Ladislav Sutnar

In 1996, I was asked to design the materials for the first AIGA Business Conference. I hate going to a conference and trying to deal with a batch of printed matter, the schedule, maps, and directories. Other people told me they would rather not stick pins in their shirt with a name badge. As I love plastics, I found a little plastic pouch at the Plastic Mart in Santa Monica. I believe it was to hold labels in hospitals. I used this, punched two holes in the top, and used IV tubing to hang the pouch from my neck. Now I could design all the materials, including the name tag, to fit inside the pouch. Easy peasy.

A couple of months after the conference I saw someone on the street with the same kind of pouch, but for a plumbing contest. Of course today, they are everywhere. Am I bitter that my pouch concept was adopted by every conference and theme park? Yes. But, I can be please that I'm saving shirts from pin holes every day.

On the other end of the spectrum from my flammable pouch concept to great thinking is Ladislav Sutnar. Sutnar's most lasting contribution to our lives is one of the most ubiquitous design elements in the world, the parenthesis around an area code: (310) 555-1234. He solved this problem working with Bell System in the 1950s. Sutnar was adamant that design be functional. Good information design was a critical element of our complex and technological world. He maintained that there was no place for anything but useful and high-minded design.

He followed this philosophy: “Good visual design is serious in purpose. Its aim is not to attain popular success by going back to the nostalgia of the past, or by sinking to the infantile level of a mythical public taste. It aspires to uplift the public to an expert design level. To inspire improvement and progress demands that the designer perform to the fullest limits of his ability. The designer must think first, work later.”—Ladislav Sutnar

This didn't translate to boring. As religious as Sutnar was about functionalism, his work often displays a sense of vitality and play. Yet it still imparts the information clearly. Rather than adopting a dull and rigid approach that was as exciting as a bus schedule, he allows the shapes and forms to interact with the typography.

He was probably bitter about his area code solution too.

Living above Sunset

If you decide it’s too hot to sit outside this weekend, watch Clueless and then Emma. I will admit I’m shallow I love Clueless. Like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it beautifully captures high school life in Beverly Hills. Years after seeing it, I was on a plane watching Jane Austen’s Emma, and I thought, “Boy, this is just like Clueless.” Of course, it’s the other way around. Heckerling based the characters and plot on Austen’s novel. Following the storyline of Emma, Cher works behind the scenes as a matchmaker, and caretaker of her father. She does a makeover on a new student, and like Emma, advises her to stay away from the man she should be with because he is beneath her social position. If you watch closely, you’ll notice how each plot point is updated and translated into 1990s Beverly Hills. Oh, and if you get Emma, get the 2009 BBC miniseries. There’s something cloying about the 1996 version.