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

Main Title

There’s an old saying, “It’s easy to do good work if you have a good subject.” For us, this is true with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We’ve worked with AMPAS for several years, from the identity to this year's 84th Annual Academy Awards tickets. I spent much of the winter working on the AMPAS Annual Report. To an outsider, this might seem like a simple task; use some photos of the Academy Awards and you’re done. The Academy, however, is a remarkable organization also involved in preservation, science and technology, cultural diplomacy, and celebration of excellence. There are events, exhibitions, and awards throughout the year. The issue, then, becomes an embarrassment of riches. There is simply too much to include in one publication. Like a good film, editing is a critical part of the project.

The design of the annual report moved away from a traditional corporate publication, and maintained an editorial structure. The larger ideas, such as collective history are presented. We treated each section as its own feature with its own typographic language.

I was griping to Noreen last week, “Why do we get discounted as being ‘Hollywood’? Entertainment is one of the nation’s largest exports. It’s as much a business as publishing or finance.” But, seriously, snap out of it. I can’t complain. We have the privilege of working with a client such as AMPAS, and making a centerfold with Sophia Loren.

Why I Design

I learned how to behave by Saul Bass. There seemed to be several options. I could mature into a more seasoned designer and become crankier. I could become bitter and competitive with younger designers. I could desperately try to remain young, wearing clothes better suited for a 14 year old. Or, like Saul, I could be magnanimous and helpful. Saul was enormously helpful to us when we started AdamsMorioka. He provided wisdom I still use. He sat through a long dull lecture at Aspen to wait for our talk. Saul patiently listened to my ambitions, and was always available. Now when I read his recent book, I continue to be in awe.

After Saul passed away, I went to his memorial at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. It was a truly life changing event to see the collection of his titles on a huge screen with magnificent stereo sound. When I show Saul’s title sequences to my students they are impressed, obviously, and hopefully inspired. But they cannot experience the magnificence of Saul’s work on a wide Cinemascope screen. His titles are each wonderful, but the credit sequence for West Side Story is a miracle. It is moving, eloquent, artful, and beautifully crafted. No matter how hard my day is, this sequence always reminds me why I design.

From the Academy Awards to Tuna Fish

I think humility is a virtue. I do my best to practice it.  I feel uncomfortable with praise, and am usually far more impressed with the people I meet than I am with myself. This post, however, may seem to lack that humility. I’ve been trying to figure out how I could recap last night without seeming like a total douche. But that’s probably unavoidable, so I’ll pass on some highlights.

Last night we went to The Academy Awards. The Academy was extremely generous and made sure we had great seats and felt wonderfully welcome. My biggest concern before going was shallow at best. Would I fit into my tuxedo? I took it to Armani and asked them if I should let the pants out. They said no. I didn’t want to wear Spanx. Fortunately, it fit and I didn’t need the Spanx.

Driving along an empty Hollywood Blvd. was surreal, at best, weaving through barricades, with crowds of people with cameras watching from both sides. Like everywhere in Los Angeles, there was a valet. Once we passed through the metal detectors without incident, none of us were packing, we were in the middle of the official “Red Carpet” area. I expected the people in bleachers and press, but it was that times ten. The press was three people deep with television cameras and interviewers. The bleachers were filled with people shouting and taking photos. This was far beyond a premier at Sundance. Who knew?

The nominees and presenters were in the first few rows and like an AIGA Gala, were all out of their seats talking to each other at every commercial break. The announcer began the countdown at 30 seconds and then said “5 seconds to the world.” I liked that. It was a good way to start.

I did my best to stay on top of things on Twitter, but it’s hard to be witty when you are trying to type and not have everyone around us say, “Well! How rude.” This show is a machine. The efficiency was incredible. Within the three minutes of commercial breaks, a crew of stagehands in tuxedos changed the sets completely. Presenters in dresses were helped down the stairs that looked perilous for presenters with high heels and lots of fabric. Most impressively, at the end of a commercial break when the announcer said, “30 seconds,” people got back in their seats. Try that at an AIGA Gala. Obviously, designers need to be commanded to sit down in 30 seconds over a loudspeaker too.

Now the other trivial issue in the back of my head was the valet. How were they going to return 2,000 people’s cars? Would we be there all night? And, I somehow lost my claim ticket. I’ve never done that in my entire life. Now in the most complicated valet situation possible, I lost it. Like the rest of the evening, though, it worked out beautifully. I told the valet, “It’s a Range Rover with an American flag sticker,” and in five minutes, they found it. Now real life kicked back in. Monday is an Art Center day, so I needed to prepare for class. I, also, didn’t want to eat at 10:30 at night, so we all passed on going out for dinner. At home, I had a bowl of tuna fish and 3 pretzels. Glamorous.

Security, valets

The Golden Years

One of the perks of being a designer is seeing your work in action. Over the years, like most designers, I’ve launched many identity programs. Some have worked flawlessly, meeting guidelines, but maintaining a sense of play and creativity. Other programs have been like slowly tearing off a scab. Everything is approved and ready to launch, but other designers refuse to adopt it. But, as I paraphrase, resistance is futile. I’ve documented these logos and systems with nice photos of stationery systems, signage, collateral, and websites. For the most part I’ve always been pleased with the result.

About a week and a half ago, the Academy held the 82nd Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon.  No, I was not invited, because I’m not a nominee. Soon thereafter, photos of the event started arriving. This made it clear that a logo looks much better when it is behind Meryl Streep. I was thrilled that the mark was there, and even more excited that it was handled well. It wasn’t squeezed to fit in the space. Doyald Young’s beautiful script “The” was intact. Even the correct gold was in place. Now I learned that logos look much better when you put well-dressed movie stars near them.

What a difference Doyald makes

AMPAS® By-law booklet

Last Monday a student at Art Center asked me, “Sean, how do I know if this is good?” Of course, as a teacher, I responded, “If I do.” But we all know how hard it is to judge our own work. For most of us, every project could have used another five months to refine the typography or images. When we were asked to design the identity system for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences®, we were thrilled. This was one of those projects that were a perfect fit for our experience, interests, and professional sphere. My philosophy around identity is easy: keep it simple, no Scotty dogs that are also coffee mugs, and make it a strong foundation. The obvious answer for the AMPAS® logo is the statuette. I’m a simple person and I like obvious. Why do something unrelated when there are decades of equity built into the statuette’s form?

We went through the long and intensive process that every designer has been through. In the end, I was pleased with the final result: an icon for the statue and a clear wordmark. Then I gave it to the master, Doyald Young. I expected Doyald to clean up the forms and give it some refinement. But I was shocked when he sent back his version. I thought mine wasn’t half bad, but Doyald’s version sings. He took my clumsy steroid filled icon and turned it into an elegant and gracious form. The letterforms received the same finesse. To this day, Doyald will tell me with benevolence and kindness, “I just fixed some curves.” But I’m sure he ran choking to the bathroom when he first opened my logo file.  Doyald defines “gentleman” and “master.”

AMPAS® logo: Sean's clumsy version

AMPAS® logo: Doyald's beautiful version

The Academy Awards®: Doyald's elegant version

AMPAS® membership certificate design

AMPAS® stationery

Doyald's books: buy them.