E' una buona forchetta

John Alcorn, Evolution by Design: Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

I planned on doing a post today to rant about bad clients. Sure there are some that were indecisive or unclear, but I can only think of one who was someone I'd love to run into, when I'm driving and he was walking. Then I looked through Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi's book, John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The ranting concept seemed small and petty compared to the vastness of the Alcorn work.

I'm not opposed to small and petty, but each spread is breathtaking. Steven Heller calls Alcorn the 4th Beatle of Graphic Design. He was the youngest (21) member of Push Pin Studios in 1956. His work with Push Pin and Lou Dorfsman at CBS is smart, sophisticated, and elegant. He never succumbed to a "cutesy-pie" approach common to illustration in the 1950s. As he matured as a designer, the work takes on layers of sensuality. There is no restrictive diet here; the shapes, images, and typography are rich and full.

This maximalism expanded when Alcorn moved to Italy. After 1971, the illustrations are a feast of vibrant and complex forms with pleasure and passion, like good Italian cooking. The work is a reminder of the joy in design. It reinforces the good parts, not the murderous tendencies and anger management problems, but creative expression and love of craft.


John Alcorn in Santa Croce, 1973 (Courtesy of Stephen Alcorn)

The Post about this Blog

One of the tenets of post-modernism is self-referential expression. This post, then is the post-modern one. This is a post about this blog.

When burningsettlerscabin first launched, I designed a nice Victorian logo for the masthead. It worked well with the minimal layout and I had fun making it. After awhile, I grew tired of that version. And its started to feel vertiginously close to hipster design. So I made a new one. This became an on-going hobby. The point of this blog is as shallow as it gets. If I'm interested in something or find an inspirational artifact or solution, I write about it. It's that simple. If I want to, I write. If I don't feel like it, I don't. I know this is absolutely the most wrong thing one can do with all the rules of social media. But, I have so many other rules in life: typographic, social manners, organizing linen closets, age appropriate clothing, and the list goes on.

The masthead follows the same logic. If I feel like making a new one, I do. If it's heinously hideous but I like it, I use it. So, in response to the requests to post one or the other mastheads here they are.

While some have said burningsettlerscabin is their "lite" (yes, spelled that way) version of Design Observer, consider this: In this post, self-referentiality [and the epistemological skepticism it implies] is central to postmodernism and takes its typological and typographic cue from the self-referential, though not mutually exclusive, aesthetics of nostalgia, irony, and satire.

See, the settlers at the cabin are way smart.

Getting Lit

Dunham & Deatherage

When I was in middle school, I had friend who's family owned an inexpensive motel in downtown Reno. Yes, it was that glamorous. After playing basketball we'd go to his house and his mother would give us quarters that came from the slot machine in the motel office. We'd take the money and buy pizza then hang out in my friend's big brother's room. I'm sure everyone had a friend with a big brother who smoked pot, had an American flag hanging on the wall, needed a haircut or two, and loafed around all day. I should have been impressed by his coolness factor, but never really was. He was always too stoned, looked dirty, and his balls would fall out of his too short shorts when he passed out. But his room was covered with black light posters lit by an overhead black light. Seriously groovy.

The black light posters of the 1960s and 70s were printed with fluorescent inks and displayed under black light that intensified their psychadelic-ness. If you've been on a dark ride like Buzz Lightyear at Disneyland, you know the effect. The subject matter was aimed at horny teenage pot smoking boys: naked women, marijuana references, rock and roll, and comics. Some of the early Fillmore posters were beautifully designed, the later ones fall into the category of black velvet paintings of leopards. I can't decide if they are truly hideous or so hideous that they transcend into wonderful. I do know that if you find yourself in a friend's room filled with these you may be with the wrong crowd.

Silver Surfer

Alexander Rotany, 1972

il_570xN.272147053 a5ee808cc6e846bea2b46ba84fe1dcdc

Steve Sachs, 1967

Zodiac Lovers 1975

War Queen, 1970


David Norda, 1968

Enjoy, 1973

The Delighters

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

In my own town people know me, so they just think, "Oh yeah, Sean, what a nitwit." But in other cities they may not have yet figured this out. So I am treated either  with warmth or derision. That's all fine. The worse case scenario is when someone assumes I must be a super serious designer. Sitting at dinner next to a designer who is insists on discussing the current state of design is kind of dull. I'd rather know who is sleeping with whom at the table. Actually, the worse, worse case scenario is sitting next to a communist. This happened once. We didn't get along.

When someone rambles on about design being of service to business and how no design can be judged without looking at effectiveness I want to go to the bathroom and slit my wrists just for excitement. Yes, I agree design is a critical component of success in business. Design should be judged by its effectiveness.

But where does that leave the work that I love that really wasn't that effective? Does that mean I shouldn't begin making form until I've filled a wall with post-it notes and focus group studies? Here's the dirty little secret: sometimes I make things just because I want to.

When our great friend, Terry Lee Stone, asked us to design a series of books for her on Managing the Design Process I immediately started thinking about graphs and simple shapes. The end product may not be purely functional or effective. But I sure had fun designing it. A friend sent me a link to Franz Ferdinand's video for Right Action and said it was similar, so it must be cool. Maybe its okay for design to be effective, and once in awhile simply about designers making something wonderful.

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2011

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2011

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2011

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2011

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2011

AdamsMorioka design, Managing the Design Process by Terry Stone, 2010

The Joy of Doing Nothing

Charles Coiner, Give It Your Best, poster, 1942

The problem with effort and good design is that the best solutions looks like they takes very little work. The solution appears natural and effortless. The worst work are the solutions that are over-designed, over-produced, over-wrought, and desperate. But, civilians will look at the ABC logo and say, "So what? What took so long? I could have done that." The logo that is an illustration of a person with raised hands on top of a globe with all nations color coded and series of stars that wraps around the globe, sitting on a word mark of tortured typography is praised, "Boy that must have taken a long time."

Charles Coiner's World War II poster, Give it Your Best, is one of these examples. It's so obvious and straightforward that it appears that no design happened. But, the poster leaves nobody guessing at the message, is visually aggressive and powerful, and stands the test of time. Works for me.

And while we're on the subject of World War II posters, I can't resist discussing the series, This is Your Friend. These posters were created to help our troops understand what our allies looked like so we wouldn't shoot them. The Chinese were our allies; they were not Japanese who were our enemies. The English,and Australian men wore these specific hats and were not German. I like that they try so hard to make clear what could be difficult; if someone was caucasian and blonde were they German? Not if they had a smile and tam-o-shanter hat. They were clearly Canadian.

But the poor Dutch. Why only a Dutch sailor? If they weren't sailors and Dutch were they dangerous? And I don't want to sound mean, but couldn't the War Office find a strapping young and handsome Dutch man? I'm pretty sure there were other options here. If a student tuned this in I would say, "You need to stop using Google as a research tool and using low resolution bad images."

WWII Canadian poster, 1942

WWII Russian poster, 1942

WWII Ethiopian poster, 1942

WWII Dutch Sailor poster, 1942

WWII Australian poster, 1942

WWII English poster, 1942

WWII Chinese poster, 1942


Gan Hosaya, 1969, ad  

There are times when a project just looks bad, like dog crap. I slave over it endlessly, and then I realize all it needs is to be turned on its side or upside down. Voila, it works. That's the issue when you don't print anything out and only see it on a screen. Sure you can turn your screen upside down or turn it on its side, but that could result in dropping it. The easiest solution is to send a file to print and than flip that baby around in all directions. What was once banal and expected becomes avant-garde and unsettling.

I love work that is sideways or upside down. It gets away from the standard point of view that we have in everyday life which is straight on from about 5 or 6 feet tall. Miraculously, you can see a different view from above or below, or lying on the ground and seeing the world on its side. This is why God gave people bendable joints. Photography at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s took advantage of this ad-nauseum. It was as if everyone there was climbing up the walls and hanging from the balconies. But the images are wonderful.

Posters and ads with moving vehicles are especially adaptable to this technique. Gan Hosaya's 1969 poster for Yamaha is one of my absolute favorite pieces of design ever produced. Think how dull it might have been if he simply let the image be turned 90 degrees. So the next time you're out taking photos, climb up on a table and shoot everyone from above. You'll be asked to leave, but end up with a snappy photo that isn't the same head and shoulders of someone holding a drink.


Martin Munkasci, 1935

Diving at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, Queensland, 1938

Paul Rand, Apparel Arts cover

Herbert Matter, 1935

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Max Huber, 1957

Max Huber, 1948

Joseph Binder, Graphis magazine, 1948

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926

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.

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

Welcome to the World of Love

I was pulling together some postings from this blog yesterday for a book Steven Heller is writing. This led me to discover a predominance of posts about counter-culture in the 1960s. Who knew? I’m really square, so I found this odd. Nevertheless, I decided to avoid posts in this vein for a while. Then I found this Call for Entries for the New York Art Directors Club (now the Art Directors Club). Peter Max designed it in 1964. Yes, this is about counter-culture, specifically the psychedelic experience. The collage device refers to Victorian decoupage, Picasso, Matisse, and the Dada movement. The booklet could fall into the trap that much of today’s “collage” approach does, a mishigas of more mishigas.

The strict use of typography and tight composition, however, give it gravity and allows the imagery to take center stage. The spread with the Victorian people looking at the psychedelic cloud is remarkable. It is such a simple juxtaposition, but alludes to so many issues, including the Victorian taste for psychotropic drugs such as opium (see Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Allusions aside, the composition is about wonder and different perspectives. So, you see, I had to post another one about counter-culture.

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.

Film Starts Here

In 2001, we started working with Sundance. Over the next 9 years, we had a wonderful time working on the Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Channel, Sundance Institute, Sundance Resort, and a few other Sundance properties. It’s hard to complain about a project, when you are meeting Robert Redford in a beautiful valley in the mountains of Utah. We had a great appreciation for the role Sundance plays in preservation, independent thinking, and artistic integrity. And, something close to our hearts is Sundance’s connection to the American west as an idea. It isn’t about the west of cowboys and Indians, but about vast open space, pioneering thinking, and optimism.

Working with the creative team at Sundance, specifically Jan Fleming and Robert Redford, was a true collaboration. And while it sounds like the party line, that’s how we do our best work. I also love working with Robert Redford because he insists on calling Noreen (Morioka), “Maureen Noriega.”

Mule Trail

I’m often asked, “Sean, how do you manage to have only cool projects?” I could say, “Well, I’m just that wonderful,” but that probably is not the response desired. The truth is that every project has the possibility of being great. Sounds corny, but it’s true. I’ve interviewed young designers who have told me they were only interested in cultural organizations or social causes as clients. To me that sounds worse than working at a poultry plant. I like the diversity of clients in many areas. And I am adamantly opposed to the idea that good design is only design for cultural organizations or social causes.

A good example of a project that might be deemed by someone too highfalutin, “utilitarian, and not my kind of thing,” is the Mechanized Mules of Victory booklet designed by Paul Rand. This is a publication designed in 1942 for the AutoCar Company. AutoCar produced armored vehicles for the war effort. To our highfalutin designer, this would be a double whammy: armored vehicles and an actual corporation. Rand created a book that is as raw and functional. It’s absolutely correct for the subject. The American Typewriter typeface speaks to DIY, mechanized content. The banal images are transformed by the use of silhouettes, repeating images, and solid shapes. It’s a simple two-color printing job with a spiral binding. The binding references notebooks, and technical plans. The composition is rigid and unbending, but the pagination of the pages keeps the book alive.

The next time you’re asked to work on a dog kennel catalogue, or dental tool brochure, don’t say, “I’m too good for this. Who has the telephone number for Greenpeace?” Make something wonderful.

The Shape of Air

There are not too many things in life that make me angry. I like to think I am fairly even. Those of you close to me can stop snickering. But, there are a couple of things that make me furious. I want to slug someone when I’m doing a lecture at school, and he or she is texting or working on the computer. I know they aren’t taking notes; they’re shopping or chatting with friends.  I hate people who drive with the seat so far forward that they are two inches from the steering wheel, and think 15 mph is too fast. And I really get mad when I suggest that a student takes time to look at the work of someone, and they don’t, and their project still sucks the next week.

When anyone is having trouble with shapes, I send them to look at A.M. Cassandre’s work. When I was in school, Lou Danziger did the same for me. I did take time to look and it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. A.M.Cassandre worked in Paris from the early 1920s until his death in 1968. His work took elements of Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, and Bauhaus Modernism and molded them into a unique form. The posters look effortless and fluid, but they are held together with rigor and structure. He had a remarkable sense of scale. The small flock of birds at the waterline on the Normandie poster creates a heroic scale. His Dole Pineapple posters are as sensual as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is his sense of shape that is genius. Liquid and solid, effortless and exact, the shapes create harmony and balance. So, if I suggest looking at Cassandre, the subtext is “Your shapes are awful.”

Images from the Louis Danziger Collection

The Sunset Years

I was flying to New York a recently, and one of the designers at AdamsMorioka gave me a DVD she thought I’d enjoy. I can’t recall the name, but it was a 1960s movie about a women’s motorcycle gang. It was funny in the way really terrible films, like Showgirls, are. Everything was fine until the rape scene in the women’s prison. It took me a couple of minutes to recognize that everyone around me on the plane was looking at my computer in horror. I had accidentally been watching soft-core porn in the American Airlines Business Class cabin. Bad form. I turned it off, and wondered if it was illegal to watch porn on an airplane.

Reading material is potentially as dangerous. The person next to me is always pretending to stretch so they can see what I’m reading. I should bring Devil Worship: Simple Satanic Rituals, but they are usually history books like Accommodating Revolutions: Virginia's Northern Neck in an Era of Transformations, 1760-1810. Other passengers have groovy magazines like Dwell, or Wallpaper. I don’t understand these. There are lots of people living barefoot in houses with plywood cabinets. I bring Sunset magazine.

I love Sunset. If you live in the American west and enjoy gardening, you get Sunset. I love the how to projects, and the affordable, and sensible good taste. But, I especially love the logo. For a time, Sunset took a slight detour, but under Mia Daminato they’ve returned to the classic script. Too often recently, organizations abandon a beautiful mark in favor of something with chrome and highlights. Sunset’s decision to return to the 1937 logo is smart and brave. I also like that the covers have used beautiful photos of Lake Tahoe, or a picnic. Nobody is offended when I pull Sunset magazine out of my bag on an airplane. That’s better than leaving an issue of Juggs on a plane (true story via my sister-in-law, an American Airlines flight attendant).

Snowflakes from Hell

My friend, Terry Lee Stone, introduced me to the term, “special snowflake.” This applies to young people who have attitude problems. Typically, for their entire lives they were told, “You’re special. You’re unique. You can do no wrong. There is no such thing as competition, everyone is a winner.” So they start college and are shocked when they are told to do a project over, or that their solution is not world changing. Oddly, there is competition in the world. Oddly, some people are better than us at something. Part of the problem is society’s need to celebrate every aspect of a child’s life.

Now I know there will be huge outcry over my next opinion, but the truth must be told. I believe in positive reinforcement. But I do not understand the graduating ceremony for the end of grammar school and middle school. Graduating from high school is an achievement. Some people don’t. Unless you are taken to live in a Unabomber cabin in the woods, everyone will automatically move from grammar school to middle school, and middle school to high school. There is no choice, and no risk of not achieving this. So, why have a graduation celebration?

This leads me to typewriters (I know it’s disjointed, but imagine living in my head all day). When I started high school, my parents gave me a portable red Olivetti Underwood typewriter. They did not throw a big party for my ability to pass the 8th grade. They didn’t send me on the Grand Tour of Europe for the summer. Sensible and appropriate? Yes.

Olivetti's commitment to design was inherent in all aspects, from product design to graphic design. The roster of design consultants could have been made by following the AIGA Medalist list. Olivetti's designers included Bayer, Rand, Lionni, Pintori, and Ballmer. As opposed to other corporations in the 1960s approach to good corporate identity, which was typically a whitewash, Olivetti's made design part of every aspect of the company.

Magic Bus

The Los Angeles Metro has a remarkably successful identity program. Michael LeJeune administers the program with a team of talented designers. The system is clear, proprietary, and visually appealing. It has a logo that is confident and bold. I don’t want to ride a bus that has a cute logo, or has a cute name. I want my city to have a grown-up mass transit system, not something that would work for a pre-school.

Mass transit logos seem to be one of the last bastions of traditional, old school logo design. Hard geometry, flat forms, and dynamic typography communicate stability. I like a flexible logo system for many situations, but not on moving objects. I want to know the moving object is safe and well maintained. Which leads me to the Daihatsu Charade. Doesn’t charade mean an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance?


Nothing to Love

Seeing what is not there is one of my favorite design techniques. I am so impressed with work that does this, as I can’t. SpotCo’s work for The Book of Mormon uses this technique to perfection. Jumping back a century, which I like to do, I also am a huge admirer of Ludwig Holwein and Hans Rudi Erdt. Holwein was the best-known German poster and advertising artist for the first quarter of the twentieth-century. He had a remarkable ability to use the available printing technology, not so good, and turn it to his advantage. Simple solid forms, and the absence of a specific element are hallmarks of Holwein’s work. If you’re of fan of the “less is more” approach, then you should love Holwein’s “nothing is more.”

Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Ludwig Holwein, 1926
Ludwig Holwein, 1923
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1907
SpotCo, 2010


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

Nervous Tension

Piet Zwart, NKF, 1928

When I hear someone complain about a project, I like to remind him or her that every project can be great. You can imagine how many of these people would then like to beat me senseless. In fact, the project that I have in my head when saying this is Piet Zwart’s 1925 catalogue for NKF. Nederlandsche Kabel-Fabriek Delft was an insulated high-tension cable manufacturer. Zwart worked with NKF for ten years. Now, the catalogues should have been dead dull; so dull that you’d slit your own wrists for excitement while reading them. But, Zwart’s work is dynamic, aggressive, clear, and bold. It makes me want to buy insulated high-tension cables.

Zwart pioneered modern typography. He used ideas from de Stijl and constructivism in his graphic design. If you think the insulated cable company was dull, you should see his work for another glamorous and high-end client, the post office, although it was Dutch.


The Eyes of Lester Beall

One of my favorite clients is Cedars Sinai. I love learning about complex medical issues, and working with smart and logical people. A common issue I face is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. I want to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers. Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Incredible designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high rez 4 color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time, and I like to imagine Beall slaving away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snows outside.

from the Lou Danziger collection