Blinded By The Light

I found the world of black light posters in late 1978, when I was in middle school. Every day, after school, we rode our bikes to a friend’s parents’ motel in downtown Reno. Frank’s parents owned one of those cookie cutter motels surrounding the main strip with names like The Pioneer, Thunderbird, and Stardust. We used quarters from a lobby slot machine to play video games at Pizza Hut. While everyone was excited about Centipede and Asteroids, I wanted to go back to the motel where Frank’s older brother lived in the room behind the office. He covered the walls with black light posters, kept the blinds drawn, and lit the room with a black fluorescent lamp and with a lamp with statue surrounded by simulated rain.

My world at home had nothing as remarkable. We had old family photographs in frames, paintings of ships, and models of ships. Boring. When one is fifteen, it is far groovier to have unicorn and Viking posters and a waterbed. Now, Frank’s brother was indeed a pot-head, had dropped out of high school, and spent his days listening to Led Zepplin. He was not particularly motivated. But, he had the coolest room I’d ever seen.

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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 History of Joy

As some of you know, my most recent course on Lynda.com launched yesterday. This one, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History, was incredibly fun to make. I was challenged to create a course that would provide the basics of design history and make it interesting. I could have gone down the track of, "This is a poster by Jean Carlu in 1929. It has an umbrella. Next slide." But I'm interested in why Jean Carlu made this poster, what was happening culturally, and why it works.

I assume most people think about history as a horrible task, tainted by boring lectures on the War of 1812 in high school. So, how could I make this subject relevant and communicate my passion for the subject. No I don't jump up and down and get overly excited. I simply laid out the facts. The more you see, the larger your visual vocabulary adds to your design skills. It's as if writers were told to not bother reading Dickens or Twain. "Oh don't bother with those, they're old. Just read wikipedia. That's good enough for a writing education."

There's also the joy factor. We all share that same feeling of pleasure when we see something wonderful or discover a new idea. So I designed the course to explain what was happening politically and culturally and how that led to the choices made in design. Why did the Bauhaus designers reject decoration? Why did the Fillmore posters refer to Alice in Wonderland? Why did the Nazis barge into Jan Tschichold's apartment and arrest him and his wife?

Of course there is another version, the Vanity Fair course, that has all the secrets and juicy rumors. But that will need to wait until I'm older or can make up stuff and not get caught.

The 59th Street Bridge Song

Hills Bros. Coffee Menu

Last week, the crew in the studio allowed me to link to the stereo system and play music from my library. After a few hours of easy listening after the Longines Symphonette played Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, it was disconnected. Now there is a ban on my hip tunes. In the same vein, I can prove I'm super groovy by sharing these out of this world pieces from Disneyland in the late 60s and early 70s. You might think, "Oh, Disneyland. How square." But check it out dude, this stuff is rocking. Who knew wacky duo-tones and overprinting could be so swell?

Now if we deconstruct the genesis of this style we land in a place about counter-culture mind-altering drug use. I'm sure some guests insisted on taking psychotropic substances and riding Alice in Wonderland. I remember smelling pot in Adventure Thru Inner Space when I was a teenager. I once had a friend suggest we all go to Disneyland and get high. I said no of course. That just sounds un-American. But, I have collected the cool and happening graphics. I'm groovy.

Hills Bros. Coffee Menu
Show logo
Grad Nite  1971
Grad Nite 1971
Disneyland Cookbook, late 1960s
Disneyland Bag
Vacationland, 1981
Grad Nite 1970
Grad Nite 1975
Grad Nite 1971
Grad Nite 1971
Grad Nite 1968
69
68b
68

Reading Between the Lines

My father had a binder from work that was indecipherable. Yes, I can read, that wasn’t the problem. The company word mark had be twisted and turned into an insane pattern. That would be fine if he worked for a head shop, or music label. But he worked for an upstanding corporate computer program development firm, ADPAC. He wore a suit everyday. This was before computer companies played Nerf basketball. He explained that the point of the illegible, twisted pattern was to try and read it when you were high. I didn’t pursue it any further, and devoted myself to rational, modernist, legible typography.

As we grow older, we become more like our parents. Now, in my case, I certainly will not be getting high (except on life, because that’s just me), or taking LSD. However, I’ve grown to love the posters that are illegible. The point on all of these was to get stoned, or take acid, or something that puts you in another state of consciousness, and then stare at the poster. If you have a black light this only heightens the experience with the fluorescent inks. If you stare at it long enough, the message will slowly reveal itself. Alternatively, you may imagine yourself to be a piece of pie, in which case the experience is lost.

These images are from the Lou Danziger Archive.

Yes, No, Yes, No, I Mean Maybe

I’ll admit it; I’m contradictory. I’ve learned this is a good thing to say. I can get away with so many things. When I change my mind, I can say, “I know I said I like yellow, but now I want brown. I’m contradictory,” or, “I gave that Boardwalk Empire show a chance, today I decided it's boring.” At a lecture a couple of weeks ago someone pointed out that although I talk about clarity and a modernist approach, some of our work had ornamentation. My response, “Well I’m contradictory.” See how well it works.

Consequently, I love Tadanori Yokoo’s work. Theoretically, it should be too complex, layered, and decorative, and I should only like John Massey. But, Yokoo endlessly inspires me. His work is related to psychadelia and the Fillmore tradition in spirit, but also has a unique approach to space. Like traditional Japanese prints, distance is visualized by the placement on the page, not a western 3-dimensional perspective. His work takes traditional elements and combines them with western iconography and popular culture. He doesn’t carefully and harmoniously combine these; they seem slammed together with remarkable energy. Don’t get me wrong, though, I also love John Massey. Why? Yes, you know.

Make Your Own Kind of Music

In 1968, my parents moved to a flat on Fell Street in San Francisco. This was the epicenter of the counter-culture movement. I was four, so I don’t know why we moved there. My parents were definitely anti-establishment, but were adamantly anti-drug use. The neighbors above us were band members from Big Brother and the Holding Company. We bought a big Victorian mahogany bed for my grandmother from one of the Grateful Dead guys. I went to concerts across the street in Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. I went to a volunteer co-op intercultural and interracial pre-school. After my father died, I inherited his Fillmore posters. He had them tacked up on the wall in his house with thumbtacks.

I rebelled. I didn’t get older and act out with loud music and anti-social behavior. I recall that I refused to wear jeans when I was five. I wore only khakis or trousers. I didn’t want long hair. I liked my grandfather’s clothes. And it only got worse as I grew older. By the time I was in high school, I was getting regular lectures from my parents about my bad attitude. I was told,  “Your are spending too much time on school activities. There is no need to be so conformist.”

My mother never made apologies about being non-traditional. She made it clear to us that they she was our mother, not our friend. But she was and continues to be endlessly kind. She taught me to value creativity, eccentricity, and beauty. She was direct and pointed out that she wasn’t the kind of mother who waited at home and made cookies. My friends had mothers who made fresh cookies, and insisted on being called by their first names. I’m glad I didn’t. My mother demands a level of respect that would make calling her “Sylvia” seem far too familiar.

Gentle people with flowers in their hair

This is San Francisco by Miroslav Sasek

For some reason, people tend to assume I’m from Boston and was raised in a strictly Calvinist New England setting. If you’ve seen a recent speaking engagement by me you know that’s not true, and you probably left with bad dreams for weeks. When I was four, my parents moved to San Francisco to live in the Haight (Haight-Ashbury). This was 1968 and the Summer of Love was still in full bloom. Our upstairs neighbors were members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band. My mother bought a grand Victorian bed from one of the Grateful Dead guys and gave it to my grandmother as a Christmas gift. My parents were free spirits, which is the opposite of me. I have several items from that time: my Dad’s Hendrix records, some Richard Brautigan books, a collection of Fillmore posters, and the book, This is San Francisco.

The book shows some of San Francisco’s famous spots: Fisherman’s Warf, Coit Tower, and the cable cars. But, I love the less famous but specifically local images: the maze of streetcar and bus wires, the flower stand shaped like a cable car, and the Chinese styled street lamps of Chinatown. There is a Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” This certainly must be true visually. Even with years at art school, and over two decades working in the design industry, I look at these images and say, “Yes, this is right.”

This is San Francisco, Miroslav Sasek

This is San Francisco, Miroslav Sasek

This is San Francisco, Miroslav Sasek

This is San Francisco, Miroslav Sasek

Sean, Panhandle Park, 1968