seismic shifts. DJ Stout, a partner at Pentagram Design, explains that Austin’s skyline is rapidly changing, with attention turning toward downtown, an area that traditionally emptied out in the evening. With the influx of high-end business and residential construction, says Stout, has come “lots of collateral and identity work”—witness the Spring Condominiums marketing brochure, one of Pentagram’s four winning submissions.

Last year, Donna Romano of Ripe Inc. let us know that Albuquerque was a city to watch. How right she was! Stories of expansion came from all sides this time around. Tim McGrath and Sam Maclay of 3, a design studio, say they’ve tripled their personnel in the space of two years. Bart Cleveland of McKee Wallwork Cleveland was one of several people to point out that the movie industry is putting down more roots in the area: Lions Gate Entertainment reportedly has plans to build a new studio in nearby Rio Rancho, and a large new production facility built in Mesa del Sol earlier this year is already fully booked.

Many designers in the Southwest mentioned signs of digital evolution. Peteet explains that, in his experience, the web has influenced the world of identity design. “Dimension, reflectivity, kinetics, and complexity are now mainstream,” he says. Aaron Opsal, owner and creative director of Dallas’s The Brand Hatchery, says that almost every new assignment has some digital component. And Brandon Murphy of Squires & Company, which has offices in both Dallas and Albuquerque, posits that annual reports, that oft-maligned corporate staple, will increasingly go digital as well: “Think rich media, streaming video, or sound.”

There were fewer significant stylistic trends this year. Bo Bothe, managing partner at Brand Extract in Houston, notes, “The whole flowery-flourishy design trend seems to be coming to an end.” It’s true that many Southwest winners evince a top note of sleekness. A case in point is the silk-screened aluminum invitation for the Dallas Cowboys by Rovillo + Reitmayer, which is bold and Texas-sized but also spare and sophisticated—it’s an elegant statement for an industry that often chooses flash over refinement for its graphics.

Other outstanding entries from the Southwest include a pair of stylistic opposites: “Weeping Mary,” Pentagram’s emotionally affecting photographic document of a rural Texas town settled by former slaves, and Squires & Company’s vibrant and visually complex brochure for a wood products company that records a charity home renovation project. The Richards Group of Dallas created a simple yet sophisticated poster series for immigration lawyer Kam Naidoo that features coloring-book outlines of such American icons as the Statue of Liberty and encourages viewers to “just add color.” Sanders/Wingo’s invitation for the Austin Ad Federation takes the shape of a diminutive voodoo doll—the perforation is slyly positioned to run across the figure’s neck.

This year, as always, we asked designers to give us their thoughts on any issues that stood out. Apparently, green production methods have been on many people’s minds. Allyson Lack, of Principle in Houston, notes that designers are “paying more attention to the materials they specify and what happens at the end of the life-cycle of their printed matter.” And Brandon Murphy thinks that “the new buzzword of the year is ‘sustainability’.” But one wonders whether this phenomenon, like blurred type and bird silhouettes, will be one more passing fad.