RDA 2006: Southwest
By Angela Voulangas
We knew something was up. The first indication was a substantial increase in submissions from all over the region; then, as we started contacting the winners, they confirmed, with surprising consistency, what we had started to suspect: Things are hot in the Southwest (and we’re not talking about the weather). “I’m trying to find time to respond to your email,” wrote Jeff Breazeale, a partner at The Matchbox Studio in Dallas, “but I’ve been buried under work—too busy!” Russ Wall of Squeeze in Phoenix reports happily, “All of a sudden, we have a bunch of clients who actually get it—and want it.” Practically all of the designers who actually had a few spare moments to talk to us spoke with enthusiasm about new prospects, new strategies, and packed schedules.
One of the factors fueling this design boom may be the uptick in the local web market, which most of those canvassed described as “huge.” Deuce Creative, a recent addition to the Houston scene, has several web redesigns under way as clients have been asking for the “next wave of online presence.” Linda Limb of Limb Design, also in Houston, finds almost universally that clients are “re-evaluating web strategies,” and becoming clearer and more focused on their web-related goals. Explains Shannon Carter, the president and chief creative officer of Austin’s Cartis Group, “They’re much more search-engine-savvy, more sophisticated.” Sites are being stripped down to basics and rebuilt with more clear functionality and less busy, distracting animation. Everyone agrees that users should not have to keep pressing that “skip intro” button.
Back in the print world, there was noticeable evidence of a “low-fi” look amid the Southwest’s entries—two-color printing and uncoated stocks appeared repeatedly. From Dallas-based Slant’s cleverly streamlined letterhead to the fastidiously low-tech production of Tulsa-based thinkdesignco’s John 3:16 Mission annual report (which incorporated paper bags, cardboard and newsprint), these pieces wink at the budget approach. Butler Looney, principal of Looney Design Lab in Dallas, thinks his city is “loving paper” at the moment; more than ever, he sees Dallas designers trying tip-ons and out-of-the-way stocks. Tim McGrath and Sam Maclay of new design studio 3 in Albuquerque speak of the growing tendency to increase dimension in print work through the use of handcrafted add-ons, embossing, and perforations. Rough tactility was also rife in Albuquerque-based Thielan Designs’ Art Center Design College “Poker Vite” and in the many strong silkscreen works by Texans Dirk Fowler and Erick Montes, among others. This is the kind of work that doesn’t scream “special effect”; instead, it conveys a low-key ingenuity.
There may be reasons beyond stylistic synchronicity for this pervasive tactile “craftiness.” Looney, for one, sees a possible explanation in the “long period when people didn’t want to spend money.” He remembers that as a time when designers learned an important lesson: “So much can be done with so little.” Unfortunately, there are clients who seem to remember those days, too. Some designers comment that although there’s been a steady rise in available work, clients have grown used to the smaller budgets and lower fees of those leaner times. Thielen Designs references this enforced design-on-a-shoestring aesthetic by “slashing prices” and making a witty identity system out of a bargain-basement retail tag.
On another stylistic note, Aimee Smith, of Deuce Creative, speaks of what she sees as design’s shift away from many years of minimalism toward the more ornate. She sees plenty of room for integrated ornamentation “even on corporate levels.” The firm’s sleek pieces for chemical concern Champion Technologies layer mechanical line drawings of “machinery found out in the field” in a range of unusual color choices. It’s a surprising visual direction for a Houston-based company that one would otherwise assume would stay well within the traditional corporate arena. Speaking of which, it should be mentioned that, while handmade style and ornamentation have obviously become well-rooted, clean, business-oriented design continues to be well represented in this year’s Regional, as embodied in such entries as the MedSynergies brochure from Dallas firm MasonBaronet. With business and development on the rise across the Southwest, such pieces should be ensured a place for years to come.
Other trends in the Southwest design community will probably prove more fleeting. For instance, it seems highly unlikely that we’ll see another period when, as happened this year, more than one designer felt the urge to reflect on things tonsorial. Commenting on a certain aesthetic in his area, Jim Foley of Loudthought in Dallas proclaims, “The new men’s hairstyles, and beards—bad!” At the same time, just 196 Texan miles away, Bryan Keplesky of Austin-based Door Number 3 asserts (probably not with a straight face), “I’ve found that if you have a mustache it adds a certain air of sophistication to your work.” That’s the Southwest this year: finding strength through difference.