Look Magazine, Allen Hurlburt, 1969

I had a wonderful discussion today about Allen Hurlburt with Margaret Rhodes who is writing about him. 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. That's wallpaper. 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. Look (no pun intended) at the way Hurlburt uses the typography to echo the content of the imagery and how the image content aligns with the grid. So nice. 

from the Lou Danziger collection and Past Print

Manifesto of Surrealism

3 Tragedies book cover. Federico García Lorca, author, Alvin Lustig, designer; J. Connor, photographer, 1948

From Design Observer

"We tell ourselves stories to live," Joan Didion wrote in her essay, “The White Album." Didion's statement talks about our need to assign meaning through narrative. We pass through our days creating fictions to make sense of the world. The surly man in the meeting had a fight with his wife at home. The woman on the corner with the teacup poodle and Hermés Birkin bag lives a life of leisure but is lonely. Creating small narratives that we consistently prove or disprove creates our reality. Alvin Lustig’s cover for 3 Tragedies (1948) takes this human need for meaning and asks us to solve, not one simple story, but a complex and personal piece of poetry.

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I was fortunate to have three Mentors when I was at CalArts (yes Mentors, as in an official title, not a Yoda-like master): April Greiman, Lorraine Wild, and Lou Danziger. These three widely varied points of view gave me a range of conceptual approaches that have been incredibly useful over my career. 

Recently, Tracey Shiffman collected a suite of materials from Lou for me to scan and archive. To see one project is wonderful, but to see a collection of work at once, well that made my month.

Revenge of the Rigid

Environmental Protection Agency identity system and manual
Chermayeff and Geismar, 1977

From Design Observer

In 2015, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth started a Kickstarter campaign to reprint the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, designed Danne & Blackburn in 1975. Recently, Reed and Smyth, as Standards Manual, with AIGA, have launched another Kickstarter campaign to reprint the EPA Standards Manual. Chermayeff and Geismar designed the identity and system in 1977. To date the suite of manuals also includes the Manuals for the Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial, and the New York City Transit Authority.

The commonality with all of these manuals, beside their overwhelming popularity now, is the rigidity of the graphic systems. The manuals clearly mandate how to use the logo, how not to use the logo, what color is acceptable, and the only typeface option. Examples of applications show the grid structure and type of imagery. As many possible examples are identified from a satellite to a Telephone Directory cover. These are not systems to be messed with.

What is contrary here is the current fascination with these hard-line identity systems in a design culture that proselytizes the virtues of flexible logos and customizable systems. Let’s identify the differences. The classical post-war identity program followed the strict guidelines. Designers working with the program followed the rules in the manual and produced work that maintained a consistent visual system. By the 1980s, the idea of a flexible identity, that is a logo that can change, evolved. The MTV logo (Manhattan Design, 1980) is a prominent example of the flexible identity system. Designers working with a flexible system were encouraged to bring their own creativity to the project and create dynamic and surprising results.

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Booze, Pot, and Silencing

John Astrop and Eric Hill: illustration and Design, June Dutton and Edith Vanocur, authors, 1967

Design history is a land-mine field of issues. Inherently, much of the work created in the past is linked to the cultural standards of its time. What we may deem unacceptable now, was celebrated then. Does that make it bad? Should the creator be vilified? Should the offending design work be eliminated from a classroom or book?


Recently, I was asked to remove Mary Wells’ “Air Strip” campaign for Braniff Airlines from a history lecture. It was suggested that someone in the class might be adversely affected emotionally by seeing the campaign. The point was not to promote the work as a way to use sex in advertising but to discuss issues dealing with our responsibility as communicators. For an article on propaganda, it was suggested that I should remove the racist posters attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1866 for similar reasons. 

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Excerpt from Design Observer, May 5, 2017

When to Take the Other Path

From Moxie Sozo by Emily Potts

It’s really no wonder that Sean Adams is such a natural leader. Whether serving as president of the national AIGA for more terms than anyone else, directing a team of designers at his former award-winning agency, AdamsMorioka, or leading the graphic design graduate program at ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles—he’s an actual descendant of three U.S. Presidents: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. (You’ll have to ask him to explain how that happened, and who slept with whom.) (father's side; GGGGG grandfather: mother's side; GGGGG Uncle, GGGGG 1st cousin)

But, just because he is the most polite, clean-cut, well-groomed guy at any design conference, doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road. People assume he’s had a charmed life, but that’s not necessarily the case. Like his long-lost relatives, he paved his own way to success despite a “whackadoodle childhood,” as he describes it. He was raised in the desert of Reno, Nevada, by parents who were perhaps more concerned with their own needs than their children’s. As unconventional as it was, Adams looks back on it now as his “normal,” though sometimes he’s surprised he survived.

Thank god he did! The graphic design world is a much better place with him in it. Here we talk to him about leaving his successful design agency, his role at ArtCenter, and his new book on color.

Was it a tough decision leaving the firm you and Noreen Morioka built and maintained for more than 20 years?

Yes and no. Around that time (fall 2013), I was in Berlin with my students for a semester, and I was really happy. When someone pointed that out to me, I was like, “Wow, I have not felt this happy in 20 years.” Then I started to realize, I’m happy because I’m worrying about my students more than myself or overhead or a client issue. Then I really started to consider that I’ve got maybe 20 years of good working life left in me. Do I want to spend those years simply doing what I’ve been doing, just out of habit, or is it time to take a new path? I really wanted to focus on young designers and students and the design community

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Mary Blair: The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural

The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural, The Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World

The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural, The Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World

We usually think of super-graphics as large letterforms on a wall, or broad multicolored stripes that run along a hallway. These are often designed to overcome bland spaces, as if somehow, magically, a giant “A” can transform a boring office into a wondrous experience. But there are other types of super-graphics that do more than just fill space. Mary Blair’s Grand Canyon Concourse mural in the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World is a super-graphic that transforms the architecture.

Designed by Welton Becket and opened in 1971, the Contemporary was a demonstration of new construction methods and technologies. The steel frame was constructed and individual rooms were “plugged” into the slots, like drawers in a dresser. The monorail track runs through the central cavernous space. 

Read more at Design Observer

Color By Any Other Name

There are two subjects that produce that deer in headlights look with a designer: typography and color. Let's talk about color. Clients are often quite clear about color, "I hate that green. It looks like baby shit," or, "It must match the pink of the sand in The Bahamas." But designers default to the swatch palette in Adobe® Illustrator or InDesign. Ask a designer about combining purple and magenta, and you may encounter this response, "What? Whaaaat? Uhhh, Ok." Along the way some well-meaning teacher told him or her that those two colors may never be used together.


The Designer's Dictionary of Color

I recently completed a new book for Abrams to address these issues. The Designer's Dictionary of Color (or Colour in Britain) will be available in April. I wanted to write and design a book that could answer the question, does this and this work together? Or how do I convince a client avocado green is a good choice (don't call it avocado green)? And, what cultural issues exist with white in Asia? 

This also gave me the chance to find young designers who haven't been widely published. I added other visual work to help clarify the issues also so that a designer could give the book to a client. The example of Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge, London, at Dusk might have more impact when looking at mint. Over the next few weeks I'll be providing some excerpts. If I can save one project that uses coral, I will have done my job.

From The Designer's Dictionary of Color; Sean Adams, 2017
Coral is neither pink nor peach. It is a color that exists between these. It is associated with femininity, gentleness, romance, and the tropics. These connections work to communicate the tone of an idea swiftly. A coral poster will immediately be read as positive and friendly. Coral has more sensuality than pure pink, which can feel juvenile. As the color of the interior of certain shells, and used as a prominent paint color throughout the Caribbean, coral has associations with a carefree and gentle holiday.

Cultural Meanings
Coral roses are a symbol of desire. In Buddhism, it symbolizes the energy of the life force. In China, it is a symbol of longevity. Coral is a sensitive color. If it shifts toward yellow, it will become peach, or a sickly flesh tone. A shift toward the red creates pink. Coral is also known as salmon, a term that was used in automobile color options.

Other Names
Shell Pink
Bright Rose

Destroyed by Madness

Line Length

I am now going to rant. After looking at many, many incoming portfolios for the ArtCenter graduate graphic design program, I cannot remain silent any longer. I will admit that the majority are excellent and some are truly stellar. There are unique visions, clear passion, and a wide range of points of view, which is wonderful. But once in awhile, there seem to be some very, very, very bad things happening in the world that I did not know about. I must now speak to save my sanity for the future.

I will begin with the most obvious. Spelling. Spell the name of the school you are applying to correctly. ArtCenter is not At Center. Los Angeles has a space between "Los" and "Angeles." Make sure you spell "Graphic Design" correctly on the opening slide.

Evil, evil, evil

Next, line length. What has happened? Where did the world go so wrong? How does one get through any design class with a line length that goes on and on and on? Please help the reader. It's humane and kind.

Hanging punctuation. Please.

Then, Century Gothic. WTF? It's not even Avant Garde, which should only be used in the most expert of hands. If you haven't mastered typography and worked for thirty years veer away from Avant-Garde. Stick with the classics such as Garamond, Univers, even Clarendon. I cannot unsee what I have seen. The endless line length typeset in Century Gothic, rife with spelling errors.

Hanging Quotation Mark

And finally, what's with the cats? There seems to be a current trend to illustrate cats. Not in a cool "I'm a schizophrenic" manner, or even a Margaret Keane groovy big eye cat. Just a cat. Sitting there. Perhaps it is a metaphor for something sexual and I'm missing the message. 

Please don't misunderstand, reviewing portfolios is a great honor and typically inspiring and exciting. But then the eight-point Century Gothic running across the entire page below and ignoring all hanging punctuation. How can one ignore this? As Allen Ginsberg wrote, so saliently forseeing these issues: 

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

Louis Wain, an unquestionable cat fanatic, loving husband & schizophrenia sufferer

Margaret Keane, The Stray


Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

In January 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address highlighting his idea of the Four Freedoms. These include freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called ‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” 

From February through March 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published essays on each of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Norman Rockwell's paintings illustrated each of these themes. These became the highlight of a touring exhibition sponsored by The Post and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The exhibition and accompanying sales drives of war bonds raised over $132 million.

We know these images. They have been reproduced, parodied, and used in advertising for over fifty years. It is easy to dismiss them as sentimental nostalgia. But they are remarkable and deserve more attention.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943

Freedom From Want is the most well known. The compositional elements echo each other; the shape of the turkey is similar to the older couple and tureen. The wallpaper references the celery on the table. And, most importantly, you, the viewer is sitting at the table. The figure on the bottom right corner looks directly at you. Freedom From Want is not about gluttony. It is about being surrounded by family and the larger community.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943

I love the cues Rockwell gives us in Freedom of Speech. The blue collar worker (with the blue collar) has the same level of importance as the banker in a white shirt and tie next to him. The response of the other members in the meeting is respectful. Nobody is hurling insults, racial slurs, or chanting threats.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Fear, 1943

The sliver of light on the right side on Freedom From Fear is the key element. It tells us that this is a warm home. The children are being tucked in, not locked in a dark attic. The headline on the newspaper referring to bombings points at the doll, lying on the floor. 

But, perhaps today, Freedom of Worship is the most salient. Individuals from multiple faiths are represented. This is not a celebration of only Christian values. It allows for any kind of belief, each according to the dictates of his own conscience. As Roosevelt said, "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose."


Where I was From

When I was eighteen, I received four copies of The Preppy Handbook for my birthday. I received another five for Christmas. Each time, the gift giver wrote on the card, "This is so you!" I didn't see the connection. Or perhaps I refused to recognize it. My parents were dismayed at the book. "It's a celebration of mediocrity and banal people," they said (mediocrity said with a short "e" as in red). 

But there was something in there that seemed so "them." Perhaps it was the boat models in the dining room. Or my stepfather's white dinner jacket that I used for my prom. He wore it on a teenage tour of all the Debutante balls on the west coast in 1960. I had to admit that my family tree was like the "joke" tree in The Preppy Handbook (although my mother's half ends up at Jamestown; those Mayflower people were late in the game). And, unfortunately, a gang of relatives were in the "Pantheon" section.

By the time I was at CalArts I was as far from "preppy" as one could get. Or so I thought. I bought black jeans and dark colored shirts. But people still said, "You're so cute and preppy." It was a lost cause. No matter how hard I tried to be cool I ended up looking like I was visiting from Connecticut in 1955.

The nice thing about getting older is not caring what others think. I finally gave in and accepted that I liked the same clothes that I wore when I was a child. I didn't need to worry about being cool and not "preppy." The issue here is that my style goes in and out of fashion every twenty years or so. I'll look quite fashionable for awhile and then super un-cool for a decade. I buy clothes in triplicate so when Sperry stops making blue sneakers I will still have new ones in a box. But let me make this clear, the pants with little whales or tennis rackets are stupid. No matter what anyone says.

My "cool-on-preppy" look in college

Me on left in madras shirt and khakis, 1968

The Long, Long, Long Signs

This is a combo type nerd-sign nerd post; so if you hate type or signs, go no further. One of the challenges of working within ADA signage codes is size. When code requires 1-inch tall letters, you tend to find condensed typefaces. Otherwise you can end up with a “Stairwell” sign that is several feet long. I was enormously jealous when I stumbled upon the [Brownjohn,][1] [Chermayeff & Geismar][2] signage system for Chase Manhattan in 1961. The ability to use beautiful extended letterforms on signs is a luxury we no longer have. 

The forms are so incredibly sleek and sophisticated. The signs take advantage and exaggerate the horizontality of the very long name. The incredibly long directory is perfect in a world of black suits, white shirts, and thin ties. My favorite item, however, is the round directory. It is like a satellite that has landed in an office lobby. What a joy to have that much real estate for a sign. 

I've used vertical space and designed incredibly heavy directories, such as the Stein Eye directory. But never had the chance to put a tiny house sized sign in a lobby.

The period between 1960 and 1980, the sexual revolution, was a brief moment in the history when having sex did not lead to life threatening issues. So free love reigned. Did Robert, Tom and Ivan know how lucky they were to live in a time when “free-type” was the norm. This was a short period when it was safe to use light extended type when you felt the urge. I can imagine the horror on a client’s face if I presented a 15-foot directory with sleek long type. They would run screaming from the room, yelling, “Why? Why? Why so long?”

Many Inventions

My grandparents' TV trays before my time

When my brother, sister, and I visited our grandparents, were allowed to eat TV dinners on a TV tray and watch TV. Now that I'm an adult, I like to do the same. It may seem uncivilized, but sitting at the dining room table and staring at your family, spouse, or guests is just so boring. I prefer to pull out the TV trays and set everyone up.

Now, some of you may be asking, "WTF is a TV dinner? WTF is a TV tray?" or perhaps for our younger readers, "WTF is a TV?" TV dinners were rather disgusting frozen meals that only children could appreciate. Typically, the aluminum tray held a meat entree such as chicken or Salisbury steak, a vegetable like peas and corn, a potato item, and a strange dessert such as a piece of starch with cranberries on top. The whole tray was cooked in the oven and served without the need of a plate. Easy for everyone.

I'm sure there was no nutritional value. The vegetables had been boiled to death and then flash frozen. The fried chicken had a remarkable duality: it was both very greasy and very dry. I don't want to consider the sodium content. But when you're eight or ten, who cares? It's like space food that astronauts eat.

TV trays were nicely decorated folding trays that could be set up in front of a sofa or chair. They really are an amazing invention. They fold up neatly, can be washed in the sink, and serve a multitude of functions such as eating while watching Mercy Street, as a tray that is impervious to watermarks from drinks, and as a flat surface to hold tools if one is working on a project. While I would stay away from the frozen sodium laced TV dinner, I strongly recommend the TV tray.

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan with fancy TV trays

World Without Meaning

Dada Anthology, 1920

In the spirit of Dada, here is a sampling of spreads by Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfeld, and George Grosz. I don't know why this is here, it makes no sense.

On The Sentimental Side

As I sit here at my desk writing, I am listening to the Longines Symphonette Society's version of My Favorite Things. You may think this is a hyper-hip new group that one finds on KCRW. But it is not. It is as easy listening as it sounds. It amazes me that I can find such a wealth of easy listening on Spotify. Why would hipsters listen to The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra's Music for Romance? They may be cool and have beards, bangs, and beanies, but I'm sure even hipsters entertain. And perhaps they would prefer the dulcite tones of Lawrence Welk during dinner rather than STRFKR.

On that note, I pulled out some of my favorite records. It's easy to make fun of the design of these, but is that really fair? Yes, they have sexual overtones and everyone has a doped up rufie and druggy look. But consider the audience. These records were played during dinner or cocktail parties. 

Perhaps the goal was a swingers type situation with guests. Then they are perfect. Or, one's date might put one on the hi-fi, turn the lights low, ply a date with alcohol and... Again, the form and content address the message.

I will admit, I love the A Man and A Woman cover.

The Valise in the Foyer


I don't think I'm the smartest bulb in the box. But I'd like to consider myself able to, at least, understand most conversations. This scene from Hail Caesar is remarkably close to my experience when people slip into "art rhetoric." A couple of days ago, another designer told me she was interested in pursuing "speculative artifacts of design." Those sound like words, but together, I just thought, isn't that the same as "something?" 

Another person at a dinner party told me he worked on "hybrid technologies." That sounded super cool, but then I realized that meant using motion, print, and web design. Why not just say that? I feel pretty stupid when I need to lean over and ask a friend, "Each word makes sense, but together make no sense. What does it mean?"

I thought the goal of good American English was plain speaking. Say what you mean as clearly as possible. If a simpler word exists, use that. Reject all pretentious language. I was wrong. Now I sprinkle conversations with these words: 


Try it. Add them to any conversation. "I was at the studio, or design laboratory as we say, and we began exploring the appropriation of vernacular artifacts. Of course, everyone was amazed at the visceral response and saw the self-referential issues immediately."

Or call your grip a "valise."

Right and Wrong

Jason Tselentis at Print magazine was kind enough to feature my etiquette presentation as Number 11 in its 2016 Year in Review. Each term, I give a lecture to graduating students about basic business etiquette. It's one of those things you presume everyone knows and then another designer tells you, "I had lunch with one of your recent graduates. He didn't use his utensils, but ate the food like a cat with his face in the plate."

This is, of course, a rare instance, but it can't hurt to refresh the point that eating like a cat is distasteful and embarrassing. The students laugh and watch me as if I were explaining how to do basic math to astrophysicists. But when I pass out the plastic forks and knives and demonstrate the right way to hold them, the room falls silent. I'm amazed how many people at fine restaurants or dinner parties hold their knife and fork as if they were killing a mammoth. It isn't going to try to get away. There is no need to hold it down with a fork and clenched fist, then stab at it repeatedly.

Shake hands firmly, not as if you were holding a perfume scented handkerchief to your nose. 

I also remind them of basic business etiquette. Stand up when someone enters the room. Don't sit there silently staring at your lap. Open the door for others. Don't chew gum at work. And don't ever, ever say to anyone, "You don't remember me do you?" It's best to remind them, "My name is Sean, we met previously at Joan's club. You were Betty's bridge partner that evening."

Some of these rules may be outdated, but will never be wrong. It's better to err on the side of good manners than being too casual. And if any of the students at least remember that a place setting is BMW (left to right: bread, meal, water), they won't steal my water glass at lunch.


Somebody once said, "You don't choose to be a designer. It chooses you." Unfortunately, this is true. Otherwise, I would have followed the path my grandparents' wanted and gone to Harvard, then the JFK School of Government and now be a Senator or Governor.

I've found lately, that I am interested in "non-designed design." That's the stuff that is purposefully or unintentionally void of any design intent. It lacks any sense of typographic expertise of skill and is alarmingly without any pretense of being "designed." Tibor managed this by adding the genius of language, visual and written. But every once in awhile, I see something so badly designed, I love it.

Tibor Kalman, Restaurant Florent

The Worst Journey in the World

Patrick Keohane by Herbert Ponting

I agree this title seems hyperbolic, but it the actual title of a book about Robert Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica. It puts many issues in perspective. A couple of weeks ago a young designer was quite upset and seemed unable to work. When I asked him what had happened, he explained that all of his black t-shirts had been washed with the detergent with bleach and now they were dark gray. This, somehow, seems less trying than someone his age a century ago trudging across the Antarctic ice.

The title also makes me feel stupid when I complained that sitting in coach on Southwest for a flight to Las Vegas was the worst journey in the world. It was a tight space and my neck hurt later, but again, compared to death by freezing, not so awful.

In the spirit of winter, for everyone feeling like they are about to embark on that terrible holiday journey, enjoy Herbert Ponting's images of the frozen south pole. Be glad you don't need to take canned meats.

The Most Important Thing To Know

Herbert and Irene Bayer, 1928

I love when someone stops me on the street or at a conference and tells me he or she watches my History of Graphic Design course on Lynda.com. I especially enjoy hearing that it is used in classrooms. How can anyone be a great designer in a vacuum? If I were trying to be the best writer I'd read Dickens, Twain, and Kerouac. How could not knowing about the Arts and Crafts movement, American Post-War Modernism, or Paul Rand be helpful. After the history course launched, we saw the need for deep dives into some of the subjects. Today the Foundations of Graphic Design History: The Bauhaus was released. 

You may be asking, why should I care about a college in Germany in the 1920s? What does that have to do with me? And I would tell you, the Bauhaus was the flashpoint of the beginning of what we consider modern design today. Its revolutionary concepts radically changed how we design, what we consider to be valuable aesthetically, and what the public expects from all the design fields.

The world then sounds eerily like our own, albeit it was Germany in the teens: The world has been fighting a war on many fronts for years, the economy faced its worst recession in decades, all creative fields and the way we do business changed with radical new technologies, and a charged political ideaology was beginning.

The Bauhaus was founded as a reaction to these issues. How they responded and the challenges the students and faculty faced changed all of 20th century design. There is very little in our life that isn’t influenced by its philosophy of form following function, simplicity, truth in materials, and quality. The idea that design can make life better for others is an idea from the Bauhaus.

On the selfish side, I was excited to be able to dig into this period again. Of course, in addition to the importance of theory, artifacts, technology, and economics, there were many personal stories. And how can you go wrong with avant-garde designers sunbathing nude, making new things, and shocking the local population. How can something be dull if Nazis are marching in and arresting these designers? Unfortunately, my choice of title, "Sex, Art, and Nazis," was changed to a more precise title.