Booze, Pot, and Silencing

John Astrop and Eric Hill: illustration and Design, June Dutton and Edith Vanocur, authors, 1967

Design history is a land-mine field of issues. Inherently, much of the work created in the past is linked to the cultural standards of its time. What we may deem unacceptable now, was celebrated then. Does that make it bad? Should the creator be vilified? Should the offending design work be eliminated from a classroom or book?

 

Recently, I was asked to remove Mary Wells’ “Air Strip” campaign for Braniff Airlines from a history lecture. It was suggested that someone in the class might be adversely affected emotionally by seeing the campaign. The point was not to promote the work as a way to use sex in advertising but to discuss issues dealing with our responsibility as communicators. For an article on propaganda, it was suggested that I should remove the racist posters attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1866 for similar reasons. 

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Excerpt from Design Observer, May 5, 2017

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/Lynda.com 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.

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.

Happy Talk

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports and on American Airlines flights. Like everyone else on earth, I hate when people insist on a conversation. On one flight, the woman next to me talked about her affair, her husband’s affair, how hot the steward was, and why she hated her children. Another time, the flight attendant spilled an entire can of beer on my lap. She was horrified and deeply apologetic, but it was an accident so no big deal. Unfortunately, it meant flying from JFK to LAX and smelling like I was at a frat party. The guy next to me told me every story he had about spilling liquids (wow that was exciting), and then asked if I wanted some underwear from his overnight bag (oi!).

My favorite was a woman who was a famous gospel singer who was flying back from Chicago after being on Oprah. She talked about her upcoming wedding plans for three hours. After three vodka tonics, she became quite friendly and repeatedly said, “Why you are so cute. Let me give you just one kiss.” I reminded her that her fiancé was waiting to pick her up.

As obnoxious as chattering is on airplanes, it’s a good design device. Unless you implant one of those little audio chips, however, you need alternative ways to do this. I love quotation marks. I love talk bubbles. Both are incredible symbols that everyone understands, “Oh, that means someone is talking.” One of my all time favorite solutions is Matthew Liebowitz’s cover for H.L. Mencken Speaking. A single bad image of the author and an uncomfortable composition is brought to life with three pieces of simple punctuation. And, to make it even better, Mencken isn’t speaking. If he were photographed speaking, the cover would be too obvious and make us wonder what he is saying specifically and individually. The closed mouth leads us to hear all of his words.

The Commercial with a Sensayuma

Being in advertising on television is hard. Darrin on Bewitched was in advertising. I recall a campaign of insects walking into a bank with this tagline, “Even the little people matter at Bank Such and Such.” At 8 I knew this was a bad ad campaign. Insects are creepy, and the subtext of the message is patronizing at best. On Mad Men, Don Draper won an award for a commercial with a tiny chuck wagon. I assume this is based on the Chuck Wagon commercial from 1970. Recently, Peggy described an ad with a ballet of beans. I assume this shift is talking about the changes in advertising from the 1950s through the 1960s.

When I’m teaching, I show a 1958 Edsel ad to explain a boring ad. It’s a photo of a car and the copy tells me it’s a car. On the other end of the spectrum is a campaign like the Levy’s Rye Bread campaign from 1964. I see the product, but the copy asks me to do some work. It relies on the viewer’s cultural knowledge. It demystifies a product that might be considered exotic in 1964. And the final takeaway is a sense of humor and success. “Oh, I get it, the policeman must be Irish.” If you ad the fact that most ads in 1964 had a whole bunch of white people and nobody else, these are even more striking. So, why now do I see current ads that show me a car and read, “This is a car.”

Directions from Right to Left

You might have noticed a “Goldwater in ‘68” sign in a window on the Mad Men premier. This may seem trivial, but is part of a more convoluted story. For those youngsters in the room, Barry Goldwater was a conservative Republican Senator from Arizona. He ran for President in 1964 against President Lyndon Johnson. My grandparents, as life-long Republicans, called Goldwater a true conservative for my entire life. They appreciated his stand on conservative issues while rejecting the evangelical right. Lyndon Johnson was the Vice President under Kennedy. He became President after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson won the presidency in one of the largest landslides in history.

Obviously there are multiple points of view on the campaign and results. But many consider the “Daisy” commercial to be one of the most successful campaign ads in history. Tony Schwartz at Doyle Dane Bernbach created this commercial in 1964. The ad, made for the Johnson campaign, implied that Goldwater would lead the United States into a nuclear war. The ad aired only once and was pulled after it was deemed unfairly inflammatory.

Now, back to Mad Men. This gets complicated. The Goldwater in ’66 sign is in the window of the ad agency Young and Rubicam where water balloons are dropped on African-American protesters below. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This led to Goldwater winning states in the Deep South, but losing everywhere else. Later in the episode, Henry Francis tells someone on the phone to not appear with Governor George Romney in Michigan. Henry Francis’ character previously used to work for Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and refused to support Goldwater. This caused uproar at the 1964 Republican convention. And you thought this bog was just about pretty stuff.