Favorite Cities for Creatives

Madison, WI

Half an hour into wandering the grounds of Dr. Evermor’s sculpture park on Highway 12, just outside of Madison, WI, I begin to believe that his amazing assemblage, The Forevertron, really is a time machine or a portal into an alternate dimension. The city of Madison just doesn’t seem real. With all the charms of a small town, it offers the cultural attractions of a bigger city.

Madison’s economy, made up in large part by the government and education sectors, also supports a thriving design community of small firms, freelancers and in-house groups. And during the past year, when many design organizations felt the sting of a weakened economy, Design Madison experienced a stunning rebirth. Established in the late ’80s, DM faltered after about five years. In 2000, a group of creatives including designer Melissa Carlson and design educator Marty Rayala began to revive the group, bringing in speakers and charging attendees on a per-event basis.

“Eventually, we had more interest from area designers and other professionals to help out with leadership, which has changed the face of the group,” says Carlson, who was president for two years. “Current leadership has catapulted the momentum of Design Madison. The board members meet at least monthly, and have committed to many more events per year.

“One important strength of our group,” she continues, “is the ability to gradually evolve leadership, bringing in potential new board members to shadow us, so we don’t lose the energy and focus we have. The infamous burnout would certainly happen without the constant interest and involvement of new designers.”

This year, DM focused on bringing in a range of speakers that would appeal to designers of all stripes, including Jim Sherraden from Hatch Show Print, Ron Anderson, creative manager/brand development for Target, and Alicia Johnson of Johnson & Wolverton (best known for their work with Starbucks). DM president Joel Goldfoot’s No. 1 goal for the group is to meet the needs of all designers, whether student, freelancer, principal or in-house team member.

Goldfoot grew up in Madison and, though he’s considered out-of-town job offers, he’s never found a compelling reason to leave. Where else could he work in a renovated warehouse and live on 20 acres of farmland with two dogs, two quarter horses, two pygmy goats and a couple of barn cats?

The low cost of living is a big part of what makes Madison so creative-friendly. When Lin and Lori Wilson decided they were tired of the hassles of living in Chicago, they could have moved anywhere. Lin, an illustrator, had clients around the country, and Lori’s PR business was portable, too. Two hours from the Windy City (and Lori’s family), Madison was the perfect spot for them to start Funnel Inc., first in a spare bedroom, then in an apartment next to their 100-year-old house.

Walking around the Saturday farmer’s market with Lin, Lori and 3-year-old Ruby, it’s obvious that the trio has embraced Madison and all its quirky charms. We only make it a few feet around the lines of stands that encircle the capital building before we run into several Wilson family friends. The kids share a fresh-baked cinnamon roll, while Lin runs across the street for O.J. and coffee.

More than one person has called the market a microcosm of Madison life. There are scores of family farms and dairies; most of the land around the city is privately owned. Families drive in from the suburbs; city dwellers and students walk from their homes and apartments. On one corner, an activist group shares information about the extensive bike path system that runs through Madison. On another, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin passes out balloons to children. Oh, and don’t miss the fresh cheese curds, $3 a bag.

Not surprisingly, Madison is one of those cities that constantly shows up on Top 10 lists:

• delicious living, March, 2003
“Madison was rated one of the top 5 inspirational cities. Madison has set trends for decades. For example, it was the first city in the nation to implement curbside recycling when it began collecting newspapers in 1968.”

• Forbes Magazine, May, 2003
“Madison ranks 5th in the nation for business and careers among 313 other metro areas. Education, job growth and cost of doing business figured heavily in the ranking.”

• The Media Audit, April, 2002
“Madison was ranked the most wired city for local business and government. A recent Media Audit report ranks Madison and Washington, DC, No. 1 in Internet usage at 73.4%.”

But Madison’s magnetic power can’t be measured in facts and figures. It’s an attitude, a vibe. For many designers it’s the ability to balance work and family. It’s the inspiration they find from the diversity of a college town mixed with wacky Wisconsin roadside attractions: The House on the Rock (a collection of collections), The Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum (with nearly 4,000 different varieties) and, of course, Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron.

Stop by the sculpture park and you’ll likely find the Doc himself sitting in the shade of a large metal umbrella beside an abandoned theme-park bus. He’s happy to explain how his invention works. First you get into the Gravitron, which removes excess water from your body and shrinks you to the proper size. Then you climb the spiral stairs to the metal encased glass egg, from which you’ll be blasted into another time. There’s a special viewing box for royalty. (Dr. Evermor doesn’t specify what type of royalty.) And just in case you’re still skeptical, he’s built a giant telescope so you can witness the magic.

 

Austin, TX

After attending AIGA/Austin’s Design Ranch Cinco this summer, my coworker, HOW art director Tricia Barlow, couldn’t stop talking about it. “There’s a reason they don’t call Design Ranch a conference,” she says. “The whole event was so unique. It really gets you away from the business of design and makes you work only in the right side of your brain for a few refreshing days.

“Austin has a very strong design community,” she continues. “As people were arriving, they all seemed to know each other. The AIGA chapter stays very busy, which says a lot considering the economy.”

And despite the dot-com bust that hit the small city pretty hard, most of its designers have rolled with the punches. “Everyone seems to have heard about the tech boom (and bust) here,” says designer Adam Fortner, “but since we’re the state capital, we have politics, teaching at the univer- sity, hi-tech, health, as well as various businesses and associations. And all of these are, of course, potential clients for the designer.”

Matt Hovis, a designer at Action Figure, is especially impressed by Austin clients. “The city has attracted many people and industries that are generally left of center, so as a designer, it’s nice to have clients that are consistently looking for something interesting or askew. The city is vibrant and alive, but it runs at a pretty chill pace. It’s a nice mix of go-get-’em-ness and a maòana mentality.”

Austin is certainly an oasis, floating near the middle of the great state of Texas. The city is known mainly for its music scene; nearly every restaurant, bar and other public venue offers live music. But that’s just the tip of the cowboy boot. Within the city limits you’ll find a thriving downtown, eclectic shopping neighborhoods, rivers, a lake, rolling hills and natural springs. And perhaps because the heat can be oppressive during the day, everyone comes out when the sun sets for the lively nightlife.

“I can’t tell you how many people I know who came here on vacation and never left,” says Diana Guentzel, vice president of AIGA/Austin. And it’s easy to see why. Driving around the city with freelance designer Sean Carnegie this summer, I visited several firms, crashed the AIGA Leadership Retreat and had a great lunch at a vegetarian restaurant.

Our tour included the Austin Pentagram office, where Carnegie’s wife Wendy works as a senior designer. The office was quiet at first as the nine-person staff slowly trickled in on a Friday morning. But the calm was soon interrupted by the barking of a crew of dogs, both large and small. “Sometimes we have more dogs than people,” jokes partner D.J. Stout. And with that, one of the small dogs relieved himself on the rug in Stout’s office.

The staff was buzzing about the AIGA retreat that began the previous evening. The Austin location attracted the highest registration in years, and one of the designers showed off the digital photos she took as well as the Pentagram-designed event materials.

Less than a mile away, I dropped in on fd2s to get the grand tour from senior designer Tanya Freach. Among other things, the firm is known for its wayfinding and environmental graphics, including the hip look of grocery chain H-E-B, and a computer-controlled fiber optic donor wall at Texas Children’s Hospital. Freach moved to Austin from Dallas to join the firm and is still adjusting. “Design is different here,” she says. “It’s more free-flowing and natural, less restricted.” Freach has been most impressed by her fellow designers’ varied interests, but admits she hasn’t yet found a hobby for herself. “I’m still taking time to get the Dallas off of me.”

Many designers agree that Austin is a bit of an anomaly for Texas. “I came to Austin because Houston was too big and too paved and too impersonal,” says designer Jessica Weida. “Austin is the place to be in Texas.” Guentzel agrees: “We have so many lakes, festivals, live music, benefits, plays, etc. We have a saying among my friends: ?If you can’t find something to do, then you must be sleeping.’

“The design community here seems very open and composed of the young and the young at heart,” she continues. “We have a few larger firms and a lot of smaller design shops, and everyone talks to one another. There is also a sudden influx of many freelancers, myself included, due to the economic climate. I almost feel like the sense of community has grown because of that reason alone. It seems like everyone is trying to look out for everyone else.”

After four days in the city, I’m not sure I want to go home, either. I ran out of time and didn’t get to see the Congress Ave. Bridge bats that take to the skies at sunset or swim in the three-acre Barton Springs pool, which stays a chilly 68 degrees year-round. But tasty BBQ at the Green Mesquite and hours searching through the treasures at the junktique store Uncommon Objects are enough to make me plan to come back soon.

San Diego, CA

Let me dispel a few misconceptions about San Diego right here: There’s more to San Diego than Shamu, the zoo and the beach. And no, we don’t all surf, refer to everyone as “dude” and wear flip-flops to work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I admit that I’m not from San Diego. This is true for many of the people that I know here, but that doesn’t stop us from calling ourselves locals. I was born and raised on the East Coast and lived in cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, before settling here and opening my studio some 10 years ago.

Make no mistake about it, culture is abundant in San Diego (the site of the 2004 HOW Design Conference). Not only is the weather nearly perfect year round, but it’s surrounded by Mexico to the south, the mountains and desert to the east, Los Angeles to the north and the big blue Pacific to the west. The culture comes not only from the city’s neighbors, but also from the rich economic, historic and social heritage that continues to make San Diego one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the country. The city’s location creates a hybridized culture that mixes and churns an abundance of social and outdoor activities—with one eye on the past and the other on progress and innovation. This creates a flavorful balance. “One byproduct of this duality is the design and music movement of Nortec: a fusion of Southern California Beach culture with spicy qualities of Mexico’s Baja Norte region,” says Candice López, a graphic-design professor at San Diego City College.

Additionally, the many higher-learning institutions attract world-class talent in fields like biotechnology, telecommunications, medical research and more. Economically, there’s a balance of small to medium innovative organizations, along with Fortune 500 companies in a wide variety of industries. Added to this is a large government and defense workforce to support the concentration of military in San Diego. For studios and agencies alike, this translates into opportunities to work with a variety of clients in many industries. This economic growth and diverse cultural expression is supported by an active and tight-knit design community. “The San Diego design community is positively unique in that there isn’t a sense of competition you might find in other cities, but rather a collaboration and celebration of the gifts each firm brings to our collective,” López says. “The neighbor spirit is invigorating.”

As a member of this community I feel other designers are more like a family than competitors. Even in challenging economic times I witness the free sharing of ideas and an ongoing openness to help and support one another. This is evident in the many collaborative community art and design projects that range from the Urban Art Trail to BenchMark to Tweet Street to countless others. Most of these have been fueled in some way through the San Diego/AIGA chapter.

This enthusiasm and support extends beyond the design community as well. Bennett Peji of Bennett Peji Design and Calvin Woo of Calvin Woo and Associates have played strong ongoing roles in helping form political policies to include multidisciplinary design strategies and applications as a key tool in the growth of San Diego.” We have an unparalleled opportunity to determine our own fate with few established barriers,” Peji says. “Most people don’t know that San Diego has the highest concentration of museums west of the Mississippi River and produces more original theater than nearly any city in the world.”

As the community grows and evolves, design plays a proportionately more significant role, adding to the overall quality of culture, community and life in San Diego. “As a design city, San Diego is definitely maturing: Innovative architecture is emerging, inspiring art and design in public spaces, and in uniquely branded communities,” says Susan Merritt, a professor of graphic design at San Diego State University.

The creative community of San Diego has top talent made up primarily of smaller boutique studios (12 people or less). But don’t let the size fool you. Nearly all of the studios in San Diego continually give back to the community in some way. Whether it’s doing pro-bono work for nonprofits or playing a role in some of the many community art and design collaborations, we make time to bridge our work and play with social responsibility.

As San Diego continues to grow and mature, so does the design community’s responsibility to feed, mold and put a voice to it. For outsiders looking in, I’m certain that in the years to come you’ll continue to see the designers of San Diego doing great things and setting a strong example of how to collaboratively shape the future of a growing city.

From HOW, December 2003. To check availability of this and other HOW back issues, visit the HOW Bookstore.

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