Left of Center

margetlarsen

Many of you have written me and asked, "Sean, WTF? What happened to Burning Settlers Cabin?" The simple answer is that I have four jobs: AdamsMorioka, Art Center, AIGA, and Lynda.com. As you know, I was also in Berlin for three months for the Art Center TestLab. And, of course, I have a very busy routine hanging out at the country club drinking martinis, tennis lessons, and playing golf every afternoon. But now, I'm getting a handle on it all and back to bring optimism back to the world.

In between my freshman and sophomore year at college, I was asked to interview at Landor and Associates for an internship. The interview was remarkably humiliating. The first comment being, "Uh, you might want to consider cleaning up the rubber cement on your projects, and using something other than a chainsaw to trim them." The downside was no internship. The upside was a great lesson that my sloppy, messy CalArts portfolio wouldn't fly in the actual professional world.

In my head, I imagined all the work in San Francisco to be like the remarkable packaging Marget Larsen did there. Her projects for Joseph Magnin were light and playful and people coveted them. They have a tinge of counter-culture, Victorian eclecticism, and clear Modernism. Most importantly, they were fun. They didn't look constipated, uptight, and angry. It was clear that the designer enjoyed making them. Today, when every project is run through ten committees and budget is the highest concern, it is hard to imagine anyone giving the green-light to a box that turns into a Thonet chair or multi-colored set of game boxes. Larsen's work is ground-breaking and was widely imitated. She had the misfortune of working at a time when few women in the profession were recognized on a coast where only "far-out and wacky" work was produced.

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Yes, It Can Be This Good

This could be YOUR home

I've had many conversations with designers who want to start making products. "I was thinking it would be cool to make stationery and paper goods for people," is the most common concept. This sounds nice, but there really are too many stationery and paper goods things out there already. That doesn't mean we don't talk about it as well. I'm always up for diversification. My ideas tend to not go very far.

First, I wanted to open a brothel that was nicely designed. I imagined a "W" Hotel kind of brothel, not the kind in old mobile homes with flocked red wallpaper. As it turns out, this is illegal in California. And Noreen wasn't that keen on the concept.

Then I wanted to make a bar for alcoholics. It seems like total sobriety is rather severe, so why not make a bar where the drinks are super weak. You could have ten cocktails and still be fine. Also, we would make more money because the drinks were watered down. This idea didn't work either. I now know that you can't give alcoholics just a little drink.

Noreen solved the problem when she realized we had products already. Twenty years of posters that people buy from us already. We thought about making a section of our website a shop, but that's a lot of work. So we went to people who already know what they are doing and have great taste. Our friends, Doug Jaeger and Kristin Sloan have a fantastic online store. Now anyone can buy limited edition AdamsMorioka posters and wallpaper entire rooms. And it doesn't encourage alcoholism or prostitution.

 

Show your friends your fine taste

Kitchens should be cheerful

Variation is the spice of life

Poo Poo Platter

Let's Hula guide, 1956  

Several years ago I judged the ID Magazine Awards and Rick Valicenti entered his controversial piece, "Just My Type". This is an alphabet made from the interaction between Rick and an online porn actress. He suggests she make a letterform with her body, but she tries to maintain a scripted sexual role. Eventually both parties understand what needs to happen and an alphabet is made from her body positions. The piece caused a huge divide with the judges. The issue had more to do with the objectification and use of a woman rather than anything sexually explicit. I fought to include the piece because it forced a dialogue. And it was incredibly well made and thoughtful. Ten years later, it is the only project from that entire day of judging I remember.

As much as I would like to do a project that causes that level of controversy, I don't seem to have it in me. After Stefan Sagmeister sent us his first naked promotion card we considered doing a naked poster also. It worked for April Greiman and Stefan. But we could only think of taking it one step further and making something truly explicit and disgusting. But then we would need to face each other at work the next day. So that idea was out. Instead we stayed the course with a fresh sense of optimism. This seemed to piss people off already.

I've kept a hula dance guide for twenty years, thinking that someday I could make a hula girl typeface, like a watered down version of Rick's project. Unfortunately, there are not enough poses to do this. Nevertheless, the hula guide is a cherished possession. It makes hula dancing look so stiff and un-fun. There is a note that it should be used with "Hula Record's cassette #CHS-500." I sure wish I had that cassette. I hope it's as stiff as the guide, with someone barking orders over Aloha Oe, " Sway! Now! Like the ocean! STOP! Wave to the left!"

Let's Hula, Hula Records, Inc. 1956

Let's Hula, Hula Records, Inc. 1956

Come Fly with Me

Continental Airlines, Boeing 747, 1970s AA-747-vi

I've been away from the burning settlers for awhile doing my five other jobs. Some of you already know that I've signed on for a second term as President of AIGA. This time it's as a co-president with the very brave Drew Davies. I'm getting ready to film a new course I've written, Fundamentals of Layout, for Lynda.com. I'm teaching at Art Center. I'm doing Command X at the AIGA Head, Heart, Hand Conference. And, of course, still a partner at AdamsMorioka. In September, I'm heading to Berlin for three months and leading testlab Berlin. I always think I'm industrious, but I'm probably just frenetic.

When I decided to go to Berlin I immediately began to get quite nervous. Sure I'm nervous about moving to another country, learning German, and leading 12 incredible students. But, I was mostly concerned about the air travel. I'm not scared of flying. I'm scared of flying in coach.

I'm often told I live in a bubble, usually by people who don't know each other. It's not a compliment. It's usually followed by, "You make me sick." So it might be true.

My reasoning is this: I can't work in a little seat. I'm too tall. If I lose billable hours, I cost the firm money. If I fly in first class, I can work, so the ticket price usually matches my hours. See, it all makes sense.

Unfortunately, I'd really prefer to fly in first class on a 747 in 1975. I know everyone goes on and on about how air travel has become worse than the bus and people used to dress to travel. But when I see the photos of life on a 747 in the 1970s, it's looking pretty groovy. People seem more interested in lying around and having swinging singles parties or getting high on marijuana. I'm not into that kind of thing, but I would love to fly in an orange and rust cabin.

It's all too navy blue and grey now. Perhaps the reasoning is that passengers are more comfortable with a square and professional flight crew than one that looks like they are shooting a porn movie.

QANTAS71-20

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Wayne Thom 7208_0623_13_747_Interior

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AC 747 11

1970s aircraft interior

Treasures from the Great Northern Place

When Graphis did a story on us soon after we started the firm, we said, “We’re interested in making a good cake, not just nice icing.” Since we were both 29 years old and too cocky we thought this was incredibly clever. A few years later at a conference, a designer came up to me and said, “Yeah, I saw that article in Graphis. Everyone at my firm hates you. And you stole that quote from Burton Kramer.” Back then, I was still under the impression that I should remain polite and try to understand what was really driving this criticism. Now I would I simply say “Go to hell you mother@#$%ing mother@#$%er @#$%face.

 

In reality, Burton Kramer had said this in 1972. But, in my defense, I didn’t know this. I love Kramer’s work. Today, we get mired in post-modern analysis of irony, pastiche, and contradiction. Kramer’s solutions are so crystal clear and cutting. They are rational, perfect, simple, and elegant. But they are never cold, or without a sense of the human touch. The Canadian Broadcasting Company logo is complex and precise, but is optimistic and about infinite possibilities. Kramer’s identity programs are sublime. They are a testament to a time when designers had the time and skill to fine tune every tiny detail, as opposed to some of the slapdash icons created from a batch of Illustrator shapes. When I look through Kramer’s new book, I find the most difficult issues is to not inadvertently steal more of his wisdom.

The Slow Descent into Madness

I imagine being an interior designer is a hard job. So many people seem to have revolting taste. How do you tell a client that the orange deep shag carpeting and gold columns are tacky? As graphic designers, we face the same issue with typography. I’ve worked with clients who have the most beautifully designed offices, filled with Mies van der Rohe and Eames furniture. But, they invariably pull out a horrible piece of typography and suggest that for the logo. It isn’t the client’s fault; they don’t have the same OCD issues around a correct serif resolution that we do.

For my entire career, I’ve been a typographic purist. We managed to maintain with a handful of tried and true standards. We avoided trendy fonts and anything slightly degenerated or techno. In the past year, however, things have changed. We recently used ITC Avant Garde as a starting point on a wordmark. We re-purchased it, because I deleted it from every computer a decade ago. Last week, I designed a poster for our twentieth anniversary with ITC Bookman Swash Italic. What’s next, clown outfits for everyone at the studio? Linen paper?!

Once, when a client showed me a brochure with Avant Garde, I explained that this was the same as wall-to-wall green shag carpeting. Alternatively, Univers was a fine, tasteful, and well-made area rug. If I’ve accepted ITC Bookman, have I moved into liking Harvest Gold appliances? Is that so wrong? Perhaps the severity of my rules needs to be examined.

On Being Plain

Every once in awhile, I get a hankerin’ to be taken seriously. I’ll see a critical theory article that deconstructs one of my friends’ work and think, “Maybe I should be doing that kind of work.” Envy is a terrible and pointless emotion. But then, I remember our mission. When we started AdamsMorioka in 1993, we wanted to go the opposite direction. There was so much desperate work then that screamed, “I’m serious! I have no sense of humor. I am only intended to be understood by a select group of intellectual theorists.” I wanted to be the Beach Boys, not Bauhaus (the band), Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Karen FinleySteven Speilberg, not Luis Buñuel. This doesn’t mean I'm anti-intellectual, or don't admire artists who push limits. I love things that are way out of the park. And I refuse to deny anyone the right to create whatever they desire. So, what does this mean?

Ed Fella said it best when he called my work American Pragmatism. It’s about being plain spoken and honest, not fancy and oblique. Maybe it’s because I'm from the West and can’t think differently. I'm interested in speaking to the broadest audience possible, making life a little better for them, and treating every other designer with respect and dignity. I'm not interested in excluding or demonizing others because they do work unlike mine. Everyone deserves to be celebrated and revered.

Now the funny part of this is that we both came out of a deeply theoretical education at CalArts. I can subvert, deconstruct, and pastiche with the best of them, but I do it with stealth. As long as the form is seductive, appealing, and aesthetic, I can pour in as much meaningor contradiction as needed. But, I'm human. When someone at a conference says, “You’re so funny. Everything you do is so cute.” This feels minimizing and I’m tempted to do that oblique and complex poster in the nude that nobody understands. Then I remember why I like plain and honest, something that has optimism and joy. So I leave you with these sentiments:

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” — Will Rogers

 “The world belongs to you as much as the next fellow. Don’t give it up.” — Rodgers and Hammerstein

 “T-shirts, cut-offs, and a pair of thongs. We've been having fun all summer long.” — Beach Boys

 “ET phone home.” —Steven Spielberg

Art Direction

 

There is a rather severe difference of opinion about using a cliché in the design world. I like them. They are clichés because we all understand them. As long as the idea is presented in an unexpected way, it’s all good with me. An arrow is cliché. “Oh, Sean,” I’ve heard, “Arrows are so 20th-century.” But, why be oblique and complicated when it is so easy to point someone in the right direction?

Arrows are wonderful because they are symbols that command. The viewer is not being asked, “Would you prefer to turn right, perhaps?” An arrow screams, “TURN RIGHT! TURN NOW!” How many other symbols can do that? Lester Beall introduced me to the wonderful world of arrows. Not, Lester, personally, but through Lou Danziger’s vast historical knowledge. At a time when design was racing faster toward more is more with less and less clarity, the arrow was a revelation. The zeitgeist of that time was , "make less with more." I wanted to make more with less (follow me? More meaning, less stuff.). I could put an arrow on a poster next to a headline and the viewer would read this first. Who knew?

Unfortunately, arrows are a temptation. Like all wonderful things, too much is not good. Judicious usage is needed. As Groucho Marx said: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stolen Memories

Have you ever accidentally stolen something and felt like Lindsay Lohan or Winona Ryder? I’m not talking about jewelry, scarves, or children. This is about accidental design theft. It happens to everyone, myself included. I’ll finish a project, be quite pleased with it, and then months or years later find the original inspiration. Usually it’s a piece of design that I love, but have filed somewhere in my brain. My unconscious mind must be saying, “Remember that Alvin Lustig poster? Steal that.” Consciously, I simply presume I had a wonderful idea.

When a friend sends me an example of how they were ripped off, I usually tell them “Imitation is the best compliment.” Sometimes it’s obvious, a poster for an event in Alabama looks exactly like one by Marian Bantjes. Or, a student designs a poster for Vertigo and gives me Saul Bass’s poster. On my way to work, I pass a billboard for the band XX’s new album Coexist. It is remarkably similar to a poster we designed for the AIGA Capital Campaign in 1999. Now, I know an “X” is an “X”, and claiming I was copied is like claiming I own the golden section. I’ve decided to use it as an affirmation, that 13 years later, the original poster is super groovy.

 

American Psycho

When I decided to go to CalArts, my mother said, “Well, once you’re eighteen, you’re on your own.” I’m not sure if my parents lack of interest or support was due to my choice of school, art school over Harvard, or because they were too busy arguing to notice. They seemed confused about my college until I graduated, telling friends I was at CalTech. The upside of this was absolutely no interference with any of my own decisions. The downside was the financial responsibility to pay for college on my own.

I hate that some of my students now have similar financial struggles. This is the time they should be free to focus on becoming the best possible designer and finding their own distinct voice. I do what I can personally with the scholarship fund but this can’t solve someone’s entire college expenses. When Moo.com asked me to design a set of business cards, I was interested. They are the best quality, printed on beautiful Mohawk Superfine paper. When they told me I could dedicate the Art Center Scholarship Fund as my charity, I was thrilled.

Now, this is one of those classic “do whatever you want” assignments. These sound great, but lead to sitting at my desk staring at a blank pad of paper. So, I thought about cards I want. First, I’d love a set of nautical themed cards, and a set of vibrant patterns and color, then, disturbingly, a set of really depressing places. The nautical and pattern cards are perfectly logical. Who doesn't want nautical business cards, or bright and cheerful color and pattern.

I admit the depressing cards are odd. But I love the idea of shaking someone's hand, smiling and handing out a business card with an image of a place of despair. These are the spaces where people gave up. They stopped trying. They are about lethargy and exhaustion, places where all else failed. What could be more fun?

To paraphrase Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, "I don't ask for much." Now I'm asking that everyone spread the word, order some cards, look better when trading business cards, but most importantly, help a young designer as they struggle financially.

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

The Goodness of Nothing

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.

When we worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, we built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s 1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Doyle Dane Bernbach’s 1964 campaign for Jamaica, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

Dizzy in Toronto

 

I was going through some old images in the archives, and came across a piece I had forgotten entirely. It is a booklet for a lecture I gave in Toronto over a decade ago. On this trip, I managed to land in Toronto feeling sick. It wasn’t Toronto that caused the sickness, but probably by touching something a sick child had touched. There is nothing worse than being ill away from home except being ill, away from home, and scheduled to speak.

I managed to do the lecture without passing out. I was convinced I would recreate the Janet Reno passing out on stage, or the President Bush (1) throwing up on-stage in Japan episodes. But I held onto the podium as I spoke and maintained my composure.

My great friend, Diti Katona, who is the most amazing designer, was incredibly kind to me, making sure I was okay and taking me to the airport. I didn’t want to pass out at the airport. I have no idea what happens if you have insurance in the United States, but are in Canada with socialized medicine. So I refused to sit down, and continued walking around the terminal for an hour and a half before my flight. Security looked at me oddly after I passed the same guard 5 times. Oddly, I felt fine by the time we landed and decided it was just stage fright. Which is weird because I could care less normally and will shove someone else aside to get on stage.

Simpletons

 

When Noreen and I first started AdamsMorioka, the design du jour was busy, layered, and busier. If a poster didn’t have 32 layers, 8 spot colors, 4 varnishes and some type that had been run through a copier 10 times, it couldn’t be serious design. But, since I can’t think that much, we made posters in 2 colors with no layers and easy to read Franklin Gothic. You can imagine the love that we received for this. I recall meeting a well-known designer famous for this type of complex work who refused to shake my hand. Jeez, you’d think we were kidnapping and drowning kittens.

Fortunately, we had some champions who made up for the angry stares. Our great friend, Alexander Gelman, was one of the first designers we met who shared our idea. Gelman takes simplicity and minimalism to its most extreme place. The result is work that is aggressive and almost assaulting in its clarity. Simple does not mean dull or conservative. When I need to make this argument clear, I point to Gelman’s work.

He’s just as direct in person. One year, we all went to the Sundance Film Festival together. A particularly annoying person in our group would not shut up. All day and night she told us what to do, what to see, where to park, and what was good and bad. Finally, Gelman simply said, “No. You are wrong.” This worked; she stopped shouting commands at us. As you see, simplicity in design is good, and simplicity in language is better.

Bless the Beasts and the Children

People always tell me how funny kids are, “Oh, Jane said the funniest thing last night,” or, “You should have heard him explain how the solar system works. It was so cute.” But I find children to be rather poor at storytelling. I typically get this story, “… and then I put my left sock on…” My grandmother would stop us when we were telling her stories and say, “This is boring.” We learned to plan a conversation with her and avoid stories about outfit options.

One thing I’ve learned is that the most talented people have the best stories and information. Michael Bierut always has something interesting. Michael Vanderbyl has hilarious stories. Marian Bantjes has a wealth of information about subjects I never considered. For example, Marian knows what to call any group of animal. I would say, “Hey, dude, check out that bunch of zebras.” Marian knows this is not a “bunch”, but a dazzle of zebra.

Last week, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation held their annual gala in Washington D.C. We designed a poster for the gala as a tool for children and members of the United States Congress to learn animal group names. Obviously, the actual goal is to raise awareness for the ICCF’s mission to promote the projection of U.S. leadership for international conservation worldwide. It was an honor to have this opportunity, and I know Marian will be proud that I know this information now.

The Red and the Black

People often ask me, “Sean, what’s the secret with this whole graphic design thing?” Of course, there is no secret. Or if there is, nobody told me. I can say, however, that a big rule for me is contrast. There is no such thing as too bright, or too much contrast in design. I’m not big on de-saturated colors and soft contrast. Design should be bold. There’s an old saying about teaching a donkey. First you smack it in the head with a two by four, and then give it the message. Now, clearly, I don’t advocate donkey cruelty. But, design is the same. First, get the audience’s attention. Then tell them the story.

Red, white, and black are good choices for contrast and bold statements. I’ve used this combination many times and quite enjoyed it. The danger is looking like a Nazi. The Nazis were rather keen on black and red, so you need to be careful to not appear to be a Facist. Using a little bit of red and a little bit of black isn’t the same thing. Remember: donkey, two-by-four, and big.

In a Landscape

We’ve discussed my musical taste here previously. It’s exactly what would be expected: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and American patriotic music. Fly Me to The Moon is fine at the office, but I’ve been discouraged from playing John Philip Sousa’s version of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Years ago, when we worked with MTV, I had to nod and pretend I knew who everyone was discussing. Fortunately, Noreen is hip, so she could explain it to me.

There was one music related project, however, that I understood. The Getty Research Institute exhibited a collection of musical notations in 1995. We designed the catalogue. I paid attention in college when experimental twentieth century music was discussed. So I could grasp the idea. Experimental music requires a different type of language to be played correctly. Musical graphic notation allowed for symbols and other forms to convey the information as to how the piece should be played. In some instance, the idea of chance is included with the usage of materials such as multiple layers of acetate.

I may not recognize Nicki Minaj when she is standing in line with me at LAX (I just thought this woman in front of me was oddly overdressed), but I can tell you how the I Ching is an influencer in John Cage’s music.

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.