When Design Descends on Madison

Surprising to some, Madison is a hub for innovative design conversations thanks to Design Madison.

Once a month, swarms of local designophiles descend on back rooms and booths of places like the Goodman Center, Samba, the Brink or Brocach, pony up 35 bucks and lean in close as professionals from all over the world riff on design. This is Design Madison, a nonprofit cause whose membership “lives to amplify the impact that design has on our society.” Each event draws eighty to a hundred people or more, not bad at all for a city our size.

“In some ways we’re kind of stuck in the middle of nowhere, which I think makes us really hungry consumers for design inspiration,” says Kristin Girvin Redman, vice president of Design Madison. On the other hand, “The strength of the design community here is pretty amazing.” Redman says speakers are consistently impressed not only by the turnout, but by the intelligence present in the engaged audience. “One of the women said, ‘I just spoke in Chicago and I had half the size of this room, and none of the good conversation.’”

Smarts are important in communications design. It’s not enough to pair harvest wheat yellow with, say, a hand-wrought typeface; you’ve got to effectively articulate a client’s entire identity. At Redman’s own boutique firm, Cricket Design Works, her team creates everything from think tank white papers to communications packages encompassing website, menu and gift certificate design for companies like Sardine. (If you stop to think about it, a new restaurant named Sardine could have presented an entirely different vibe in the hands of the wrong designer.)

Dan Merfeld“We’re a really small firm and everybody touches everything, so we can provide exceptional opportunities for young designers. They can actually lead their own design solutions as opposed to being at the bottom of the totem pole,” says Redman, who grew up in Boston but landed in Madison for grad school and never left. She hires both Madison-educated designers (lauding both Madison College and UW–Madison as “cranking out a bunch of really good talent”) and out-of-state designers attracted to Madison as a small, creative and—most notably—supportive city.

“Within the first few months of living in Madison I was a nobody, absolutely a nobody, but I was able to talk to the lead or the owners of these big creative firms,” says Dan Merfeld, an Iowa native who became president of Design Madison in 2006. “I was given access to these people at Planet Propaganda and Hiebing and ZEBRADOG and KW2; these people opened their arms to me. In fact, a lot of my mentors in the city are these people who compete with me for web development work.”

Both the heavy hitters Merfeld mentions and the dozens of independent design shops like Redman’s and his own (TheoryThree Interactive) are making a design dent that extends far beyond Madison’s borders.

“There’s a lot of talent in the design shops and the agencies and some freelancers are getting national work because they’re so damn talented,” says Andy Wallman, president and executive director at KW2. Wallman says examples of Madison designers sculpting the rest of the country are countless. Pitch Interactive’s info-graphics grace the pages of ESPN Magazine; Shine Advertising—the new owners of that sacred old White Horse Inn building space—counts Harley Davidson among its $30 million annual capitalized billing portfolio.

“Planet Propaganda is in the Smithsonian, for pete’s sake,” says Wallman, referring to the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s National Design Triennial exhibition in 2006, for which Planet was one of only ten graphic design firms featured nationwide. “This is a ridiculously creative town.”

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