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RDA 2008: Midwest

“My work ethic, process, and philosophy are all born from my Midwestern roots,” says Eric Kass of Funnel in Indianapolis. It’s a pride that is echoed by designers across the region. Midwesterners benefit from the many advantages of living in the middle of the country, including an enviably low cost of living. But it’s been a tough year as well, one that included flooding, real-estate woes, and a general financial slowdown. “Stuck in the middle with no voice, no coast; nothing but a river and a shoreline,” sings The Ike Reilly Assassination, a Chicago band whose name appears on a poster from One Lucky Guitar of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Matt Kelley, the poster’s designer, cites these lyrics as a testament to the people who make do and make it happen in the Midwest.

Most everyone surveyed for this “state of the region” expressed a carefully measured optimism. Things are holding steady and business is generally good, but “cautious and realistic” describes the mood of most designers, says Katie Kirk of Minneapolis’s Eighthourday. Derek Sussner of Sussner Design Company, another Minneapolis firm, agrees. “We are secretly bracing for a slowdown and trying to be frugal with spending where it makes sense,” he says. “However, we are enthusiastic and optimistic about next year.”

Across the Midwest, designers note the capability of small firms to succeed where larger companies struggle. “The ability to move like a speedboat versus a cruise ship is turning out to be the desired approach,” says Jay Miller, creative director at Minneapolis’s Imagehaus. Eric Kass points out that a small, streamlined studio has “the power to be fluid, adapt able, and diversified—but focused.”

Even clients are getting sharper. Several designers are thrilled that they can now go places that were previously off-limits, within typically conservative assignments. They are enjoying “an environment where clients are willing to sign off on concepts that three or four years ago they were not,” says Indianapolis designer Matt Ganser of Foundry. Matt Kelley loves the increasing openness toward “the weird, the wild, and the wacky. You don’t have to sneak it in any longer,” he says.

“As designers we have the obligation to make change and use creativity to drive our clients to success,” says Stefan Hartung of HartungKemp Design Agency. According to Chicago’s Guy Villa, more clients are receptive to suggestions of environmentally friendly papers and vendors. “In my own practice, I am making efforts to incorporate the reuse or alternative use of found or normally discarded materials,” he says.

“Designers can’t just be designers anymore,” says Rob Jackson, principal at Extra Credit Projects in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In these lean times, branding, tech development, consulting, even interior design are increasingly expected to be involved in a firm’s services. Ken Hejduk of Cleveland’s Little Jacket posits, “As both the public and private sector start to rethink how they plan the future, it seems likely that smaller, smarter firms with a fresh perspective on marketing and a more integrated approach to communication and problem-solving will be chosen as partners.”

Revitalized small- and medium-size towns across the Midwest help create desirable, design-friendly communities. “When people move here they fall in love with how easy it is to live in the Midwest, and they stay for quite some time,” says Tad Carpenter of Kansas City, Missouri.

Technology, obviously, allows for a global business to exist just about anywhere. “Regions and states don’t seem to matter anymore in the age of websites,” says Neal Aspinall from his illustration studio in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Praising his reliable internet connection, Michael Stanard, of One Zero Charlie in McHenry County in rural Illinois, owns and operates a small airport— as well as his design company—on the land of a former dairy farm; his studio is in a building off the runway.

Straight economics plays the largest role in this trend. “Designers moving to the Midwest enjoy being able to work at a respectable agency and save money for traveling, advanced education, entertainment, and buying a home,” says Joe Napier of Cincinnati. Though gas prices remain enviably low in Missouri, even a one-person studio suffers from the high cost of shipping, a trickle-down effect of inflation at the pump. “It’s my only complaint, as I send many of my posters all over the world,” says Springfield, Missouri, letterpress artist Doug Wilson of On Paper Wings.

This year, we noticed an abundance of layered and three-dimensional entries: paper cutouts, added-on bits of tape or tags, fold-your- own origami toys, rotating circles of multilayered cardstock for a wheel of fortune. Cleverness, wit, and a childlike playfulness recurred throughout the submissions, along with an ’80s-inspired return to the hottest of hot fluorescent oranges and pinks. The aesthetic good mood is welcomed, since uncertainty, mixed with hope, looms. “We keep trekking along with one eye down the path and one looking for a safe place to land if we fall,” says Clint! Runge, of Archrival in Lincoln, Nebraska. Katie Kirk has a back-up tack: “It’s never bad to plan for a rainy day or know what to pawn.”

This article appears in the December 2008 issue of PRINT.