Design Sexy Time

Paul Hesse photo  

When I was in college, a visiting artist gave a presentation on "Sex in Advertising." As this was in the midst of the women's art movement and high critical thinking, the audience expected a relentless assault on the horrors of sexuality in advertising and design. Instead, the artist presented an intelligent examination. She discussed issues such as objectification, subjugation, and patriarchy. But she also talked about less black and white points like seduction, human nature, beauty, and the power of primary impulses such as sex and eating. When she turned from the attitude du jour of the evils of sex and began to explore the possibility that sex might be positive, the audience responded with outrage. They stomped out of the theater in disgust and fury. It was like a stampede of crazed buffalo.

Of course, sex in design can be detrimental and negative. But are there instances when it works? Is it okay to like a poster or ad because it is "hot." For some reason, a large proportion of older male designers in the 1960s and 70s retired and made fine art that was really just thinly disguised soft core porn. Henry Wolf used imagery that might work in Playboy on mainstream advertising.

I've always liked the definition that "good" is about creation and construction, "evil" is about destruction and making someone "less than." Perhaps this is the filter to view this type of work. Is the subject glorified and celebrated, or minimized and objectified?

Milton Glaser

Henry Wolf

Advertising 1950s

Navy Recruitment poster, WWII

Henry Wolf

J.C. Leyendecker

Colin Forbes

J.C. Leyendecker

Tadanori Yokoo

Victor Moscoso

Robert Brownjohn

Men's Fashion, 1978

Peter Behrens

Aubrey Beardsley

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 Red and the Black

People often ask me, “Sean, what’s the secret with this whole graphic design thing?” Of course, there is no secret. Or if there is, nobody told me. I can say, however, that a big rule for me is contrast. There is no such thing as too bright, or too much contrast in design. I’m not big on de-saturated colors and soft contrast. Design should be bold. There’s an old saying about teaching a donkey. First you smack it in the head with a two by four, and then give it the message. Now, clearly, I don’t advocate donkey cruelty. But, design is the same. First, get the audience’s attention. Then tell them the story.

Red, white, and black are good choices for contrast and bold statements. I’ve used this combination many times and quite enjoyed it. The danger is looking like a Nazi. The Nazis were rather keen on black and red, so you need to be careful to not appear to be a Facist. Using a little bit of red and a little bit of black isn’t the same thing. Remember: donkey, two-by-four, and big.