RDA 2006: Far West
— Western designers, with their mellow rhythm and keen enjoyment of the outdoors, may be the only people I’ve heard use the phrase “quality of life” with such authority and frequency. It was true even after the high-tech boom—based in the West—went bust a few years ago, and it’s especially true now: The designers represented in the following pages unanimously report good business.
“Good business,” however, means more than just additional revenue. Peggy Burke, creative director and principal of 1185 Design in Palo Alto, California, says that clients were not as willing to take risks during the recession. “We can’t do brilliant work when they’re in that mode,” she says. But as of 18 months ago, her clients began to “invest in high-end design again, so we’re relieved.” In San Diego, Sallie Reynolds Allen of Reynolds + Allen observes, “Clients are more open than before; they’re not pulling the reins so hard.”
If clients are more open to designers’ creative impulses, they are also more demanding. Victor Rodriguez, one of the owners of eurie creative in Las Vegas, reports that in recent years, budgets have shrunk while the requirements have remained the same. He attributes this to consolidation of Vegas casinos. “Now, three companies own The Strip,” he says. “There’s less competition, so budgets are smaller.” This dynamic is affecting bigger markets, too. In San Francisco, Vince Engel of ad agency BuderEngel and Friends says his clients are “screaming poverty—they spend less and expect more.”
Another demand is speed, even in laid-back San Diego, where Josh Higgins works at Miriello Grafico. He says that turnaround times are accelerated now. “Clients need more and they need it faster.” But he’s come to terms with this arrangement. “It teaches us to be more efficient.” Up the road in Laguna Beach, Tim Vangilder, a designer at high-end bicycle-components maker crankbrothers, agrees that the pace has picked up there as well. “Growth is happening here,” he notes.
In fact, crankbrothers is exemplary of the Western trend toward more in-house design. Up in Sacramento, Casey Catlett of Maloof Sports & Entertainment says that more companies are realizing that it’s beneficial to have a design team in-house. Why? “It’s easier,” he says. “Turnaround is quick.” Robert Nakata, design director of the boutique ad agency 72andSunny in El Segundo, California, finds that the rise in excellent in-house work by Nike and others challenges the old, client-makes-widgets/ agency-is-creative status quo. “Who’s the creative now? The landscape is more muddied,” he says. While it’s always been true that good work reflects a good client, he concludes, “It’s more literal now.” Steve Whittier of Denver’s Factory Design Labs says some of the best work he sees is done in-house, because it’s “organic to the company’s culture and not ‘adsy.’”
As a whole, designers in the West report, as they did last year, that graphic design has become more visual than ever, and that the balance between the field’s two core elements—images and words—has tilted heavily toward images. Stan Byers, an art director at The Rose Glenn Group, a Reno ad agency, has followed and embraced this change. He’s been buying Art Directors Club publications from the ’70s and ’80s on eBay that illustrate this difference: “Back then, the headline was the art.” But in his agency, he says, “Copy is not king. Being more visually oriented makes it easier to jump into broadcast and Flash on the web, where the payoff is more visual than copy-driven.” The production values in the pre-digital age were particularly suited for ads that relied heavily on copy. Now, new tools, serving a new medium, allow more aggressively visual work. But Steve Whittier, who is an art director on the advertising side of things, is less sanguine. “There’s not a lot of great body copy,” he says. Instead, “Everyone comes up with some crazy visual solution—cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”
The epicenter of this rumbling is found in Santa Monica and Venice, California, where young designers in motion-graphics studios are forging what Brad Bartlett, who runs his own studio and teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, describes as a new ethos in which the visual effect is much more important than content. “It becomes the content,” he says.
While experienced designers are impressed, even awed, by the emerging talent, they complain that the younger generation suffers a serious weakness in typography. Peggy Burke says that young designers’ “technical skills are incredible,” but that their work often lacks “Design 101” elements such as an underlying grid to organize type. “They just stick it on a page,” she says. Not literally, of course, but with software, on a screen. Vince Engel echoes this sentiment: “It’s all ‘Set to Fit,’ and whatever comes out is fine these days.”
As our world rewards speed and ease, is artful language in design and advertising, then, a dying art? Steve Watson, of the Seattle-based design firm Turnstyle, proposes a synthesis of the old school and the new “Set to Fit” approach: “I’d challenge students to see letterforms visually, as pieces of 2-D sculpture, as pieces of art like photography and other imagery. Graphic design always has been and will be the meshing of words and images.”