Archive for August, 2012


Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Danny O'Murphy, barbershop quartet tenor

Last month, my friend Allan Haley asked us to design a web banner for When he sent us the typeface to promote, Ratio Modern, I immediately fell in love with the parentheses. This is what happens if you are a type geek. It’s so geeky that Star Wars fanatics at Comic Con would probably laugh at me.

Every day, I drive by a billboard in Hollywood of a Groucho Marx caricature. I have no idea what it is for, but it’s the best part of the drive. As I sat in traffic staring at the billboard, I realized that the Ratio Modern parentheses are like a wonderful moustache, and I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. This opened the Pandora’s Box of other type characters (no pun intended). I recall a sculptor telling me, “The figure is trapped in the marble. I only set it free.” And it turned out that this was true with typography. The barbershop quartet guy, surprised woman, uptight starlet with a beehive, Don Quixote dapper dude, and cranky queen all were alive hiding inside the letters.

The Groucho Marx billboard, Santa Monica Blvd.


Sue from Brentwood


Diana Diamonds, MGM starlet


Don Francisco Pico of Rancho Del Zocalo

Queen Letitia of Lichtenstein banner

The Old Lime Green and Violet Mare

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Beatrice Kay Gay 90s, record cover

Last week Noreen brought bacon-flavored beer to the office. I can’t say it was wonderful. It tasted like beer that had some bacon strips in the bottle. She also had maple-flavored beer. I could have made that with a Sam Adams and bottle of Mrs. Butterworth syrup. Which leads me to one of my favorite idioms, Psychedelic Victorian. You take some upstanding Victorian typography and elements, and run them through an acid trip color system. It doesn’t hurt to exaggerate typographic flourishes and mustaches. The record covers suggest music such as Maple Leaf Rag sung by The Doors. But, most of it is just nice barbershop quartet and ragtime music. If you ask me, however, someone new and groovy should start singing some of those good old songs like Oh’ Susanna.

Beatrice Kay Naughty 90s, record cover

Beatrice Kay Naughty 90s, record backside

Boston Pops, record cover, 1964

Sture Johannesson Underground poster, 1969

Gebrauchsgraphik, November 1968

Cat People

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Pierre Bonnard, exhibition poster, 1896

Here is an old trick if you are in vaudeville or desperately need to have something approved: add a cat or dog. I know it’s said to never share the stage with pets, but when the crowd is angry, nothing works better to make everyone happy. This is how it works. You are working on an annual report. Every cover is rejected. The client yells at you, This is garbage. Get out!” Now, try adding a kitten or puppy; voila, as if magic the approvals roll in. While judging a competition, I overheard a judge say, “Oh, it’s not so good. But it has a cute dog on the cover. I have to vote for it.” See how easy it can be.

I did have an instance in class when the cat or dog trick didn’t work. The assignment was to design a poster around a meaningful cause (this was a wayward attempt to do something for social good). The posters ranged from issues such as abortion, marriage equality, veterans issues, and censorship. The idea that never made sense to me, though, was cat rape. The designer of this subject told me, “It’s true and awful. There are gangs of young men in Los Angeles who roam the streets looking for cats to rape.” I was stunned. Who knew such a thing happened? I know anything kinky can be found online, but I cannot imagine that this activity is so widespread that it needs addressing with public service posters.

If I were an logical person, I would have said, “No. That won’t work, pick a different subject.” But I was transfixed by the mechanics of this activity and wanted to see the design solution. Did the gangs have outfits with fake whiskers? Were they aroused when reading The Cat in the Hat? How did they feel about the white Fancy Feast cat on TV? Would they be “cat” burglars?

Stupidly, I argued with her. “This isn’t possible anatomically. Really, think about that. And cats are cranky and scratch you if you pick them up. I can guarantee that not many people are interested in putting an angry, meowing, squirming, scratching, and biting feline close to a sensitive area of the body.” She didn’t back down, and insisted this is an ongoing epidemic of violence. Maybe she knows something I don’t and the media is ignoring it because it is so heinous.

A.M. Cassandre, poster, 1932

Henryk Tomaszewski, poster for a film festival, 1961

Joseph Binder, cover for PM magazine, 1940

Theo Alexandre Steinlen, poster for the Cabaret Le Chat Noir, 1896

Theo Alexandre Steinlen, exhibition poster, 1894

Modern Dog, poster for joint exhibition with AdamsMorioka, 1998

Binding the Past

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

paint swatches fit in slide holder plastic sleeves

I don’t like being organized as much as I get cold sweats when something is a mess. Disturbed, obsessive, bizarre? Yes. One of the tools I use to keep track of household issues is a set of binders. I have one for permanent work, such as construction, painting, and major appliances. I have another for small appliance manuals, furniture care, and transitory issues. This is an incredibly simple thing to do and makes a huge difference when I need to find out how much the last termite inspection cost, or what exact color the yellow guest room is. It takes 10 seconds to use the 3-hole punch and insert new information.

The binder is made up of different sections: contact info and business cards, paint swatches and diagram, construction records, major appliance information, and ongoing work. I use the handy plastic sleeves for cards, swatches, and items that don’t fit easily. A binder is a gift from the gods.

I have another binder trick, which points to further psychological distress. Rather than keeping piles of old magazines, I trim out the articles I want to keep, put them in 3-hole plastic sleeves, and keep them in binders also. This saves a huge amount of room, and makes finding that article about Mount Vernon an easy task.


the house binder

Binder, paint swatches

paint location diagram

paint location detail

back of swatches identify location

binder, business card pages

binder, construction costs

binder, building material pages

plumbing and fixture diagram

binder, permits

binder, permanent fixture manuals

Jealousy and Desire in Book Form

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Volume, Inc., Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity, 2006

If you are a designer, you’ve had the experience of discovering that the same person or firm designed several of your favorite items. It’s like playing favorites without realizing it. This happens to me repeatedly with work from Volume. I pick up a book at the bookstore, admire it, turn to the colophon and yep, it’s a Volume design. Now I could be angry, jealous, and spiteful, which I usually am. But, in this instance, the best recourse is to recognize the great work. I’ve known Eric Heiman and Adam Brodsley for two decades (yes, we’re all that old). If they were a-holes, then I could simply ignore them. They’re not, unfortunately. They teach at CCA, devote time and energy to AIGA, and are magnanimous genuine people. Damn them.

Several of my favorite books are Volume designed. They have an innate sense of when to stop. The books are true to the subject, never rely on typographic circus tricks, and are remarkably crafted. They present the content in a way that is clear and objective, but never dull or sterile. The commonality is a sense of warmth, value, and cinema. Pacing is the trick with publications. A good publication should be paced like a film: quite moments, crescendo, intimate sequences, and a defined plot. The Volume work does that and injects long shots, details, and close ups. This isn’t easy.

There are two emotions that I do my best to avoid, pride and jealousy. Any decision I have ever made based on pride has been a bad one. So what if someone thinks I’m a dingbat? It doesn’t cost me anything and investing resources to combat this is often pointless (I’m not talking about Noreen here. I accept her judgment of my dingbat attributes). Jealousy is a hard one to avoid. I’m human; I ask myself, “How come Volume has such great projects? How is it fair that they get to design a magnificent book on Cliff May, but I don’t? I bet they get free Heath ceramics.” But this takes so much effort, and it is so much easier to enjoy their amazing design and relax.

images courtesy Volume, Inc.

Volume, Inc., Handcrafted Modern, 2010


Volume, Inc., Handcrafted Modern, 2010

Volume, Inc., Handcrafted Modern, 2010

Volume, Inc., Handcrafted Modern, 2010

Volume, Inc., Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, 2008

Volume, Inc., Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, 2008

Volume, Inc., Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, 2008

Volume, Inc., Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, 2008

Volume, Inc., Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House, 2008

Volume, Inc., Julius Shulman Los Angeles, 2011

Volume, Inc., Julius Shulman Los Angeles, 2011

Volume, Inc., Julius Shulman Los Angeles, 2011

Volume, Inc., Julius Shulman Los Angeles, 2011

Volume, Inc., Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity, 2006

Volume, Inc.,Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity