Styles of Radical Will

Some designers take great pride at being an a-hole. I was speaking with a designer I'd never met before, and he boasted for quite awhile about his take no prisoners attitude. He told me a story about yelling at a young designer at his firm during a client presentation until she cried. He loved to invite freshly graduated designers for an interview and then tear their work apart piece by piece.

While this sounds like an interesting reality show, the result is simply hurt and terrified designers. It doesn't make anyone better. Unless someone shows up with a heroin needle stuck in their arm, there really is no reason for berating until tears in design. The profession is hard enough without that.

I'd rather take my cue from Gene Frederico. Frederico was one of America's most revered art directors for decades until he died in 1999. He was passionate about good design, and certainly never let anyone slide by with less than their best. Yet, he took time to see young designers and critique his or her work in a constructive way. Most designers at his level could simply pass this task along to someone else.

Frederico's work is witty, fresh, and bold. It never feels overwrought or desperate. He used typography as illustration. Frederico named A.M. Cassandre's poster, S.S. Amsterdam, as a great influence on his career. His work meets Cassandre's high standards of flawless shape and form, but takes it one step further, always adding that smart and unexpected concept. His moving announcement, that depicts everyone moving, is a perfect example of his dry humor and incredible skill. To paraphrase a song by the Burning Sensations, Gene Frederico Was Never Called an Ass-hole.

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.