At The Edge of The Basin

I'm asked repeatedly what part of New England I'm from. It might be the madras shirts and khakis that lead to this belief. But, as many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada.

When I was growing up it was a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. The biggest thing to happen was when the Misfits was filmed several years before I was born. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more upscale, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, many establishments dropped the "western/cowboy" themes and relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. 

I'm also often asked, "Where do you get your color sense?" This is asked with a slight tone, not as in "The soft and tasteful tones are so subtle in your palette." The unspoken words are, "Good God almighty, what made you do THAT?" I used to think it was the Southern California influence, but I now realize it was Reno. How could I grow up and choose the winter light gray and beige when my formative years were spent in a place with giant neon Primadonna showgirls? In the end, I was left with a color concept veering toward garish and a set of George Nelson furniture from Harold "Pappy" Smith, the owner of Harold's Club.

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. 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.

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: http://westread.blogspot.fr/

The Avant Garde in Felt

Sean Adams, AIGA 100 project: 1955

A few weeks ago, I was asked to create a solution for an AIGA project celebrating the 100 year anniversary. 100 designers were asked to choose a year, and design a piece that highlighted an event from that year. Michael Bierut got to 1968 before I could, so I took 1955. In 1955, the Ford Thunderbird was released and Disneyland opened. Obviously, Disneyland ended up as my subject.

As a roundabout explanation of the process, I've been a huge Cathy of California fan for years. I was having lunch at our local groovy Los Feliz Mexican restaurant, Mexico City, when I recognized Cathy Callahan herself. I'm not easily impressed by celebrity. I've met my share of famous actors and such. But I was super freaked meeting Cathy in real life and probably a babbling fool.

Around the time I started the 1955 project, I bought Cathy's book, Vintage Craft Workshop: Fresh Takes on Twenty-Four Classic Projects from the '60s and '70s. Something clicked, or broke, in my brain, and I decided to make my piece out of craft materials. It seemed fitting for a 1955 concept and I obviously have too much time on my hands. I could have cheated and Photoshopped the whole thing from stock images, but I actually went to Michael's craft supplies (that was a terrifying experience) and bought stuff.

I cut up my felt, raffia, burlap, and glitter paper. I found old buttons and cufflinks. I used the hot glue gun to attach the stuff to the burlap (which smells weird), and voila. I know most designers are looking for a cutting edge, an extreme approach to the avant grade, and the next big thing. I now have clear evidence that I am as far from hip and cutting edge as Lawrence Welk or Barry Goldwater. At the same time, I think my craft solution this proves that I am incredibly brave or, more likely, clueless.

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The People's Post

  NOLA, No. 16

A couple of years ago, somebody went on a rant on a website about the graphic design profession. This person named a batch of designers, myself included, who they considered the establishment that was holding him or her down. They insisted that the time was coming soon when we would all be the first ones lined up against the wall. I rather liked the idea that I would be put in front of a firing squad because I had the wrong group of friends, or perhaps used Franklin Gothic one too many times.

I've been reading Geoff Kaplan's book, Power to the People. Now to remind everyone, I was not raised on Nantucket, I lived on the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park at the height of the counter-culture movement (1965-1970). Don't get too excited, I was in pre-school. This exposure to radical revolutionary ideas and eccentric characters has left me with a mistrust of anything named "People." People's Park, People's Bank, People's Taxi and People's Co-op are simply code for socialism. Yes, now you know so be careful with the organic food from "People's Farms". I did, however like Geoff's book.

There is wonderful collection of underground design created by civilians. They rejected the look of expertise, Swiss typography, and Madison Avenue gloss, as part of the establishment. The proliferation of cheap reproduction technologies and DIY materials like Letraset allowed non-designers to create work that was concerned with the message over form. We look at this work now as quaint and naive. It has the same sentimental sense of nostalgia as a handmade book of recipes from a church bake sale. It is, however, hard to ignore the intensity of belief displayed here. The raw expression isn't tainted by a decorative or professional graphic design veneer. But, most of these people were probably socialists.

Sean, 1967, San Francisco

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The 59th Street Bridge Song

Hills Bros. Coffee Menu

Last week, the crew in the studio allowed me to link to the stereo system and play music from my library. After a few hours of easy listening after the Longines Symphonette played Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, it was disconnected. Now there is a ban on my hip tunes. In the same vein, I can prove I'm super groovy by sharing these out of this world pieces from Disneyland in the late 60s and early 70s. You might think, "Oh, Disneyland. How square." But check it out dude, this stuff is rocking. Who knew wacky duo-tones and overprinting could be so swell?

Now if we deconstruct the genesis of this style we land in a place about counter-culture mind-altering drug use. I'm sure some guests insisted on taking psychotropic substances and riding Alice in Wonderland. I remember smelling pot in Adventure Thru Inner Space when I was a teenager. I once had a friend suggest we all go to Disneyland and get high. I said no of course. That just sounds un-American. But, I have collected the cool and happening graphics. I'm groovy.

Hills Bros. Coffee Menu
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Grad Nite  1971
Grad Nite 1971
Disneyland Cookbook, late 1960s
Disneyland Bag
Vacationland, 1981
Grad Nite 1970
Grad Nite 1975
Grad Nite 1971
Grad Nite 1971
Grad Nite 1968
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Defense of Garish Acts

A few weeks ago I attempted to repaint my living room in sophisticated silver grey. This was a mistake. What looked beautiful in the Restoration Hardware catalogue looked like a prison cell in my living room. If I wanted to interrogate visitors, or slam them up against a wall with a shiv this would be perfect. I called my trusty painter Jeirro and he repainted it back to aqua and watermelon pink. Clearly I am doomed to what others refer to as bad taste or garish color.

In defense of garish color I point to some of our finest designers, Paul RandArt PaulTadanori Yokoo, and Paul Bruno. We think of these people as refined craftsmen. But did they shy away from magenta and orange, purple and lime green? No. They embraced it and ignored the calls from the sophisticated elite, “More beige, please.”

I’ve often used the baby mobile argument. If beige mobile and a brightly colored mobile are presented to a toddler, he or she will always gravitate toward the bright one. The bad things in life, rotten meat, deadly deep water, and coffins are dull and grey. The good things, non-poisonous berries, swimming pools, and pink Cadillacs are bright and cheerful. This is why clients react badly when presented a baby shit green poster, and cheer for the bright yellow and happy pink one.

Paul Rand, 1964

On Fame and Work

Noreen just took on the job of AIGA Los Angeles president for the second time. She served as president over a decade ago, and decided it was time to step back into the role. Of course, there were people who immediately claimed she was doing this for the fame and glory. And to those people I say, “(insert extremely offensive swearing here.)” If any glory is to be had, that happened on the first go-around. The second term is risk. She could just walk away and be remembered as a great president from the past.

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, we’ve been called media whores, PR hounds, and the Paris Hiltons of design. I prefer to think of us as the Donny and Marie of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, we sprinted along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

What’s important, the only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.

 

If you’d like to know more about Matthew Leibowitz visit some of these fine websites:

http://www.uartsgd.com/GD40/Leibowitz/MatthewLeibowitz.html

http://aqua-velvet.com/2010/09/matthew-liebowitz-general-dynamics-1965/

http://www.thisisdisplay.org/features/matthew_leibowitz_visual_translator/

http://library.rit.edu/gda/designer/matthew-leibowitz

Matthew Leibowitz, 1944

Wonky Type Wonderland

Let’s be honest, when I’m at a party I love when someone gets rip-roarin’ drunk and makes a crazy fool of himself. Usually that person is me, and I’m wearing the lampshade. I can’t say I recall any of the most embarrassing moments, although I did have a taxi go through a Jack in the Box drive thru at 2 in the morning.

I also love when type gets drunk and wonky. I’m not talking about type that is a tiny bit “wacky”. I like the stuff that is out of control all over the place. The 1950s and 60s were a haven for drunk type. I imagine, based on Mad Men, that the designers were smashed at work, so the type followed. Today, there is less crazed drinking at work (most days). This results in stand-up sober, polite typography. Which is fine when it’s at a meeting of neurologists or CEOs, but let’s agree that type should be let out to have a groovy time once in a while.

Party Like It's 1968, part 1

Last week I managed to crash this blog. I don’t know how, but Noreen said I did, so it’s probably true. In rebuilding the cabin, I found the year 1968 to appear more than any other. Now, a good editor would say, “Well, then, let’s make sure we cover other years.” But I say, “Let’s have more.” So prepare yourself.

I don’t know why 1968 shows up so much. It was a pivotal year in American culture. The Cultural Revolution was at its height. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and Barbarella were released and depicted three distinctly different visions of the future. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a firestorm. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. And Richard Nixon was elected President.

In 1968, design had a wonderful combination of smart ideas mixed with a bolder palette and less rigid approach. On the whole, in design, this was the last gasp of the “simple big idea” school. By 1970, design had adopted expressive illustration and more intuitive solutions. If you think I had a personal connection to 1968, like high school graduation, you are wrong. I was four. We lived in the Haight in San Francisco, I was in an experimental co-op nursery school, and the first movie I remember seeing was Barbarella.

Huki-huki-huki-huki-huki-hukilau

A good friend of mine, the amazing designer Jim Cross, is a great aficionado of traditional Hawaiian music. Jim has impeccable taste. His taste in classic, authentic Hawaiian music is educated and refined. I, on the other hand, have plebian taste in many things. I’m just as happy at In-n-Out Burger as a 5 star steakhouse. My taste in Hawaiian music is no less low-end.

If you want to experience the truly relaxing Hawaiian sounds, check out Hawaii Calls. This was a program broadcast in front of the banyan tree at the Moana Hotel on Waikiki. On weekends, I tune the Pandora station to this and relax with rum based beverages. If you enjoy chanting, ukulele, drums, and the slack-key guitar (and who doesn’t), you’ll love this Hawaiian music. If you have a problem with the soothing sounds of the islands, buy the records for the covers alone. At least you will be anxious, mean, and angry while enjoying the album art.

Reading Between the Lines

My father had a binder from work that was indecipherable. Yes, I can read, that wasn’t the problem. The company word mark had be twisted and turned into an insane pattern. That would be fine if he worked for a head shop, or music label. But he worked for an upstanding corporate computer program development firm, ADPAC. He wore a suit everyday. This was before computer companies played Nerf basketball. He explained that the point of the illegible, twisted pattern was to try and read it when you were high. I didn’t pursue it any further, and devoted myself to rational, modernist, legible typography.

As we grow older, we become more like our parents. Now, in my case, I certainly will not be getting high (except on life, because that’s just me), or taking LSD. However, I’ve grown to love the posters that are illegible. The point on all of these was to get stoned, or take acid, or something that puts you in another state of consciousness, and then stare at the poster. If you have a black light this only heightens the experience with the fluorescent inks. If you stare at it long enough, the message will slowly reveal itself. Alternatively, you may imagine yourself to be a piece of pie, in which case the experience is lost.

These images are from the Lou Danziger Archive.

LBJ, USA, LSD, FBI, CIA

I’m square. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the squarest people I know. So when I watch documentaries about the 1960s, I wonder which side I would choose during the culture war. On one side, I think, “Why couldn’t those hippies just conform? They should get a job and a haircut.” On the other side, I think, “Dissent is the basis of democracy, and they had every right to challenge the establishment.” I was four in 1968. I don’t recall being particularly forceful in my political leanings at that age, but I do recall the extreme distance in thinking between my parents and grandparents. And I remember refusing to wear jeans. See, square.

Some of my favorite posters were designed at this time. In many instances, I don’t know who the designer was; they were typically printed quickly and posted around the Haight. They all share a passion, immediacy, and earnest hope for a better future. They often ignored production issues in the race to get the message to the people. Now, don’t get all riled up and think I’m some sort of pinko commie because I like the Che Guevara and Fidel Castro posters. If you know me, you know I’m the farthest thing from a Communist. I’m just shallow and I like the colors.

The Chamber of Dreams

How many times have you heard, “You know, my parents had that same lamp/mug/sofa. I wish I’d kept it.” Fortunately, I haven’t had that problem. My grandparents saved every shred of paper they ever received. And my mother moves a lot, so you quickly learn that objects are transitory. There is one item, however, that my mother had for years that I now regret not saving. It was a poster for the movie Camelot. Growing up, I thought it was simply a 1960s groovy poster. Now I realize how beautiful it is. The poster was illustrated by Bob Peak and is a remarkable harmony of images and pattern. Since I spent 18 of my formative years with this poster, I find I know every square inch. I need to find out if my mother still has it, and if so, distract her and steal it.

My parents followed the philosophy that children should be exposed to many things and not sheltered. The first movie I remember seeing was Barbarella, followed by Camelot, and The Fox. The Fox is based on a D.H. Lawrence novella. This is imdb.com’s synopsis: Sickly, chattering Jill Banford and quiet, strong Ellen March are trying, hopelessly, to run a chicken farm in Canada. A gentle but powerful man, Paul Renfield, returns and puts things in order. But his proposal of marriage to Ellen awakens the lesbianism dormant in the girls: Jill uses her weakness to make Ellen feel protective, and the women become active lesbians.

Clearly this was not The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The art for the poster is also incredible. Based on the art for the book jacket, it is symbolic, sensual, and fluid. I may have been exposed to a whole batch of nudity as a 3 year old, but I also had a crash course in beautiful imagery.

It's not easy being green

There is a sofa at my grandparents’ house that we all call “the Nancy Reagan” sofa. I like it, nobody else does. I’d put it in my house, but it weighs a ton because it’s a sleeper sofa, and impossible to move. And I have no idea where to put it. My other grandmother had a cousin who was a bastion of good taste, Nancy Lancaster. Lancaster is credited with creating “the English-country” style. My mother and aunts follow this style. So that side of the family would not approve of the sunny and flowered Nancy Reagan sofa.

I found a book, though, that helps me understand how to change my décor to accommodate the Nancy Reagan sofa, The Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book from 1968. It clearly demonstrates how to use purple and green as a color scheme, or golden harvest as a theme. I particularly like the burnt orange and brown Venetian inspired kitchen. The room for a college student is nifty, too. I can imagine a bong on the shelf and some Jefferson Airplane posters adding some individual personality. The purple and magenta room gives me a perfect way to use the Nancy Reagan sofa.

If I do this, I will be leaving behind ½ of my family. My mother’s side (the Nancy Lancaster side) will never accept this. I will be ostracized or pitied for my awful and tragic taste.

Wrap Up Your Troubles

I’m sure everyone has different holiday gift traditions. Whether it’s Christmas or Chanukah, gifts are wrapped, and as they are opened, we watch for expressions of happiness. In our house, everyone patiently took turns unwrapping a gift. This was followed by any of the following statements, “It’s perfect. Thank you so much,” or “You have such a talent for finding the exact right thing,” or “Of course this multi-colored sweater is what the other boys are wearing. Thank you.” I once went to a friend’s house when they opened gifts and it was a mad free-for-all. After our civilized and polite Christmas mornings, this was like anarchy. If you’ve seen those old silent movies about ancient Rome with the orgies, then you know what I mean.

We’re also careful about unwrapping. I haven’t solved the problem of asking someone outside of the family to be more careful, and give me back the wrapping paper. It’s not about being cheap; it’s about the paper. Here is the issue: if I buy ugly new paper, I don’t care if it’s destroyed. But my friends and family deserve the good stuff, the vintage paper. So I am doomed to watch in terror with a frozen smile as a child tears through the delicate paisley paper from 1968.

Yes, No, Yes, No, I Mean Maybe

I’ll admit it; I’m contradictory. I’ve learned this is a good thing to say. I can get away with so many things. When I change my mind, I can say, “I know I said I like yellow, but now I want brown. I’m contradictory,” or, “I gave that Boardwalk Empire show a chance, today I decided it's boring.” At a lecture a couple of weeks ago someone pointed out that although I talk about clarity and a modernist approach, some of our work had ornamentation. My response, “Well I’m contradictory.” See how well it works.

Consequently, I love Tadanori Yokoo’s work. Theoretically, it should be too complex, layered, and decorative, and I should only like John Massey. But, Yokoo endlessly inspires me. His work is related to psychadelia and the Fillmore tradition in spirit, but also has a unique approach to space. Like traditional Japanese prints, distance is visualized by the placement on the page, not a western 3-dimensional perspective. His work takes traditional elements and combines them with western iconography and popular culture. He doesn’t carefully and harmoniously combine these; they seem slammed together with remarkable energy. Don’t get me wrong, though, I also love John Massey. Why? Yes, you know.

Being Not Square

I have never taken Lysergic acid diethylamide, or acid as they say on the street. I don’t endorse revolution (except for our original one in 1776). I don’t own any clothing with fringe or tie-dye. I get up every day, go to work, pay taxes, and keep my front yard neat. I am square. I’m the establishment. But, as you know, I did spend formative years in the Haight during the late 1960s. My parents were never pleased that I ended up so square, but they would be pleased that I love counter-culture culture. I love the colors, the attitude, the optimism, and the naïveté.

In San Francisco, in the late 1960s, a group of counter-culture characters formed the Diggers. This group was a theater troupe and endorsed a non-capitalist society without money. They provided free food service in the Panhandle every day, arranged places for homeless hippie teens to “crash”, and opened a series of “Free Stores”. They gave free concerts with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Diggers are the originators of some of your favorite sayings: "Do your own thing" and "Today is the first day of the rest of your life". The Digger Bread, which was baked in coffee cans at the Free Bakery, popularized whole-wheat bread.

The Diggers did not "fall apart," they evolved and integrated with other groups: The Free Bakery, the Gypsy Truckers, and my favorite Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, and became the Free Family.

Arthur magazine provided some new knowledge to me about the posters and broadside. Novelist and poet Chester Anderson and his protégé Claude Hayward, created the “Communication Company,” or more commonly, “Com/Co.” According to Claude, the broadsides were “handed out on the street, page by page, super hot media, because the reader trusted the source, which was another freaky looking hippie who had handed it to him/her.” This quite possibly was my mother or father.

Make Your Own Kind of Music

In 1968, my parents moved to a flat on Fell Street in San Francisco. This was the epicenter of the counter-culture movement. I was four, so I don’t know why we moved there. My parents were definitely anti-establishment, but were adamantly anti-drug use. The neighbors above us were band members from Big Brother and the Holding Company. We bought a big Victorian mahogany bed for my grandmother from one of the Grateful Dead guys. I went to concerts across the street in Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. I went to a volunteer co-op intercultural and interracial pre-school. After my father died, I inherited his Fillmore posters. He had them tacked up on the wall in his house with thumbtacks.

I rebelled. I didn’t get older and act out with loud music and anti-social behavior. I recall that I refused to wear jeans when I was five. I wore only khakis or trousers. I didn’t want long hair. I liked my grandfather’s clothes. And it only got worse as I grew older. By the time I was in high school, I was getting regular lectures from my parents about my bad attitude. I was told,  “Your are spending too much time on school activities. There is no need to be so conformist.”

My mother never made apologies about being non-traditional. She made it clear to us that they she was our mother, not our friend. But she was and continues to be endlessly kind. She taught me to value creativity, eccentricity, and beauty. She was direct and pointed out that she wasn’t the kind of mother who waited at home and made cookies. My friends had mothers who made fresh cookies, and insisted on being called by their first names. I’m glad I didn’t. My mother demands a level of respect that would make calling her “Sylvia” seem far too familiar.

Feelin' Groovy

There is nothing groovier to me than square, squeaky clean people who are trying to be “down and groovy.” The Kids of the Kingdom, and The New Establishment were musical groups at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in 1968. And boy, are they square. They make me look like Neil Young. But, because they are trying to be “with it” and “cool” they become truly groovy.

As designers, we’re all taught to stay ahead of the popular culture curve. When I was in school, we spent quite a bit of time and energy being “cool” and cutting-edge. Years later, when Noreen and I started AdamsMorioka, I let go of trying to stay ahead of the hip curve. It was a great relief to not have to try to be cool anymore. I admire the performers in The New Establishment and The Kids of the Kingdom. They probably played some big hits like, Up, Up, and Away, Cherish, and Windy, and then went out with their friends convinced they were the hippest people at a night-club, or they really knew how to groove and everyone else was just plain un-cool.