The Annual on the Couch

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What designers’ tics tell us about the state of visual communication

Decades ago, the New York–based editors of Print magazine realized that although America was a very large, unwieldy landmass, it could be divided fairly neatly into discrete regions (Far West, Southwest, Midwest, South, East, and New York City), each comprising graphic designers whose styles were rooted in their particular vernaculars. Print documented these local accents in the Regional Design Annual, a survey of graphic design across the United States and a celebration of the virtues of those heretofore-ignored distinctions. It worked, too. Designers who had been invisible on the national stage all of a sudden had a voice. And in turn, designers in the matte-black East learned that their counterparts in the Far West often used bright, happy colors.

That was once upon a time. Today those telltale regional quirks largely are gone. (Thank you, Internet.) It doesn’t really matter where you live—while the clients and the nature of local work may vary, styles no longer have borders. Instead, for the most part, there are a handful of ideas and approaches that ebb and flow all over. Rather than uniquely defining a region, they represent a big picture of contemporary design. So as designers from San Diego to Bangor, Maine, sent in their RDA entries, I took the opportunity to examine which design elements, methods, and styles recurred the most.

What do I hope to prove? Well, what does any data collector try to do with the minutiae he finds? The RDA is an opportunity to step back and look at a snapshot of American graphic design. For me, this reveals what tools the country’s best designers use to make their work sing. I’ve listed the top seven elements in their rough order of frequency.

(Editor’s note: The early-bird deadline for the 2013 Annual is February 1st. Enter here.)

Bits and Pieces: The most common conceit in the RDA is a composition that fills the image surface with stuff—tags, tickets, and cards; silhouetted pictograms and icons; or graphic vignettes, often used as part of an information graphic or a narrative diagram. Rather than less being more, more of everything always seems to win out.

From top: VCUarts Department of Craft/Material Studies poster by Scout Design; Dexter DVD box-set packaging by Mattson Creative; American Crew social-media guide by Karsh Hagan. See the December issue for full project credits.

Hand Lettering: This is not a brand-new trend, but it prevails again this year. Hand-drawn letters, scrawls, and scribbles appear in comic-strip style or as gig-poster headlines. Designers are using the original digital tool: ten fingers, more or less.

From top: Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens logo by Area203 Digital; Yume Ume restaurant collateral by 160over90; The Decemberists concert poster by the Heads of State

Overprinting: Why does printing a primary-color image over text or another image bring such joy to the designer? The technique almost seems like an error, but it dates back to Dada and Futurism, de Stijl, and Constructivism, where the transparency of an overprint imbued a flat piece with a third dimension. The overprint can be a subtle swath of color over a photo or a more demonstrative coating of hues.

From top: Dog and Pony Show posters by Starbucks Global Creative Studio; Colleges of the Fenway Performing Arts poster series by Robert Davison Design

Retro: Knowing which nostalgia to borrow is tricky. The fifties are again passé and so is sensational-looking tabloid style. Wood type can be cloying—or composed so beautifully that it defies the historical label. And some throwbacks—say, a nod to art deco—are so appropriate to the design that there’s no question of pastiche. Particularly of the moment is an indefinably retro look of composite styles.

From top: Elvis Costello poster by Hammerpress; Paper Because campaign by Eric Mower + Associates; Westbrook Brewing packaging by Fuzzco

Object Letters: Making letterforms from physical objects has long been a playful and clever way to build a unique alphabet. There are so many materials to use: Play-Doh or clay, bottles of rum, cardboard, skulls and bones, or flowers and birds.

From top: The Rum Diary film poster by the Refinery; Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Zombies book cover by Richard Yoo Design; UCLA Extention catalog cover by the Office of Andrew Byrom

Iconographic Simplicity: One might say the essence of modern graphic design is the reduction of a complex idea to a recognizable symbol or visual phrase. This kind of simplicity is essential for logo design and those larger messages that rely on the viewer’s double take of recognition.

From top: Old Spice posters by Landor Associates; Coppell Humane Society logo by OhTwentyone; Rainforest Alliance posters by Caliber Creative

Reappropriating the Familiar: Twisting well-known imagery is often an effective method of instilling a message. When done well, it borrows equity from the vernacular and impact from the double entendre. Street signs, so common as to be almost invisible, can be reinvigorated. Repurposing a familiar logo can have the same effect; the viewer is so well-acquainted with the original that the close-cropped version reads just like it. Similarly, transforming an everyday sight like New York City subway tiles can lull the eye into believing the design is an original.

From top: School of Visual Arts subway poster by Louise Fili, Ltd.; Warning Signs campaign by Y&R Chicago

This story is from Print
2012 Regional Design Annual. Purchase the issue, or download a digital version, at