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.
My hospital pouch idea
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.
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.
Louise Sandhaus, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986
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.
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).