Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead!

Last Friday night, I was awarded the AIGA Medal at the AIGA Centennial Gala. As Nancye Green said after the first AIGA gala, "This is like the best high school reunion with everyone you've ever known." It was the most successful gala in AIGA's history and proves that we still care about design and designers above all else.

Michael Bierut summed up the essence of the evening by pointing out that almost every Medalist talked about someone in the room who gave them his or her first job, or someone in the room they had hired. That AIGA is about our community was made exceptionally clear at this event. There was no mean-spiritedness, envious disregard, or minimizing of another designer. Nobody had the attitude that success was finite and another's meant less for them. There was an honest sense of pride and pleasure for everyone's successes. We may think, as designers, we are competitive and cut-throat, but compared to other professions, we're pussycats and pretty damned supportive of each other.

There's been a huge amount of discourse over AIGA's direction over the last year. Last term, a student in an Art Center class asked me why there was so much arguing. But this isn't arguing. It's discourse. It's what happens when people are deeply committed and passionate. It's what every organization hopes to have. The opposite is a listless disengaged community. We have emerged from a major shift in AIGA's history that will lead to decades of stability and vitality.

As designers, we all have the predilection to critique and analyze. We may have various opinions on the day to day issues of the community, but it was clear at the gala that, in the end, we are all working to the same goal.

As I was sitting there, watching the other Medalists accept their award, I found myself feeling that sensation we all share; seeing something wonderful and having that contradictory sensation of the joy of discovery and that twinge of envy that someone else made it. I tend to use one too many sailing metaphors, but in this instance, going forward, I can only think of Franklin Roosevelt's quote, “To reach a port we must set sail. Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.”

Angela Jimenez Photography:

Color Me Mad

I believe I’ve found the root of one of my issues. Yes, it’s the bad taste in color issue. I wish I could be like Michael Bierut, or Chip Kidd, or Dana Arnett, and work with sophisticated and elegant tones. It’s always my goal, but as many of you have noticed, the train always derails and I end up with violet and fuchsia. Why is this? What has driven me to this aberration? My parents had flawless good taste in color. Navy blue and beige were acceptable, pink was okay during the summer, but only tasteless people wore turquoise or purple. My grandparents had a thing for red, white, and blue during the bicentennial, but then it was back to off-white.

The answer is On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s credit sequence. I saw this when I was six. Isn’t that the age when individuals begin to form creatively? If you want to mess someone up big time, don’t you begin locking him or her in closets at five or six? The credits are clearly (no pun intended) designed to impart the idea of infinity. Let’s look at the facts, though. It’s 1970. Most of the audience was probably on some kind of dope. This was a psychedelic trip visual. And I sat there, soaking up the garish combinations. Now I am ruined, unable to maintain a desire for beige or taupe.

Note: bypass the singing and jump to 1:30. This is where Barbra Streisand begins to fly like the Flying Nun and the drug induced graphics begin.

Shout how-now to Mrs O'Leary's cow

Chicago is one of my favorite cities. Beside the great food, friendly people, and wonderful neighborhoods, several of my favorite people live there. Greg and Pat Samata, Dana Arnett, Jamie Koval, Bart Crosby, and Ric Valicenti are designers I deeply admire, and who are just plain fun to hang with. I assume it’s a Chicago thing that eliminates any snotty, diva-like behavior, and creates good down to earth attitudes.

Each year, Greg and Pat present the Cusp Conference. Cusp isn’t a design conference. It’s about big ideas. It’s been described as, “inspirational, funny, thought-provoking, eye-opening, informative, inspirational, fascinating, humbling, soothing, shocking, awesome, inspirational, unbelievable, wise, touching, smart, healthy, honest, confusing, inspirational, affirming, creative and just friggin' amazing.”

Last year, Greg invited me to talk about whatever I wanted. I’d been on the road speaking about AdamsMorioka and our ideas for so long I wanted to do something different. A couple of months before, TypeCon asked me to speak about the typography of Disneyland. I had a great time pulling this together and it was extremely well received at TypeCon. So I expanded on the idea and told Greg I wanted to talk about design at Disneyland through an optimistic lens. So far so good.

I’ve been speaking publicly for 20 years. I think I have a pretty good grasp of what an audience will respond to. Sometimes I get it wrong. When I spoke in Norfolk for AIGA Hampton Roads in Virginia, I started by talking about my family’s Virginian roots, and put up a list of family names in case anyone in the audience was a cousin. I didn’t realize the family names were the same as the street names in Norfolk. So it came off as, “Hi, I’m fancy. I’m from Beverly Hills. I go to the Academy Awards. My family is fancy. You’re not.” This was not my intention. I’m actually kind of a goof ball.

The Cusp Disneyland Design lecture wasn’t received as well as the TypeCon lecture. Now there could be several reasons why: it is a dumb lecture, I’m dumb, I came off as smug, or I looked fat. But, I had a wonderful time doing it. I had time to see Pat and Greg, and had a great lunch with Greg and Ricky Wurman. And I went to Chicago.

The Customs Of The Barbarous And Civilized

I planned on taking photos of the good and awful outfits at the AIGA Bright Lights event. But, then I was sidetracked by the sight of the bar. Clearly, my drinking is getting in the way of my fashion photo-journalism (is that an oxymoron?). What I need is another person who follows me around and takes photos while I'm busy spilling cocktails on someone.

This year, the event called for cocktail attire, as opposed to black tie. Personally, I prefer the black tie option. It's nice to show respect for the Medalists who are honored for a lifetime of work. This year, however, I was relieved to not wear the tuxedo. When I tried it on for another event, it was like putting on a child's suit. I must have been ten pounds lighter when I bought it. I guess those Sunny Von Bulow dinners of martinis and ice cream sundaes were a bad idea. I was confused about the "cocktail attire" idea. Was this what I wear at home at cocktail hour? Pajamas? Fortunately, Michael Vanderbyl, the best dressed man in design, gave me the low-down. The other guests ranged from elegant and gorgeous, like Pam Williams, to clownish. Sorry, I won't name those people. I still need to work in this profession. But look for the tell all book ten years down the line.

 

Just Say No to Snarky

Last week I went to Chicago to speak at the Cusp Conference. Pat and Greg Samata, Dave Mason, and Kevin Krueger of smbolic are the organizers and couldn’t have been more gracious, or accommodating. I’ve known Pat and Greg for 15 years and they have always been a huge inspiration to me. Some of the presenters made me rethink some basic issues. It was an amazing experience.

During a break, I sat down with a well-known character in the design world (to be named when I write the book, when I’m old). For 15 minutes, he told me about his enormous success, invention of everything, and impatience with everyone else in the world. He said nothing positive about anything else. He finished with a fine story about slamming other speakers at a different conference.

Now, I may be old fashioned, but I’ve spent a career with designers who embody generosity. From Saul Bass, Michael Vanderbyl, Paula Scher, Dana Arnett, Michael Bierut, Jennifer Morla, and a long, long list (also to be included in the book), the example has always been to give back, reinforce others and be kind. I think the days of unkind and snarky designers are over. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, “whenever we tear at the fabric of the lives which another designer has painfully and clumsily woven for himself, whenever we do this, then the whole profession is degraded.” I would propose that the next time another designer is patronizing or unkind to you, you say this, “You sir, are no gentleman,” unless it’s a woman, in which case, “You, madam, are no lady.” You may slap them with your gloves, if you are inclined to a duel. Unless it’s me, then remember I’m easily confused.

The grass is always greener

William Christian Bullitt, Paris 1939

This last year has been a hard one for everyone. It’s easy to think that the next guy has it better. Michael Bierut never has to get work and solves problems instantly, Dana Arnett has no worries, Marian Bantjes is sitting calmly at her studio in the woods or feeding the happy woodland creatures, Sean Adams is listening to the Beach Boys and driving around Beverly Hills. But like everyone else, they and I still pump gas, pay bills, load the dishwasher, and worry. I tend to think the same thing about previous generations of my family. They seemed to spend time touring Europe, leisurely riding through the countryside, and occasionally running for office. My grandmother’s cousin Bill (William C. Bullitt) was one of these people. I have photos of him looking dapper and sophisticated. He, seemingly, led a charmed life of privilege.

I recently finished a book, So Close To Greatness, about Bill Bullitt and his life was far from charmed. Like all of us, he worked hard for his beliefs, juggled a career and family, and wanted respect from his peers. He was born in Philadelphia in 1891 to the Philadelphia arm of the family. He went to Yale and Harvard Law. He served President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. He was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then France, and was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle. This would all appear, on paper, to be charmed. But, life wasn’t that easy.

Bill Bullitt’s second wife was Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds), widow of the radical communist, Jack Reed. Bullitt and Bryant lived in Paris and were part of the ex-pat community of the 1920s. Once again, on paper, this was a golden time. But Louise slowly went mad, became an alcoholic, enjoyed entering dinner parties in the nude, and they were divorced. The invasion of the German army ended Bullitt’s service as the ambassador to France. After his return to the United States, he lobbied to be part of Roosevelt’s cabinet. A mislaid plan to expose Secretary of State Sumner Welles’ predilection for Pullman porters ended his friendship with Roosevelt and ended his political career.

However, throughout all of these trials, Bullitt remained gracious and elegant. His response to the invasion of the German army was to order all good champagne and caviar to be taken with him and the embassy staff to the basement. “We may be killed,” he said, “But I’ll be damned if we’ll be annoyed.”

William Christian Bullitt, Camp Pasquaney, 1918

William Christian Bullitt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

Louise Bryant in Russian costume 1920

William Christian Bullitt and Pie-Pie

Riverboats and God

Memphis City seal

There is obviously an enormous amount of vernacular typography in Memphis. It's a treasure-chest of hand painted signs and funny placards. Walking to lunch with the other members of the Gang of Four (what I hear we've been called: Michael Vanderbyl, Dana Arnett, Jamie Koval, and our special guest, Bonnie Siegler) I came across this remarkable sign. A riverboat on a city seal, and a very cool shape; there is a God.

Riverboat detail

Door decal