Print Regional Design Annual, cover by Abbott Miller, 2005
Flying from New York to Los Angeles last week, I spent the long hours at 35,000 feet doing something I had not done in years: I read Print Magazine's "2005 Regional Design Annual" cover to cover. Here are some of the things I learned:
Tech has re-bounded in Utah.
North Carolina is home to designers who emphasize the importance of offering a comprehensive branding program.
San Diego is home to the most consistently happy designers from year to year.
Firms that aren't "weighed down by a large number of employees" are doing well in Virginia.
And ... Indie rock band posters are channeling Marcel Dzama and Edward Gorey, no matter where they're from.
Why did I even bother?
The current Print cover headline, "25th Anniversary Edition," caught my attention in that awful way that things do as I realized that I probably owned and had once pored over the very first "Regional Design Annual" of Print Magazine. Back in that day, there were hardly any AIGA chapters: New York was its own kingdom, Chicago (home to the American Center for Design, née the Society of Typographic Designers) was another, and things were just beginning to percolate down in Texas. There was also something called California Design, dominated by a mysterious confluence of talented (but oddly, unrelated) guys all of whom shared the same name (Michael) as well as a particular preference for the color orange.
At that point Print, having sensed that the spread of design east of the Hudson River might be considered newsworthy, invited designers to submit their work for inclusion in an annual review that would be divided and analyzed geographically. To look back at those early "Regional Annuals" is to witness the world of American design when at least some of the work was interestingly local, or thuddingly provincial: this was not only a result of the kinds of clients in each region, but the designers themselves, how self-contained their orbits were, what sorts of schools might have been influencing them locally, and so on.
A big part of the story of the Print "Regional Annual" now is revealed up front, on the first of those many annoying, oddly-weighted sheets of paper bound in to the front matter of the magazine: the entry-coupon for the 2006 regional design annual (each entry $35). It's a big piece of business for Print as they, in fact, average about 25,000 entries per year, as editor Joyce Rutter Kaye estimates in her foreword. But it would be wrong to suggest that this is the entire back-story of the Print "Regional Annual," because, for starters, it's hard labor culling through that many entries. It's worth remembering, too, that Print is determined to generate a compelling picture of graphic design across the nation via this juried survey even if the legitimacy of their overview is based on an antiquated notion of how, and more to the point, where, design happens.
Print's editors claim that that the thousands of entries and their culling of them cannot help but represent a complete survey of what's going on in the world of graphic design. (Their process begins with an in-house panel assessing the entries; their picks constitute a sort of trend-spotting that is subsequently amended with editorial comments based on interviews with a few selected entrants.) Editor Kaye offers a sort of editorial disclaimer in her introduction: "Technology and globalization," she writes, "has enabled agencies and design firms to become less reliant on local clients, and the awareness of international design trends has expanded their vocabulary of creative references." Such a cultural climate, let alone a tacit admission of this new, globalized state of affairs, would seem to trump the very "regional" particularities that Print's editors want to believe they're defining for us a fact that's perhaps most evident in the actual entries themselves.
Many newspapers the Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post, among others are locally parsed and published (and therefore represented by) their respective regional sections. We know that most newspapers in this country are facing a perilous business climate, so it's no surprise that newspapers are sprucing up their design standards. Of course, what really would be surprising would be if the designers of the San Diego Union Tribune deliberately created a graphic identity that was ineffably but unquestionably "San Diegan." (Now that would belong in a regional annual.) But only a contrarian or maybe someone who had never ever glimpsed those racks full of self-help books trumpeting the new globalism at every airport newsstand across the nation would even think of such a thing. Actually, it sounds like a graphic design grad school thesis project. (But I digress.)
Today, designers and their clients identify themselves by engaging in practices that are framed by "regional" issues, yet their business is often directed, ultimately, at bigger audiences; the success of those regional designers depends on their ability to visually communicate on a national or even international level. It may be, too, that the designers or agencies who enter competitions like the Print "Regional Annual" are already within a subset of designers deeply invested in working at the national/global level. Or maybe that's just the work that Print's in-house team responds to, since it's "professional" and appeals to contemporary, even more visually-savvy audiences. One exception here is the plethora of birth announcements, moving announcements, wedding announcements and other self-promotional pieces entered and frequently chosen; here, it's worth suggesting that while the ego may be local, the dreams are transcendent. And with the exception of a few lonely chile peppers or howling coyotes or blobby Hatch Show print headlines, I dare any reader to cover up the location names and try to guess where this work comes from. The same can be said for the descriptions of the business climate for design, which are basically mediocre from sea-to- shining-sea; nevertheless, each regions' designers remain optimistic despite it all which either speaks to the indomitability of the human spirit , or to the ongoing proliferation of serotonin-uptake inhibitors. Or both.
In the very same issue, Rick Poynor's essay "Arch Enemy" makes the uncomfortable point that much of the work of graphic designers is middlebrow, which he characterizes as popular and clever without challenging the preconceptions of either the client or its audience. It's an interesting choice to run this essay in this issue of the "Regional Annual," since this year's selections seem middlebrow to the core. There's not much in the way of inspiration, nor is there a significant amount of out-and-out crap. This flattened-out picture of design drawn by Print's in-house jury is probably a result of their desire to be "fair and balanced," to give each type of work it's due: and in doing so, each part of the country is indistinguishable from the next. Even J. Abbott Miller's cover of the current Print, with its faux-airline hub-and-spoke map, slyly alludes to the dulling effect of global uniformity, using the most banal of contemporary designed experiences to convey the state of the (design) arts.
Not wanting to be the ever-nattering nabob, I hereby offer Print a few suggestions.
Number One: follow the example of shows such as Grown in California (organized by the California chapters of the AIGA with an orange cover, perhaps attesting to its own enduringly Michael-ized, and arguably regional, DNA) where the work is subdivided into genres to try to describe diversity, rather than uniformity, of practice.
Number Two: dispense with the regional analysis entirely and display the work by genres more thoughtfully described than the typical competition categories (such as "editorial design," "identity programs" and so forth.) What if all the insurance company communications were cross-compared, or all of the pharmaceutical ads, or all of the wedding invitations?
Finally: assign each area a single writer who hails from that particular region, and give them the freedom to capture the gestures, the nuances, the cutural specifics that frame the work if indeed they do. Of course, in the end it will still all be fictional, but no more so than the idea that that designers who live in Kansas City are any different from those who live in Brooklyn.
It's possible, even likely that such reconsiderations would offer a better representation of the range of work in the Print "Regional Annual," and would help to amplify the "similar differences" that are now completely misrepresented by the magazine's ongoing insistence that we're all constrained by some kind of design dialect that divides us across the map.
I can report the following from my own fly-over last week: from 35,000 feet, I assure you, you can't tell the red states from the blue ones. And I suspect that most of the designers, no matter where they hail from, are still wearing a lot of black.