Ladislav Sutnar

In 1996, I was asked to design the materials for the first AIGA Business Conference. I hate going to a conference and trying to deal with a batch of printed matter, the schedule, maps, and directories. Other people told me they would rather not stick pins in their shirt with a name badge. As I love plastics, I found a little plastic pouch at the Plastic Mart in Santa Monica. I believe it was to hold labels in hospitals. I used this, punched two holes in the top, and used IV tubing to hang the pouch from my neck. Now I could design all the materials, including the name tag, to fit inside the pouch. Easy peasy.

A couple of months after the conference I saw someone on the street with the same kind of pouch, but for a plumbing contest. Of course today, they are everywhere. Am I bitter that my pouch concept was adopted by every conference and theme park? Yes. But, I can be please that I'm saving shirts from pin holes every day.

On the other end of the spectrum from my flammable pouch concept to great thinking is Ladislav Sutnar. Sutnar's most lasting contribution to our lives is one of the most ubiquitous design elements in the world, the parenthesis around an area code: (310) 555-1234. He solved this problem working with Bell System in the 1950s. Sutnar was adamant that design be functional. Good information design was a critical element of our complex and technological world. He maintained that there was no place for anything but useful and high-minded design.

He followed this philosophy: “Good visual design is serious in purpose. Its aim is not to attain popular success by going back to the nostalgia of the past, or by sinking to the infantile level of a mythical public taste. It aspires to uplift the public to an expert design level. To inspire improvement and progress demands that the designer perform to the fullest limits of his ability. The designer must think first, work later.”—Ladislav Sutnar

This didn't translate to boring. As religious as Sutnar was about functionalism, his work often displays a sense of vitality and play. Yet it still imparts the information clearly. Rather than adopting a dull and rigid approach that was as exciting as a bus schedule, he allows the shapes and forms to interact with the typography.

He was probably bitter about his area code solution too.

Small Treasures

I spend most of my Mondays at Art Center directing students to designers or artifacts that might be inspirational. Last week, Ladislav Sutnar was the designer du jour. The week before, I relentlessly shoved Josef Müller Brockmann down everyone’s throats. This is great to help someone see another way of making or seeing.

But, I treasure the artifacts that are rarely designed by a historically recognized designer. For example, I love my father’s Class of 1963 Directory for Wesleyan University, and an old hangover remedy pack from Harold’s Club. I love this Story of Walt Disney World book. The design is clumsy and has a remarkably odd composition, but it’s optimistic. I love the vignettes and detail images.

This Commemorative Edition booklet was created soon after Walt Disney World opened in 1971. I love the map. There is an attraction in Frontierland, Thunder Mesa and Western River Expedition, meant to take the place of Pirates of the Caribbean. Since the actual Caribbean was so close, there was a concern that Pirates would seem redundant in Florida. In the end, Pirates was added to WDW, and Thunder Mesa was replaced with Big Thunder Mountain.

I’ve owned this booklet for fifteen years, only yesterday, did I notice it made the shape of the “D” in the old Walt Disney World logo. Oh yeah, I’m observant.

Take Credit, Blame Others, Deny Everything

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Bradbury Thompson detail

I like to accuse people of stealing. Whenever I'm looking for a book in our library and can't find it, I tell everyone in the studio, "Someone has stolen it. I know it." And then someone will go to the shelf and pull the book out that I thought was stolen. Oddly, in 16 years, we've only had one book stolen. It was a book on Fillmore posters and it was stolen by an errant intern who had a band and lasted two days. Today, in the midst of accusing the designers of stealing my Studio Boggeri book, I found the Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook. It sounds dull, and I assumed from the cover that it was an old book that showed examples of halftones, which it was. Mixed in with the chapters on Photo-electric Engraving Techniques, and Dot Etching were remarkable chapter dividers and miscellaneous pages.

So the lesson is, yeah no duh, don't judge a book by its cover. And it turns out that Monica had the Studio Boggeri book on her desk, so I probably should stop attacking and accusing everyone of theft immediately.

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950 Bradbury Thompson

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Bradbury Thompson

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Benjamin Somoroff

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Paul Rand

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Saul Steinberg

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Ladislav Sutnar

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: Alexander Ross

Ninth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook, 1950: very groovy paper