By Angela Voulangas
We knew something was up. The first indication was a substantialincrease in submissions from all over the region; then, as we startedcontacting the winners, they confirmed, with surprising consistency,what we had started to suspect: Things are hot in the Southwest (andwe’re not talking about the weather). “I’m trying tofind time to respond to your email,” wrote Jeff Breazeale, apartner at The Matchbox Studio in Dallas, “but I’ve beenburied under work—too busy!” Russ Wall of Squeeze in Phoenixreports happily, “All of a sudden, we have a bunch of clients whoactually get it—and want it.” Practically all of thedesigners who actually had a few spare moments to talk to us spoke withenthusiasm about new prospects, new strategies, and packed schedules.
One of the factors fueling this design boom may be the uptick in thelocal web market, which most of those canvassed described as“huge.” Deuce Creative, a recent addition to the Houstonscene, has several web redesigns under way as clients have been askingfor the “next wave of online presence.” Linda Limb of LimbDesign, also in Houston, finds almost universally that clients are“re-evaluating web strategies,” and becoming clearer andmore focused on their web-related goals. Explains Shannon Carter, thepresident and chief creative officer of Austin’s Cartis Group,“They’re much more search-engine-savvy, moresophisticated.” Sites are being stripped down to basics andrebuilt with more clear functionality and less busy, distractinganimation. Everyone agrees that users should not have to keep pressingthat “skip intro” button. Back in the print world, there was noticeable evidence of a “low-fi” look amid theSouthwest’s entries—two-color printing and uncoated stocksappeared repeatedly. From Dallas-based Slant’s cleverlystreamlined letterhead to the fastidiously low-tech production ofTulsa-based thinkdesignco’s John 3:16 Mission annual report (whichincorporated paper bags, cardboard and newsprint), these pieces wink atthe budget approach. Butler Looney, principal of Looney Design Lab inDallas, thinks his city is “loving paper” at the moment;more than ever, he sees Dallas designers trying tip-ons andout-of-the-way stocks. Tim McGrath and Sam Maclay of new design studio 3in Albuquerque speak of the growing tendency to increase dimension inprint work through the use of handcrafted add-ons, embossing, andperforations. Rough tactility was also rife in Albuquerque-based ThielanDesigns’ Art Center Design College “Poker Vite” and inthe many strong silkscreen works by Texans Dirk Fowler and Erick Montes,among others. This is the kind of work that doesn’t scream“special effect”; instead, it conveys a low-keyingenuity.
There may be reasons beyond stylistic synchronicity forthis pervasive tactile “craftiness.” Looney, for one, sees apossible explanation in the “long period when people didn’twant to spend money.” He remembers that as a time when designerslearned an important lesson: “So much can be done with solittle.” Unfortunately, there are clients who seem to rememberthose days, too. Some designers comment that although there’s beena steady rise in available work, clients have grown used to the smallerbudgets and lower fees of those leaner times. Thielen Designs referencesthis enforced design-on-a-shoestring aesthetic by “slashingprices” and making a witty identity system out of abargain-basement retail tag.
On another stylistic note, Aimee Smith, of Deuce Creative, speaks of what she sees as design’s shift awayfrom many years of minimalism toward the more ornate. She sees plenty ofroom for integrated ornamentation “even on corporatelevels.” The firm’s sleek pieces for chemical concernChampion Technologies layer mechanical line drawings of “machineryfound out in the field” in a range of unusual color choices.It’s a surprising visual direction for a Houston-based companythat one would otherwise assume would stay well within the traditionalcorporate arena. Speaking of which, it should be mentioned that, whilehandmade style and ornamentation have obviously become well-rooted,clean, business-oriented design continues to be well represented in thisyear’s Regional, as embodied in such entries as the MedSynergiesbrochure from Dallas firm MasonBaronet. With business and development onthe rise across the Southwest, such pieces should be ensured a place foryears to come.
Other trends in the Southwest design community willprobably prove more fleeting. For instance, it seems highly unlikelythat we’ll see another period when, as happened this year, morethan one designer felt the urge to reflect on things tonsorial.Commenting on a certain aesthetic in his area, Jim Foley of Loudthoughtin Dallas proclaims, “The new men’s hairstyles, andbeards—bad!” At the same time, just 196 Texan miles away,Bryan Keplesky of Austin-based Door Number 3 asserts (probably not witha straight face), “I’ve found that if you have a mustache itadds a certain air of
sophistication to your work.” That’sthe Southwest this year: finding strength through difference.