RDA 2008: Southwest

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This summer, most of the country was panicking as the price of gas hovered around$4 per gallon.

But in Texas, the whirling numbers at the pump looked more like cherrieslin ing up on a slot machine. The oil and gas industry is flush, and windfall profitshave trickled down, buoying local economies— including the design community.

“Being in Texas, the recession hasn’t hurt so much,” says Mark Platt of Kendall Creativein Dallas.

“With my clients elsewhere, it’s much different.” His sentiment was echoedalmost unanimously across Texas, where even small design studios often count amongtheir clients energy companies or firms that serve Big Oil. That isn’t true throughout theSouthwest.

Arizona’s designers, for example, have seen their billings drag. But other cities and regions at a remove from Dallas and Houston, such as Austin and New Mexico, have defied the national slump, thanks toflourishing local industries.

Meanwhile, the Texas energy boom sits oddly next to the year’s biggest trend: greendesign.

Even compared to years past, 2008 seemed to be the point at which mainstreamawareness (if not understanding) of sustainability issues reached a boiling point, and many companies are rushing to tout a burgeoning eco-consciousness. Consequently,designers are adjusting to the role of educator— walking the clients through all aspectsof green printing, for example, or sounding a (gentle) alarm about greenwashing, withthe simple admonishment that clients begin with legitimate claims to environmentalawareness. Brandon Murphy of Squires Company in Dallas points out that clientsdon’t necessarily know what certification logos mean, “but they know the marketingvalue. You can see why.

Many of these companies, especially oil and gas, have a lotof attention on them. … And they have the profits to do good.” Jim Mousner of OriginDesign in Houston notes a similar theme.

“There’s no question that there’s an explosion. Our clients are asking questions they’ve neverasked before,” he says.

But he also sees the shadow of a bubble. “Is the message getting diluted? Everyone’s seeing green, and it’s no longer distinctive.”

Designers pointed to some subtle aesthetic shifts at work. Arizona and NewMexico have a deeply rooted folk-art vernacular.At worst, this means purple sunsets, coiled rattlesnakes, and the inextricablepairing of teal and pink. But these motifs were nowhere to be seen in the design submissions, which often seemed directed at a savvy national audience, despite lean budgets.As far as local tropes are concerned,Texas was another story—the place seems forever linked to cattle-brand logotypes andersatz charred edges. “You keep waiting for that style to jump the shark, but it still getsrecombined in new ways,” says Murphy.

Still, a few sophisticated clients seem to be shifting toward cleaner, more up-to-datestyles. “The marketers being hired are younger and more relaxed about their corporatefeel,” says Linda Limb of Limb Design in Houston.

“They want to be innovative, and they have better taste.” Cesar Sanchez,of Imaginaria in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, concurs: “Texas has always been about anorganic look. But things are simplifying.And that makes having a bolder message more important.”

Some people were willing to venture a psychological explanation for the returnto simplicity. A troubling political situation and news of an economic slowdown havebrought sober-minded design into vogue.But there are practical reasons for the change as well. For one, the lessons of uncluttereddesign, as preached by Target and Apple, have coalesced into common wisdom. Clientsare more receptive to boldness, in small doses—bright colors or radically simplifiedbranding, for example. Of course, clean design might simply be pragmatic. Branding across many different media outlets requires that every design be flexible.

Colors and logos must translate to the web and PDAs.Less is more—and more versatile.

“Less” isn’t just an aesthetic trend— there’s also the decline of print. Designersconsistently pointed out that clients are calling for less printed matter—from annualreports to branded collateral—preferring instead to post material on their websites,without the help of outside designers.

Environmental concerns are sometimes given as the reason, but it really comes down tomoney. Those who do order printed goods have tried to lower costs by making arrangementsdirectly with printers, rather than through graphic designers, or contractuallylimiting fees for print supervision. Shrewd designers have responded by trying to steerclients toward more complex (and higher-billing)online efforts.

Meanwhile, another former cash cow has run dry: Fewer andfewer clients see the value of a commissionedphoto shoot.

“Our clients are getting smarter about the industry and photography,so they’re going to the cheap stock agencies themselves,” says Platt. “More and more,we’re having to teach them about the valueof doing something custom.” In a region withdynamic economies, designers have to keeplimber at all times; the ones represented here have figured out more than a few tricks.

This article appears in the December 2008issue of PRINT.