Designing women on display

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2011 - 9:05 AM

Graphic designs by Minnesotans are featured in a new show at St. Paul's College of Visual Arts.

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Werner Design Werks' Alphabeasties and other Amazing Types

Women do it all. But we knew that.

Such is the impression conveyed by "WO MN," a snappy survey of contemporary graphic design by Minnesota women that's on view at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul through Nov. 13.

Fast-paced videos? Check. High-concept logos? Uh huh. Fun packaging? Sweet. Sophisticated marketing plans? Yep. Intriguing annual reports? Really. Stylish fabrics? Of course.

With samples of work by 23 designers spanning about 25 years, the list could go on. Within CVA's sunny storefront gallery the women's work is framed, shelved and explained with all the conceptual panache that's to be expected of designers whose work has won plaudits from professional organizations throughout the country.

With its strictly local focus, the show dovetails nicely with "Graphic Design: Now in Production," a vastly larger survey of the international design scene at Walker Art Center through Jan. 22.

Given the wild variety of stuff in "WO MN," the show can be a little puzzling at first. What exactly did these women do? Surely they didn't manufacture all these products -- the blankets and cleaning products and prettily boxed candies? No, as graphic designers they were generally out of the manufacturing loop. Their contribution was to shape the way the products are labeled, packaged, displayed and marketed. They recommend type faces, colors, images, textures and concepts that allow businesses to tell an appealing "story" to potential buyers.

From farm to market

Take Mrs. Meyer's cleaning products, a line of garden-scented, biodegradable liquids whose public face is Thelma, the real down-home Iowa mom whose daughter started the company. With the folksy name and type-heavy labels, the products have a no-nonsense earnestness that has endeared them to shoppers at high-end boutiques and ordinary grocery stores. All this was calculated by designers.

"We didn't want it to be a Martha Stewart kind of brand, because no one actually wants to clean," said Sharon Werner of Werner Design Werks, a 20-year-old St. Paul firm that specializes in branding. Its clients have ranged from Target to Hennessey liquors, and its line of "Alphabeasties" stuffed animals are in the Walker show.

The real Thelma A. Meyer didn't make or use the cleaning products, Werner said. But she did inspire their image, which Werner and her business partner Sarah Forss translated into packaging, videos and a "back story" about Thelma, a mother of nine, and her husband Vern and their rural life. For a trade show booth, they figured Thelma would just paint her 50-year-old kitchen table and sell from it.

Wasn't there a danger that potential buyers would be turned off by such heartfelt hokum?

"That's a risk that any successful product has to take or otherwise it's just me-too," Werner said.

High-concept visuals

Other designs in the show are equally distinctive. Linda Henneman's Think Design Group turned out an annual report shaped like a brick, and a little brochure pierced by a hole that became the "o" in a word at the center of each page. Susan Hopp, a partner and co-creative director at 45 Degrees/Minneapolis, used plastic fly swatters in a bank promotion and designed clever boxes for a new line of biscuits.

The legendary Minda Gralnek oversaw the evolution of Target's sharp videos and crisp style during nearly 20 years as vice president and creative director there. Her design epiphany occurred while touring a "Humble Masterpieces" show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where she spied more than 100 everyday objects that came from Target. The incident made her realize that "we're not just a store; we're curators of great design."

Design has changed a great deal in the quarter century spanned by "WO MN." Some of the designers who won attention early in their careers have changed firms or moved out of Minnesota. New technologies have altered the profession, too, making it easier for anyone with a computer to try their hand at designing a brochure or logo. But it turned out that once people tried DIY design, they gained a new respect for the trade.

"Working conceptually doesn't come naturally to most people," said John DuFresne, chair of the College of Visual Arts' graphic design department. "Professionals bring creativity, technical expertise and a high level of craft that most amateurs can't manage, so technology has actually created value for us."

Or, as Werner put it, "You can have a pencil, but that doesn't make you an artist."

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  • WOMN: WOMEN IN MINNESOTA DESIGN

    What: Displays, products, ads and videos of designs by 23 Minnesota women spanning about 25 years.

    When: Ends Nov. 13. Noon-6 p.m. Wed, Fri.; noon-8 p.m. Thu.; noon-4 p.m. Sat., Sun.

    Where: College of Visual Arts Gallery, 173 Western Av. N., St. Paul.

    Admission: Free.

    Info: 651-757-4004 or www.cva.edu.

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