Some designers in the South still insist they don’t get the respect they deserve, but there is evidence that perceptions are evolving. “People assume there’s not excellent work coming from Nashville,” says Joel Anderson, art director at Anderson Design Group (formerly Anderson Thomas Design). The company had worked for clients in New York and Los Angeles through referrals, but cold calls for new clients got them nowhere. ADG’s reaction was to form a “boutique firm” called Paper Monkeys, with a website listing New York and L.A. phone numbers—with no mention of Nashville. The site showcased their talent via “more illustrative, hand-done, collage-y” work that radiated an underground-studio vibe. Suddenly, people took their calls, and meetings materialized with the likes of Sony in New York.
There are signs that local clients are coming around as well. “A lot of companies are now appreciating what great design can do,” says Don Mikush of M Creative in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His firm designed a specialty license plate for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation that has become the state’s best-seller. The image spread to T-shirts and mugs, and the organization’s revenue exploded.
A big reason for the expanding design consciousness could be the influx of people to the region from other parts of the country as well as the proliferation of design-minded national retail chains. “The South isn’t really the South anymore,” says Nashville’s Anderson. “Once you had to drive to Atlanta to go to a Pottery Barn; now every town has a Target and a Starbucks.” The result is that the field has been “leveled upward,” he says. “Exposure to good design has raised people’s expectations for visual communication.” Consequently, Anderson’s clients are willing to take chances to please their customers. And because designers can serve major national and international clients from wireless networks anywhere, this ups the ante for the design produced for local coffee shops and clothing boutiques. In Chattanooga, Michael Hendrix of Tricycle, Inc. sees new shops and restaurants hiring designers to create identities and develop brands. “This was not happening before,” he says.
Some refrain from joining a love fest for Southern clients. Even in cosmopolitan Miami, Todd Houser, an art director at ad agency Frank, calls some of his clients heavy-handed because they “spoon-feed the public instead of letting them think for themselves through wonderful work.” He singles out real estate developers, who “love anything shiny and new” and will spend $150 per unit for a substrate that hasn’t been used before. “It’s pretty extraordinary, but that doesn’t mean it’s good design,” he says. In Knoxville, Joseph Nother of Designsensory observes that companies have a greater awareness of design’s effectiveness, “but they’ll still quickly drop $10,000 on IT consulting or new hardware instead of on print or online design.” Nashville’s Anderson laments some companies’ short-sightedness when under financial pressure: “They clean house and fire five strategy and marketing veterans. Usually, quality goes out the door, and they don’t even know it’s missing.”
Some Southern cities are recognizing design’s power to help reimagine and resurrect their formerly industrial or commodity-based economies for the 21st century. According to Tricycle’s Hendrix, the Chattanooga AIGA chapter was invited by the city to participate in a campaign to attract new businesses and young entrepreneurs to the area. In June, the chapter helped launch CreateHere, a “collective rethink project” to engage creative and enterprising citizens in the future of their city. Similarly, Winston-Salem wants to “grow the creative class and redevelop downtown,” Mikush says. For example, North Carolina School of the Arts and two other local universities recently created the Center for Design Innovation to foster research and entrepreneurship.
There’s another Southern city struggling to reinvent itself—on a much bigger scale and with inspiring examples of design’s relationship to place. Adam Newman of New Orleans’s Zande+Newman Design says his firm has done its best to bolster local businesses such as The Savvy Gourmet, a cooking school and store that opened a week before Hurricane Katrina struck. The bad news about the city now: “There’s no money, half the population is missing, and only private effort has taken responsibility for any improvement.”
In a way, Newman says, New Orleans’s tabula rasa—at once grim and suffused with possibility—has made everyone in it a designer: “Everyone—individuals and companies—is reinventing themselves, opening businesses they couldn’t have before, merging.” How will it look? “It’s almost postwar, the mix of uncertainty and excitement about the future,” Newman says. “[It’s like] Caddies with big fins—everyone’s looking to the future. Which is a big deal for a city that has always looked to the past for its identity.”