Flowers for Algernon

Walt Disney World Preview Center 1971

This week, Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut were in town for the Design Observer Taste conference. I had dinner with Jessica and she kindly came to school to discuss her new book. If you don't know Jessica personally, you need to understand that she is fast, smart, and hilarious. She also is humble, sweet, and filled with energy. The downside is that I need to stay on my toes. I can't skirt by with funny comments and swearing. This is the big leagues of smart.

On that note, I felt that a post today should engage the reader and focus attention on issues such as the state of the profession, the intersection of fine art, architecture, business, and design, or how stupid the term "design thinking" is. But I was sidetracked by these two brochures from Walt Disney World.

One is from a magazine after the park opened. The other was handed out at the WDW Preview Center before the 1971 opening. These may not challenge the epicenter of design or critical thinking, but the colors are nice. And I'm a sucker for a fancy layout, ochre and purple buildings, and random closeups.

Gnarly Dude

Last week I visited the Herman Miller showroom to look at the new furniture systems for the ArtCenter Grad program. There's some pretty snappy stuff and I may need to get a stand up desk for myself. In the George Nelson room there was print of John Neuhart's poster for Alexander Girard's Textiles and Objects shop. 

Designed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Matter employed organic forms and paired them with hard geometry. The organic forms, boomerangs, kidney shapes, and liquid shapes were a reaction to the hard and cold machine aesthetic of World War II. After years of tragedy, it isn't surprising that designers and the public would move toward life affirming forms. Even Matter's layouts for an article on the Ray and Charles Eames dances the line between grid and freeform.

It was reassuring to see the spread with the gnarly wood (as in tangled not rad). I have many pieces of gnarly wood and frequently find more on my hikes. It looks odd when I come down the trail with a pile of wood held in my shirt, but tough.

A Disgusting Piece of Filth

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I don’t get the theater. I can’t get past the idea that grown adults are up on stage “acting out” their issues. To make matters worse, I have remarkably pedestrian taste in theater. 

I make an exception for Joe Orton’s work. Between 1964 and 1967, Joe Orton helped reinvent the British theater with a working class attitude. He was the toast of an ‘alternative British intelligentsia’. His plays, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot were commercial and critical successes. His career was cut short at age 34. In August 1967, his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, suffering from severe depression, murdered Orton before killing himself. Halliwell's suicide note referred to the contents of Orton's diary as an explanation of his actions: ‘If you read his diary, all will be explained …’

Years before Orton achieved success he spent time in prison for defacing library books. I don’t approve of defacing books unless it makes them better. I would much rather read The 3 Faces of Eve if one of Eve’s personalities were a house cat. And The Great Tudors has a far more interesting group than the actual Tudors. 

He also defaced the flyleaf descriptions for the books, making them sound far more interesting. 

And replacing the original text in the flyleaf of 'Clouds of Witness' by Dorothy L Sayers:

Orton also wrote complaint letters by the fictional Edna Welthorpe and other pseudonyms. Edna wrote about bad pie filling, or engaged in an ongoing argument with a catalogue company. Other characters wrote letters to the theater showing Orton’s plays to complain about the low morals. I've considered this myself, although I may do the opposite, create a fictional terrible design firm, Cutsie Pie Dezigns, and write glowing reviews of every horrible item produced.


As a playgoer of forty years standing, may I say that I heartily agree with Peter Pinnell in his condemnation of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'. I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour! Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people. I hope that the ordinary decent people of this country will shortly strike back!

Yours truly,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)

15th November 1958.

Dear Sirs,

I am puzzled by several letters I have received from you. Apparently you are under the impression that I am organising something for you, or at least that someone in this flat is. I assure you that there is no one called Mr Orton living here. I am a widow and dwell alone. You state that catalogues are expensive. I have no doubt that they are, but what, may I ask, has that to do with me. You surely cannot imagine that I have stolen your catalogue. And as for selling anything which your firm makes ... Please believe me if I arrived at the New Acol Bridge Club with a catalogue under my arm and explained to my friends that all goods were at cash prices, yet payable by small weekly installments, why I think they would laugh at me. Will you please stop sending letters to me, or I shall seriously have to consider putting the affair into the hands of my solicitor.

Yours faithfully,

Edna Welthorpe. (Mrs)

30th April 1965

Flat 4,25, Noel Road, London, N.1

Dear Sir,

I recently purchased a tin of Morton's blackcurrant pie filling. It was delicious. Choc-full of rich fruit. Then, wishing to try another variety, I came upon Smedley's raspberry pie filling. And I tried that. And really! How can you call such stuff pie filling? There wasn't a raspberry in it. I was very disappointed after trying Morton's blackcurrant.Please try to do better in future. And what on earth is `EDIBLE STARCH' and 'LOCUST BEAN GUM'? If that is what you put into your pie fillings I'm not surprised at the result.I shan't try any more of your pie fillings until the fruit content is considerably higher. My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.

Yours sincerely,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


In finding so much to praise in 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane,' which seems to be nothing more than a highly sensationalized, lurid, crude and over-dramatised picture of life at its lowest, surely your dramatic critic has taken leave of his senses.

The effect this nauseating work had on me was to make we want to fill my lungs with some fresh, wholesome Leicester Square air. A distinguished critic, if I quote him correctly, felt the sensation of snakes crawling around his ankles while watching it.

Yours truly,

Peter Pinnell


I cannot recall a successful play - from, say, Othello to St Joan, from Tamburlaine to Look Back in Anger - which concerned itself with 'ordinary decent people'! Ordinary, decent people are the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country but they do not make subjects for exciting, stimulating, controversial drama. John A Carlsen Sir - Mr Carlsen's suggestion that Othello (the noble Moor!) and St Joan (belatedly canonised) are not decent people I find more than controversial. I find it completely unacceptable!

Jay Chakiris


Any oasis in the wasteland is welcome. And Entertaining Mr Sloane is not a mirage which disappears when the thirsty traveller approaches. If we find the customs of the country differ from our own - what else is foreign travel for?

Donald H Hartley


A year ago I switched to a different platform for this website. Of course this was fraught with problems, tears, surprises, and outbursts, mostly from people I asked for advice. The downside was that all images on every post are now being pulled from another server as code. Hence the loss of all SEO value. We're working through these one by one and recreating each post with actual images. 

At times, however, the change won't work and the post is recreated. These will show as new posts not because I am trying to pass off old content as new programming, but because that's life. When you find a repeat post, please simply pretend it's a rerun of Fantasy Island or Charlie's Angels. You can enjoy it all over again.

Thank you from the settlers at the burning cabin.

Franklin Mint

I've been asked if I have a favorite typeface. I'd like to consider myself type-tolerant, but I'm actually rather a type snob. Most projects begin with me trying something outlandish such as Behemoth. But, as time passes, I slowly migrate back to Franklin Gothic. When I found the 51st Annual of Advertising and Editorial Design for The Art Director's Club of New York, I found a gold mine. Giant Franklin Gothic and my favorite shades of orange and yellow. The book was designed by Dennis Mazzella. In the credits, its states: with the help of Kurt Weihs, my friend. I don't know what that means, so I'll include it to give credit to all parties. I also love that this book is stamped by my friend Doug Boyd. It's a double treasure.

I am in love with the unashamed enormous Franklin Gothic slipcase and cover. So much in love that I considered not sharing this so I could file it in my memory bank of possible solutions. And the spine, showing the inductees into the Hall of Fame is wonderful. Everybody gets so hung up on spines having all the information, but really, in this case on a designer's bookshelf, is anyone going to say, "Well, I dunno. What the hell is that thing?" And how many times have I spent designing countless covers for an annual report because every tiny detail means something to someone in the room. This cover solves that problem. "All we want are the facts. Just the facts, ma'am."

California Dreaming

Someone wise said, "Surround yourself with people smarter than you." I find that to be sage advice and not too difficult. The problem is spending time with my friends that are all smart. They discuss books on semiotics, who won the Rome Prize this year, essays in the New York Times about an artist at the Whitney, and so on. I nod along and hope someone asks about Battlestar Galactica or something about American history. But nobody is interested in either. However, I have learned that you can pepper your sentences with these words to sound smart: vernacular, visceral, oblique, didactic, epiphanic, and artifact.

One of my smartest friends, who mysteriously is willing to spend time with me, is Louise Sandhaus. Louise just released a book that was a true labor of love, years in the making. Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986. I'm not in it; I didn't graduate until 1986. I'm a media hog, but I love it nevertheless.

Louise found work that was buried and forgotten. It's remarkable and hugely inspirational. When the media center and most of the design magazines were in New York, much of California design history was dismissed as "wacky." Even good architects like Frank Gehry were categorized in the "weird California stuff" pile. The review of the book in the New York Times is titled, "The Colorful History of California Design," translated as "Aren't those Californians all just "wacky?" Louise has gone back and reintroduced many of the most influential designers in the last century that you may never have known. And, most importantly, they are presented with intelligence and honesty. And the book is a beautiful artifact (see that word adds a level of intelligence).

The Slippery Road

Isn't this an oxymoron?

I was looking through an old type specimen book today and found myself repeating, "Oh my God, what have you done?" There were awful mutilations of classics like Garamond and Bembo. They were fattened up as if being readied for a slaughter. I expected this. I wasn't shocked when I found wacky 1970s typefaces. And then I came across the terror. 

This is what happens when type is freed from the constraints of metal and allowed to take on all kinds of forms with photo-typesetting. It was bound to happen. Like most things in life, because someone can do it, they will. 

The 1960s counter-culture was a rejection of consumerism. It wasn't cool to buy stuff. So design evolved. Household appliances, cars, and polyester clothing now existed in "earth" colors: avocado, mustard, brown, ochre, and burnt orange. This way an anti-consumerist could purchase a giant Buick and feel ok. And to make sure that the consumer knew he or she was getting value, things got bigger. Ties became as wide as scarves, jeans had giant bell bottoms, and big hair was the style du jour. 

I'm assuming this is the reason for some of the type mutilation. If I could have a bold font, could it be bolder? Why shouldn't Helvetica have swashes? Aztec temples as letterforms? Why not? And could someone add even more curly items on a typeface? Although I will admit I'm warming to some of these, especially the numerals and ampersands. But I imagine that's the slippery road to hell.

First Things First

Donna Moll, 1987

I received an email from a designer last week who was thinking of moving to San Francisco. Coming from the east coast, he mistakenly thought it was just over the hill from Los Angeles. "I looked at their office online," he said about one firm, "but they had bad lighting." WTF? Bad lighting? That's even a consideration point. oy!

My first job was at The New York Public Library. Granted, we had wonderful light and I worked in one of the most beautiful buildings in New York. But I would have worked in the basement, which still had the rock walls of the 19th century reservoir preceding the Library. 

Donna Moll designed a publication I still keep on my desk, Know These Lines, a collection of first lines. I admit I could never match the delicacy of this design. The Mohawk Superfine slightly creamy paper paired with the softest rose color ink. Even the black is considered. It's not process black, but PMS Black which is slightly warmer. The Library was type boot camp and this piece by Donna proves that. It was a different time, when one spent days refining typography and methodically creating mechanicals with precision. I know that sounds old.

And to add to these, some of my favorite first lines:

Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987)
124 was spiteful. 

Toni Morrison
Paradise (1997)
They shoot the white girl first.

Joan Didion
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)
Some real things have happened lately.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon (2007)
The cage was finished.

A.M. Homes
The Safety of Objects (1999)
Elaine takes the boys to Florida and drops them off like they’re dry cleaning.

Raymond Carver
Why Don't You Dance? (1977)
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.

David Sedaris
Santaland Diaries (1994)
I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles.

Mona Simpson
Anywhere But Here (1986)
We fought.

Claire Vaye Watkins
Battleborn (2014)
The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.

Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

PG Wodehouse
The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.

Alice Walker
The Color Purple (1982)
You better not never tell nobody but God.

Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle (1948)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (1963)
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.


Looking for Facts

Tsunehisa Kimura

Maybe some of you remember five years ago when the call to action for designers was the avalanche of information to come. The future would see information exponentially increasing. We would all be buried under masses of data and no way to interpret it. Designers could solve this and organize chaos into order.

The doomsday predictions were partially correct. We are buried under a mountain of information that relentlessly enters our lives. Between mobile devices and social media, we can find information on any subject, although it may not be correct. Rather than creating a culture of schizophrenia and shell shocked consumers of information, we all seem to deal with the avalanche with the answer, "so what? Yeah, I ignore most everything."

I have several books on diagrams and information design. My favorite was published in the early 1970s. The diagrams are so carefully planned and meant to be understood. The goal was to take information and make it easy to understand and digest. Today, I often see the goal to take easy to understand information and design a solution to make it seem more complex. Although I could just be getting dumber.

Bad Taste at the End

Not to launch into morbid subjects, but this is about funerals. After my grandparents and father passed away, my brother, sister and I made arrangements and planned the funerals. The grief issues aside, each time we were faced with choosing really hideous items, from the caskets to the register book and cards.

The caskets all looked like 1970s Mediterranean television sets and the cards were sickening (not in a cool way). Each time we chose the simplest and cheapest casket. Each time the funeral director suggested something more expensive and elaborate. Didn't we love them enough to have the best? He could not understand we wanted simple and didn't want the gilded and mahogany one with puppies on the pillows because they were fugly.

The Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo is a skyscraper cemetery in Tokyo. Since most people in Japan are cremated, this is an option to house the ashes behind an individual Buddha. The walls are structured with LED changeable lighting. When a visitor swipes a card, the specific Buddha lights up. This could be a remarkable art installation, but serves a purpose so elegantly and simply. How can this exist in Tokyo, but is unable to travel across the Pacific, giving options beyond the media console/brass handle caskets?

TV console and Jonathan Livingston Seagull options

1974 Zenith Mediterranean style television console