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.

The Brutalism of Books

Years ago, there was a wonderful school supply store in Los Angeles. It didn’t have an inventory of fine new textbooks, cute brand new classroom decorations, or specialty learning tools. This was the warehouse of the misfit supplies. This is bad if you want to teach children up to date information, but wonderful if you prefer to live in the past. Noreen bought a huge roll up wall map of the world with all the nations in 1958. We found old textbooks, cursive lettering wall charts, and diagrams of evolution from the late 1960s. There were no prices on anything, which proved to be a bonus. When we were checking out, the cashier looked at our cart of old stuff and said, “Hmm, what about $20.00 for everything?” Pretty nifty.

I especially coveted a collection of Life Nature Library books. These are the books that explain all types of scientific information in simple terms. For me, this is good. But, it’s the design that is the high point. The books are clear and simple. They are almost industrial in their functionality. This is brutalism in publication design. They are elegant in their minimalism. Nobody was trying to show every design skill they had all on one page. Even the charts are miraculously un-designed. This isn’t about laziness. It’s about restraint.

In a Landscape

We’ve discussed my musical taste here previously. It’s exactly what would be expected: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and American patriotic music. Fly Me to The Moon is fine at the office, but I’ve been discouraged from playing John Philip Sousa’s version of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Years ago, when we worked with MTV, I had to nod and pretend I knew who everyone was discussing. Fortunately, Noreen is hip, so she could explain it to me.

There was one music related project, however, that I understood. The Getty Research Institute exhibited a collection of musical notations in 1995. We designed the catalogue. I paid attention in college when experimental twentieth century music was discussed. So I could grasp the idea. Experimental music requires a different type of language to be played correctly. Musical graphic notation allowed for symbols and other forms to convey the information as to how the piece should be played. In some instance, the idea of chance is included with the usage of materials such as multiple layers of acetate.

I may not recognize Nicki Minaj when she is standing in line with me at LAX (I just thought this woman in front of me was oddly overdressed), but I can tell you how the I Ching is an influencer in John Cage’s music.

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

Showtime

I admit I’m fairly out of touch with the lifestyles of young and sophisticated urbanite males today. I know where they are. I see them at skate stores at Sunset Junction and tiny restaurants in Brooklyn. I know that a beard is required, or a “scruffy” look. Jaunty hats of all types are good. And vintage ironic t-shirts are useful. I’ve tried the beard thing, but I look like Burl Ives, and when I don’t shave I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, “a man who doesn’t shave every day is like a woman leaving the house in hair curlers.”

In the early 1960s, the same crowd took tips on life from sophisticated and intellectual magazines such as Esquire, Playboy, and Show. No, Playboy was not always just images of naked young ladies. Each of these magazines targeted that young man on the town with articles about hi-fi stereos, how to smoke a pipe, and current political thought. Show was a short-lived, but remarkable magazine devoted to the entertainment arts. Henry Wolf was the art director and responsible for unexpected and smart covers. Today, Show would be Us magazine. What a wonderful time it must have been when a magazine about entertainment could have a cover with a re-purposed Ukiyo-e print on the cover, not Kim Kardashian.

Nobody Ever Called Pablo Picasso an A-hole

Most good designers know that the best logos are the simplest ones. Of course, it’s difficult to account for a long and arduous process of strategy, typographic studies, hundreds of icons, and system elements, and countless meetings when the result is a simple logo. Simple is hard. Desperation is not pretty on a date, or in design. But, it’s no fun to hear someone say, “That’s it? That took six months and cost ‘X’ amount of dollars?”

This is the same as looking at a Picasso and saying, “I could have done that,” or “my six year old child could have done that.” But, apparently, you or your child didn’t do that, and he did. That’s why he’s Picasso.

One of my pet peeves, including people who don’t use turn signals, is faux handwritten type. If it’s meant to be handwritten, I’d like to see something that was, surprisingly, written by hand. Those fonts that imitate handwriting have been put on earth by Satan to tempt people into laziness. Picasso’s posters should serve as the best example of this. His handwritten copy is light, playful, and energetic. If these posters were typeset in Felt Tip (no offense to the Felt Tip people), they would be flat and dull. And don’t even think about these typeset in Leonardo; you will never close your eyes again and not think about that tragedy. You will wake up in a cold sweat screaming most nights.

The Long, Long, Long Directory

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 the 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 Chermayeff & Geismar signage system for Chase Manhattan in 1961. The ability to use beautiful extended letterforms on signs is a luxury we no longer share. The forms are so incredibly sleek and sophisticated. The signs take advantage and exaggerate the horizontality. 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.

The period between 1960 and 1980, the sexual revolution, was a brief moment in the history of man when having sex did not lead to life threatening issues. So free love reigned. Do 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?”

Staying on the Road

Last week at school, I introduced my first term students to the golden section. If you’ve worked as a designer as long as I have (since 1752), these proportions come naturally. I’ll work on a poster and then lay the golden rectangle on top of it, and what do you know, it all fits. But when you’re first starting out, it’s a little trickier. I can explain the math and show my Designorama film about it, I even show them Donald in Mathimagicland (we’ll tackle this on another post). Explaining it is similar to explaining how to drive; it’s pointless unless the student is in the driver’s seat.

I’ve been collecting examples to show my class, and each year I find more. Next term, I’m pulling out the Swissair posters as examples. They are so sublime and simple. They are rigid in their proportions, but fluid. Now I understand that a little Swiss typography goes a long way. Overused and the world could become a rather dull place. I’ve always believed that good typography is like a spider web; it is precise, perfect, elegant, ordered, and adheres to a strong grid. But it doesn’t work, unless one thing interrupts it.