The Pleasure of Small Problems

Sean Adams, 2014

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.

Hey Hey Crochet

People often ask me to explain how I choose colors on a project. "You're so good with color," they say, "What is your process?" My process is to liberally take color palettes from anywhere. Some call it stealing, I consider it appropriation.

I have a collection of crocheted hangars my grandmother made. I don't use them because I'm too OCD and all the hangars in the house must be the exact same white plastic or wood version. But I do love the crochet hangars. The colors are wonderful. So I made a color palette out of them. It's not high design. It's not a careful exploration of values and tones ala Johannes Itten. It's a palette from 1970s yarn.

I'm impressed at how many of these my grandmother, Oma, made. She was an avid crocheter and made many afghans, hats, and sweaters. I don't understand the afghans. Since they are made with big crochet holes, they don't really keep anyone warm. And as much as I admire Oma's fortitude and talent, I was never a big fan of receiving a crocheted sweater. They aren't really hip in the 6th grade.

It could have been worse, 1970s crocheted clothing is far worse than any bad gift you will ever receive. The next time you complain because Aunt Bess gave you hideous patterned sweater, be thankful it isn't a rust and mauve crochet caftan.

When More is Not Enough

You know how teachers are always saying, "I love teaching, the students teach me as much as I teach them."? It's true. Yes, in a high-falutin' idealistic way, but usually in odd and unexpected knowledge. This week, I learned that raping an old person is called "grape" after "grandparent rape". I learned that I could turn off that annoying double click isolate feature in Illustrator. And I learned the worse thing a young man can say to a woman is, "Make me a sandwich." I don't know why. I'd be happy to make someone a sandwich, it doesn't seem that egregious.

The absolute most exciting piece of information was My students in Type Design 5 found it for me. I'm sure I'm behind the curve on this one. Everyone already probably knows about it, but humor a square designer who spends time looking at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection. is the most incredible website ever designed. It has everything from singing people, a Darth Vader mask, a walking chicken, and flight attendants doing a safety demo. If that isn't enough, the code is genius.

Please Remain Seated

I was cleaning out my garage yesterday and a neighbor stopped by to say hello. The door of my garage leads into my rumpus room (yes it's knotty pine, no we don't play bridge in there). There are several Disneyland attraction posters in the rumpus room and she saw them on the wall. "Oh, I love your posters," she said, "I mean I really, really love them." I thanked her and then worried she might come back with a weapon.

This happens anytime anyone sees them. Even hardened academic post-modern/critical theory obsessed designer types like them. "Hmm, that isn't bad, I guess," they say.

Why is that? First, they are remarkably well designed. Second, they're big and people like big things. Third, they remind the viewer of a good experience. And finally, they tap into the common iconography of travel and adventure.

So, let's start with the influences. The Disneyland Hotel poster (above) borrows arrows from Beall's Rural Electrification poster, and geometric shapes from Russian Constructivism.

Clearly the WPA National Parks posters informed the design of many of the Disneyland attraction posters. The illustration style is representational. Larger than life scale defines the space. Dramatic lighting and bold colors dominate. The Grand Canyon Diorama poster is a close cousin to the See America poster.

Early American modernism, ala Lester Beall and Joseph Binder, is related with stylistic elements such as arrows and the use of implied perspective created with scale. The Skyway poster's perspective employs the same device of extreme scale as the Binder Air Corps U.S. Army poster.

The idea of a strong foreground combined with a distant vista links the Frontierland and The National Parks WPA poster. The color choices in both examples veer from the expected, a sunny blue sky or water, to more dramatic options such as an orange sky on the WPA poster and ochre water on the Frontierland poster. Flat color and simple shapes define a silkscreened process in both examples.

Most important, however, is the inclusion of narrative. The posters promise a story. They exhibit bobsledding with super tan people, dangling from a thin wire on a gondola, or braving wild animals through the Grand Canyon Diorama. Each poster conveys a sense of time, place, and typically makes the viewer part of the action.

Yes, this has been an adventure through a serious dissertation on Disneyland attraction posters. But there is no cause for alarm. We have concluded this post, and future posts will return to less words.

Books on Fire

I am quite proud of my most recent project, to build a bookcase in my office at home. It still needs some trim work, but the books are in and nothing has collapsed. The most surprising aspect of the project was how many books I had. Who knew? These are only the design books, there are other bookcases in the house with more. I had quite a few duplicates that I tried donating to the Art Center library, but they didn't need them. I didn't want to throw the books away. I considered burning them in the driveway and telling my neighbors they were evil books: Catcher in the Rye, etc.. But I left them in a box on the curb, and they were gone in an hour.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from buying more. One of my favorite publishers is Unit Editions. It's a collaboration between Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook in London. They focus on books with incredibly high quality and remarkable content. Rather than producing 25,000 copies of a book about business cards on cheap paper, Unit Editions publishers smaller quantities that will last for generations.

When I hear people ramble on about sustainable practices and how they used recycled paper for their brochure I nod approvingly. But, in the end, isn't the truly sustainable action to create an artifact that will be used, saved, and not thrown in the trash?

As Lou Danziger told us as students, "Stop buying drugs. Buy books instead." Very good advice, although as a student, I was spending my money on Cup o' Noodles not drugs.

The Post about this Blog

One of the tenets of post-modernism is self-referential expression. This post, then is the post-modern one. This is a post about this blog.

When burningsettlerscabin first launched, I designed a nice Victorian logo for the masthead. It worked well with the minimal layout and I had fun making it. After awhile, I grew tired of that version. And its started to feel vertiginously close to hipster design. So I made a new one. This became an on-going hobby. The point of this blog is as shallow as it gets. If I'm interested in something or find an inspirational artifact or solution, I write about it. It's that simple. If I want to, I write. If I don't feel like it, I don't. I know this is absolutely the most wrong thing one can do with all the rules of social media. But, I have so many other rules in life: typographic, social manners, organizing linen closets, age appropriate clothing, and the list goes on.

The masthead follows the same logic. If I feel like making a new one, I do. If it's heinously hideous but I like it, I use it. So, in response to the requests to post one or the other mastheads here they are.

While some have said burningsettlerscabin is their "lite" (yes, spelled that way) version of Design Observer, consider this: In this post, self-referentiality [and the epistemological skepticism it implies] is central to postmodernism and takes its typological and typographic cue from the self-referential, though not mutually exclusive, aesthetics of nostalgia, irony, and satire.

See, the settlers at the cabin are way smart.

Erotic Abandon

This is frustrating: I suggest that a student have more fun and freedom on a project and they return the next week with the most itsy-bitsy slight change. I don't understand the timidness. It's as if they believe God will strike them dead if they use a quickly drawn gesture, or too much color, or an enormously scaled grainy image. So I get the tidy and polite vector art solutions or lovely but dead photographs. It really drives me to murder. I'm the opposite of the cranky professors who say, "Oh, that's gone too far." I beg them, "Please, please go so far that everyone in the room is shocked and aghast at your complete lack of restraint."

I'm not pushing students to go outside of their comfort level and work in broad strokes to be mean. I don't want them to spend their lives designing tasteful wine labels and polite brochures. I want them to be wonderful.

The example I use is Herb Lubalin and Ralph Ginzburg'sEros magazine. Eros was short lived, only four issues from 1968 to 1971. By today's standards it tame. You can find more explicit imagery by doing a google search for "cat". Lubalin uses the page like a giant canvas, not a small magazine. When he uses negative space, he does past the comfortable spot. When he handles headlines, he does bad things like smashing the copy together in a corner. The images are dramatic and play with radical scale and cropping. At the same time, the thing is refined to death.

Partners at a law firm usually make more than graphic designers. That's ok because they have to wear real life work clothes and we don't. And we can have fun. That's the trade-off. Why be miserable and uptight, and a graphic designer. You can do that as a financial analyst and make much more money.

Spread images via:

Helvetica is Jan

Speaking after Stefan Sagmeister at a conference is a bad idea. I've done this many times. It's not that Stefan is nothing less than a true gentleman and good friend, it's that when he finishes, I can look out at the audience from the side of the stage and see people streaming out en masse. "Well that's what I came for, time to go," they must be saying. I'm not crazy about doing this, as I tend to come off as, "and now for the easy listening break."

Years ago, I spoke at a conference following someone, not as generous as Stefan, who was one of the hip and cool designers at that time. She talked about the critical theory and deconstruction of meaning regarding a logo she designed that looked exactly like Helvetica, but the crossbar of the "A" was removed. People seemed enthralled. I just thought, "and..."

Now, I've become that person, waxing on about the importance of the differences between Haas Grotesk and Helvetica. Sorry. I know everyone has a major hard-on for Helvetica, but I can't look at it as anything but the less attractive sister of Haas Grotesk, like Jan and Marsha. Originally, Helvetica was Haas Grotesk, but over time changes were made for expediency. Christian Schwartz redrew Haas Grotesk in 2004, based on Max Miedinger's 1957 version.

Compared to standard issue system Helvetica, it's elegant, crisp, warm, and legible. It doesn't suffer from the "generic" look of Helvetica. I've been using it probably more than I should. I promise, however, to not talk endlessly about the lower case "r" at my next lecture. Maybe just a little.

Haas Grotesk (L) Helvetica (R)
Helvetica in Switzerland
Helvetica in Switzerland

Mutilated Bodies

Some fonts are bad. They are like that photo of a horrible car crash that you can never unsee. It's not because they are cursed or especially ugly (well, some are), it's because they have been mutilated and left to die. As I've grown older, I'm drawn to typefaces that may, perhaps, strain the limits of good taste.

Last week, I used Davida, designed by Louis Minott in 1965, on an annual report project. Noreen suggested I was not following the corporate system and could be opening the door to future infractions. I saw it as adding some zest and excitement. I see so much good taste sans-serif typography on a daily basis that I'm starving for something wrong.

The problem was getting a good cut of Davida. The original is really well drawn and formed. But someone along the way discovered it in the bin of forgotten typefaces and beat it regularly. The digital version is a far cry from where it began. It's been around the block. My only choice is to redraw it myself and try to save it.

The lesson here is to find the original version of any font, see what it was meant to be before someone redrew it in a dark basement. I pledge to continue to rehabilitate Davida regardless of the current typographic style du jour.

Sense and Sensibility

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it's important for a designer to know certain basic issues like the size of a business card and what information belongs on an envelope. Nevertheless, I see a great number of portfolios that have envelopes with phone and fax numbers, business cards that are unwieldy and oddly sized, and examples of 3-dimensional promotion that goes against the laws of physics. No this isn't the fault of the owner of the portfolio. Clearly nobody took the time to explain these basic issues. I'm guilty of this myself. I've often talked to students and assumed someone else already taught them the information.

So, I can complain and be the cranky designer who laments that world isn't what it was when I was a youngster, or I can help. When the good folks at asked me what course I'd like to do next, I suggested we dig deeper into basic issues of layout and composition and move into the stuff we make. Foundations of Layout and Composition: Marketing Collateral gave me a chance to start at the beginning with issues like audience, determining a budget, and what items to produce. I then added basic information on business cards, letterhead, swag, 3-d promotion, and posters.

I'm hoping the examples I use are interesting and inspiring. I rounded up some of my favorite firms like Eight and a Half and Modern Dog. But the main goal is to explain simply the most basic information with collateral. Don't get me wrong; I'm fine with something being unexpected. In fact it should be. But it's best when you know why it's not ordinary. Nobody should be in the position that I witnessed a couple of weeks ago:

Me: Why did you decide to make the letterhead a unique size?

Designer: What?

Me: I'm not sure that a 5x7 card is a poster. What was your intention?

Designer: What?

Me: Is the envelope mailable? It looks like it will fall apart and cost a ton in postage.

Designer: Why are you so mean?

Watching Glass

I have a bad habit of buying the same item repeatedly. It's not as if I decide I need a few of the same shirt. I forget I have these items and keep buying more. I have a massive amount of khakis and blue Sperry sneakers. Each time I see them I think, "Hmm, now those are pretty nice." I have every possible kind of madras shirt, as if anyone would notice one from the other. And I have way too many eyeglasses. There is a store in Pasadena, Old Focals, which is rather like a heroin den would be to others. I keep buying the same few styles of glasses over and over. Just this morning, I thought, "I like those glasses Harry Hamlin wears on Mad Men. I need to go get me some of those." Of course, I already have several just like them.

And why vintage glasses? I can't get on board with some of those groovy new styles. I don't want to look like I'm a DJ or hip-hop star, although it's doubtful anyone would make that error. If sturdy eyebrow glasses were good enough for my grandfather, and thick simple frames worked for Cary Grant, that's good enough for me.

The City of Trembling Leaves

It may seem that I spend an eccentric amount of time reading books on American history or novels by Edith Wharton. Yes, that is true, but I recently read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. It is a collection of stories, most located in the harsh Nevada landscape. Hence the name Battleborn, Nevada’s nickname, and the frequent connections to silver, Nevada: The Silver State. Often I stopped at the end of a paragraph astonished by the remarkable language. The style is unforgivingly sharp, crisp and spare paired with mournful, poetic and florid. As an example in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” she writes:

The coroner’s report noted that her tumors were visible, and in the glaring light of the microscope seemed “like hundreds of hairlike silver ribbons.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Nevada desert might describe Watkins’ stories as desolate and empty people inhabiting a landscape of the same nature. But, the stories are not this. These are people who seemed crushed by the weight of this landscape, trapped and controlled by external fate. They participate in a pre-determined narrative unable to exert free will, and when they do, they simply maintain the plot.

When I was 19, a group of us drove up to Virginia City in the middle of December. We made a short super 8 film, drank too much beer in the gothic western cemetery, and considered ourselves quite sophisticated and cynical. Of course, at 19, most everyone feels this way. We were a group who spent summers together at Lake Tahoe, or driving to clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. But we had grown apart when we went to different colleges. In Watkins’ story “Virginia City,” she writes:

There are plenty of good reasons to find yourself in Virginia City, but there’s only one reason. We came to time travel.

When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why did I not see this? That is what that day was.” I was dumbfounded as if I had just learned that the earth was round.

When reading this book, I continued to think of Diane Arbus. Arbus is unrelated to anything in the stories. But she had a magnificent way of photographing the edges of society with a compassionate eye. Watkins could easily have slipped into the tone of an outsider exhibiting the freaks to us. But she manages to maintain the same compassion and connection with her characters.

For me, like my cards, Sad Places for this isn’t about poverty or humiliation. It it about giving up, or exerting the smallest effort to exist. It is about the last attempt at happiness, the plastic flowers in the frozen ground.

I'm Old Fashioned

Metropolitan Baseball Nine Team in 1882

I have a saying about students who refuse to listen to any criticism or advice, either from myself or other students, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't beat it to death once it's there." Unfortunately, like many of my sayings, this is out of date. I asked Nathan in my office if the tires on his car, which are very thin, make it seem like riding in a horse-drawn buggy. Noreen suggested that few people spend time riding in a buggy, that I was again, out of touch.

I was pleased that many of you, and a nice article for Fast Company liked my Complaint poster for the Wolfsonian, or as I prefer to call it, Hate in Salmon Pink. If you look closely, you'll find several cameo appearances in here: Kim Novak in Vertigo, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Truman Capote, the flight attendant from 2001, even some of my trendy neighbors in Los Feliz, or as I now call it, "BBB: Beards, Bangs, and Beanies."  Here again, I was told my cultural references were out of date.

Recently, however, I found some wonderful images of baseball teams for my guest bathroom. Yes, wrong time frame.

University of Michigan, baseball team, 1888

University of Michigan, baseball team, 1886

The Accidental Totem

Slide 22  

Before people could take hundreds go photos a day without a care in the world, there was a time when every image counted. The prints and slides cost money. Each one, really. Consequently, people kept every print or slide, regardless of the quality. I recently converted a batch of family slides to a digital format. When I began to organize them, I found that my favorites were the odd photos that seemed to have no purpose. These were the accidents. Either the camera moved, or the subjects didn't cooperate, or they simply seem to be of odd things like a bush. But, they were costly, so nobody threw any out. And now, I find that I cannot put them in the trash either.



box-2-slide-56 slide-026box-2-slide-21 box-2-slide-69 423-b 5b

My mask of sanity is about to slip

One of the things I really hate

People often mistake me for a nice person.  Noreen tells me that she is constantly confronted with, "Oh, Sean is the nicest person I know." I'm actually a sociopath. At a lecture in Dallas ten years ago, during the Q+A, someone said, "You remind me of the guy in American Psycho." How right they were. When Steven Heller asked me to design a poster for the Complaints exhibition at the Wolfsonian, I was chomping at the bit. There were so many things I hated. I couldn't decide which I despised more: walking slowly four abreast, stopping at the top of the escalator, hipsters, children in matching outfits, guys who shave nude at the gym, or salespeople touching me. The list kept going. So I did all of them. They are quite varied and point to my rage issues. The commonality is that I would like to kill each culprit slowly with a butter knife. Golly, I guess that's not too nice.

Adams_Complaint_01.02americanpsycho2 yacht tenure tables spacenitwithappy greetings facial-hair escalator children

One of the things I really hate

salespeople photo nude hipsters bunny


Left of Center


Many of you have written me and asked, "Sean, WTF? What happened to Burning Settlers Cabin?" The simple answer is that I have four jobs: AdamsMorioka, Art Center, AIGA, and As you know, I was also in Berlin for three months for the Art Center TestLab. And, of course, I have a very busy routine hanging out at the country club drinking martinis, tennis lessons, and playing golf every afternoon. But now, I'm getting a handle on it all and back to bring optimism back to the world.

In between my freshman and sophomore year at college, I was asked to interview at Landor and Associates for an internship. The interview was remarkably humiliating. The first comment being, "Uh, you might want to consider cleaning up the rubber cement on your projects, and using something other than a chainsaw to trim them." The downside was no internship. The upside was a great lesson that my sloppy, messy CalArts portfolio wouldn't fly in the actual professional world.

In my head, I imagined all the work in San Francisco to be like the remarkable packaging Marget Larsen did there. Her projects for Joseph Magnin were light and playful and people coveted them. They have a tinge of counter-culture, Victorian eclecticism, and clear Modernism. Most importantly, they were fun. They didn't look constipated, uptight, and angry. It was clear that the designer enjoyed making them. Today, when every project is run through ten committees and budget is the highest concern, it is hard to imagine anyone giving the green-light to a box that turns into a Thonet chair or multi-colored set of game boxes. Larsen's work is ground-breaking and was widely imitated. She had the misfortune of working at a time when few women in the profession were recognized on a coast where only "far-out and wacky" work was produced.

Marget-Larsen021 Marget-Larsen015 Marget-Larsen013 Marget-Larsen003 Marget-Larsen001 Marget-Larsen034 Marget-Larsen032 Marget-Larsen030 Marget-Larsen029 Marget-Larsen028 Marget-Larsen025 Marget-Larsen024

Experimental Prototype Colors of Tomorrow

Epcot gift bag, early 1980s

When EPCOT opened in 1982, the concept was innovation and globalism. Wait isn't that what every conference today is about? The park was and is divided into two sections, Future World and World Showcase. Future World was where corporations like Exxon could prove how good strip mining was. World Showcase would bring cultures from around the globe to the American tourist. The visual theme of Future World was the same as the 1990s Star Trek: TNG, mid-level hotel or medical offices in non-threatening tones. The large spaces had lots of carpeting, an abundance of rounded corners, and odd geometric benches.

In my head, I've always pictured 1980s EPCOT as a unified and sleek place. The color palette was silver, blue, and white. The materials were aluminum and fiberglass. But, I was wrong. While researching the color palettes I found some truly hideous combinations. Now, I've always said no two colors dislike each other. Again, I was wrong. Some of the combinations are terrifying. It would never occur to me to combine pink, teal, plum, and orange. I'm still semi-sane. So what happened? Why the hard left away from the silver and blue? I don't know. I do know, however, that these combinations do not exist naturally, and no software product will ever provide a palette like these.

Bag palette
EPCOT 1982
Epcot map, 1983
Map Palette
Epcot mug
Mug Palette
Button Palette
Gateway Gifts sign, Epcot, 1982
Gateway Gifts palette
Guidebook paltette

The Time Machine

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Walker 1780

MOO recently did a survey on handwritten communication. It turns out that 56% never sent anything handwritten. Forty-one percent valued handwritten letters over digital, and fifty-one percent never threw out the handwritten notes. So we thought it was about time to print a batch of postcards with MOO. I like the MOO people; they understand paper and design. They make the beautiful, heavy, wonderful cards like the one in American Psycho.

Call me a materialist, but I like things. I like to keep things. I don't have a little box of websites, but I have one with letters, cards, and bits of paper.

Why do we care about these sheets of paper? They define us. They tell us who we are and where we came from. Not surprisingly, I have copies of many letters written by family members, the originals long ago donated. These letters tell me these things: work hard, be prudent, serve your country, and you'll never be as good as we were in the 18th century. They aren't beautiful. They don't have fabulous handwriting. But they have survived and have the power to help me determine who I am.

Dr. Thomas Walker to Elizabeth Thornton, 1780

When my distant grandfather, Dr. Thomas Walker, sent a letter and marriage agreement to his first wife's cousin, Elizabeth Thornton, I doubt he thought I would read it 240 years later. There is a note from Thomas Jefferson, appointing his guardian and father's best friend, Dr. Walker as a Captain during the Revolutionary War. Another letter serves as a legal document signed by Elizabeth Thornton's cousin, Meriwether Lewis and annotated by William Clark a year after Lewis was murdered or committed suicide. These items transcend their physical presence and describe the complexities of relationships that I could never find in a history book.

Mary Walker Cabell 1863

Mary Walker Cabell 1863

I find two letters rife with unstated content. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, while her southern culture was collapsing, Mary Walker Cabell created a family tree to share with another cousin. There is something more here than a genealogical study. This is an attempt to capture Cabell's history and values and preserve them for others. She was raised in a world of privilege and her status in society was clear. Now, as this life disappeared, she used pen and paper to anchor herself to another time.

Hugh Walker Fry, application for pardon, 1865

The correspondence that carries the most emotional weight, however, is a note from Hugh Walker Fry in 1865. After the war, Confederate leaders and wealthy planters needed to apply for a pardon to restore their American citizenship. The letter itself is mostly boilerplate wording, but the exterior of the letter, addressed to "His Excellency Andy Johnson" is the most salient part. Andrew Johnson was the President of the United States. Did Fry intend "His excellency" as a slur or was he simply unaware of proper protocol when addressing the President? Again, his fortune was lost and way of life radically changed. What is left of this dramatic and intense experience is a piece of paper with three words.

These written letters may have seemed irrelevant, or simply part of everyday life, when created. But due to their intense personal connection and the evidence of the writer's own hand, they serve as a time machine.

Thomas Jefferson to Francis Walker Gilmer

Meriwether Lewis signature 1809

Meriwether Lewis letter annotated 1810

Declaration of Independence signatures, 1776

Benjamin Powell letter

Survey by George Washington, 1749