The Path to Hell

Here is a list of things one can do that will ensure that he or she will go to hell (beside the obvious such as murder):

  1. Use any Photoshop filter
  2. Use Live Trace
  3. Use Garamond Bold (or any old-style serif bold)
  4. De-saturate an image because it seems too strong
  5. Use a typeface that looks like handwriting

The faux-handwriting typeface is especially egregious. First, they are fugly. Second, the designer is lazy. Third, God gave people opposable thumbs so they could use their hands to write. If people were meant to only draw with a vector pen tool, or write with the fake handwriting type, we could have hooves like a cow and poke at the keyboard with a pen in our mouth.

Bad, bad, bad, and bad

Bad, bad, bad, and bad

When I show young designers work created by hand, such as Ed Fella's or Pablo Picasso's posters, they often say, "it looks hand-drawn. shouldn't it be vector?" or "my child could have done that." But the point is, your child didn't make that loose and spontaneous drawing of a bull or Ella Fitzgerald singing.

So, when tempted to use the brush tool in Illustrator rather than taking the time to pull out a piece of paper and use your actual hands, then scanning it, remember that you may go to hell.

Ed Fella, 1998

Below, Pablo Picasso, 1959–1970

Portrait of Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, by Irving Penn, 1957

The Stress of Decisions

People feel stress when they are pressed to make a decision. "Do I go that way, or the other way?" One of the tricks at Disneyland and Walt Disney World is the use of the hub. That's the area in front of the castle. Everything radiates out from here, so at any point the guest knows they can simply return to the hub. This takes away the stress of decision making with no information. I can go left toward the Mark Twain Riverboat or right to the Rocket Jets. Neither is scary.

The Hub

In addition, the parks are chock full of maps. Not giant directories that become jammed with people trying to find J. Crew, but personal maps that fit in your hand.

Its' time to revisit the world  Disneyland and Walt Disney World maps. I love that there are so many different types. Some rely on an illustration to give a simplified overview, while others detail every building. The ones that fail are, no pun intended, goofy. They treat the audience as if they were all three-year olds needing to add funny characters and cute rounded cartoon structures.

The most successful are works of art. They show clear and recognizable buildings, but never pander to the lowest common denominator. Don't pander.


I filmed an interview yesterday for a documentary. One of the questions posed to me was, "Why is design important in this instance?"  I answered with all the correct statements about value, perception, customer experience, you know the drill. But then I told the nerdy truth. As designers, we love things like a serif that others don't see or care about.

For example, I am a sucker for ampersands. I love the challenge of creating a mark with one, or finding the perfect one for a headline. I once replaced every Garamond ampersand in a book, set entirely in Garamond, with a Sabon ampersand, slightly reduced. Because it was better. Did the final reader notice? I hope not. It should have appeared natural and unobtrusive. 

I love the variety of choices from Duchy that is close to the original et (and) in Latin, to the slight variation on that with Cochin Italic, to the pure symbol of Bauhaus. There are some clear winners in the world of ampersand: the Pistilli Roman, Sabon italic, Sentinel, and recently, Museo versions. But, sometimes it's good to be bad. That's when you invite Behemoth, ITC Tiffany Heavy, and City along. But I have a special place for Doyald Young's Young Baroque. That ampersand is fine.

In the Desert

My furniture at home hasn't changed in 25 years. Some items have been repaired and others replaced with the exact same thing. When we started to buy furniture for the Palm Springs house, I realized I hadn't bought anything new since 1991. WTF? Furniture is expensive today. I feel like that old person who says, "When I was a kid the movies were a nickel." But it's slowly coming together.

There is another house that has been on the market in PS that has been covered by everyone on earth already. But it's worth another look if anyone is facing the same issues and asking, "Hmm, what sofa should I buy?" It's truly remarkable. I can see why it's hard to sell. Whoever buys it couldn't touch a thing. It would need to be preserved as is. Changing anything would be like redecorating Monticello at Sears. Think of the super groovy parties you could have making Harvey Wallbangers and playing backgammon. Or making soft core porn?

The Relentless Pleasure of Little

It won't come as a surprise that I'm not a fan of fussy. It's one thing to pay attention to details, and yet entirely something else when a thousand itsy bitsy elements march around a page. I came to this realization when I was in college. It was the height of the post-modern period. The more the merrier. Modernist restraint was a misguided trend that led to ugly plain dentist office buildings. Mangle that type and add some hand-drawn squiggles that had deep conceptual meaning to three people? Sure, go for it.

Richard Neutra, Silverlake, Los Angeles

Somewhere in there, I visited one of my professors at her house to look at a project. She lived in one of the Silverlake Neutra houses. I expected the dentist office banality but found the most exquisite, harmonious, and quiet space. How could this be? Modernism worked? The next day I began removing elements rather than adding them.

One of my favorite books is Chair by Peter Bradford. This is modernism. It is direct, true to materials, clear, minimal, and bold. The usage of Helvetica in only a few sizes and a couple of weights is relentless. Like Brutalist architecture, the design is not about dainty and delicate. It is raw and rugged, but remains flawlessly refined and elegant.

Bradford's design is design with a big "D" (not Dallas). The type is type, the rules are rules, the black and white images are black and white images. Nothing is pretending to be something it isn't. If life were only the same.

some images here from

Unsinkable Brown

Recently, a client asked for brown as a color option on a project. A couple of years ago, I would have resisted. But, brown has slowly been creeping into my mind. First, I found myself admiring the brown tile at the Honolulu Airport. Then, I decided I should move away from my earthquake safe Melmac dinnerware. So, I bought several settings of Heath Ceramics dinnerware.

The Heath colors are subtle, subtle and subtle. Seeing one brown combined with cream or tan plate convinced me that brown could be alright. Some of my favorite design solutions are brown. Does this mean I'm mellowing, or developing, God forbid, good taste? I still resist any attempt to put brown in bathrooms. Brown wall, tiles, fixtures, or accessories should never be used there. I won't go into details, but how do you know if someone previously had an "episode" in the bathroom if everything isn't bright white?

Why Design

How many times have I, as a designer, tried to explain what I do and why it has value? When meeting with my accountant or having dinner with civilian friends, "Are you still doing that art thing?" The other side is people asking me if they should use the $100 logo service or their neighbor's kid who knows Photoshop. And finally, designers telling me they can't impress upon a potential client why that logo is worth more than $100. So I wrote a new course on Lynda/LinkedIn, The Value of Professional Graphic Design, aimed at the people who hire graphic designers, and the second section, to designers.

Also, I'm not as fat as I look in the course. I had a "nipplage" or nipple showing shirt that didn't pass muster, so I was asked to wear another shirt under it.

If you need to hire a designer, watch it. If you need to articulate your value as a designer, watch it now. I worked hard to keep it direct, clear, and free of meaningless marketese language. Here's the blurb via

There are no shortcuts for professional graphic design. Whether it's a logo, business card, or website, bad design drives away business. But clients often wonder if finding and hiring a professional is worth the effort. Meanwhile, designers struggle to articulate their value to clients who are tempted to DIY.

Sean Adams champions design internationally on behalf of his work with AIGA. Here he breaks down the walls between designers and clients so they can have a more collaborative and successful experience. There are whys and hows, dos and don'ts, and simple strategies for finding good partnerships, cooperating on designs, and negotiating fees, from both sides of the table. Plus, learn ways to gauge the return on investment and provide proof the design is working.

Topics include:

  • Why hire a graphic designer?

  • How do you find a graphic designer?

  • How much do graphic design projects cost?

  • How much should graphic designers charge?

  • What are a graphic designer's responsibilities?

  • How can a graphic designer prove a design is successful?

Good News

Getting into college today is a hell of a lot tougher now than it was in my day. There are all those forms and tests. Everyone is trying to get into the same places. A couple of months ago, Matt Manos at VeryNice, connect me to a really swell group of people at College Access Plan (CAP). They help high school students that don't have the support they need to find their way through the quagmire of tests and options. It's nice to work with people that do good things for others.

When people say design is just decoration and not relevant, I think about the work for CAP. Maybe the annual report will help persuade a donor to give more. Or make it easier for someone to be the first person in his or her family to go to college and do great things. When I decided to move onto a different track and do work to help others, this is exactly the kind of project I hoped to do. Thanks Matt.

Sloppy, Lazy, Loafers

I once had a party and ran Bye Bye Birdie  on the television with the sound off. It looked so good, so much nicer than any framed image on the wall. If I could only achieve that intense and saturated color in Bye Bye Birdie I would die happy. 

What a wonderful world of happy people in bright colors. I watched it again this weekend. Just earlier some friends were complaining about teenagers today. "They don't understand the value of money, or hard work," one friend said. Another insisted, "They're lazy. They only want to look on their phones and text." Then, in Bye Bye Birdie, made in 1963, Paul Lynde sings a song about teenagers then. And what were the lyrics?

Kids, who can understand anything they say?
Kids, they are disobedient, disrespectful oafs
Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers
Kids, they are just impossible to control
Kids, with their awful clothes and their rock an' roll
Why can't they dance like we did?

Perhaps the teenagers today will be singing the same thing twenty years from now when their kids are using hoverboards and ignoring everything they are told about the sacrifices of using your actual fingers to text.

On Good Work

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, I’ve been called a media whore, PR hound, and the Paris Hilton of design. I prefer to think of myself as the Marcus Welby of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are graphic designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, I moved as quickly as possible along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE! LOVE ME!!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

The only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.