By Angela Starita
Designers from Baltimore to Boston this year reported that a growing number of their clients hail from out of town. Most of the Regional winners in the East estimated that only half of their clients are local. As Rick Heffner of Fuszion Collaborative, based in Alexandria, Virginia, points out, “There aren’t boundaries as there used to be.”
This accumulation of far-flung clients may account for the general upswing in business among eastern design firms. It might also explain the uniformity of responses about color, type, and production throughout the region. A number of designers mentioned that sans-serif typefaces and tactile printed work had made a comeback as well. Pum Lefebure, of Design Army in Washington, D.C., believes that clients, numbed by the flatness of a computer screen, yearn for textured print collateral. Noting a mix of gloss and uncoated paper in many publications, Lefebure says, “I feel strongly that print is an important part of graphic design. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. To me, graphic design is very three-dimensional—different sizes, texture, papers, weight.”
Overall, the color palette used in the region tends toward earth tones (“Brown is the new black,” quips Heffner). There also seems to be a greater emphasis on organic patterns and the use of heavy paper stock with an obvious grain. And the explosion in pieces “lavishly embellished with floral ornaments” goes on, observes Lung-I Lo, art director of Prism, the D.C.-based magazine from the American Society for Engineering Education. These stylistic nods to nature seem appropriate, considering the continued interest in the environment among East Coast designers. According to Rick Landesberg of Landesberg Design in Pittsburgh, “Clients and designers are seeing trends like FSC certification as smart thinking and not as an exotic or stylish alternative.”
Many of the firms among this year’s winners are continuing their evolution from strictly graphic design-based firms to full-service studios with interactive capabilities. But as Landesberg points out, clients still want those web skills to come with a healthy dose of print know-how. “Clients see interactive and print capabilities as being intertwined,” he says, “and they are not especially seeking the services of firms that refer to themselves as web design firms.”
The push toward interactive elements is further evidence that a growing number of clients are looking more globally at the implications of design. “We help clients define who they are, define their expertise,” says Robert Aretz, principal of Paragraph, a Philadelphia-based firm. Aretz, whose company serves nonprofits as well as a wide range of industries, has found that schools in particular are “catching up with the business world” in learning how to use design for branding purposes. Tammy Dayton of Boston’s Moth Design confirms this trend. “The branding world has become part of academia, too,” she says.
But schools are hardly the only ones to get wise about visual communications. Lefebure says that she finds many of her clients—which include the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Washington Ballet—well educated about design these days. “I think Target has a lot to do with it,” she says. “People are realizing that design is something necessary.” While there are advantages to having design-savvy customers, smaller firms find some drawbacks. Lisa Catalone Castro of Catalone Design Co., a firm with two full-time and two part-time employees in Bethesda, Maryland, says that “as designers we wear more hats now. We need bigger teams. Clients don’t just come to us for design anymore. They want a research component, too—qualitative research, like online surveys.”
These raised expectations cause many small firms to put together temporary teams to work on single projects. Ronald Younts of Ashton Design in Baltimore worries about the growing number of what he calls “design brokers”—people who organize freelancers for individual jobs but who are not designers themselves. The system may be cheaper than choosing an established firm, but the results are unpredictable.
East Coast designers, however, find that many clients who once tried to take control of the design and printing process themselves are realizing the value of letting designers see a project all the way through. Amanda McCorkle, a designer with ColorQuarry in Providence, Rhode Island, offers this example: “On a small nonprofit fund-raising mailer, I went with a local letterpress printer instead of an online offset place. It made a huge impression with very little price difference. Once the client saw the response they got, they started asking what else we can do differently.”