Bad Color

There are many ways to be sent to hell. Some involve disobeying the Ten Commandments. As a designer, however, temptation looms at every corner, telling us, “It’s ok. Go ahead and use the Oil Paint filter in Photoshop. Don’t worry about using the fake handwriting rather than using your own hands. Why make your palette when a program can do it for you? So easy; then you can have time to be lazy.” 

Now, everyone has a different concept of hell. Mine is being stuck at a party when someone pulls out a guitar to play songs about a broken heart. To avoid ending up at an endless amateur guitar playing party with people who share issues, I resist the temptation of software-generated color palettes. I make my own. 


I’ve met many designers who are uncomfortable with color. At some point along the path, a well-meaning art teacher or parent said, “Oh no. Those colors don’t go together. They clash.” We are given the message: You can’t be trusted with your own color choices. There are right colors, wrong colors, good combinations, and bad combinations. But this is wrong. There are no bad colors or bad combinations. The only wrong choices (and not in a good John Bielenberg ThinkWrong way), are to use the default palette, work without color conviction, and let Adobe make the palette decisions. As long as a designer works with color aggressively, everything is good. Can you use rust and violet, or avocado green and yellow, or pink and red? Why not?

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Tunnel of Love

People say the 1950s were uptight and squeaky clean. But if you've seen Pillow Talk or Lover Come Back, it's clear that people had filthy minds. They are both filled with innuendo and shocking comments. Both have the same plot: Rock Hudson and Doris Day hate each other, but only know each other by talking on the phone; they've never met. When he sees her in person, he takes on a false identity to woo her. She falls in love with the fake version and he subtly convinces her to have sex/get married. That part's a little murky. She's a good girl and seems petrified of any sexual situation. I think she was supposed to be a virgin, since she's unmarried. But she's a little long in the tooth for that. So it appears that she has a psychological issue such as repressed memory or PTSD.

Lover Come Back takes place in the advertising world. It's one of those great Hollywood versions where campaigns are fully develop, products are redesigned, and copious research happens in an hour. I love the idea of an "Ad Council" that is a court determining ethical issues and can eject someone from the advertising world. I don't that's legal, and certainly wouldn't fly with AIGA. But, there's still time and I could do something especially heinous.

For Purple Mountain Majesties

It’s hard to imagine a time when the government actually promoted the graphic arts. Yes, it’s true. It was once considered a respectable vocation, not just a haven for leftist intellectuals. Between 1935 and 1943, the Federal Art Project was created to encourage American design and art. It was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. The federal government created the WPA to help restore the economy during the Great Depression by employing Americans in every industry. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a lengthy essay on the ramifications and legacies of this leading to Johnson’s Great Society. Let’s stick to the travel posters; they’re a safer subject.

These posters promoted travel in the United States. They take advantage of the limited printing technologies available and use simple shapes to create depth. The colors are unexpected, but never seem incorrect. The Grand Canyon is a study in pink and purple. Lassen Volcanic National Park's poster has a plum colored lake and avocado green sky. Often, the posters employ a strong foreground and extreme shadows. The result is a dramatic and grand landscape similar to a Bierstadt painting. The attraction posters at Disneyland designed 20 years later, employee the same techniques.

What is remarkable to me is the clarity of each poster. They each have a strong point of view and do not appear to be designed by a committee. But, the federal government was the client, so maybe every poster was subjected to 100 committees suggesting a nice blue sky, some culturally, age, and racially diverse happy people, representation of all the available activities, colors that are more lifelike, and more detail. After all, will anyone be able to recognize the blue shapes on the left as mountains?

Soda Pop

There is a fine line in design between clever and trite. Often, I'll see a solution that is trying too hard, forcing itself on the viewer and screaming, "I'm clever!, I'm clever, dammit!" The projects that succeed are the solutions that appear effortless, even obvious. Obvious is hard. It's easy to think something won't work because it's so obvious everyone would have the same solution. But, that's just it. Everyone thinks that, so nobody does the obvious. The best example that is clever, effortless, and once seen, seems completely obvious is the work Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar did for Pepsi-Cola World. It's light, playful, never forced, and beautifully articulated.

The solutions, often a fused image, provide the viewer with the pleasure of solving a problem. The payoff is delight. I don't mean delight as in "That tea set is just delightful." Delight is hard to make. And it's a feeling that makes life worth living.

images courtesy of the Lou Danziger Collection and AIGA Design Archives

Pepsi Cola World, Chermayeff and Geismar, May 1958

On Finding Obscure

I feel sorry for the people who work with me. It must seem that I have a remarkable memory for an obscure design solution from 1960, but I can’t remember their names. And I can only nod and pretend I know what they are talking about, when they discuss new music. You know, that rock and roll.

I found myself referring someone to a beautiful poster designed by the master, Ryuichi Yamashiro in 1960. It’s an appeal fort the Japanese Cancer Society, and remarkably pairs multiple images in a concise composition. At the same time, I suggested a cute ad for a knitting mill, a catalogue spread by Erik Nitsche, and a shoe company poster from Germany. What do these have in common? They were all designed around 1960. Other than that, I don’t know. And I imagine they had no connective tissue for the person that I told to find them. They’re used to that, though. The designers who work with me always politely find the example, put it on their desk, and smile when I walk by. Then they look at each other and roll their eyes. I’m sure of it.

Secret Love

1963 Cadillac

My family never had a Cadillac. My grandparents always had a beige or brown Mercedes, and the Wagoneer, "Old Blue," at the ranch. My father stuck with the Mercedes thing except for a detour in the late 1960s and the requisite VW bus. Other friends' families had Cadillacs. I coveted them and was deeply jealous. The Mercedes was nice and staid, and said, "Please. We're not flashy." But a yellow Cadillac said, "What the hell, let's have drinks and get into trouble." When you're 13, this sounds far better. Now the unfortunate part of this is that by the time I could buy a Cadillac they were, forgive me, ugly. For awhile I considered buying a vintage one and researched every year and make. Like most of us, I've been conditioned too well. It sounds like a swell plan, but when the time came to head to the vintage car auction, I thought, "well, they really are kind of flashy."

For me, 1964 was the pinnacle year. The fins were still in place, but had lost the trashy factor of the 1959 model. The profile is clean and almost a perfect rectangle. It's sleek and clean. It's probably a good thing that I'm not the CEO at GM. If I were, I'd be retooling and pumping out 1964 Cadillac Eldorados. If they worked like a new car and had all the features we now want, like seat belts, who wouldn't want one? And if they were all over the road, I wouldn't feel too flashy in mine.

1964 Cadillac Eldorado

1962 Cadillac Eldorado

1960 Cadillac Eldorado

1959 Cadillac, too flashy