Just Say No to Safe


Once in awhile, we’re lucky to have a confluence of events that create an epiphany. These are mine: Marian Bantjes’ documentary by Lynda.com, a lecture at the AIGA Pivot Conference, a hellish week of one crisis after another, and the German newspaper Die Welt. Let me explain.

I’m sick to death of “safe.” Somewhere along the way, I forgot that my job is to create wonder, excitement, thought, and challenge the status quo. During the recession, I found myself acceding to committee decisions and research that led to benign and banal solutions. Marian always reminds me that I am able to make whatever I want. Our job as designers is to make extraordinary, not nice and forgetful. At the Pivot conference, there was a subtext that graphic design was no longer relevant, individual vision must be assimilated into collaboration, and artifacts were about “delight” with the same weight as a nice floral arrangement. One speaker relentlessly hammered the audience with factually flawed doom and gloom, suggesting that charts, submission of the individual, and meetings were the future of the profession. Let me off now if that is true.

On Friday, I reached a snapping point. Every job was a rush, every deadline critical. The designers in the office were panicked. So I stopped everything. We are designers, not a quick print shop. Stop, think, make something great. If it takes more than five minutes, good. Of course, everyone went right back to work, but with a sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s good to remember we are not performing neurosurgery and a patient is on the table with half a skull.

On Saturday, my oldest and best friend Erica Shapeero, who has the most fabulous life of anyone I know, returned from a trip to London and Munich with Die Welt. This issue was designed to honor an exhibition by Ellsworth Kelly. The culture editor, Cornelius Tittel, convinced the newspaper to run Kelly shapes in place of all photographs. It’s genius, brave, and uncompromising. How do you convince a newspaper to swap the soccer image with an Ellsworth shape? Unbelievable and wonderful. This reminded me that I started as a designer to make incredible things, challenge others, and myself, not to make nice, listen to banal strategy, and trade remarkable for benign. There is a reason this blog is named burning settlers cabin, not the quiet settlers cabin. Light the house on fire. Fuck safe.

The Angry Dog and Soft Core Porn

Last week at the AIGA Pivot Conference, Command X was, as always, a huge success. The young professionals who are contestants are the bravest people on the planet. There is no way in hell I would get up in front of 1,500 designers and defend my choices. This year’s group, Spencer Charles, Wendy Hu, Matt Hunsberger, Susan Murphy, Mark Nizinski, Jesse Reed, and Sarah Sawtell are remarkable designers with nerves of steel. The judges, Ellen Lupton, DJ Stout, Michael Vanderbyl, and guest judges, Karl Heiselman, Chip Kidd, and Matt Munoz had the unenviable job of determining who moved on to the next challenge. Michael Bierut hosted the competition, and I mentored and filmed the behind the scenes updates.

Behind the scenes, drama ensued. Michael Vanderbyl was reprimanded by an attendee for suggesting the use of a shamrock on a piece. Supposedly this is deeply offensive to Irish people. I asked Command X contestant, Susan Murphy, who is an actual Irish person, if she was offended, and she was fine with it. In fact, she suggested many names and comments that could be quite offensive to the Irish.

And then another speaker attacked my great friend Bonnie Siegler for Command X. According to an onlooker at the party where the bloodthirsty attack occurred, Bonnie stood defenseless as this person became increasingly furious. As this onlooker said, “it was like a chained angry dog who was let off its leash. There was spitting, snarling, and lunging.” I didn’t realize that “fun” is clearly a filthy word we should never use. Design should be laborious and we should refrain from making artifacts. Charts and meetings are the future.

As usual, nothing shocking happened to me, except for the scandal in Marian Bantjes room. Marian needed to learn how to tie a tie. I can’t do it backwards, so I sat behind Marian to teach her. The result was a photograph that looks like a cover of Viva or Oui magazine, or a soft-core porn film. Thank God it was Marian and I wasn’t teaching one of the Command X contestants how to tie a tie.