From the Ashes of History

wALT Five, Design: Sean Adams and Peter Grant, 1984

I found this issue while cleaning the bookcase. wALT was the student publication at CalArts in the 1980s. It included contributions from students in all majors including essays, poetry, and visual arts. Peter Grant and I designed this issue using the Macintosh 128K that Apple recently sent to the department. It was the one that required a floppy disk to run and had limited software such as MacPaint and MacWrite. There was no scanner. Apple included a set of typefaces named after cities, such as Monaco, Geneva, Chicago, and San Francisco. The typeface New York was the stand-in for Times Roman (but I called it Times Roman because I could).

To produce the publication, we set the Times Roman on the Mac and printed out “galleys” on the low resolution image-writer (no Laser-writer yet). We set the headlines in Gill Sans, a typeface on the Mergenthaler VIP typesetting machine. The whole thing was pasted-up as mechanicals and sent to the printer (see video below). We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a first step toward digital design production. It was a wacky hybrid that required endless typing and rubber cement. But it was fun.

Apple Macintosh 128K, 1984

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Trademark Secrets

Identity design is not easy. Sure you can slam a couple of shapes together and call them a logo. But the core of the issue is perception and building a foundation. Over the last 20 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve been called in repeatedly to take on an identity project after another firm has failed. When I’ve asked to see what didn’t work, I’m given a pile of 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper, each one with a different logo idea. Whether or not any of these were great or awful isn’t relevant. The error was presenting like a smorgasbord of stylistic options.

First, no logo ever lives in a void. Showing a mark on an empty page is deceiving. It will never appear in this setting. Second, persuasion and consensus building is a large part of the job. We take for granted that a client knows all that we know. But they don’t. They only know what they’ve seen already. And they’ve been conditioned to think a logo is a wackadoodle illustration that demonstrates their product. Logos identify, they do not describe. If Apple had made a logo that looked like the first Macintosh, they could never create iTunes, or an iPhone.

Saul Bass told me to never speak about design to a client. He didn’t mean stonewall them when they ask about a typeface or color. The idea is to talk in a language they understand and give them reasons beyond simple aesthetics for your choices.

This is probably stupid of me, and I’m revealing some of our inner processes. But if this process helps another designer solve a problem, we all look better. When we present identities, we walk the client through each step and explain in simple English why we make certain choices. This allows the client to participate in the process and eliminates the perception that designers are just goofballs making pretty shapes. It also creates a document that can speak for itself. So, below, find a typical document we create to present an identity.




The Ballad of the Boring Logo


I prefer to not use this blog as a ranting venue; it is, after all about optimism. But, I really, really, really hate when my students refuse to take risks. It’s my job to help educate designers who can question the obvious, look at the larger picture, and challenge those ideas that exist only out of habit. If they can’t do that, they are doomed to a life of being “layout monkeys,” politely arranging type and images into a nice composition.

Lately, I’ve found this issue to be especially true in my trans-media branding class at Art Center. Perhaps it’s because branding has been elevated into some kind of nightmarish and unforgiving religion. “Branding is sacred.” “Bad branding will lead to the downfall of western civilization” “A logo is more important that the product, customer service, distribution, or financial issues—it is the center of an organization.” Of course, this is all hogwash. A logo is important, but it’s more like a great suit. It’ll make you look good and present a better image to the world, but it doesn’t turn you into a better person.

When I hear someone say, “But a logo can’t be like that,” I say, “why not?” If there is a good reason and it works, it can be anything you can create. We all have an image in our heads of a good logo such as the CBS eye and the Apple apple. They are successful and elegant. But there are other ways to create identity. When I look at these 18th and 19th century marks, I am reminded that branding exists to identify a products origin and ownership, not change a company’s banking options. Let me assure those who are fearful. God is not watching you, planning to punish you for a choice that is unorthodox.

Swiss, 19th century, Tobacco mark

C'est le ton qui fait la musique

For those of you too young to remember life before iPhoto and the picture books, there once was a time photographs were physical objects, and went into a shoebox. If you wanted to make a book for your friends, you needed to stick the photos into ugly Holly Hobbie “photo-books” with plastic and waxy boards. Of course, now we can simply order a book of our personal images from Apple and, except for the “crayon” theme, make something tasteful.

One of my favorite publications is Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet. For years, Brodovitch took snapshots at the ballet. He didn’t hire Richard Avedon to shoot them. He didn’t use a flash or worry about perfect lighting. The result is often a blur of motion and light. In 1945, this was not “real” photography. Using the standards of the time, these are simply amateur snapshots. Fortunately, this rigid definition didn’t deter Brodovitch. The blurred motion and full bleed images create the sensation of the ballet, as opposed to simply documenting it. The ornamental typography doesn’t attempt to be international style, modernist, or “high-design”. It is exuberantly about the ballet.

As I’ve said before, I truly admire work that has the courage to be about joy and delight. Ballet is a masterpiece. While we look at the book now as “high design,” it is, in fact, about something frivolous and transitory. But, aren’t those the things in life that are the most wonderful?

The Road Less Travelled

Disneyland WEDway Peoplemover, 1967

I went to the Apple store last weekend to get a new iPhone. When Alex, my helpful sales guy, was doing the transfer, he noticed my phone screen-saver. It’s geeky, but I have an image of the Peoplemover at Disneyland. Alex, who was young and groovy, said he loved the Peoplemover and wished it were still there. This is a sentiment I hear all the time. The Peoplemover was a fine piece of design, functionally and aesthetically. The cabs were just the right size, the materials were durable, and the color palette was wonderfully slightly shifted from primary colors.

The Peoplemover opened with the Tomorrowland redesign in 1967. This version of Tomorrowland was the bight future, gleaming white, a world on the move. When Tomorrowland was refurbished in 1998, Rocket Rods replaced the beloved Peoplemover. Since Rocket Rods was retired in 2000, the tracks have sat empty.

When friends back east hear that I have a Disneyland Annual Passport, they are mystified. “What do you do there? Do you go on all the attractions?” they ask. Of course I don’t. Like every other Southern California resident, I use my passport to have lunch, sit on a bench, and walk around the Park. If I go on an attraction, it’s the slow ones: Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain Riverboat, maybe Pirates. The Peoplemover was a favorite slow attraction. It was wonderful to leisurely tour Tomorrowland and yell at guests from above. Noreen always had good advice for the guests walking below us. She would yell at them, “No matching outfits!” or “No running! Slow down Sir!” or “No holding hands. No touching.” Perhaps this is the real reason for the Peoplemover’s retirement.