RDA 2007: Far West

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From the Rockies to Diamond Head, designers across the West describe business in one word: thriving. “It’s great to be a designer in Denver right now,” says Joe Conrad, a partner at Cactus, a 24-person studio in the city’s Lower Downtown district. “The country is starting to realize this is a great place to live, and the design community is right in tune.”

Independent designer Chirag Ahir agrees. “You see very contemporary, very modern styles here,” he says, noting the Denver Art Museum’s new building designed by Daniel Libeskind. “Denver is becoming a bridge between east and west.” Other parts of Colorado are budding too. TDA Advertising & Design art director Jonathan Schoenberg jokes that Boulder “used to be known as a good place to buy weed. Now it’s a much more cultured place.”

Development has been key. “Business in Vegas is just like our population—constantly growing,” says Glendon Scott, a senior art director at R&R Partners. “New opportunities are popping up all the time.” Clean and modern graphics are displacing rustic “Western” motifs, and innovations in digital photography are on the rise. “Digital’s functionality gives art directors the chance to play around when we’re shooting,” Scott says.

In Salt Lake City, Letter 23’s creative director, Sage Turk, suggests designers are drawn to smaller cities by the lower cost of living and the intimacy of the profession. “We’re like one big dysfunctional family,” he says, smiling. “You know all the people in the other houses, and you see their work and say to yourself, ‘I’m gonna do it better!’” Jeff Sutherland, a partner at Salty Design Factory in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is just as upbeat. “We want to bring national-level design to a small town,” he says.

In California, design is similarly humming. “We’re definitely at the ‘feast’ end of the spectrum,” reports Kimberly Varella, a partner at Department of Graphic Sciences, a small studio in L.A.’s Chinatown. Sounding like the ultimate Californian, she adds, “Sending out good psychic energy put our business on a total reverse.” She’s not alone in her experience. Mel Lim, who runs Joy, a three-year-old, three-person studio in San Diego, has expanded her colorful stationery line into baby clothes, pillows, bags, even underwear. Design blogs, she says, have helped build her international fan base: “One mention gets us 5,000 hits a day.”

Yet quantity may not be keeping up with quality. “In this industry, with people so used to having something now, attention to detail can get lost,” argues Erik Miller, design director at TBWAChiatDay in Los Angeles. “My question always is, ‘Are we proud of what we’ve created?’ I don’t see that at a lot of other agencies. They tend to pump out crap.”

Here’s one explanation: In Southern California at least, the entertainment industry’s reliance on animation and digital graphics adds jobs but dilutes graphic excellence. Dustin Arnold, a consultant in Glendale who has worked for Hermès and H&M, says younger designers like him have forgotten—or may have never known—how to design without technology. “Some people might think I’m neo-Amish, but it’s nice to have an experience without beingplugged in,” he says.

Although clients are trusting designers more to deliver high-level concepts, Eric Heiman, a partner at Volume Inc. in San Francisco, worries about consolidation in the market. “Is a small firm like ours going to be around in 10 years?” he asks. “As design becomes more accessible, and more people think, ‘I can do that,’ it becomes a double-edged sword.”

Still, it’s no time for funerals. Illustrator Ward Schumaker, who has ridden his industry’s waves for decades, says things are “going crazy” these days, allowing him to expand into calligraphy and fine art. His only gripe is that the new generation of artists seems less interested in craft, relying heavily on what he perceives as heta-uma—badly drawn on purpose. “Sometimes I wonder whether or not it’s intentional,” he says.

In Oregon and Washington, the music industry continues to energize visual culture. Designers raised on anime and Asian-flavored graphic novels, like Junichi Tsuneoka, who runs Studio Stubborn Sideburn in Seattle, are using these influences to inject fresh perspectives. “Art Chantry, [Sub Pop’s] Jeff Kleinsmith, and Modern Dog are still the Northwest’s biggest influences,” says Tsuneoka. “But I’m trying to break the chain.”

Lastly, 2,700 miles further west, Honolulu-based Info Grafik reports its best year ever. So are there any Hawaiian visual trends? “Trends are like dandelions, drifting easily across land and ocean,” says founder Oren Schlieman via e-mail. Before signing off, he adds: “If you want to talk more, please call my cell phone. I’ll be at the beach this afternoon. Aloha.”