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Graphic Artists Reveal a Human Touch

Designers have moved toward nostalgic and life-affirming imagery since Sept. 11.

January 31, 2002|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scott Mires remembers when the marketing materials he designed for homebuilder Shea Homes consisted of little more than pictures of houses and how much they cost. After Sept. 11, that all changed.

"The way we're approaching it now is talking about the aspirational and human qualities of a home and what it means to people. In one, there's a little bit of nostalgia in the imagery with sepia tone photography, and the copy really connects with what it means to buy a home, that it's not just mortar and lumber."

Southern California graphic designers such as Mires have been noticing a subtle shift in their work since the attacks, toward images that are more life-affirming, meant not to dazzle but to strike an emotional chord. These designers, who work on everything from ads to book covers, logos and corporate reports, have channeled their feelings about the tragedies into their work and noticed it in the work of others. Some say they now also feel a greater sense of responsibility to remind people that life needs to go on.

On the Web site for the New York-based American Institute of Graphic Arts, designers have been engaged in spirited discussions on their feelings about the flag and other symbols of America and patriotism, exploring what can be done for the country via the power of graphics. Red Maxwell, from North Carolina, talked about a design he did for a mental health organization: "My hope is that this poster links my diverse, local community as Americans and communicates the common pain and need for healing we all must face."

For Mires, principal and creative director of the San Diego-based Mires brand-consulting and design firm, says that pre-attack American companies had more of a "strategic, bottom line" attitude about selling their goods and services. "It was, 'We need to sell more computer chips.' Now, rather than saying, 'Our chip runs at 40 million megahertz,' you'll see how someone uses the chip to do their homework. I definitely see that kind of humanity coming into brands more."

Beverly Hills-based graphic designer Noreen Morioka, of Adams Morioka Inc., thinks artists will rely more on familiar images of rolling hills "with a lot of natural colors coming into play, along with an American palette of red, white and blue. The best design work you see out there profoundly touches you in an emotional sense and resonates quality, assurance and reliability."

Graphic designers have "a really powerful role in helping our clients and our country to stay positive," says MaeLin Levine, co-founder of San Diego-based Visual Asylum, whose client list includes Ameristar Casinos. One client felt she should tone down her annual Christmas card. Levine urged her to go with something more "empowering." They ultimately decided on a stylized stained-glass design featuring a heart, a dove and an uplifted hand. The card contained a quote from Corinthians that read, "Let the light shine out of darkness, make His light shine in our hearts."

Maureen Erbe of Pasadena-based Erbe Design says that once she realized the world wasn't going to end, "I felt it was OK to lighten up a little bit. It's not that I'm turning my back on it; it's more that sometimes you need a bit of relief."

She recently designed a multi-page foldout about Groundhog Day that incorporates whimsical illustrations and copy. Erbe says the purpose of this promotion piece for a client was to "wish people a short winter and the beginning of a warm spring, and a happy new year a little later." The hope was for "design to actually make life better and enrich people's lives. I thought, 'I could do something meaningful and heavy,' but I felt we've had enough of that."

Mires says he feels more responsibility now to "get really meaningful dialogues going with the audience. I think this has made a lot of people look inward to see who they are, what humankind is all about."

"I wish I could be a Red Cross volunteer," says Morioka, president of AIGA's L.A. chapter. "But I know I'm a really good graphic designer. You hope you make somebody's day better, give them a good laugh and something wonderful to look at."

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