1:1.61

Massimo Vignelli, 1971

Like most people, I like order. I prefer my desk to be neat and my books arranged correctly. I have recurring nightmares about a house with an incredibly messy hidden room. Consequently, I'm a sucker for Swiss design. It's that rational golden rectangle that is used relentlessly. I am in awe of the designer who was able to make everything sync so precisely. It must take days to map out every tiny detail to fit into the mathematically rigid grid absolutely perfectly.

Often, when I'm asked, "Sean, just how do you use the golden rectangle? Do I shove everything into it? What if my page size isn't A4?" I suggest that the designer use the golden rectangle as a loose guide. Drop it down, turn it on it's side, see what works best for you. Then adjust the layout so it relatively aligns to the grid. I know someone in Switzerland just threw themselves in front of a train after hearing that, but what else can we do in America with out hideous 8-1/2 x 11 page size?

In my view it's better to try to walk the straight and narrow with the golden section, even if you don't hit it perfectly. It's better than working willy nilly all over the place as if a squirrel was making layout decisions. Now some post-modernist just threw themselves in front of a bus.


Otl Aicher, Rolf Müller, 1972


Siegfried Odermatt


Rolf Müller, 1972


Gottschalk + Ash


E. + U. Hiestand


Carlo Vivarelli

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.

Staying on the Road

Last week at school, I introduced my first term students to the golden section. If you’ve worked as a designer as long as I have (since 1752), these proportions come naturally. I’ll work on a poster and then lay the golden rectangle on top of it, and what do you know, it all fits. But when you’re first starting out, it’s a little trickier. I can explain the math and show my Designorama film about it, I even show them Donald in Mathimagicland (we’ll tackle this on another post). Explaining it is similar to explaining how to drive; it’s pointless unless the student is in the driver’s seat.

I’ve been collecting examples to show my class, and each year I find more. Next term, I’m pulling out the Swissair posters as examples. They are so sublime and simple. They are rigid in their proportions, but fluid. Now I understand that a little Swiss typography goes a long way. Overused and the world could become a rather dull place. I’ve always believed that good typography is like a spider web; it is precise, perfect, elegant, ordered, and adheres to a strong grid. But it doesn’t work, unless one thing interrupts it.