RDA 2006: South
By Eve Kahn A renowned chronicler of his native South, Faulkner declared, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” But in the graphic design realm, at least, his summary now seems dead wrong. The region’s design scene has never been more globalized, more aggressively up-to-the-minute, less nostalgic or hidebound. Southern designers, whether based in bustling capitals or remote hamlets, just want to talk about how they serve clients worldwide with solutions that build brands rather than boutique signatures.
“In this region, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of developing your own style,” says Brad White, the executive creative director at Luckie & Co. in Birmingham, Alabama. “We have to work harder to make believers out of people. We’re proving to clients that really smart work can come out of Birmingham. There’s a geographic impediment to how the South is perceived, conscious or unconscious.”
Luckie’s business is booming, White adds, with clients as sizable as Blue Cross and BellSouth. And his colleagues from Covington, Kentucky, to Key West likewise report healthy numbers. In fact some have doubled their billings since 2004 or 2005 and need more hands on board. “I just hired three more people and I’ll probably add a few more by the end of the year,” reports Julio Lima, head of Orlando’s say it loud!. “We’ve developed an international look. Someone logging on to the website won’t know immediately that we’re in Orlando. I’d like them to think the work’s coming maybe from Amsterdam or London.”
Even in Katrina-devastated areas, graphic designers report profits at least holding steady, especially thanks to non-Southern customers. “I haven’t heard of any studios that closed down, but the freelancers seem to have all left town,” notes Tom Varisco of the eponymous firm in New Orleans. “We’re the same size we were before the storm. We’ve been very lucky; we got back into our building 19 days after Katrina. We’ve been able to focus on clients outside the area: Central Park SummerStage, an investment fund in Los Angeles, a San Francisco owner of French vineyards.”
Web promotions—“anything from podcasting to viral videos,” says Ben Johnson of Memphis’s Tactical Magic—are especially easy to produce for faraway customers you’ve never met. “We’re finding clients are more and more willing to engage with the more nimble forms of media, to go outside their comfort zone,” reports Ron Randle, creative director of Enventys in Charlotte. “We’re being super-creative in stretching their dollars across broadcast, print, radio, and online.”
Though the bulk of graphic-design revenue for Southerners lately seems to come from other regions, the thriving local real estate developers are also providing considerable business. “When I got here in 1995, you wouldn’t even go to midtown, let alone buy property there,” says W. Todd Vaught of sky design in Atlanta. “Now midtown is booming, along with downtown and Buckhead. With all the growth in Atlanta, there’s no better place for a designer now.” The firm produced Deco-flavored, arched and rounded environmental graphics for Atlantic Station, a 138-acre former steel plant being turned into $2 billion worth of offices, residences, stores, and hotels.
In the re-burgeoning downtowns and expanding sub-divisions, the new roads are already lined with billboards. “We’re doing more outdoor than ever,” Randle explains. “It’s such a visible media vehicle. We worked for a church that was moving into a new building, and with an emphasis on outdoor in the campaign, the attendance numbers from the beginning have been off the charts.” Restored buildings on Main Streets are meanwhile filling with restaurants, spas, theaters, museums, and bars, all in need of graphics. “You can make a living here from the club scene and the zines alone,” says Michael Shavalier, art director of Miami New Times. The local agencies, he adds, are serving more customers lately in Europe and South and Central America.
As the non-Southern customers and practitioners flow in, and the images produced spread to the far edges of the blogosphere, Southern design will undoubtedly look ever more cosmopolitan. Southerners sound relieved about the fading of local color, and in fact many interviewees practically bristled when asked, “Is there a regional style?” The only observers sorry about the globalization seem to be transplanted Yankees like David Carson, who moved his studio from New York to Charleston in 2002. He’s restless now, partly due to disappointment with the lack of detectable regionalism, despite his own busy international practice.
“I’ve redesigned a city magazine for Aspen, I’m working on a magazine launch out of London, I’ve done BMW posters, and I’ve got a big packaging commission for a new line of fat-free snacks,” he says. “I wish I could tell you there’s some great movement in the scene here, but there only seems to be motion or energy in the letterpress one-off posters. I hate to see the trend continuing of real solid B-level work that could come from anywhere. I think you should be able to tell, when you look at something, that it comes from South Carolina.”