RDA 2008: East

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This year, designers in the East reported A trend that has long been gaining momentum:handcrafted design. “We’re all so webbed out,” says David Warren,

a founding partner of Tank Design in Cambridge,Massachusetts.“The hand is back.” The movement toward the lo-fi look means more “silk-screen, oldpaper textures, and illustrative or handwritten text,” according to Mark Burrier, a designerin Myersville, Maryland.

Ana Benaroya, who owns a one-woman firm in East Brunswick,New Jersey, notes the irony of increased computer use resulting in a resurgence of—and respect for—handmade work. “I’ve noticed that more and more designers areincorporating hand-drawn elements even as the computer becomes a bigger part of

our lives as designers or illustrators.

This proves that nothing can replace the hand.”

Young designers are fueling this interest by looking at a host of unlikely craftsources, from Raw magazine to antique typefaces. Dan Shepelavy, a creative directorof 160over90 in Philadelphia, finds the development extremelyexciting and a good omen for design: “There is a veneration of process, of connoisseurship,craft, like I’ve never seen before. That it’s now present in commercial work is amazing! I’ve been waiting for it for so long.” David Warren believes that the handcrafted style reflects, in part, our mountinganxiety about global warming and the need to take conservation and environmental stewardshipseriously. “We try to be as green as we can be. Some of that has rubbed off on the aesthetics.”

Says E. Rachael Baird, an owner of Tilt in Baltimore, “The world is beingshaken up by environmental issues, so there’s more focus on content. … [Aesthetic]elements used to be first.”

While graphic design continues to be a critical part of creating sales and brandingfor private companies and their products, several designers have noticed that groupspromoting social causes are also increasingly turning to the skills of graphic artists.

“The use of design as an agent of change or as a catalyst to encourage more pro-socialbehavior is nothing new, but it seems to have become more ‘normal’ and is showing up everywhere,” says Tim Ferguson-Sauder,creative director at Gordon College in Wenham,Massachusetts. At the same time, he says, “I see a lot of design projects that existas more of a framework created to house this new content. There is more of a needfor design to access this content in the mostefficient and intuitive way.”

Designers in the region have also found that clients are coming in with more definiteideas about what they want, says Annie Milli, an art director at the Baltimore firm Siquis,in part because of the proliferation of design blogs.

Matthew Neff, manager of the print shop of the Common Press at the Universityof Pennsylvania, attributes the rise in client participation to do-it-yourself desktop publishingprograms.

“Many people consider themselves designers and have an idea of what they would like things to look like or have a digital mock-up before meeting with me and my design team,” he says.

“It is a much different first meeting than before thedesktop publishing craze. Imagery is talkedabout and moved around much more rapidly than before, and the client takes more ownershipover an initial concept before handing it over to the designer.”

Yet according to Baird, requests from clients depend largely on their industry.Energy companies, for example, don’t yet have a clear idea of their needs because theindustry itself is changing so quickly. At Tilt, where one of the main clients is AmericanPaper,

the designers say that large, corporatecustomers tend to have a sure idea of what they want from design. At the same time,firms in the Northeast are finding that their clients are demanding more branding services,often making design firms the functional equivalent of advertising agencies. AnnCasady, owner of Casady Design in Yarmouth, Maine, says that her clients now believedesign is an integral part of branding, not second fiddle to content: “All of my clientsare talking about strategic planning. The role of the graphic designer has changed to appreciateand understand this much bigger economic picture that includes marketing and strategy.”

Meanwhile, designers are learning their own lessons and beginning to promotethemselves with greater savvy. Greg Chinn of Jargon Boy in Fairfield, Connecticut, findsthat more designers are developing products for themselves. His company created a setof hip alphabet flash cards that convey the firm’s mid-century modernist sensibility (Jis for “jet age,” L is for “lounger”) and made for a de facto self-promotion.But no matter who they’re working for, designers in the East are seeing substanceand style gain equal value. “Designs seem to be getting smarter and smarter and lessabout pretty,” says Milli. “They’re leaving more for the viewer to figure out, posingintellectual questions through the work.” This article appears in the December 2008 issue of PRINT.