For your Friday evening viewing, some of my favorite screen grabs from other people. That's all.
There are some people who take design a little too seriously. Years ago, I knew a designer who refused to speak to me or look at me in the eye. Yes, it's understandable when you get to know me, but this was about design philosophy. I preferred clean, simple, and honest design with optimism. He was a self-identified post-modernist who saw the world as distopian and wanted to reflect that in his work. That was fine by me, I loved his work. It just wasn't what I did.
Even last week at the Paul Rand event I did at Design Within Reach, someone walked up to Louise Sandhaus and me, looked at both of us, turned from me, and said to Louise, "I'm happy to see YOU." Puhleeze. It's not like we're on a reality show.
P. Scott Makela was a post-modernist, genius, and all around nice guy. He never was anything but a good and generous friend. He did work that was different than mine, and that's what makes the field so exciting. He was one of the first people to give me encouragement early in my career.
I was helping a designer on a project last week based on the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It gave me a chance to look back at some of Scott's remarkable work. The typography in Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream video is beautiful, crisp, and launched a digital revolution in font design.
Scott's work with Laurie Haycock Makela, his wife, changed the profession. It stretched everyone's idea of digital possibilities, and it's damned beautiful.
On Wednesday I did a panel discussion with Louise Sandhaus and Michael Carabetta about Paul Rand. It was lively and the audience was full of great stories, strong opinions, and well dressed designers. Unfortunately I had the most horrific migraine and had to try to appear upbeat. Now some of you may say, "Just be yourself, everyone would understand." But a photo of Louise and Michael cheerfully discussing a Rand book cover while I stare into space vacantly won't translate well on facebook.
As a result, I left as soon as the event finished and didn't have a chance to say hello to many people in the room who I really like. I'm sure they saw me hurry out and though, "What an asshole diva." And...
Following up with a post about Paul Rand is rather pointless. It's amazing, but he gets more coverage online than funny cat videos. So I end this week with simply the cool stuff I found or like, and one Paul Rand.
My course on grids, Foundations of Layout and Composition: Grids, was released on Lynda.com this week. I like grids, but I know many others don't. So I knew it was a hard sell to convince someone that the grid wouldn't hurt them. It was a friend, ready to step in and clean up.
You'd think it would be easy to slap the same structure on every project. But where's the fun in that? So how can you find inspiration in the grid world? If I find something interesting, I save it and dissect it. I want to understand how it was structured. It's like classic painting education when a student sat at the Louvre and copied a master to learn technique.
I especially love the weird-ass grid that makes no sense. Erik Nitsche's book series on science has a wonderful grid. I still don't understand it. It's remarkably complex, but works. Of course, you can't go wrong with Josef Müller Brockmann. He gives good grid. And every once in a while I'll find something entirely unknown and marvel at the structure like this Lufthansa catalogue from the 1970s.
The most wonderful finds are the unexpected. Looking at the Rape of the Sabine Women (1627) by Peitro da Cortona, I began to see the grid. And then again with The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques Louis David. It was like a transcendental moment when one glimpses into another world. Yes, I'm that geeky.
Last weekend I went to see Tomorrowland, the movie. It wasn't what I expected. For some reason, I thought it would be a magic portal to the 1967 Tomorrowland. After considering that, I realize this would make for a rather dull movie. George Clooney rides on the slow moving PeopleMover. Then he visits Adventure Thru Inner Space. The whole gang has lunch at the Coca Cola Terrace and listens to The New Establishment. Not too much action. No chases or ray guns.
In my mind, the 1967 Tomorrowland still exists. Somehow I'm always disappointed to reach the end of Main Street USA and realize the 1990s version has stomped out the bright future. 1967 Tomorrowland was a gleaming shining city on the hill. It was a world of turquoise, yellow, red, and light blue, clean white paint, metallic silver walls, and Univers 67. Corporations were not evil so logos were proudly displayed. There was no better way to spend time than to ride the PeopleMover on a sunny afternoon.
We've all seen how something is changed moments before it would be hip again. If they only waited a couple of years, by 2000 the 1967 Tomorrowland would be genius.
People are contradictory. They are liberal and conservative, optimistic and cynical, and angry and happy. It would be so much easier to be one thing, like a character on a TV show. But we are trapped in this conflict. I like to think of myself as a good American: patriotic, love of country, remembering the good times when you spent a day fishing and eating apple pie from the window ledge. But, I also have that other side, the counter-culture anti-establishment thing. Maybe it’s from being a child in the Haight in the 1960s, or maybe I’m just weird. But it works for me.
Richard Brautigan is one of my favorite authors. Granted the work is haaaaard to get through. In Watermelon Sugar is not an easy idea to understand, but oh so beautiful. There is that revolutionary approach that says, “I am not interested in the right way. This is my experience.” I love that. So if you have some extra several weeks on hand and plenty of mind-altering substances, I suggest a walk on the wrong side of the street and Richard Brautigan. How can you not love someone who said, ““I have always wanted to write a book that ended with the word ‘mayonnaise.”
“I will be very careful the next time I fall in love, she told herself. Also, she had made a promise to herself that she intended on keeping. She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren’t worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it. She wanted her next lover to be a broom.” ― Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout
“I drank coffee and read old books and waited for the year to end.”
“He created his own Kool Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.”
“Excuse me, I said. I thought you were a trout stream.
I’m not, she said.”
My dad told me, “You can go along with the fates, or you’ll be dragged along behind them.” The point was to accept change and gracefully move forward. That being said, it’s not so easy. In the last year and a half, I’ve been faced with many decisions and changes. Sometimes I went along easily. At other times the universe had to slam my head against the wall repeatedly until I got the message. I like to think I’ve come through the other end with a greater acceptance of change and see it as a wonderful adventure. But, then iPhoto became Photos.
I can’t get behind this one. It does all kinds of dumb things like losing titles that I painstakingly added with names and dates (which I like to use, oddly). Then it sucked up another 70 gigabytes of space. And then I find that the dates are goofed up. So I’ve ditched it and gone back to Aperature.
The good part of this (see, always play the Glad Game)*, was that I found hundreds of images that I forgot about. Many of them from my recent Italian trip. Like most of you, mine are bereft of people. Why take photos of your friends or spouse when there is a cool cup at the synagogue in Rome?
*The Glad Game: Pollyanna, 1960
As a child with her missionary parents in Africa, Pollyanna asks for a doll for Christmas. When supplies arrive in the tiny village, the church has sent, not a doll, but crutches. Pollyanna is sad. Her father suggests playing the Glad Game. She should find a silver lining. In this instance, she should be glad she doesn’t need the crutches.
I have a friend, a well-known designer, who laments that he never gets to do work that is "fun". His work is serious and beautifully crafted with a deep connection to French structuralism and Freudian theory. I, on the other hand, lament that my work will only be seen as "fun", not "serious". Of course the reality is that nothing is that black and white. His work has light and playful elements, mine can be conceptual and multi-layered.
Herbert Leupin (1916–1999) (yes, another Herbert; it was a popular designer name) was disregarded and ignored as an "advertising poster artist". How could the work be taken seriously when it has a giraffe? Today, his posters are sought after by serious collectors. At first glance, they are funny and light. They exist to sell beer, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and pens. He wasn't concerned about the theoretical underpinnings. And they are masterful and joyful.
He does what I endeavour to teach: see things in the world that can be seen entirely differently with the slightest move: a shoe becomes a car, a glass of beer enjoys a day at the beach, letterforms become carbonated bubbles. The imagery is light and carefree. And, as Shakespearean stage actor Edmund Kean said, "dying is easy, comedy is hard."
Designers are disturbed. We are entirely obsessive compulsive over a ligature or perfect shade of warm red. We take chaos and order it into digestible portions. But we also like the big, big picture. We tell our clients that we are following a clear set of steps and phases on a project to provide a sense of clarity and comfort. But, creativity is messy. They don’t want to hear, “Well, I’ll do the research, formulate a strategy, and then maybe I’ll think of a good idea in the shower. Or maybe not. Maybe it won’t happen for two weeks. I might change my mind, or have no logical rational reason for it.”
Hans Hillman liked surprise. He was more interested in the process of working, because that is where everything is undecided and you have the chance to surprise yourself. He was simple in his philosophy: nur Arbeit. Just work. Get to work and surprise yourself. Let amazing things happen. His film posters are testament to this. They are unpredictable and startling.
Hillman also had a rare sense of modesty. He admitted to working alone most of the time, hiring someone to help if needed. He made clear that his film posters were intended for a small audience interested in that film, not major movies. His studio was “One big room, and one small room.” It sounds perfect.
On Sunday I returned home from a two week visit to Italy. Of course, two weeks is never enough. But unlike my ancestors who took six months to do the Grand Tour, I have three weeks between terms at Art Center and Michael has a real job. I found it easy to get used to having four people wait on me at breakfast. I also now know I need someone who can iron the sheets everyday. It’s barbaric to make one’s own bowl of Panda Puffs and Go Lean cereal each morning.
Typically, most of my photographs are of typography or color palettes. This time, however, I also managed a whole series of on nude statues and ceilings. I’m usually the only one taking the close up photos of the type, but there was another woman on the Vatican garden tour doing the same thing. We eyed each other suspiciously.
In my travels of typographic photography in Italy, I discovered something right under my nose: Hermann Zapf was a real Italophile. Who knew? Palatino is named after Giambattista Palatino. Optima is based on Roman capitals. And then there’s Sistina (Sistine Chapel), Michelangelo, Medici Script, Zapfino, Marconi, Aldus (Venetian Aldus Manutius), and Vario.
Yes, I know this is super über geeky. It’s even geekier to be walking through ruins on the Palatine Hill and say out loud, “Oh my God! Palatino! of course!”
Remember a few years ago when everyone in the world was certain print was dead and young people lived to design websites? Oddly, it didn’t turn out that way. A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Chris Harrold, visited with a box of incredible treasures. Mohawk Paper has the Strathmore Archives and Chris brought some of the most interesting projects. I considered mugging Chris and taking the work, but he knows me and where I live. And that’s not ethical (so I’m told).
I asked him to stop by the Archetype Press at Art Center to show some of my students and typography master, Gloria Kondrup. It was paper porn and the students were mesmerized. If you recall, these were the people who were supposed to swoon over websites. So, you see, people still appreciate the subtle color or finish of a paper stock. Even young people, who as Mr. Hand points out, “are all on dope.”
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blow Up, sequence begins at 1:15
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.
Some designers take great pride at being an a-hole. I was speaking with a designer I'd never met before, and he boasted for quite awhile about his take no prisoners attitude. He told me a story about yelling at a young designer at his firm during a client presentation until she cried. He loved to invite freshly graduated designers for an interview and then tear their work apart piece by piece.
While this sounds like an interesting reality show, the result is simply hurt and terrified designers. It doesn't make anyone better. Unless someone shows up with a heroin needle stuck in their arm, there really is no reason for berating until tears in design. The profession is hard enough without that.
I'd rather take my cue from Gene Frederico. Frederico was one of America's most revered art directors for decades until he died in 1999. He was passionate about good design, and certainly never let anyone slide by with less than their best. Yet, he took time to see young designers and critique his or her work in a constructive way. Most designers at his level could simply pass this task along to someone else.
Frederico's work is witty, fresh, and bold. It never feels overwrought or desperate. He used typography as illustration. Frederico named A.M. Cassandre's poster, S.S. Amsterdam, as a great influence on his career. His work meets Cassandre's high standards of flawless shape and form, but takes it one step further, always adding that smart and unexpected concept. His moving announcement, that depicts everyone moving, is a perfect example of his dry humor and incredible skill. To paraphrase a song by the Burning Sensations, Gene Frederico Was Never Called an Ass-hole.