It goes without saying that no one in the Southwest went untouched by the events of September 11. Add an assortment of regional disasters, both natural and man-made (Enron, for starters), to the lingering economic and psychological effects of 9/11, and it’s a wonder that anyone in the area remains confident about the future. Yet design professionals in this region are determined to keep their chins up–even if it has only been to keep their heads out of the flood waters in south-central Texas last summer or to look for rain in drought-stricken states. In Dallas, Jon Flaming reports, “The only design trend I’ve noticed is the minimalist trend: no work. It will get better, though.” Of Oklahoma City, no stranger to terrorism, Amy Johnson of Walker Creative says, “My general sense of designers here, from newbies to codgers, is one of pocketbook-conscious, enthusiastic optimism.” And in Houston, Tom Hair of Axiom Design Group states, “Even with the implosion of Enron, the merger-acquisition of Compaq [by Hewlett- Packard], and 9/11 sapping the revenues out of airlines such as Continental, Houston has proven surprisingly resilient, especially in comparison to Dallas and Austin.
The city has struggled as of late, but still should be the first in Texas to emerge from this current and rather steep downturn.”
Indeed, no city in the Southwest may have suffered more publicly during the past 18 months or so than Houston–also the site, as Chris Hill of HILL Strategic Brand Solutions points out, of the Andrea Yates murder trial. (Last March, Yates was convicted of capital murder for the deaths of her five children and sentenced to life in prison.) In June 2001, much of the city was flooded, and just as locals were starting to recover, the Enron scandal swept through town. But as they weathered the natural catastrophe, so too have Houston creatives survived Enron. Even Hill, who believes that “people who say this year is status quo are lying,” describes his outlook as “very optimistic”; however, he adds, “If you’d called three months ago I’d have been pessimistic.”
The Enron collapse has rippled in subtle ways through other Southwestern cities. Bryan Peterson of Peterson & Company, Dallas, says, “As far as I can discern, Enron has had little to no effect on us except to extend our financial pages in the annual reports we do to meet new reporting standards.” In San Antonio, Rob Simons of Toolbox Studios states, “We have not seen any direct effects of the Enron debacle,” though, he observes, “I think our project bids are a little more scrutinized than in the past. Also, we’ve seen an increased effort by larger companies to check that we carry appropriate levels of insurance for larger projects–probably as a result of the September 11 attacks.” According to Fred Cisneros, of Cisneros Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Enron’s demise affected a few of my corporate clients but none to the extent that it impacted our work in progress.”
The events of September 11 continue to have repercussions in the Southwestern economy. Some effects were almost immediate, as with the October 2001 issue of Austin-based Texas Monthly. “We had the bad luck of coming out the week of the attacks,” relates art director Scott Dadich, “and our sales reflect it.” At The Dallas Morning News, design director Chas Brown reports, “September 11 hit about a month after the last stage” of a two-phase redesign was implemented, providing a “great test of what we’d set up.” While the redesign passed with high marks, the paper remained in crisis mode well into the new year. Stan Richards of The Richards Group, also in Dallas, explains that after 9/11, “Our local economy was affected no less than the rest of the country.” He notes that, while none of the attacks took place on Texas soil, “one of the area’s largest employers, American Airlines, has had to deal with being more than just a financial victim of this war.” Janet Meyer, who works in Houston at New Leaf Publishing, s ays the combination of September 11 and disastrous weather has had a continuing impact: “We have three clients that depend a great deal on tourism or travel, and they have taken a large hit, and us along with them. For example, one of our publications is a guide to the Texas Medical Center. The TMC was not only underwater during the June  flood, but much of their business derives from patients from all over the country and the world. 9/11 has slowed patient travel here considerably, having residual effects on restaurants, hotels, and other travel and service industries.”
Arizona and New Mexico have been struck especially hard by the travel slowdown. According to fDave Prescott, who partners with wife Chris in Scottsdale’s B12, “Arizona’s tourism industry was definitely impacted by 9/11,” and the general economy has been stifled by the worst drought in the state since 1898. Fred Cisneros relates that Santa Fe “has been struggling since the spring of 2000. Drought and wildfires brought downturns in the convention business and fewer individual visitors as well. After September 11, Santa Fe was hurting, and winter snows were the only hope we had. The snows, however, did not come, and neither did the tourists.” While the general situation was looking up by summer 2002, “the drought is easily the worst I have ever experienced,” he says.
A designer who has seen one facet of business improve since September 11 is Pentagram partner D.J. Stout, of the firm’s Austin office. “One of my biggest clients is Lands’ End,” he says. “Because of 9/11, people were shopping out of catalogs and on Internet sites more. Lands’ End had their best year last year, really profitable, and that has grown my business.”
For Fred Cisneros, the uncertainty of these times has had both negative and positive effects. On the one hand, “Clients want a tarot card reading when they walk in the door. They really want you to tell them what is going to happen, when it will happen, and how well it will do. I think people are looking for reassurance in any form.” On the other hand, he says, “I have found a pocket of people who have used current events to take a risk and start a business. These folks have definitely added to our bottom line and daily pace.”
Despite some bright spots in the economy, a number of creatives admit that the recession has left them vulnerable to low-balling clients and competitors. Tom Hair reports, “Some corporate entities realize that many studios are desperate and therefore willing to discount prices and throw in extras just to land a job.” Adds Chris Hill, “It seems like there’s a game of who can do it the cheapest, forgetting about quality, and it’s like that all across the country. This is very bothersome. We have to stick to our principles and stand for who we are and what we do and not be afraid to say ‘no.'” Some companies have had to consider or implement layoffs. Bryan Peterson explains, “I wanted to hold on to my staff through all of this because we are nearly all senior designers. If I were to let them go, there’s enough demand for them to find other jobs, so when the economy begins to recover like it has, I would be required to lower the standard of designer I might hire just to meet the demand of new work.”
Luckily, Peterson did not have to let anyone go, and he hopes to add “one or two new design positions in the next couple of years.” Scott Dadich says Texas Monthly added one person last June, though he cautions, “I think that will be all for the foreseeable future.” According to Randi Karabin, of Phoenix-based McMurry Publishing, “Our sales have actually increased this year, as we re seeing the beginning of a rebound in the economy. We are expecting growth in the fourth quarter and will probably add staff.”
Mark Steele, who teaches design as well as partners in M Square Design of Plano, Texas, expresses concern about “the difficulty students have finding work coming out of school” in this much-changed marketplace; of those studying design, he notices “an increase of students more inclined to learn software rather than their craft.”
As for the effects of post-9/11 patriotism on style in the Southwest, opinions are mixed. Simons notes, “We’ve definitely seen a surge in patriotic themes and promotions. More importantly, we’ve seen a trend toward more community and charity efforts by large corporations.” Bryan Peterson, however, worries that patriotism has often been co-opted as “a marketing opportunity for those seeking to make a quick buck by selling the stars and stripes. Hopefully, now that we’ve seen every possible iteration of the American flag, we will go back to using the image with respect and honor. However, all in all, it has had a favorable influence on the fabric of the country.”