Styles of Radical Will

Some designers take great pride at being an a-hole. I was speaking with a designer I'd never met before, and he boasted for quite awhile about his take no prisoners attitude. He told me a story about yelling at a young designer at his firm during a client presentation until she cried. He loved to invite freshly graduated designers for an interview and then tear their work apart piece by piece.

While this sounds like an interesting reality show, the result is simply hurt and terrified designers. It doesn't make anyone better. Unless someone shows up with a heroin needle stuck in their arm, there really is no reason for berating until tears in design. The profession is hard enough without that.

I'd rather take my cue from Gene Frederico. Frederico was one of America's most revered art directors for decades until he died in 1999. He was passionate about good design, and certainly never let anyone slide by with less than their best. Yet, he took time to see young designers and critique his or her work in a constructive way. Most designers at his level could simply pass this task along to someone else.

Frederico's work is witty, fresh, and bold. It never feels overwrought or desperate. He used typography as illustration. Frederico named A.M. Cassandre's poster, S.S. Amsterdam, as a great influence on his career. His work meets Cassandre's high standards of flawless shape and form, but takes it one step further, always adding that smart and unexpected concept. His moving announcement, that depicts everyone moving, is a perfect example of his dry humor and incredible skill. To paraphrase a song by the Burning Sensations, Gene Frederico Was Never Called an Ass-hole.

Cat People

Here is an old trick if you are in vaudeville or desperately need to have something approved: add a cat or dog. I know it’s said to never share the stage with pets, but when the crowd is angry, nothing works better to make everyone happy. This is how it works. You are working on an annual report. Every cover is rejected. The client yells at you, This is garbage. Get out!" Now, try adding a kitten or puppy; voila, as if magic the approvals roll in. While judging a competition, I overheard a judge say, “Oh, it’s not so good. But it has a cute dog on the cover. I have to vote for it.” See how easy it can be.

I did have an instance in class when the cat or dog trick didn’t work. The assignment was to design a poster around a meaningful cause (this was a wayward attempt to do something for social good). The posters ranged from issues such as abortion, marriage equality, veterans issues, and censorship. The idea that never made sense to me, though, was cat rape. The designer of this subject told me, “It’s true and awful. There are gangs of young men in Los Angeles who roam the streets looking for cats to rape.” I was stunned. Who knew such a thing happened? I know anything kinky can be found online, but I cannot imagine that this activity is so widespread that it needs addressing with public service posters.

If I were an logical person, I would have said, “No. That won’t work, pick a different subject.” But I was transfixed by the mechanics of this activity and wanted to see the design solution. Did the gangs have outfits with fake whiskers? Were they aroused when reading The Cat in the Hat? How did they feel about the white Fancy Feast cat on TV? Would they be “cat” burglars?

Stupidly, I argued with her. “This isn’t possible anatomically. Really, think about that. And cats are cranky and scratch you if you pick them up. I can guarantee that not many people are interested in putting an angry, meowing, squirming, scratching, and biting feline close to a sensitive area of the body.” She didn’t back down, and insisted this is an ongoing epidemic of violence. Maybe she knows something I don’t and the media is ignoring it because it is so heinous.

The Shape of Air

There are not too many things in life that make me angry. I like to think I am fairly even. Those of you close to me can stop snickering. But, there are a couple of things that make me furious. I want to slug someone when I’m doing a lecture at school, and he or she is texting or working on the computer. I know they aren’t taking notes; they’re shopping or chatting with friends.  I hate people who drive with the seat so far forward that they are two inches from the steering wheel, and think 15 mph is too fast. And I really get mad when I suggest that a student takes time to look at the work of someone, and they don’t, and their project still sucks the next week.

When anyone is having trouble with shapes, I send them to look at A.M. Cassandre’s work. When I was in school, Lou Danziger did the same for me. I did take time to look and it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. A.M.Cassandre worked in Paris from the early 1920s until his death in 1968. His work took elements of Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, and Bauhaus Modernism and molded them into a unique form. The posters look effortless and fluid, but they are held together with rigor and structure. He had a remarkable sense of scale. The small flock of birds at the waterline on the Normandie poster creates a heroic scale. His Dole Pineapple posters are as sensual as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is his sense of shape that is genius. Liquid and solid, effortless and exact, the shapes create harmony and balance. So, if I suggest looking at Cassandre, the subtext is “Your shapes are awful.”

Images from the Louis Danziger Collection

Creator of the Gods

There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when record album designers were gods. If you saw one on the street you bowed down immediately and kissed his or her hand. They had the power to decide what was cool, and what was not. They could ignore budgets and demand the sleeve be wrapped in rubber. I had one teacher who would come to class and start with, “Sorry I was late. I was having lunch with Mick.” He didn’t mean Mick Hodgson at Ph.D. It wasn’t that way from the beginning. It started with Alex Steinweiss. Steven Heller, Kevin Reagan, and Steinweiss have written a new book, Alex Steinweiss: Creator of the Modern Album Cover

Working at Columbia Records in the 1940s he changed the industry. He replaced the previously generic stamped covers with remarkable 12x12 posters. These album covers reference European modernism, A.M. Cassandre, and Salavdor Dali in form.  They succeed in combining this high art aesthetic with wit and levity. Without knowing who made it, one of my biggest influences in high school was his cover for Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. I’m pretty sure I somehow transposed the Russian landscape here into a poster for the school musical, Oklahoma.