Just Say No to Safe


Once in awhile, we’re lucky to have a confluence of events that create an epiphany. These are mine: Marian Bantjes’ documentary by Lynda.com, a lecture at the AIGA Pivot Conference, a hellish week of one crisis after another, and the German newspaper Die Welt. Let me explain.

I’m sick to death of “safe.” Somewhere along the way, I forgot that my job is to create wonder, excitement, thought, and challenge the status quo. During the recession, I found myself acceding to committee decisions and research that led to benign and banal solutions. Marian always reminds me that I am able to make whatever I want. Our job as designers is to make extraordinary, not nice and forgetful. At the Pivot conference, there was a subtext that graphic design was no longer relevant, individual vision must be assimilated into collaboration, and artifacts were about “delight” with the same weight as a nice floral arrangement. One speaker relentlessly hammered the audience with factually flawed doom and gloom, suggesting that charts, submission of the individual, and meetings were the future of the profession. Let me off now if that is true.

On Friday, I reached a snapping point. Every job was a rush, every deadline critical. The designers in the office were panicked. So I stopped everything. We are designers, not a quick print shop. Stop, think, make something great. If it takes more than five minutes, good. Of course, everyone went right back to work, but with a sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s good to remember we are not performing neurosurgery and a patient is on the table with half a skull.

On Saturday, my oldest and best friend Erica Shapeero, who has the most fabulous life of anyone I know, returned from a trip to London and Munich with Die Welt. This issue was designed to honor an exhibition by Ellsworth Kelly. The culture editor, Cornelius Tittel, convinced the newspaper to run Kelly shapes in place of all photographs. It’s genius, brave, and uncompromising. How do you convince a newspaper to swap the soccer image with an Ellsworth shape? Unbelievable and wonderful. This reminded me that I started as a designer to make incredible things, challenge others, and myself, not to make nice, listen to banal strategy, and trade remarkable for benign. There is a reason this blog is named burning settlers cabin, not the quiet settlers cabin. Light the house on fire. Fuck safe.


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.