RDA 2006: Midwest

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—Just by driving north through the Midwest and looking out the carwindow, one can feel the pace of the design business slacken as themiles go by. In Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the weather and businessare hot. Through Ohio, manufacturing plants are shuttered. EnteringMichigan and Minnesota, one senses a recovery, but the economyhasn’t quite returned to where it was a decade ago.

Derek Sussner, founder of Sussner Design Company, says that business inMinneapolis is steady or flat. But he’s optimistic: Firms in hisarea that almost went under have righted themselves and are activelysearching for new projects. Better yet, his customers are doing well.“We’ve gotten calls from clients we haven’t heard fromin three or four years who are ready to update,” he says.

Scott Thares of Wink, Minneapolis, reports that the firm’s tempo isabout the same as last year but says he’s encouraged: He andpartner Richard Boynton are now working with higher-profile clients. Headds that new design companies continue to open up in Minnesota, sothere seems to be enough work for everyone.

For Planet Propaganda in Madison, Wisconsin, the fastest growth is in film and motion graphics.Clients want multiple applications—broadcast, online, salespresentations—for their money, says principal Kevin Wade. But someclients aren’t comfortable with the costs of such projects.“It’s all new to them,” Wade observes. “Butthey’re slowly gravitating to it.”

In smaller markets like Sioux City, Iowa, offices such as Jeff Gordon Advertising are findingclients outside of their immediate areas. Local, smaller businessesoften can’t afford to hire an agency to do their design work,Gordon notes.

For BBK, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the pace of businesshas picked up since 2005, reports partner Yang Kim. Furniture clientsare coming back, and there’s much more web work. BBK is hiringagain, and good people are in high demand in the area. “We mayhave to resort to a headhunter,” she says.

When a locale is perceived to be remote, it can be hard to find just the right personwith just the right qualifications. In fact, several principals we spoketo asked that their ongoing, fruitless searches for qualified designersbe publicized through this article. “Only brilliant people needapply,” said one, not entirely in jest. A firm in Indiana hashired an additional person every six to eight weeks for all of2006.

Ohio firms, which in the past few years have suffered very hardtimes, are staffing up again, too. But taking on new personnel is agradual process. One art director noted that her Columbus studio candraw talent from the East Coast, but keeping positions filled is a gameof musical chairs.

Creatives willing to dip their toes into new watersseem to be multiplying. For instance, many Midwestern designers notedthat they had had their first experiences with environmental design onlyrecently.

“We’ve seen a big increase in brand development and environmental graphics,” says Arlene Watson, art

director atCleveland’s Möbius Grey. The trick here is to help clients findnew solutions to old problems, says Walt Herrip of Herrip Associates inPeninsula, Ohio. “Now we’re designing ‘messagingboards’ along freeways. We used to call those‘billboards.’”

Some kinds of projects have simplygone away, all or in part, across the Midwest—among them,luxurious annual reports; stationery systems (a business card will do);catalogs and sales brochures (easier to put them on the internet);broadcast graphics; and larger print runs of just about everything.

In Chicago, Steve Liska reports that membership in creative organizationsseems to be at an all-time high. “There is more ofcross-pollination among photographers, ad people, and designers wherethese people used to be more siloed. We’re realizing that we allrely on each other and have even been partnering with other firms suchas sign manufacturers to get the work done,” he says.

Kansas City’s First Fridays continue to be an enormous draw to localcreatives, and KC’s Ad Club and AIGA get rave reviews for theirefforts to inform, enlighten, and amuse the community. The art, design,and music worlds all mesh here: There are several events and openingsevery month, and many designers do double-duty as fine artists, fashiondesigners, musicians, or work in other creative fields, according toSarah Smitka of The Pink Pear Design Company in Independence, Missouri.Her mother and sister, both inspired by the local scene, are studyingfor their design degrees now and will soon join Smitka’sfirm.

Nebraska, too, is finding success in pulling its creativecommunities together. A recent show in Lincoln of 400 music postersbrought in 2,000 visitors in two weeks.

Finally, it’s worthnoting that after years of talent being bled away to both coasts, theprocess has started to reverse: Seeking more affordable lifestyles andreal estate, designers are moving to the Midwest. “There are a lotof people who have moved here from other big-time agencies in Dallas,Las Vegas, and so on,” says Tony Fannin, creative director of2Fold in Indianapolis.

Some are coming home; some are looking for
home.