The Third Act

My first job was as a designer at The New York Public Library. Beside a major screw up when I handled a business card run for the executive team containing a misspelling, The New York Pubic Library, I had a wonderful time. In 1987, I designed the materials for an exhibition of Truman Capote artifacts. I asked the print and photograph division head for an image of Capote for the poster. He gave me a telephone number and suggested Dick might have a photo. Surprisingly, Richard Avedon answered the phone and asked me to come over to see a photo he took of Capote during the filming of In Cold Blood in Kansas.

I won’t go into Capote’s entire biography. In brief, Capote grew up in a chaotic environment, moving between relatives, an alcoholic mother, and stepfather. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical success and bestseller in 1948. Over the next decade, he became one of America’s most celebrated authors.

Part of Capote’s success was his genius at self-promotion. He used his sexuality as a counterpoint to the accepted idea of macho masculinity in post-war America. His portraits are clearly gay, often seductive, and always flamboyant. He tackled subjects that challenged polite society. In his short story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is clearly a prostitute.

In 1966, Random House published Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The book is based on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. During the writing, Capote developed a close relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith. After Smith’s execution, Capote changed. It was as though his childhood terrors caught up with him.

In the 1960s, Capote’s friends were New York society, upper class women who shopped and gossiped. His black and white ball in 1966 was the party of the decade. In 1975 Esquire magazine published excerpts from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. He based the short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” on the secrets of his society friends. In turn, they rejected him. This led to years of alcoholism, drug use, and endless parties at Studio 54. Capote died in 1984 at 59.

What I find remarkable is the split between Capote’s life pre and post In Cold Blood. The ability to overcome a tragic childhood was lost. We are taught to expect stories of a hard childhood, incredible struggle, success, and a happy ending. In this instance, the narrative took a turn toward tragedy. It was as if his psyche was a sweater, and one thread began to unravel it.

For further reading: Capote: A Biography.

The Red and the Black

People often ask me, “Sean, what’s the secret with this whole graphic design thing?” Of course, there is no secret. Or if there is, nobody told me. I can say, however, that a big rule for me is contrast. There is no such thing as too bright, or too much contrast in design. I’m not big on de-saturated colors and soft contrast. Design should be bold. There’s an old saying about teaching a donkey. First you smack it in the head with a two by four, and then give it the message. Now, clearly, I don’t advocate donkey cruelty. But, design is the same. First, get the audience’s attention. Then tell them the story.

Red, white, and black are good choices for contrast and bold statements. I’ve used this combination many times and quite enjoyed it. The danger is looking like a Nazi. The Nazis were rather keen on black and red, so you need to be careful to not appear to be a Facist. Using a little bit of red and a little bit of black isn’t the same thing. Remember: donkey, two-by-four, and big.

More More

Sometimes, too much is not enough. This may seem contradictory to the typical badgering I do about minimalism. The point of minimalism is to use only what is needed and nothing more. And there are instances where quite a bit is needed. A few years ago I went to Hallmark in Kansas City to give a talk. On the tour of the headquarters, I saw the remarkable diorama Alexander Girard designed. Now, I typically, am not a big fan of cute Victorian paper dolls and tiny shoes. But in this context they sure looked good. Mary Blair was genius at combining multiple forms into a cohesive whole.

That same skill is evident in a feature Will Burtin designed for Fortune magazine in 1947. This is why the Burtin spreads work: First, there is a clear and strong grid structure. The elements work proportionately with each other. Second, Burtin uses scale to create drama and pacing. The cigar Indian is huge, while the huckster person is small. There are tiny and huge elements. Third, the pages are not a sea of rectangles, or as we like to say, “do not make that look like the wonderful world of rectangles.” Images are silhouetted, odd shapes, or trompe l'oeil. And finally, the color and typography are simple, consistent, and minimal.

However, beware of the temptation here. As you can see, it can be easy to become promiscuous with imagery. You don not want to be a layout slut, adding as many varieties of images and shapes as possible. 

Not Flat

When I was a young designer, Lou Danziger showed me a booklet designed by Herbert Bayer. It took my breath away. Bayer used a Trompe-l'œil effect to simulate a collection of flowers on top of an open spread. This was one of those moments similar to noticing the arrow in the FedEx logo. It was as if a light had been turned on and the world looked entirely different. The page isn’t a 2-dimensional form? It’s a window into a 3-dimensional world? Who knew?

Clearly Bayer knew this. He used the Trompe-l'œil effect on other pieces including a Nazi propaganda piece in 1936. Paul Rand used the effect on a cover for American Apparel magazine beautifully. I’ve attempted to incorporate this idea into several pieces. Usually someone pipes up and says, “Is that some dirt on the page? What is that? Is that a bug?” Then last night when I was on press with Cedars-Sinai’s Discoveries magazine, my wish was granted. The editor, Laura Grunberger worked with us to create settings for a story on inspiration and new medical devices. In the midst of the press check, I was upset that someone had written on the press sheet before me. But, no, it was part of the effect of the setting. What joy.

Images from the Lou Danziger Collection

The Rape of the Northland

I was once asked after a lecture, “How do you respond to the accusation that you are mining the past?” I should have talked about appropriation, pastiche, nostalgia, and using familiar forms to create a sense of reassurance. But did I? No, of course not. I said quickly, “Mining the past? I’d say raping the past.” This is one more example of my nitwittiness adding to the sense that we are shallow and stupid people spending their days surfing.

Years ago, we designed the signage program for all Old Navy stores. I was especially happy with the primary directional signage for the flagship stores. The sign was made with interchangeable disks that could be rearranged by a store manager. There was concern that children might try to climb it, but my idea of adding barbed wire fencing around it was dismissed.

Then I found an example of Alvin Lustig’s exhibition for American Crayon at the Aspen Design Conference. Damn that Alvin Lustig, he beat me to the lollipop idea. Lutsig’s environmental work is light and delicate. The signage for Northland Shopping Center is one of my favorite programs. Why don’t shopping centers still look like this? The signs are fresh, optimistic, and functional. They use three-dimensional space structurally. And they are not garish, desperately screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” Now I need to be careful not to design a sign that has an asterisk symbol on the top of the poles. Wait, I think I have.

The Color of Light

I have a stack of prints that I inherited sitting in my flat files at home. Once in awhile I’ll go through them, and consider framing one and putting it up. But I don’t have room, so they stay in the drawer. There are a couple of Maxfield Parrish (1870 - 1966) prints that I love, but can’t get past the image of one hanging in the den at the ranch. It just seems to “little old lady” to put one up. Nevertheless, they are beautiful. I could do without the lounging androgynous characters in Greek temples, but the landscapes are remarkable.

Both Ansel Adams and Maxfield Parrish worked through the beginning of the 20th-century. They shared the idea of creating images that went beyond traditional landscapes. Adams didn’t photograph the landscape; he photographed the weather. Parrish didn’t paint the landscape; he painted the light. The colors are iridescent. I’ve been told that he painted in layers, much like a printer lays one color on top of another, and the translucency of the paint produces a richer, more complex effect. Parrish also had a sense of narrative. The house in New Moon has a warm glow of a light inside, creating a sense of security, comfort, and warmth.