Hold the buzzwords, please. Organic, slow food, no-impact, corporate responsibility, carbon footprint, DIY—designers out West have been talking this talk and walking this walk for years. What was once a unique way of life for Westerners is becoming the norm around the country. From Denver and Los Angeles to Bozeman, Montana, and Boise, Idaho, designers are reporting a banner year for work that not only looks good but feels good, too.
With a recession looming, however, Western design firms are staying small and diversifying. Bozeman-based Entropy Brands has been able to combat the downturn by offering more services, such as commercial production, photography, and custom packaging. Doug Lowell, executive creative director of ID Branding in Portland, says the agency completely changed its direction and aspirations, which meant finding new clients who were more interested in partnering with an agency rather than using it as a vendor. “With our clients today, we are working on big-picture initiatives, and are more engaged at a strategic level, rather than a tactical one, and doing creative work that is far more ambitious,” he says.
In San Francisco, Katie Jain and Joel Templin started a new firm (Hatch Design) and created their own wine brand (JAQK Cellars). Los Angeles–based studio Commune has been carving out time to address product development for its own Commune brand which, in the early stages, will include furniture, lighting, textiles, and accessories. “Let’s just say we’re happily very busy!” says partner and creative director Roman Alonso.
The “d-word” did eventually find its way into client meetings. “At the end of 2007, the economic downturn became even more noticeable,” says David Stoyan Wooters of Stoyan Design in Costa Mesa, California. “Our clients were starting to feel it. Some of our retail and consumer clients were preparing for large layoffs.” A few small shops have managed to turn the economic slowdown to their advantage. “We have benefited from accounts from larger companies that are looking for less costly solutions,” says Jonathan Schoenberg, partner at TDA in Boulder, Colorado.
Despite the bad news, work from major industries out West held steady, and even in the wake of the writers’ strike, Hollywood seems eternally resilient. “The entertainment industry is fairly healthy compared with other types of businesses in our country right now,” says Doug Lloyd, marketing director at Lionsgate in Los Angeles. And believe it or not, the recording industry is not dead, cautions Don Clark of Invisible Creature in Seattle. “We are finding that many bands are coming to us direct, skipping the label altogether,” he says. Designers even report a backlash to the digital revolution with an increase in poster and vinyl art. “The one exciting thing I see is more recordings out on vinyl,” says poster designer Jason Munn of The Small Stakes in Oakland, California. “It’s nice to see that again.”
The trend rippled down the coast to Los Angeles, where The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest released a remarkable series of short-run publications. Jessica Fleischmann, the Journal’s designer, argues that print is a visual opportunity, especially for expressive type. “Print is still the most efficient method for delivering design,” she says. In 2007, San Francisco–based Meatpaper tapped into a less-is-more zeitgeist for their journal of meat culture.
“Our pared-down layout and typography allow the writing and visuals to speak for themselves,” says co-editor Sasha Wizansky. And the public is paying attention. Jen Bilik, creative director of the Venice, California-based firm Knock Knock, calls it the “aesthetic revolution”: Consumers are appreciating (and demanding) tactile details like letterpress, even on mass-market items.
And then there’s that other revolution. “Almost all of our clients are concerned with sustainability in a real way,” says Schoenberg. “At this point, they don’t even brag about it because it is so expected.” Firms from Fort Collins, Colorado, to San Diego say that clients are ready and willing to pay extra for recycled, uncoated, or post-consumer stock. “At the same time, we have found that a lot of clients view it as a marketing ploy rather than a moral issue,” says Ryan Goodwin, co-president of Struck in Salt Lake City. Some of Struck’s clients, Goodwin says, eschew “going green” because they’re afraid their message will get lost in a sea of sustainability.
Designers out West are also taking pro bono work to the next level by working with causes they care about, and small (or young) firms are realizing this is a great way to get noticed. “We have a bit of a reputation for working with nonprofits to help them telegraph their messages in unique ways,” says Jeremy Mende of San Francisco’s MendeDesign. Case in point: Mende produced a book that opens from each side, with its narratives meeting in the middle, to represent the mission of The 1%, an organization that connects architects and nonprofits.
So call it what you will: eco, green, sustainable, ethical, politically motivated, socially conscious. “Isn’t it just called ‘being a good person’?” muses Christopher Simmons of MineSF. “Yes, we pick projects differently now. We still work for banks and ad agencies, but we spend most of our time working for groups concentrating on creating a long-term benefit to humanity. We’ve structured our fees and overhead in a way that allows us to do the kind of work we want to do.”
Once again, it appears that the West is on to something.
This article appears in the December 2008issue of PRINT.