RDA 2006: Midwest
— Just by driving north through the Midwest and looking out the car window, one can feel the pace of the design business slacken as the miles go by. In Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the weather and business are hot. Through Ohio, manufacturing plants are shuttered. Entering Michigan and Minnesota, one senses a recovery, but the economy hasn’t quite returned to where it was a decade ago.
Derek Sussner, founder of Sussner Design Company, says that business in Minneapolis is steady or flat. But he’s optimistic: Firms in his area that almost went under have righted themselves and are actively searching for new projects. Better yet, his customers are doing well. “We’ve gotten calls from clients we haven’t heard from in three or four years who are ready to update,” he says.
Scott Thares of Wink, Minneapolis, reports that the firm’s tempo is about the same as last year but says he’s encouraged: He and partner Richard Boynton are now working with higher-profile clients. He adds that new design companies continue to open up in Minnesota, so there seems to be enough work for everyone.
For Planet Propaganda in Madison, Wisconsin, the fastest growth is in film and motion graphics. Clients want multiple applications—broadcast, online, sales presentations—for their money, says principal Kevin Wade. But some clients aren’t comfortable with the costs of such projects. “It’s all new to them,” Wade observes. “But they’re slowly gravitating to it.”
In smaller markets like Sioux City, Iowa, offices such as Jeff Gordon Advertising are finding clients outside of their immediate areas. Local, smaller businesses often can’t afford to hire an agency to do their design work, Gordon notes.
For BBK, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the pace of business has picked up since 2005, reports partner Yang Kim. Furniture clients are coming back, and there’s much more web work. BBK is hiring again, and good people are in high demand in the area. “We may have to resort to a headhunter,” she says.
When a locale is perceived to be remote, it can be hard to find just the right person with just the right qualifications. In fact, several principals we spoke to asked that their ongoing, fruitless searches for qualified designers be publicized through this article. “Only brilliant people need apply,” said one, not entirely in jest. A firm in Indiana has hired an additional person every six to eight weeks for all of 2006.
Ohio firms, which in the past few years have suffered very hard times, are staffing up again, too. But taking on new personnel is a gradual process. One art director noted that her Columbus studio can draw talent from the East Coast, but keeping positions filled is a game of musical chairs.
Creatives willing to dip their toes into new waters seem to be multiplying. For instance, many Midwestern designers noted that they had had their first experiences with environmental design only recently.
“We’ve seen a big increase in brand development and environmental graphics,” says Arlene Watson, art
director at Cleveland’s Möbius Grey. The trick here is to help clients find new solutions to old problems, says Walt Herrip of Herrip Associates in Peninsula, Ohio. “Now we’re designing ‘messaging boards’ along freeways. We used to call those ‘billboards.’”
Some kinds of projects have simply gone away, all or in part, across the Midwest—among them, luxurious annual reports; stationery systems (a business card will do); catalogs and sales brochures (easier to put them on the internet); broadcast graphics; and larger print runs of just about everything.
In Chicago, Steve Liska reports that membership in creative organizations seems to be at an all-time high. “There is more of cross-pollination among photographers, ad people, and designers where these people used to be more siloed. We’re realizing that we all rely on each other and have even been partnering with other firms such as sign manufacturers to get the work done,” he says.
Kansas City’s First Fridays continue to be an enormous draw to local creatives, and KC’s Ad Club and AIGA get rave reviews for their efforts to inform, enlighten, and amuse the community. The art, design, and music worlds all mesh here: There are several events and openings every month, and many designers do double-duty as fine artists, fashion designers, musicians, or work in other creative fields, according to Sarah Smitka of The Pink Pear Design Company in Independence, Missouri. Her mother and sister, both inspired by the local scene, are studying for their design degrees now and will soon join Smitka’s firm.
Nebraska, too, is finding success in pulling its creative communities together. A recent show in Lincoln of 400 music posters brought in 2,000 visitors in two weeks.
Finally, it’s worth noting that after years of talent being bled away to both coasts, the process has started to reverse: Seeking more affordable lifestyles and real estate, designers are moving to the Midwest. “There are a lot of people who have moved here from other big-time agencies in Dallas, Las Vegas, and so on,” says Tony Fannin, creative director of 2Fold in Indianapolis.
Some are coming home; some are looking for home.