The Pleasure of Small Problems

February 22nd, 2015 by Sean
Sean Adams, Soviet Dialogues poster, 2015

Sean Adams, Soviet Dialogues poster, 2015

Last week, I finished a poster for Dialogues: Poster Art of the Soviet Union. I could do anything I wanted. I chose to stay away from 45 degree angles and Constructivist typography. They just didn’t go well with Khrushchev‘s testicle quote. I had a great time working on it, and hope it is useful for the event. But is it graphic design?

For a long time, the battle cry of design has been “problem solving.” Well, what isn’t? Create an urban signage system to help revitalize mid-Manhattan. Yep, problem solved. Design an information guide and website to help in an environmental disaster, check. Make an identity system and collateral for a homeless shelter, uh huh. But the problem with narrowing the focus of design onto only a tiny aspect is the inherent exclusion of anything that is deemed as not serious problem solving. If there isn’t a multi-page case study, with dense research, clear results, and a sans serif font, then it’s not design.

But where does that leave the work that is, frankly, just amazing without a giant purpose? Using the metric of justifying all design by the density of the issue negates most of the work that moved the profession forward. That Paul Rand Apparel Arts Magazine cover with the propeller, really? That had a deep purpose and widespread effect on the garment industry? No, so it’s out. The same goes for Saul Bass’ beautiful poster for The Music Center, Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet book, and a long list of work that shaped me as a designer.

I’ll stick with not defining graphic design. It uses words, symbols, and images to communicate. Some of it solves problems that are big, some solve the problem of making me happy for a moment. That’s good for me. Leaving this open allows for work that may be simply ridiculously wonderful.

Paul Rand, Apparel Arts magazine

Paul Rand, Apparel Arts magazine

Saul Bass, The Music Center

Saul Bass, The Music Center

Alexey Brodovitch, Ballet book

Alexey Brodovitch, Ballet book

Alexey Brodovitch, Ballet book

Alexey Brodovitch, Ballet book

Colin Forbes, Metrics  poster

Colin Forbes, Metrics poster

Paul Rand, Container Corporation of America

Paul Rand, Container Corporation of America

Leo Lionni, AIGA Award

Leo Lionni, AIGA Award

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The Oldest Living Rubylith User

February 19th, 2015 by Sean
Old school Photoshop

Old school Photoshop

Several weeks ago, I was asked to do a short segment for the 25th Anniversary of Photoshop. It sounded fun until I was told I would need to demonstrate some of the tools used before Photoshop. First, this was an honor and scary at the same time. It was wonderful to be asked, but was I the last living designer who remembers what a rubylith was? And then the thought of showing how we used these tools after 25 years was challenging. But, what the heck? If I got any of it wrong, I was the last one alive to know.

During the shoot, I realized that the rapidographs weren’t working and I didn’t have a true square edge to the drafting table. I hoped that nobody would notice this. But I was surprised how quickly I recalled the process. I didn’t have time to mix the rubber cement to the right consistency, or cut the ruby exactly (you’ll know what that means if you are old). I liked how meditative the process was. It was slow and careful, a true craft. My hands even got dirty with ink and rubber cement boogers.

When I was finished with my demonstration, I kind of missed the old days of typesetting, the waxing machine, and the quiet concentration of making a mechanical. I recall going to AIGA events in New York in my early 20s. I would see Massimo Vignelli who was always kind and oddly remembered my name. He was flawless in his Massimo simple black and white clothes. Or Ken Carbone, who was also dressed in the most relentlessly crisp white shirts. I had my khakis, pink oxfords, and repp ties with bits of rubber cement, glue, and pieces of tape. I could never understand how everyone else stayed so clean. That was the true secret of life before Photoshop.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.40.57 PMScreen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.41.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.24.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.24.52 PM

Sweet

February 13th, 2015 by Sean
Ladislav Sutnar, 1940s

Ladislav Sutnar, 1940s

Ladislav Sutnar, 1940s

Ladislav Sutnar, 1940s

In 1996, I was asked to design the materials for the first AIGA Business Conference. I hate going to a conference and trying to deal with a batch of printed matter, the schedule, maps, and directories. Other people told me they would rather not stick pins in their shirt with a name badge. As I love plastics, I found a little plastic pouch at the Plastic Mart in Santa Monica. I believe it was to hold labels in hospitals. I used this, punched two holes in the top, and used IV tubing to hang the pouch from my neck. Now I could design all the materials, including the name tag, to fit inside the pouch. Easy peasy.

My hospital pouch idea

My hospital pouch idea

A couple of months after the conference I saw someone on the street with the same kind of pouch, but for a plumbing contest. Of course today, they are everywhere. Am I bitter that my pouch concept was adopted by every conference and theme park? Yes. But, I can be please that I’m saving shirts from pin holes every day.

On the other end of the spectrum from my flammable pouch concept to great thinking is Ladislav Sutnar. Sutnar’s most lasting contribution to our lives is one of the most ubiquitous design elements in the world, the parenthesis around an area code: (310) 555-1234. He solved this problem working with Bell System in the 1950s. Sutnar was adamant that design be functional. Good information design was a critical element of our complex and technological world. He maintained that there was no place for anything but useful and high-minded design.

He followed this philosophy: “Good visual design is serious in purpose. Its aim is not to attain popular success by going back to the nostalgia of the past, or by sinking to the infantile level of a mythical public taste. It aspires to uplift the public to an expert design level. To inspire improvement and progress demands that the designer perform to the fullest limits of his ability. The designer must think first, work later.”—Ladislav Sutnar

This didn’t translate to boring. As religious as Sutnar was about functionalism, his work often displays a sense of vitality and play. Yet it still imparts the information clearly. Rather than adopting a dull and rigid approach that was as exciting as a bus schedule, he allows the shapes and forms to interact with the typography.

He was probably bitter about his area code solution too.

2194 2197 2196 21955322 50102200

The Meaning of a Second

February 10th, 2015 by Sean
1966

1966

Like most of you, I have a closet of plastic shoeboxes filled with printed photos. Last week began scanning many of them. One of them is the image above of my grandmother, mother, aunt, and me sitting on the steps with dappled light. It’s not particularly well composed, but it feels like summer. It reminded me of the scene in Blade Runner, when Harrison Ford looks through his own family photos. For a second, the light dappling on the subject of the photo he holds begins to move.

That scene has its roots in Chris Marker’s La Jettée. La Jetée is the story later remade into 12 Monkeys. It was created with only still images, no motion. But there is one moment in the film when, for a brief second, one of the characters opens her eyes. Then the film continues with the series of still images.

A similar concept is used in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. A series of black and white photographs display the sequence of events of a murder. There is no motion, but the sound of the trees is added to strengthen the narrative. The effect in all of these is an increased sense of connection for the viewer.

I may be simple, but it’s those quiet moves that I like in a film. I’m okay with blowing up spaceships too, but I think Guardians of the Galaxy would have been improved with a sequence of still images and the sound of trees.


sequence begins at 1:00


Blade Runner


Blow Up, sequence begins at 1:15

Our House

February 1st, 2015 by Sean

 

Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In, 1946

Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In, 1946

There’s an old trick to getting a song out of your head. I tried it this morning, but it didn’t work. See, the problem was that The House I Live In by Frank Sinatra was going through my head all night. The trick is to sing God Bless America instead and that should knock the other song out. But it doesn’t work to replace one song about America with another. So I still have it running.

It’s a good song to have stuck in your head. Sinatra performed it in 1945, right after World War II. It battled racism and anti-semitism. Today, it seems like it can apply to a whole range of issues.

I used to think my grandmother was incredibly racist. Anytime I mentioned one of my friends, she’d say in her long Virginia drawl, “Now tell me Sean, what is his or her last name?” If it was a name she recognized, she then asked, “Is he one of the Burwells I know?” I now realize it wasn’t about race or religion. I loved her immensely, but she was just snobby.