RDA 2006: South

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By Eve KahnA renowned chronicler of his native South, Faulkner declared, “Thepast is never dead. It isn’t even past.” But in the graphicdesign realm, at least, his summary now seems dead wrong. Theregion’s design scene has never been more globalized, moreaggressively up-to-the-minute, less nostalgic or hidebound. Southerndesigners, whether based in bustling capitals or remote hamlets, justwant to talk about how they serve clients worldwide with solutions thatbuild brands rather than boutique signatures.

“In this region,you don’t necessarily have the luxury of developing your ownstyle,” says Brad White, the executive creative director at Luckie& Co. in Birmingham, Alabama. “We have to work harder to makebelievers out of people. We’re proving to clients that reallysmart work can come out of Birmingham. There’s a geographicimpediment to how the South is perceived, conscious orunconscious.”

Luckie’s business is booming, White adds,with clients as sizable as Blue Cross and BellSouth. And his colleaguesfrom Covington, Kentucky, to Key West likewise report healthy numbers.In fact some have doubled their billings since 2004 or 2005 and needmore hands on board. “I just hired three more people andI’ll probably add a few more by the end of the year,”reports Julio Lima, head of Orlando’s say it loud!.“We’ve developed an international look. Someone logging onto the website won’t know immediately that we’re in Orlando.I’d like them to think the work’s coming maybe fromAmsterdam or London.”

Even in Katrina-devastated areas, graphicdesigners report profits at least holding steady, especially thanks tonon-Southern customers. “I haven’t heard of any studios thatclosed down, but the freelancers seem to have all left town,”notes Tom Varisco of the eponymous firm in New Orleans.“We’re the same size we were before the storm. We’vebeen very lucky; we got back into our building 19 days after Katrina.We’ve been able to focus on clients outside the area: Central ParkSummerStage, an investment fund in Los Angeles, a San Francisco owner ofFrench vineyards.”

Web promotions—“anything frompodcasting to viral videos,” says Ben Johnson of Memphis’sTactical Magic—are especially easy to produce for farawaycustomers you’ve never met. “We’re finding clients aremore and more willing to engage with the more nimble forms of media, togo outside their comfort zone,” reports Ron Randle, creativedirector of Enventys in Charlotte. “We’re beingsuper-creative in stretching their dollars across broadcast, print,radio, and online.”

Though the bulk of graphic-design revenuefor Southerners lately seems to come from other regions, the thrivinglocal real estate developers are also providing considerable business.“When I got here in 1995, you wouldn’t even go to midtown,let alone buy property there,” says W. Todd Vaught of sky designin Atlanta. “Now midtown is booming, along with downtown andBuckhead. With all the growth in Atlanta, there’s no better placefor a designer now.” The firm produced Deco-flavored, arched androunded environmental graphics for Atlantic Station, a 138-acre formersteel plant being turned into $2 billion worth of offices, residences,stores, and hotels.

In the re-burgeoning downtowns and expandingsub-divisions, the new roads are already lined with billboards.“We’re doing more outdoor than ever,” Randle explains.“It’s such a visible media vehicle. We worked for a churchthat was moving into a new building, and with an emphasis on outdoor inthe campaign, the attendance numbers from the beginning have been offthe charts.” Restored buildings on Main Streets are meanwhilefilling with restaurants, spas, theaters, museums, and bars, all in needof graphics. “You can make a living here from the club scene andthe zines alone,” says Michael Shavalier, art director of MiamiNew Times. The local agencies, he adds, are serving more customerslately in Europe and South and Central America.

As the non-Southerncustomers and practitioners flow in, and the images produced spread tothe far edges of the blogosphere, Southern design will undoubtedly lookever more cosmopolitan. Southerners sound relieved about the fading oflocal color, and in fact many interviewees practically bristled whenasked, “Is there a regional style?” The only observers sorryabout the globalization seem to be transplanted Yankees like DavidCarson, who moved his studio from New York to Charleston in 2002.He’s restless now, partly due to disappointment with the lack ofdetectable regionalism, despite his own busy internationalpractice.

“I’ve redesigned a city magazine for Aspen,I’m working on a magazine launch out of London, I’ve doneBMW posters, and I’ve got a big packaging commission for a newline of fat-free snacks,” he says. “I wish I could tell youthere’s so
me great movement in the scene here, but there onlyseems to be motion or energy in the letterpress one-off posters. I hateto see the trend continuing of real solid B-level work that could comefrom anywhere. I think you should be able to tell, when you look atsomething, that it comes from South Carolina.”