Austin: No Limits
An Austin designer provides an insider's view of this famously funky city.
Few cities in the country have received as much glowing press as Austin, Texas. It is, alternately, the live music capitol of the world, the Silicon Prairie, the home of the University of Texas, the State Capital, the most liberal city between New York and San Francisco, and the cultural breadbasket of the Southwest. It’s home to several million bats, Lance Armstrong, Willie Nelson, countless movie stars, writers, moguls, artists, musicians, and criminals. For outdoor recreation, it has more than 1,000 softball teams, three major lakes, a giant park system, and 50 miles of perfectly maintained hiking and bike trails. It has the youngest average population in the country, the highest per capita level of education, and a vibrant economy. Plus, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a good Mexican restaurant or BBQ joint. This is the good news.
The bad is that it has become one of the most expensive cities in the country in which to live, particularly in the central and downtown areas. It’s also perpetually crowded, with the worst traffic of any comparably sized city (some say of any city). In addition, the entire place seems permanently under construction. These days it’s easier to find a tri-lingual nanny than a semi-competent contractor. Downtown feels sort of like Dubai on a budget, with construction cranes looming and every other person you see wearing a hard hat or negotiating a condo option.
The Dubai analogy is not that far off, though on a slightly less ostentatious scale. Texas is, after all, known for grand, extravagant gestures. Fuel for our economic fire can be found in the various technology centers sprinkled around Austin’s perimeter. While Dell and a few others continue to churn out high-tech hardware, most of the city has switched to software development, reasoning that major gaffes (the kind that almost wiped out Austin’s tech market in the 1990s) are far less likely for software designers than for equipment manufacturers.
The city’s mantra is “Keep Austin Weird,” though many would say it’s plenty weird enough as is. We have public nude beaches, executive cross dressers, celebrity homeless people, lesbian power brokers, a state bureaucracy numbering in the tens of thousands, free-ranging flocks of green parrots (go figure), a good ol’ boy network that is scraping off millions behind the scenes, 80,000 college students plus countless graduates with no career plans, a huge population of trust-fund babies from around the state and, according to the Wall Street Journal, more billionaires and millionaires than anywhere else in Texas.
In addition, there are a good number of just regular people trying to live in the center of town amid the countless festivals, marathons, bike races, motorcycle confabs, conventions, concerts, charity walks, cultural events, art galas, and cook-offs that turn downtown into an abysmal gridlock each weekend. The SXSW music festival alone chews up 10 days or more and has become a multi-million dollar cash cow for its slacker founders. Austin City Limits, which began as a humble local public television show, has now become a global phenomenon.
Plus, Austin simply attracts crazy people. It’s like San Francisco before it became too expensive for anyone without a titanium Amex card. Every wannabe musician, tech freak, game designer, drug dealer, oppressed gay or lesbian, shyster, multimedia producer, and lost soul in the entire country seems to wind up here at some point. That’s not all bad, but I honestly don’t think anyone need worry about keeping this place weird. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point.
With a very young population (average age 31) and an abundance of warm sunny weather, Austin has a sports and recreation component to its image. This makes everyone more body- and health-conscious. Zilker Park, located in the middle of town and bordering Lady Bird Lake, is the centerpiece and gathering spot of the city and includes Barton Springs Swimming Pool, a natural rock-lined swimming hole with constant-temperature (68ºF), spring-fed water. For years there were huge numbers of topless sunbathers there, but nowadays the only people without tops are guys. (Not the same, but still a terrific place to chill.)
Sadly, Barton Springs has been closed occasionally during the last few years as runoff from developments upstream has made the pool unsafe for swimmers. This has attracted environmentalists of every stripe to a common cause and, indeed, Austin’s wacko factor seems highest when it involves the environment. We have some freeways with no billboards and an ordinance that makes it virtually impossible to add more outdoor boards to the landscape. Many a company, some notoriously green, has given up trying to build here. In Austin, “Habitat” is a word that is always capitalized. Needless to say, littering can get you into a fistfight and if you have a dog you better have a handful of those plastic bags visible or risk being garroted on the spot by a roving band of environmental vigilantes.
Austin’s artistic heritage was likely founded at the original Armadillo Records world headquarters during the late 60s and early 70s. The music and art scenes were just beginning and the Armadillo was the center of it all. It was hippy madness at its finest. Jim Franklin, Eddie Wilson, and their many colleagues made everything that followed possible. The musician lifestyle is still the bedrock of Austin’s cultural identity. What makes Austin so enjoyable is the vitality that technology, entertainment, and Internet businesses have brought to the table. This, plus the legacy of rugged independence that Texas enjoys, has created a synergy that has helped the city immensely.
Despite possessing the means to have a highly developed artistic sensibility, Austin has yet to flower graphically. Part of this may be due to music having such a high profile. Still, progress is being made. The local AIGA chapter is very active and hosts a Design Ranch retreat annually. There are four colleges in the area, each with visual arts and communication departments that impact the cultural scene.
Austin is the home base of several larger communications firms but, ironically, they mostly work for out-of-town clients. Pentagram has only a few local clients. The same is true of fd2s, a design firm specializing in environmental graphics and wayfinding. They have more clients in Europe or even Japan than in Austin. Even GSD&M, the local heavyweight advertising agency, exists almost exclusively on clients from elsewhere. As is common in many middle-sized cities, the big fish go to large markets for their design and communications needs. So the local firms are left with smaller clients or millions of frequent flyer miles. As much noise as we all make about it being cool to do business in Austin, most large companies believe LA or NYC are somewhat cooler. Dell Computers, for example, uses local firms for unimportant work, sending most big-budget projects to San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere. (And recently, they announced plans to in-house all their communication and advertising. Consequently, they have laid off all agencies, design firms, and communication firms, of which there were supposedly more than 800 worldwide.) Insecurity breeds insecurity, and no upper-level exec at Dell wants to be the one who experimented with a local firm on an important project and killed the golden goose. Consequently, a lot of designers in town are extremely well traveled and, regrettably, the airport is an important component of their lives.
Austin is a liberal island in the middle of a vast conservative stronghold. It’s laid back, yet still succeeding beyond its wildest expectations. It really is as if the entire city were blessed or enchanted. There is a collective consciousness of this fact that makes it an extremely optimistic place to dwell.
To boot, the Texas hill country has a mystical quality. The surrounding hills, rivers, and lakes are home to wineries, organic farms, ashrams, spas, country clubs, and a vast hippy subculture. While conventional living is expensive in the center city, Austin is still a place where a great many people live a reasonably high quality life for not much money. All that’s required is a car and a loose work schedule. The entire city is entertainment and recreation oriented, and a lot of it is free. All together, this makes Austin a very special place to live and an enjoyable place to visit. Plus, if you drive 30 minutes in any direction, you’re back in Texas. That’s oddly reassuring to many of us who reside here.
--By Mike Hicks, with Photos by Paul Hester, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008
Editor's note: Mike Hicks is executive creative director for Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing in Austin and since 1976 has also been president of Hixo, Inc., his own Austin-based design firm. He has taught design at the University of Texas School of Art, Kent State University, and the University of Montana, and His work is in the permanent archives of the Smithsonian Institute, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, Cali, Colombia. is the author of two books and numerous magazine articles.