Nur Arbeit

Hans Hillman, poster, Le Gai Savoir, 1969

Hans Hillman

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.

The 59th Street Bridge Song

Hills Bros. Coffee Menu  

Last week, the crew in the studio allowed me to link to the stereo system and play music from my library. After a few hours of easy listening after the Longines Symphonette played Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, it was disconnected. Now there is a ban on my hip tunes. In the same vein, I can prove I'm super groovy by sharing these out of this world pieces from Disneyland in the late 60s and early 70s. You might think, "Oh, Disneyland. How square." But check it out dude, this stuff is rocking. Who knew wacky duo-tones and overprinting could be so swell?

Now if we deconstruct the genesis of this style we land in a place about counter-culture mind-altering drug use. I'm sure some guests insisted on taking psychotropic substances and riding Alice in Wonderland. I remember smelling pot in Adventure Thru Inner Space when I was a teenager. I once had a friend suggest we all go to Disneyland and get high. I said no of course. That just sounds un-American. But, I have collected the cool and happening graphics. I'm groovy.


Hills Bros. Coffee Menu

Show logo

Grad Nite  1971

Grad Nite 1971

Disneyland Cookbook, late 1960s

Disneyland Bag

Vacationland, 1981

Grad Nite 1970

Grad Nite 1975

Grad Nite 1971

Grad Nite 1971

Grad Nite 1968

69 68b 68

Un Año De Amor


Signage is serious. People may not find a restroom in time. They may get lost and miss the Gap. If you are a signage designer you must be serious. You must make big, black, monolithic directories that include serious information. There is no room for fun. None. Don't even think about color. Helvetica, red and black dammit!

Urban signage is hard. There are multiple committees made up of government officials who previously worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The signs need to be clear in a complex and changing environment. They need to withstand weather, vandalism, climbing children, and birds. These are the factors that lead to the 2001: A Space Odyssey black monolith directories.

Lance Wyman's system for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics are what every Olympics tries to outdo, and nobody has come close (sorry to my friends who have designed some of these. they're swell, but not 1968 Mexico City). But, today I want to talk about Wyman's program for the Mexico City Metro from 1969. This solution achieves all the difficult  goals, but maintains a sense of exuberance and joy. The program reflects a Mexican color palette and sensibility. And it looks like it was fun to design. How can a subway system with orange, pink, teal, and avocado green not be magnificent? I would ride the Los Angeles Metro all the time if it had icons of grasshoppers, sailing ships, and a duck for a station.

Wyman's work is a beacon of optimism in a dull, drab, and serious world.



Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Stamp, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Tipo font, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Station icons, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969


The Joyous Ecstasy of Wrongness

At times I feel like a traitor. I hate design. I drive to work and see a cool and hip poster and think, “Oh, yeah, seen that a thousand times.” I’ll work on an identity and create an incredibly clever solution such as when a “P” is also cat, or a comma, or a flying nun. I want to throw up.

This is when I realize its time to forget logic, clever solutions, puns, and the “correct” approach. And I do something really wrong. Now, what is wrong? Of course, hurting others emotionally is wrong (or so I’ve been told). In design, it seems that the wrong thing to do is to forget the rules and do something wonderful that makes no sense. Some of you are already getting angry and thinking, “Damn, damn, damn, well that’s just art.” See, it’s wrong.

One of my favorite examples is the campaign for the movie Where It’s At from 1969. I haven’t seen this movie and I have no desire to see it. But the posters are really, really, really bizarre. The designer took the psychedelic approach and teamed it with PushPin, children’s board game graphics, and European “Art” film (code for topless) imagery. These posters have everything one could want in a poster. Forget the poster solution of a clever one color solid shape of a comb that is also a crucifix; this is the joyous ecstasy of wrong.

Walking in Space

I’m pretty sure people are who they are when they are born. My parents were firmly entrenched in the counter-culture movement. I refused to wear jeans when I was 4 because they were what those “dirty people” wore. It sounds kind of prissy to me now. I liked grey flannel trousers like my grandfather’s. When I was 8, my mother started giving rides to hitchhiking hippies. “Mom,” I would plead, “This is illegal. They might be ax murderers.”

In particular, there was a hippie lesbian couple with three kids who were always hitchhiking on their way to Lake Tahoe or Truckee. Once a week, we’d see them standing near the entrance ramp and pick them up. I was sure they had kidnapped the kids, had dope in their bags, and probably committed countless other crimes. My mother insisted they weren’t ax murderers and I should be polite to everyone.

So I sat in the back of the station wagon with a peace sticker on the window, wearing my trousers and button down shirt, shocked by the free spirit of the hitchhiking family. I’m sure they thought my parents must have kidnapped me from an uptight square family.

The East Village Other, February 1971

A Magic Kingdom

In recent years, I’ve been concerned I was out of touch. Well, that goes without saying. A common house-cat has more hip-ness than me. But I thought the new generation only cared about working collaboratively, denying the artifact, and deriding more seasoned designers. When I was in my twenties I loved going to a conference and meeting a hero like Milton Glaser. I was thrilled when I received a letter informing me that a book was selected for the AIGA 50 Book show. Over the last two years I’ve come to realize that young designers still care about these things. They want community, recognition, individual vision, and love the beauty of artifacts. I cannot express how happy this makes me. All the hogwash research that painted the next generation as mindless automatons blindly walking down a road of Borg assimilation is wrong.

Which segues, as usual for this blog, into a crazed left turn. This preview book for Walt Disney World is one of my cherished artifacts. I don’t love it because it is about the design of meetings or strategy or collaborative teamwork. I love it because it is wonderful. When can you combine teal, ochre, and baby blue? When people discuss the great American experiment, this is it. The freedom to design a booklet with completely wrong colors and make them work. For me, the WDW preview book is design in a nutshell. It serves a purpose, it creates excitement and joy, it promotes an idea and product, it does this is unexpected ways. It talks to me personally.

So this is my call to action. When you are told that individual vision is irrelevant, or recognition of individual is wrong, or the world no longer needs beauty or heroes, just say no. These are not true. Design can create wonder and joy. Individuals do this, not committees of fifty people.

The Look of Love

Every year, someone pipes up about traditional publication design being dead. We are told that today’s reader views information differently and printed publications must change. If I listened to the current theory, every page should have multiple layers of information, presented in multiple typefaces, icons, and colors. A good page design should emulate a CNN screen. If I wanted to find joy in the barrage of information on a CNN or Bloomberg screen, I could take screen grabs, print them out, bind them, and put them on the coffee table.

The problem with this is pacing. Good publications are paced like film. There should be quiet moments, big explosions, close-ups, long shots, and points for contemplation. 500 pages of dense faux-information does not do this. Allen Hurlburt served as the creative director at Look Magazine from 1953 until 1971. His issues of Look are treasures. They follow a clear grid, are graceful, calm, and powerful at the same time. We’re currently designing an annual report for one of our clients. When I explained the thinking behind our direction, I simply said, “Look magazine.” I didn’t need to say anything else. Everyone said, “Yes. Exactly. Perfect.”

from the Lou Danziger collection

Gifts of the Gods

When you are a designer of any kind, interior, graphic, industrial, whatever, you receive really awful gifts. This sounds horrible and ungrateful. It’s the gifts your parents, grandparents, and cousins give you. We’ve all been in the situation when you’re given a lovely gift wrapped in the “cool” wrapping paper from the Container Store. When you discover it’s a remarkably over-designed swoopy lady-shaped wine corkscrew in lime green, you must express surprise and incredible happiness. It’s assumed that, as a designer, you must like the groovy designed things. I bypass this problem by telling my family to focus on gifts of cactus and American flags.

I did, however, receive one of my best gifts for my birthday this year. The Disney Gallery at Disneyland is holding an exhibition of Mary Blair. The studies for the lost attraction, Thunder Mesa, are truly genius. And the renderings for the Grand Canyon Concourse tiles are possibly the best color palette ever conceived. These two birthday gifts are now in my kitchen. I considered putting them downstairs in the rumpus room so they wouldn’t fade. That would be no fun. And that’s a bad path. Soon I will be closing all the blinds, draping furniture, and storing art in a dark space, like my grandparents.


Snowflakes from Hell

My friend, Terry Lee Stone, introduced me to the term, “special snowflake.” This applies to young people who have attitude problems. Typically, for their entire lives they were told, “You’re special. You’re unique. You can do no wrong. There is no such thing as competition, everyone is a winner.” So they start college and are shocked when they are told to do a project over, or that their solution is not world changing. Oddly, there is competition in the world. Oddly, some people are better than us at something. Part of the problem is society’s need to celebrate every aspect of a child’s life.

Now I know there will be huge outcry over my next opinion, but the truth must be told. I believe in positive reinforcement. But I do not understand the graduating ceremony for the end of grammar school and middle school. Graduating from high school is an achievement. Some people don’t. Unless you are taken to live in a Unabomber cabin in the woods, everyone will automatically move from grammar school to middle school, and middle school to high school. There is no choice, and no risk of not achieving this. So, why have a graduation celebration?

This leads me to typewriters (I know it’s disjointed, but imagine living in my head all day). When I started high school, my parents gave me a portable red Olivetti Underwood typewriter. They did not throw a big party for my ability to pass the 8th grade. They didn’t send me on the Grand Tour of Europe for the summer. Sensible and appropriate? Yes.

Olivetti's commitment to design was inherent in all aspects, from product design to graphic design. The roster of design consultants could have been made by following the AIGA Medalist list. Olivetti's designers included Bayer, Rand, Lionni, Pintori, and Ballmer. As opposed to other corporations in the 1960s approach to good corporate identity, which was typically a whitewash, Olivetti's made design part of every aspect of the company.

Fearful Symmetries

Guests visiting AdamsMorioka for the first time are often disgusted. William Pereira designed our building in 1969 as the Great Western Savings and Loan headquarters. Today it is the headquarters for Flynt Publications. The classic mid-century aesthetic has evolved into a lush “Las Vegas casino” style. I’ve grown to embrace the beautiful silk flower arrangement on each elevator lobby and the faux-marble elevator walls. The disgust our guests experience comes from our door sign. Clearly Tiffany Heavy and Optima are not expected here.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “black rock.” The New York headquarters for CBS designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962. The signage for the building is a flawless version of Didot. Lou Dorfsman commissioned a new version of the font specifically for CBS. This served as the corporate typeface for over a decade. As designers, we disagree on many issues: Fillmore posters sucked or ruled, modernism is over or relevant, AdamsMorioka does vapid and fun or smart and seductive. I don’t think anyone would argue, however, that the CBS Didot signage and collateral is remarkable.

Think of it this way: a client asks you to do a signage program, a designer in your office suggests Didot, what would you say? If I weren’t aware of the CBS program, I’d probably say, “Are you out of your mind? Do you really think that’s legible? Who is going to fabricate these letterforms and not break the very thin parts of the letters? Get the hell out of my office! In fact, leave for good.” Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that. I’m the nice one. Noreen would say it.