RDA 2006: East
This native of the East is happy to report that the region’s boom continues. “We’re slammed,” says Kim Fox, a designer who also works as a project manager at a Pittsburgh studio. “And when you’re slammed and getting to do good work, you know that’s a good indicator.” Up in Watertown, Massachusetts, Michael McPherson of Corey McPherson Nash agrees. “We’re getting lots of calls, lots of leads,” he says. “We’re connecting with clients at the right level. Whereas three years ago we’d be getting calls from a junior assistant, now we’re hearing from the VP of marketing.” Ronald Younts, design director at Ashton Design in Baltimore, says that things have been “almost too good.” Filling any new positions, he says, could actually prove a challenge: “It’s difficult to find great designers.”
Finding acceptable clients, on the other hand, is going smoothly for most. Firms of every size are adding clients and courting new kinds of businesses. David Grigg, president and creative director of Happy Dog Advertising in Bridgeport, Connecticut, just landed the northeast distributor of Sub-Zero refrigerators, and says this is a departure. “Our previous big client was in interiors and furniture,” he says. “Our client base has definitely changed a lot this year.” New genres of work have also come to Alec Beckett, creative partner of Providence-based Nail Communications: “We just started working for a political candidate,” he reports. “We’re doing it because political advertising is famously horrible. We’ll probably produce the best political advertising in Rhode Island!” Jake Lefebure, co-owner of Design Army in Washington, D.C., is one of many who has seen growth in an already familiar client sector: “The hospitality industry is picking up,” he says. “They all kind of know about us, and pass us around.” Similarly, McPherson has gained work from cultural organizations. “They’ve been struggling, but they need the edge,” he says.
Clued-in clients (or lack thereof) have long been part of the conversation with designers in the East. Some in more rural locales remain stereotypically recalcitrant: “Small clients, especially in the Connecticut area, are all bottom-line,” says Griggs. In the cities, the designers are seeing greater investment in the process. “People seem to be more savvy, and to care about the work,” says Brian Liu, principal at Toolbox Creative in D.C. “Clients used to say ‘Just get it done.’” According to Rick Heffner, principal at fuszion Collaborative in Alexandria, “Clients are pushing us—they’re asking us to one-up ourselves, whether it’s to redo an ad campaign or launch an annual report.” Increased client awareness has a dark side, though. Heffner says he misses being able to make changes without letting the client in on the secret. “They’ve become a little too savvy!” he says. As Fox puts it, “Education of clients can go either way—they can use it for your benefit or for theirs.”
One worrying trend seems to bear this out: Some clients have started to buy their own printing, often with disastrous results. “We’re pretty much just handing over files,” says Younts, decrying the loss of project control. “We’re getting a lot fewer print sales reps. They’re going straight to the clients.” Heffner has also seen his clients try to take over printing. “They don’t understand that the process doesn’t stop once they hand over the disk,” he says. “You wouldn’t buy a Porsche and then get it serviced at Joe’s Auto Body.”
Luckily, the majority of clients seem to be steering clear of such mistakes. “So far, I’ve not seen clients willing to forgo quality for price,” says Brenda Brodsky, associate creative director at Buck & Pulleyn in Pittsford, New York. A few businesses are even insisting on more costly aspects of production, especially when it comes to sustainable design. Fox reports that some of her local clients have specifically asked for recycled paper—they’re looking for a way to give back, she says, and boost their image in the market at the same time.
A growing interest in sustainability is just one of many interesting recent developments in the Pittsburgh community. Culturally and economically, the city seems to be making a comeback. Says Fox, “There’s a sense of optimism in Pittsburgh right now.” Robert Kiernan, creative director of Actual Size Creative, agrees that Pittsburgh is on the upswing, thanks to local designers who are shaking off an overweening modesty. “People in other cities aren’t afraid to do something flashy,” he says. “Here, they were afraid to be boastful. I think that’s changing.
As for Eastern style, Jake Lefebure says that there’s been a lot more illustration over the past few years, and sees design getting “cleaner and cleaner.” That can prove a mixed bag for young designers looking to express themselves. “I try to submit something a little funky, but my clients are more conservative,” says Boston designer Kris Greene. “They say, ‘I think it’s a good idea, but I don’t think it’s gonna fly.’” Ultimately, no one style is sweeping the region; and that’s fine by Michael McPherson: “There aren’t any big new trends,” he says. “And I think that’s a good thing.”