The World is a Circle

April 2nd, 2015 by Sean

 

When I was 8 or 9, we went to the movies in downtown Melbourne on Saturday afternoons. One movie that I thought was really cracker jack was Lost Horizon. Like many things, later on you wonder “What was I thinking?” But I saw it again this week and have reversed my opinion.

The plot is simple: a bunch of white people flee a revolution somewhere in a DC3. They crash in the Himalayas and are rescued by some Tibetan looking people in fur coats. They are taken to a beautiful tropical garden valley, Shangra La. People wear vaguely Asian caftans. The white people sing some songs, fall in love, and get healthy. One of them is grumpy and wants to leave. I won’t ruin the end for you.

First, there is super cool macrame everywhere. There is even a macrame wall with candles. Second, the casting, at first seems ludicrous. How about serious actors like Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann and Sally Kellerman in a musical? Let’s make John Gielgud Chinese. But oddly, it works, oddly. There is something about it, years later, that makes good sense. And finally, the strangely Asian/Indian/Tibetan/Japanese/Hawaiian theme of the costumes and sets. It kept me guessing the entire movie.

The music, by Burt Bacharach, is at first saccharine, but now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a movie that makes you keep asking over and over, “Is this good, should it have been a musical, where is this geographically, and where can I get a macrame wall?”

macrame wall and Chinese John Gielgud

macrame wall and Chinese John Gielgud

Caftans

Caftans

macrame fountain and fire hazard

macrame fountain and fire hazard

Olivia Hussey caught in a sheet

Olivia Hussey caught in a sheet

Lost Horizon poster, 1973

Lost Horizon poster, 1973

Holistic Spirit and Vision Quest

March 26th, 2015 by Sean
Foundations of Branding, Lynda.com

Foundations of Branding, Lynda.com

A few months ago, I began work on a new course for Lynda.com, Foundations of Branding. Okay, I admit, I wanted to call it something more unique such as Foundations of Holistic Spirit and Vision, but Branding was more understandable. I did this course because I’ve heard too many designers struggling and working with a client on one project, then never again. It takes three times as much time and money to engage a new client than working with an existing one. When we are incorporated into the bigger picture and broader vision of a company, we can collaborate with a longer relationship. It’s better for both sides.

It’s fun to create examples like a standards manual for a fake college, in this case Medfield. But, working on these courses is hard. If I were a writer I could bang them out, but they take me forever. I obsess over the image assets, “Is that chart clear enough, does it help the viewer understand?” The biggest hurdle was worrying about what others might think. I know someone out there is saying, “Oh that moron, that’s not how you handle determining audiences.” I had to let that fear go, and just do my best. The two sides of the coin are: being criticized by someone cranky, or helping a designer do better and expand his or her role. My choice is pretty obvious.

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Empire of the Sun

March 10th, 2015 by Sean

 

I once was asked to think of an idea for a monument for the city of Los Angeles. The last thing I thought LA needed was a big metal something that would fall down in an earthquake. I suggested a television station that would run every episode of Chips continuously. It would be the Chips Channel. The idea was oddly rejected.

I don’t know why, but I record Chips on my Tivo and watch it daily. I also watch The Donna Reed Show but that’s just a weird Pleasantville thing. Yes, Chips has remarkably thin plots and everything is solved in the last 3 minutes, but there are car chases that end with explosions and cars on their side in every episode. That doesn’t happen every day in real life here. To get a car on its side and blow up requires a ramp and explosives. There is something kind of great about it.

I love how horrible Los Angeles looks on Chips. If you don’t live here, you probably are saying, “Doesn’t it still?” But in the 1970s on Chips the smog was far worse, there were endless streets of odd stores and car washes, and really crappy cars blowing up. It looks so bleak and desolate filled with empty freeways and the blazing white sun.

The other surprising elements are the pants and hair. Everyone has pants that are way too tight. I remember having pants like that myself in high school. I was also desperate for groovy hair that parted in the middle, but mine was wavy, thick, parted on the side, and grew out like Sideshow Bob.

Chips uniforms

Erik Estrada, Larry Wilcox, Robert Pine

Larry Wilcox

Larry Wilcox

Erik Estrada

Erik Estrada

Tom Reilly

Tom Reilly

Bruce Penhall

Bruce Penhall

Sean, 1979

Sean, 1979

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

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.

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