Austin not Texas

Austin not Texas

I’ve just got back from a working trip to Houston, Texas. I found much to like, once I’d left Houston that is.

In Houston we wandered between bars down multi-lane freeways filled with lane-hogging, fuel-chugging behemoths. We sat in soulless bars and restaurants, kept cool by icy, fetid air-conditioning. We ate under-flavoured and overflowing piles of unlovable food. It was pretty disheartening.

At the end of a working week in Houston, we escaped, two other designers and I, to Austin for a long weekend. Austin must be different, we reasoned. They have SXSW there.

On the first morning we stupidly decided to walk 4 miles from our musty interstate motel into Austin. A sweltering hour later we sat down, dripping with sweat, in Jo’s Coffee.

Here, cooling under the shade of peach trees, eating a PBJ sandwich, I watched hipster after hipster grab an iced coffee, a taco and sit down with their MacBook Air and start tapping away. Some even had sausage dogs in tow. We breathed a sigh of relief and spent the rest of the weekend having lots of silly adventures in a really brilliant city. The difference to Houston was astonishing.

The community in Austin, which also happens to be the administrative capital of Texas, in no way reflects the rest of the population in Texas. It’s a bubble. “Keep Austin weird”, shout the hand-printed screen prints. Everyone rides vintage fixies and are adorned with tattoos that don’t say “Mother”. Everywhere is achingly hip.

With Austin being such an enclave of good taste inside a state that boasts a seemingly unending lack of any taste at all, I started to think about how this happened. And I started to think about whether what’s important to me, running a design business, might be of little relevance to my clients.

It’s easy to forget that designers live in a bubble. We tend to stick together. Work put up on sites like Dribbble or Behance is often for peers rather than general consumption. The growth of invite-only website only exacerbates this growing divide. And there is a danger of this “look how cool I am” elitism driving a wedge between designers and clients.

The client needs us. They need the experience we have; the tastes and trends that we pick up on, the way type is set, the eye-catching colours, the way words go together. They all trickle down from our day-to-day experiences into the work we do. It’s that inexplicable ability to create things that clients are paying for. That’s the magic that makes so many beautiful things.

But design is, above all things, a service industry. That means servicing clients. Sometimes they might want things that don’t look right to you. Sometimes they make decisions that we know are bad decisions. But more often than not your client is trying to do the right thing. They are trying to increase sales, improve communications, get a better foothold in the market. Designers need to remember that their work ultimately needs to make money for the client. Otherwise the work is just lipstick.

Designers can and do make a difference to businesses. It’s our job to make sure that bubbles like Austin don’t continue to crop up. We need to democratise good taste. We need to ensure that everyone has access to great design, rather than just other designers. It’s now my goal to help make my local businesses a lot more Austin and a whole lot less Texas.


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