Deep Impact

These are the questions I’m typically asked at speaking engagements: “What is your inspiration, are you hiring designers, and what is your favorite part of being a designer?” The answers are: “How much time do you have, sometimes, and working deeply with different businesses.” I like working with a client and learning about their industry or discipline in depth. It’s impossible to work for a medical client on a diagram illustrating the process of clinical trials without understanding the subject. Or to design signage for a hospital and not understand patient and doctor behavior issues.

Will Burtin never worked on the surface. His work is clearly the result of an impressive and deep understanding of the subject. He was a master of re-framing complex scientific and medical issues with design. His elegant solutions provided simple and clear access for an audience without deep medical knowledge. This goes beyond nice information graphics. His work with Scope magazine for Upjohn is a masterpiece of scale, shape, typography, and pacing. But, it also adds a layer of deep information about complex and confusing subjects.

It is convenient to say, “I don’t have time to learn this,” and fall back to the old bag of design tricks. The result is a perfectly adequate layout. But this is not only a disservice to the client; it is a lost opportunity to do dig into a subject deeply. Good design takes time, not because designers like to move a 7 point line of Garamond back and forth 1 pica. It takes time to learn, digest, and re-articulate with intelligence and craft.

images from the Lou Danziger Collection

The Eyes of Lester Beall

One of my favorite clients is Cedars Sinai. I love learning about complex medical issues, and working with smart and logical people. A common issue I face is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. I want to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers. Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Incredible designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high rez 4 color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time, and I like to imagine Beall slaving away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snows outside.

from the Lou Danziger collection


May I Tickle Your Fancy?

I was at a photo shoot a couple of weeks ago that involved photographing middle-school kids. One girl, with freckles and pigtails, was wearing a Wonder Woman shirt. I was concerned about rights issues so I asked her who made her shirt. It must have seemed creepy to have a silver-haired man in his 40s asking a 14 year old where she bought her shirt. I was pulled aside and asked to let others ask the questions. Who knew?

If that seemed suggestive, then how can you explain Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather? Ticklefeather? Is that code, or a marital aid? And she’s lucky. The sexual overtones (and I mean overtones) aside, I love Mrs. Ticklefeather. Her best friend is a Puffin (once again, suggestive) and she has lots of Victorian furniture and porcelain dogs. I’ve never quite grasped the entire story. It seems that her Puffin friend disappears and is almost beheaded. Eventually he returns and they play on a Greek urn together. It’s a simple story that has overtones and subtexts. There’s a movie in here somewhere.

When Gray is Good


One of my favorite possessions is a Graphis magazine, No. 69 from 1956. We’ve opened it so often that it’s falling apart. I tried taping it back together since this is something you do when you get old. But now the cover has fallen off of it. There is a rather dull feature on calendars, but an incredible profile on Milner Gray. Gray (1899-1997) was a British designer who founded the Society of Industrial Artists and the Design Research Unit (not to be confused with Ellen Lupton’s Design Writing Research). His work is primarily in the realm of packaging design, although he did identity and environmental design for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Gray takes heraldry and traditional forms and treats them with a modernist bent. Simple shapes are combined with flourishes and Victorian typography. There is a contradictory sense of minimalism and ornamentation.

Unfortunately, Gray is one of those remarkable designers who have been sadly neglected in print or online. Someday, I’d like to write a book about all of these unsung heroes who changed the profession quietly.