Graphic Designer Basics

Designers 1

On Thursday night, I spoke at an AIGA event in San Diego. Several people asked me the question, "Where can I look to find examples of great design?" and "Is there a resource for finding all of the industry's history?" The first step is to get a good graphic design history book such as A History of Graphic Design 3rd Edition by Philip B. Meggs.

Then, I suggest, the medalist page, and this site Also look at my In course Graphic Design History. These are a good introduction to learn about individual designers who had an impact.

Next, after finding someone interesting, dig in. Research everywhere and find out more than anyone else knows. I do that every time I find a piece I love.

Here, then is the first of several (meaning more to come) lists of designers everyone should know and explore (not in a dirty way). I'm keeping these (mostly) to dead people for now, so the living won't be up in arms about inclusion. Most of these are covered in other Burning Settlers Cabin posts, just search (on the left).

Saul Bass


Herbert Bayer


Lester Beall


Lucian Bernhard


A.M. Cassandre


Tibor Kalman


Marget Larsen


Herb Lubalin


Alvin Lustig


Herbert Matter


Reid Miles


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy


Victor Moscoso/Fillmore Posters


Cipe Pineles


Paul Rand


Deborah Sussman


Bradbury Thompson


Jan Tschichold


Massimo and Leila Vignelli


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.


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.

Forbidden Love

Call me out of touch, but I love books. I recall being told in college to "spend money on books, not pot." Unfortunately, I was spending money on Top Ramen, not books nor pot. I'm not a book snob. I'm thrilled to find a copy of Tidewater Virginia as well as a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. While I spend many hours showing Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig jackets, I have a secret love for the jackets of the unknown. With titles such as Saphira and the Slave Girl, which sounds faintly lesbian-esque, how can you go wrong?

The New York Public Library has a remarkable digital collection of book jackets from 1926-1947. These aren't chosen by a select group of designers for high design aesthetic value. Research Libraries typically remove dust jackets and discard them before shelving the books. From 1926-1947 anonymous librarians collected and saved jackets they found interesting. They range from unbelievably wonderful, Greatest Show on Earth, to the odd, Less Eminent Victorians. As a collection, the design trends and resources become clear. The lack of color during the World War II period is obvious. The minimal usage of photography shows, not a preference for illustration, but the issues with printing technologies at the time. As it was common for an illustrator to be hired to draw the cover jacket, much of the typography is hand-lettered in wonderful ways.

The books here have a subtext of personal care. Someone handled this artifact, chose the cover, and carefully stored it in a scrapbook. Perhaps it's because my grandfather had a wonderful library, and my grandmother was never without a book, but these books all seem to have been loved.

Shown here is the first of a series on this subject. The book jackets images include the spine.

No Splashing. No!

Somehow by attrition, I have become the “go to” designer when color is involved. This amazes me because my color theory is pretty simple: everything works with everything. Just don’t be wimpy. I love hateful combinations such as almond, maroon, and teal. I’d make every project avocado, burnt orange, butter yellow, baby blue, and magenta if I could. But, oddly, I love black and white. It’s the color combination used the least. Everyone assumes it’s ubiquitous, so everything is full of color. When was the last time you saw a stark black and white ad, billboard, or television commercial? Color is an evil temptress; we attempt restrain, but are lured with the promise of excitement. Be brave. Try black and white. This isn’t black and white with a splash of orange. No. No splash. You must deny any additional color.

The Rape of the Northland

I was once asked after a lecture, “How do you respond to the accusation that you are mining the past?” I should have talked about appropriation, pastiche, nostalgia, and using familiar forms to create a sense of reassurance. But did I? No, of course not. I said quickly, “Mining the past? I’d say raping the past.” This is one more example of my nitwittiness adding to the sense that we are shallow and stupid people spending their days surfing.

Years ago, we designed the signage program for all Old Navy stores. I was especially happy with the primary directional signage for the flagship stores. The sign was made with interchangeable disks that could be rearranged by a store manager. There was concern that children might try to climb it, but my idea of adding barbed wire fencing around it was dismissed.

Then I found an example of Alvin Lustig’s exhibition for American Crayon at the Aspen Design Conference. Damn that Alvin Lustig, he beat me to the lollipop idea. Lutsig’s environmental work is light and delicate. The signage for Northland Shopping Center is one of my favorite programs. Why don’t shopping centers still look like this? The signs are fresh, optimistic, and functional. They use three-dimensional space structurally. And they are not garish, desperately screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” Now I need to be careful not to design a sign that has an asterisk symbol on the top of the poles. Wait, I think I have.

The Circus is a Wacky Place

As a design student, I was repeatedly told to study Polish poster art. This was in response to my work that was deemed, “too tasty, too polite.” I spent hours looking at these posters and..., nothing. They made no sense to me, and I could not understand what they meant, how they arrived at this odd aesthetic, or what they had to do with my work. Today, I realize the value of these posters. They transcend the expected. They follow an aesthetic that is fearless and non-traditional. And they allow for gesture and passion.

Now I find myself suggesting the same thing to my students. My students come back and say, “Professor Adams, I don’t understand what they have to do with my work.”  To which I say, "Look at them again."

The CYRK (circus) posters were designed during the golden age of polish posters, from 1962 to 1989. The state commissioned these posters to promote a new, modern circus. The designers followed this assignment with non-literal, suggestive forms. Often, these contained hidden anti-Soviet and anti-Communism symbols.

In all honesty, they still mystify me. I can imagine how Josef Muller-Brockmann designed a poster, or Alvin Lustig, or even Yusaku Kamekura. They are beautiful and mysterious, but are from a culture so far removed from my reality, that Martians might have designed them.


from the Lou Danziger Collection

Wiktor Gorka, 1967

Mash-up o' Crap

I have a big plastic bin labeled “Favorite Things”. This bin is filled with; you guessed it, our favorite things. Every few months I go through the bin and weed out the garbage. It seems that the Favorite Things bin can become a dumping ground for any item that has no home. If you came into the office and found the bin, you would probably say, “Whoa, what a bunch of crap.” I imagine Michael Bierut’s Favorite Things bin filled with beautiful items designed by Massimo Vignelli, Paula Scher, and Woody Pirtle. Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand’s box has rare books by Paul Klee, Alvin Lustig, and Paul Rand. Michael Vanderbyl must have a box filled with a magnificent collection of classic black and white photography.

Our bin, as you can imagine, is filled with Dixie Cups, a piece of wallpaper with a repeat pattern of antique cars, 1972 maps of Berlin from a European Bus company, and other worthless artifacts. Today, I will begin the slow reveal of the items. Today’s mash-up of crap is a 1964 travel pack of Kleenex Tissues, a Technicolor brand envelope, a lovely package of napkin/guest towels, and a Dinah’s Fried Chicken menu. Don’t say you can’t find the height of western culture here at the cabin.

Begin at the Beginning

There are a few projects that I regret not doing. The first was the Avalon Hotel, here in Beverly Hills. It was a perfect job for us: mid-century Alvin Lustig tiles, incredible building, beautiful redesign by Koning Eizenberg, and just a few blocks from the office. But, alas, it was not to be. The project went elsewhere, and as is typical, the final result was pretty darned good. I also was desperate to design a little book on “first lines,” when I was working at The New York Public Library. Again, the project was designed by my friend Donna Moll, who did a far better job than I would have. So the lesson here is to be glad that some projects get away, as long as they go to someone good. Or, if you don’t like the choice of a different designer, well accidents happen everyday.

The Know These Lines booklet that Donna designed is a gem. The design is subtle and incredibly crafted, and fits the subject matter flawlessly. The content is fantastic. The idea is to read the first sentence of a famous book, and answer its origin. For example, “Call me Ishmael.” is the first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. However, like the New York Times crossword, the choices become more difficult. If you have the kind of parties where people in worn out, but well made suits (men and women) get angry over a discussion about modernism and Virginia Woolf this is a perfect game for you. One caveat, however, like most things in life this game is better after cocktails.

The Sweetest Things in Life

Alvin Lustig made some purty nifty design. Often when a print designer turns to environmental work, the result is flat designs on a wall. Lustig’s collaboration with Victor Gruen for Barton’s Barton's Bonbonniere is a great example of his talent in spatial thinking. His solution is energetic, playful and takes advantage of the 3 dimensions from the ceiling to the floor. I can’t say I’d like to live there; it might drive me to drink. But what doesn’t?

I have friends from Brooklyn who remember Barton's Bonbonniere as a place to visit on special occasions. Viennese immigrant Stephen Klein established Barton’s in 1938. In the 1950s, Barton's had three kosher candy production plants in Brooklyn. Barton's was particularly known in the Jewish community for being "the" Passover chocolate of choice. In the 1960s, the Klein family sold the business.  Barton’s name was used by several parent companies until it was discontinued in 2009. I don't like candy, or chocolate, but I don't like that I can't visit Barton's Bonbonniere


This morning during an interview, I was asked, “Where do you find inspiration?” This is a common question, and I understand the curiosity, but it’s complicated. Like every other creative person, I’m inspired by a million tiny details every day. I know the correct answer is, “Well, I just can’t get enough of Alvin Lustig.” That doesn’t work for me. Not that I don’t love Lustig, but there are too many other influences daily.

My mind works much like the dog in Up. I’ll be choosing blue Pantone colors and then, “Squirrel,” I’m doing something else. Today while looking at blue PMS chips, I thought, “Blue Note,” and found myself reading the Blue Note Album Cover Art book. I’d forgotten how truly incredible every cover is. Reid Miles was the in-house designer at Blue Note and designed most of the covers. From 1955 to 1967, he combined minimal abstract forms with an intense color sensibility. While Miles is often associated with Bauhaus rigor, his covers are more closely related to Color Field and Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. I often tell people that “cool” is a terrible trap leading to desperate work and endless suffering. I admit, however, that Miles’ covers are cool—the good kind of cool.


Who doesn’t love the title sequence from Mister Magoo? Little did we know as small children we were watching the work of design hero Alvin Lustig. For those living under a rock, Mister Magoo was a television cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus (Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island).  The cartoon followed the practically blind Magoo’s misadventures. Obviously many a hi-jinx occurred with driving and cases of mistaken identity. United Productions of America, UPA, produced Mr. Magoo. Lustig designed their logo also. My favorite moment: the roller coaster near miss. I suggest we stop yelling, “mother@#%*!^,” and yell “Road hog,” when someone cuts you off. Or at least, I should.


God bless Lou Danziger

Fortune magazine cover

A few weeks ago, Lou Danziger called and told us he was willing to part with his history slide library. Noreen immediately took him up on the offer and drove to his house to retrieve the treasure. I’d seen these slides before. Many, many, many years ago I was in Lou Danziger’s history of design class. This class was after lunch in a dark, warm room. Clearly, set up for sleeping. Now I wasn’t a kiss-ass (well, sort of), but I sat next to Lou and the old slide projector and was riveted. I remember the Lou’s description of the compositional structure of a Jules Chéret poster, and the ambiguity of color of a Josef Müller-Brockmann piece, but I was especially drawn to Alvin Lustig.

There was something tragic about his short life. He went blind from diabetes, insisted on continuing to design, and died at forty. His work is sublime. As usual, Steven Heller is the authority on Lustig, and his article “Born Modern” is an insightful and comprehensive analysis. I continue to be inspired by Lustig’s book covers. Including many of his pieces, I use the cover for Lorca’s 3 Tragedies as an example of juxtaposition in my class at Art Center. I like to think that this is a tribute, teaching at the same place he studied and lectured, and using his work as the highest example of an idea.

Fortune magazine cover

Alvin Lustig book covers

Camino Real book cover

3 Tragedies book cover

UPA logos

3 Wagons Full of Cotton book cover

Industrial Design magazine cover


How to be a Good Designer

History of Electricity cover

Years ago, Lorraine Wild showed me a publication that Eric Nitsche had designed for General Dynamics and it changed the way I look at design. Nitsche had been a hero of mine for years. I tend to like the designers who aren’t the huge names, but do great work just under the radar, like Alvin Lustig, or Lester Beall. Am I self aware? Probably not. Steven Heller wrote a wonderful essay about Nitsche in 1999. Nitsche is not the rock star like his contemporaries, Paul Rand, or Saul Bass, but he is remarkable. His simple modernist aesthetic combines a scientific rigor and precision with an emotional fluidness. That’s not easy.  Michael Bierut says, “Design is 90% persuasion.” (Michael forgive me if I have the percentage wrong, its' not that I don't try hard, it's that I'm stupid). How Nitsche convinced his clients to give him enormous amounts of real estate on a page for nothing is genius. When I showed one of his spreads from a General Dynamics project to Chris and Monica in my office, they both said, “Yeah right. A client would demand that you make the image bigger, or add a few paragraphs.” We’ve religiously collected Nitsche’s books, and I’ve been warned by my staff to not share this secret. But I am convinced that we all need as much inspiration as possible these days. Does that sound political? Sorry, it’s in my DNA.

April issue of Gebrauchsgraphik, 1956

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

History of Transportation, cover

Advertisement, general Dynamics

postcard, General Dynamics

Annual Report, General Dynamics, spread

General Dynamics, Convair 800 advertisement