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RDA 2008: Southwest

This summer, most of the country was panicking as the price of gas hovered around $4 per gallon.

But in Texas, the whirling numbers at the pump looked more like cherries lin ing up on a slot machine. The oil and gas industry is flush, and windfall profits have trickled down, buoying local economies— including the design community.

“Being in Texas, the recession hasn’t hurt so much,” says Mark Platt of Kendall Creative in Dallas.

“With my clients elsewhere, it’s much different.” His sentiment was echoed almost unanimously across Texas, where even small design studios often count among their clients energy companies or firms that serve Big Oil. That isn’t true throughout the Southwest.

Arizona’s designers, for example, have seen their billings drag. But other cities and regions at a remove from Dallas and Houston, such as Austin and New Mexico, have defied the national slump, thanks to flourishing local industries.

Meanwhile, the Texas energy boom sits oddly next to the year’s biggest trend: green design.

Even compared to years past, 2008 seemed to be the point at which mainstream awareness (if not understanding) of sustainability issues reached a boiling point, and many companies are rushing to tout a burgeoning eco-consciousness. Consequently, designers are adjusting to the role of educator— walking the clients through all aspects of green printing, for example, or sounding a (gentle) alarm about greenwashing, with the simple admonishment that clients begin with legitimate claims to environmental awareness. Brandon Murphy of Squires Company in Dallas points out that clients don’t necessarily know what certification logos mean, “but they know the marketing value. You can see why.

Many of these companies, especially oil and gas, have a lot of attention on them. … And they have the profits to do good.” Jim Mousner of Origin Design in Houston notes a similar theme.

“There’s no question that there’s an explosion. Our clients are asking questions they’ve never asked before,” he says.

But he also sees the shadow of a bubble. “Is the message getting diluted? Everyone’s seeing green, and it’s no longer distinctive.”

Designers pointed to some subtle aesthetic shifts at work. Arizona and New Mexico have a deeply rooted folk-art vernacular. At worst, this means purple sunsets, coiled rattlesnakes, and the inextricable pairing of teal and pink. But these motifs were nowhere to be seen in the design submissions, which often seemed directed at a savvy national audience, despite lean budgets. As far as local tropes are concerned, Texas was another story—the place seems forever linked to cattle-brand logotypes and ersatz charred edges. “You keep waiting for that style to jump the shark, but it still gets recombined in new ways,” says Murphy.

Still, a few sophisticated clients seem to be shifting toward cleaner, more up-to-date styles. “The marketers being hired are younger and more relaxed about their corporate feel,” says Linda Limb of Limb Design in Houston.

“They want to be innovative, and they have better taste.” Cesar Sanchez, of Imaginaria in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, concurs: “Texas has always been about an organic look. But things are simplifying. And that makes having a bolder message more important.”

Some people were willing to venture a psychological explanation for the return to simplicity. A troubling political situation and news of an economic slowdown have brought sober-minded design into vogue. But there are practical reasons for the change as well. For one, the lessons of uncluttered design, as preached by Target and Apple, have coalesced into common wisdom. Clients are more receptive to boldness, in small doses—bright colors or radically simplified branding, for example. Of course, clean design might simply be pragmatic. Branding across many different media outlets requires that every design be flexible.

Colors and logos must translate to the web and PDAs. Less is more—and more versatile.

“Less” isn’t just an aesthetic trend— there’s also the decline of print. Designers consistently pointed out that clients are calling for less printed matter—from annual reports to branded collateral—preferring instead to post material on their websites, without the help of outside designers.

Environmental concerns are sometimes given as the reason, but it really comes down to money. Those who do order printed goods have tried to lower costs by making arrangements directly with printers, rather than through graphic designers, or contractually limiting fees for print supervision. Shrewd designers have responded by trying to steer clients toward more complex (and higher-billing)online efforts.

Meanwhile, another former cash cow has run dry: Fewer andfewer clients see the value of a commissionedphoto shoot.

“Our clients are getting smarter about the industry and photography, so they’re going to the cheap stock agencies themselves,” says Platt. “More and more, we’re having to teach them about the value of doing something custom.” In a region with dynamic economies, designers have to keep limber at all times; the ones represented here have figured out more than a few tricks.

This article appears in the December 2008 issue of PRINT.