“Ridiculously Creative” Madison

Searching for the city’s singular design style—and exploring creativity along the way

Jul 19, 2012

Andy Wallman (photo courtesy of KW2)

Andy Wallman (photo courtesy of KW2)

It’s lunchtime on the near west side, and Andy Wallman, president and executive creative director of Knupp and Watson and Wallman, has promised to feed me. I called him up because I want to know if there’s such a thing as a “Madison look” in the design world, a portfolio that screams “Madison” or “Wisconsin” or “quirky, progressive, overeducated, dairy-ified Midwesterners” in the nuanced hands of other communications designers or potential clients worldwide. I’ve been told there’s increasing traction in the local design community, and I want to know if (and how) that translates to the rest of us.

True to his word, Wallman spreads the contents of two Sentry Metcalfe grocery bags across a glass dry-erase table and Mike Bass, associate creative director, pulls up a chair. An hour ago, Wallman popped a couple blocks down the road from his office and procured a cornucopia of local foods; a chunk of Bucky Badger cheese, breads, meats, chocolates from Madison artisans, and salty corn chips from an unnamed Madison restaurant. (“They really blew it on their logo redesign,” Bass notes, shaking his head.) Wallman holds up a cellophane package of Potters Crackers, tied shut with a rustic slip of twine. “How Madison is this?” he says.

I can’t help thinking this whole thing seems very Madison; the casually-dressed head of an award-winning marketing firm going to the store himself to feed a stranger he’s never met; the easy procurement of all this delicious, locally made gourmet food; the vibe down here in the basement conference room, more like a rec room than a workspace. It’s something I’ve noted at every designer’s place of work I’ve visited this week—their offices feel so damn good to hang out in. I can practically feel my right brain tap dancing. 

“I think we definitely have a Midwestern look and feel to our design when you look at restaurant logos or store logos that are local,” says Bass. “You see a lot of Slab Serif typefaces. A lot of hand-wrought, too. Nature as well; you see the wheat thing a lot. The Middleton Hills neighborhood sign is all Prairied out.”

 I think about how I would represent Madison if I were a designer, and a few images pop into my mind—Bucky Badger, the Union chairs, the Capitol skyline—but these guys point out those iconic images are about as subtle as a chainsaw, and use of them in design is a rookie move. There are, however, subtle strings thrumming through the sensibilities of most Wisconsinites, ones skilled designers can gently pluck for subliminal background music. Maybe a single chaff of wheat conjurers gold-flecked memories of prairie fields and Frank Lloyd Wright, salty pasta or sweet early mornings at the Farmers’ Market. Maybe a burnt orange sun dripping into a cantilever roofline does the same thing.

 Bass’s wife has a clothing boutique down on Monroe Street called Zipdang, and he pulls out a poster he designed for her. It features a classic red bicycle, an allusion to the confiscated bikes the cops used to paint red and leave hanging around for anyone who needed them. The image has nothing to do with clothing, but everything to do with Madison—or, at least, the Madisonian most likely to shop at Zipdang. That’s key here, says Bass. Commercial designers are trying to preach to the projected audience, not their own choirs. So is there a look or feel or vibe that speaks to all of Madison? 

“I don’t think there is,” he says, and it’s an answer I’ll get all week. There doesn’t seem to be a “Madison thing.”  The Internet especially has acted as a tremendous equalizer, and today’s design work can be done for anyone from anywhere. It doesn’t make the question void, though, and I’m definitely not the first to ask it. 

“This just came up at the Design MMOCA event, and I think the short answer was no,” says Wallman, “One guy said, ‘Well how can there be any sense of place anywhere in the world right now with the influences we can get from all around the world on the Internet?’”

But Wallman’s theory is that Madison is “ridiculously creative,” and there’s no way that doesn’t manifest in design. He threw this question out on Facebook a few months back, “Do you think Madison is uniquely creative?” and got over a hundred responses. It’s a conversation he’s still thinking about today. He slides the food aside with one forearm and begins to scrawl on the table, sketching out four concentric circles and labeling them: University. Electic Hodgepodge in a Small Space. Nature. Historic Expectation of Creativity.

“You’ve got the university—young people, a constant churn, and smarts,” he says, adding that his favorite point to come out of that Facebook conversation was how small this town is, how “geographically and vibe-ically contained,” and that creativity happens from combinations. “I also think there’s a historic expectation of creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright banged around here. You could say the whole comedy genre right now in film wouldn’t be here if it weren’t Zucker Abrams Zucker, and they started with Kentucky Fried Theater right here. Chris Farley for God’s sake. The Onion. There’s just this expectation that creative stuff’s gonna happen in Madison.”

Wallman goes on to describe the lush environment of the lakes and Arboretum, the open countryside a mere fifteen-minute bike ride away. He riffs on an eclectic population (“We have a guy in a funk band, Tommy Ducati, who plays an electric gourd,” says Wallman, who himself is a member of The Gomers.), the flamingos on Bascom Hill, and “farmer food outside the State Capitol.” All the while he circles and sketches his point home, which seems to be this: There may not be a single unifying Madison look, but this kaleidoscope of talent, eclectic work styles, support of creativity and easy collaboration with others is our design. This is our contribution, and the result is a town more than a few of us believe is a pretty cool place to be. Delicious in every way.

“This is a ridiculously creative town,” says Wallman. “And you might not overtly know it, but in little ways, every day, the designers in this community are enforcing that notion.”

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