The Scope Trial

A great part of being a designer is learning about complex issues and working with smart and logical people. A common issue is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. It's important to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers.

Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high resolution four-color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time. No doubt, Beall and Burtin slaved away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snowed outside toiling to meet the deadlines.

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.

Miss Beachcomber Salon

Bill Tobias and Robert Miles Runyon, Communication Arts magazine, November 1961

Miss Beachcomber Salon of Beauty, 1961

As I rearranged my books again (again being the operative word as it happens too often), I found an issue of CA magazine from November, 1961. First, I loved the cover. So much that I considered never sharing it as I may need to "appropriate" it at some point. Then I found an ad that is truly interactive. The cow is on one page with die cut eyes. The two dots on the following page make the pupils. So simple. No coding needed.

There is a logo with a dead dog, heavyset mermaid illustration, hipster tattoos before hipsters existed, and several other wonderful finds.

I love how un-tortured this work is. None of it feels desperate or is trying to be hipper than any other piece of graphic design ever. It just is. Almost as if someone enjoyed doing the work rather than pulling out hair, smoking endless cigarettes, staying up for several days, then explaining the solution in a six paragraph document. After all, how can you remain earnest and deeply ironic when making pipe smoke with eighty-eights?

Lester Beall, International Paper, 1961

Arnold Varga, Cox's, 1961

Left: Paul Hauge, Miss Beachcomber Salon of Beauty, 1961
Right: Al Parker, McCall's magazine, 1961

Milton Glaser, Tru-Balance, 1961

R. E. Brickner, Footwear News, 1961

Left: Ed Kysar, 1961
Right: Morton Goldsholl, 1961

Saul Bass, First America Corporation, 1961

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.

Graphic Designer Basics

Designers 1

On Thursday night, I spoke at an AIGA event in San Diego. Several people asked me the question, "Where can I look to find examples of great design?" and "Is there a resource for finding all of the industry's history?" The first step is to get a good graphic design history book such as A History of Graphic Design 3rd Edition by Philip B. Meggs.

Then, I suggest designobserver.com, the aiga.org medalist page, and this site burningsettlerscabin.com. Also look at my Lynda.com/Linked In course Graphic Design History. These are a good introduction to learn about individual designers who had an impact.

Next, after finding someone interesting, dig in. Research everywhere and find out more than anyone else knows. I do that every time I find a piece I love.

Here, then is the first of several (meaning more to come) lists of designers everyone should know and explore (not in a dirty way). I'm keeping these (mostly) to dead people for now, so the living won't be up in arms about inclusion. Most of these are covered in other Burning Settlers Cabin posts, just search (on the left).

Saul Bass

 

Herbert Bayer

 

Lester Beall

 

Lucian Bernhard

 

A.M. Cassandre

 

Tibor Kalman

 

Marget Larsen

 

Herb Lubalin

 

Alvin Lustig

 

Herbert Matter

 

Reid Miles

 

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

 

Victor Moscoso/Fillmore Posters

 

Cipe Pineles

 

Paul Rand

 

Deborah Sussman

 

Bradbury Thompson

 

Jan Tschichold

 

Massimo and Leila Vignelli

 

Please Remain Seated

I was cleaning out my garage yesterday and a neighbor stopped by to say hello. The door of my garage leads into my rumpus room (yes it's knotty pine, no we don't play bridge in there). There are several Disneyland attraction posters in the rumpus room and she saw them on the wall. "Oh, I love your posters," she said, "I mean I really, really love them." I thanked her and then worried she might come back with a weapon.

This happens anytime anyone sees them. Even hardened academic post-modern/critical theory obsessed designer types like them. "Hmm, that isn't bad, I guess," they say.

Why is that? First, they are remarkably well designed. Second, they're big and people like big things. Third, they remind the viewer of a good experience. And finally, they tap into the common iconography of travel and adventure.

So, let's start with the influences. The Disneyland Hotel poster (above) borrows arrows from Beall's Rural Electrification poster, and geometric shapes from Russian Constructivism.

Clearly the WPA National Parks posters informed the design of many of the Disneyland attraction posters. The illustration style is representational. Larger than life scale defines the space. Dramatic lighting and bold colors dominate. The Grand Canyon Diorama poster is a close cousin to the See America poster.

Early American modernism, ala Lester Beall and Joseph Binder, is related with stylistic elements such as arrows and the use of implied perspective created with scale. The Skyway poster's perspective employs the same device of extreme scale as the Binder Air Corps U.S. Army poster.

The idea of a strong foreground combined with a distant vista links the Frontierland and The National Parks WPA poster. The color choices in both examples veer from the expected, a sunny blue sky or water, to more dramatic options such as an orange sky on the WPA poster and ochre water on the Frontierland poster. Flat color and simple shapes define a silkscreened process in both examples.

Most important, however, is the inclusion of narrative. The posters promise a story. They exhibit bobsledding with super tan people, dangling from a thin wire on a gondola, or braving wild animals through the Grand Canyon Diorama. Each poster conveys a sense of time, place, and typically makes the viewer part of the action.

Yes, this has been an adventure through a serious dissertation on Disneyland attraction posters. But there is no cause for alarm. We have concluded this post, and future posts will return to less words.








When not choking is good

Tomorrow, Thursday December 6, at 11am PST, 2:00 pm EST I'll be hosting a webcast about AIGA's 100 year history. "Boy, Sean," you say, "That sounds as interesting as a lecture about the history of the UAW." And, if it weren't for the incredible images, you might be correct. The difference is the design solutions created by the nation's leading designers over a century. They didn't design an ordinary poster or publication. These pieces ended up in the hands of their peers, and we know that designers often can have opinions. I've had the experience of asking a designer to create something for AIGA, and then watch them choke. There is something about the pressure that all of your friends, enemies, and heroes will see it. That's understandable. But, the opposite is true. When they succeed they create work that is often some of the best pieces of their career. So, if you want to see some pretty nifty design, and you don't mind listening to me blather on about history, join intomorrow, http://www.aiga.org/webcast-100-years/.

 

 

 

Art Direction

 

There is a rather severe difference of opinion about using a cliché in the design world. I like them. They are clichés because we all understand them. As long as the idea is presented in an unexpected way, it’s all good with me. An arrow is cliché. “Oh, Sean,” I’ve heard, “Arrows are so 20th-century.” But, why be oblique and complicated when it is so easy to point someone in the right direction?

Arrows are wonderful because they are symbols that command. The viewer is not being asked, “Would you prefer to turn right, perhaps?” An arrow screams, “TURN RIGHT! TURN NOW!” How many other symbols can do that? Lester Beall introduced me to the wonderful world of arrows. Not, Lester, personally, but through Lou Danziger’s vast historical knowledge. At a time when design was racing faster toward more is more with less and less clarity, the arrow was a revelation. The zeitgeist of that time was , "make less with more." I wanted to make more with less (follow me? More meaning, less stuff.). I could put an arrow on a poster next to a headline and the viewer would read this first. Who knew?

Unfortunately, arrows are a temptation. Like all wonderful things, too much is not good. Judicious usage is needed. As Groucho Marx said: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stolen Memories

Have you ever accidentally stolen something and felt like Lindsay Lohan or Winona Ryder? I’m not talking about jewelry, scarves, or children. This is about accidental design theft. It happens to everyone, myself included. I’ll finish a project, be quite pleased with it, and then months or years later find the original inspiration. Usually it’s a piece of design that I love, but have filed somewhere in my brain. My unconscious mind must be saying, “Remember that Alvin Lustig poster? Steal that.” Consciously, I simply presume I had a wonderful idea.

When a friend sends me an example of how they were ripped off, I usually tell them “Imitation is the best compliment.” Sometimes it’s obvious, a poster for an event in Alabama looks exactly like one by Marian Bantjes. Or, a student designs a poster for Vertigo and gives me Saul Bass’s poster. On my way to work, I pass a billboard for the band XX’s new album Coexist. It is remarkably similar to a poster we designed for the AIGA Capital Campaign in 1999. Now, I know an “X” is an “X”, and claiming I was copied is like claiming I own the golden section. I’ve decided to use it as an affirmation, that 13 years later, the original poster is super groovy.

 

Trademark Secrets

Identity design is not easy. Sure you can slam a couple of shapes together and call them a logo. But the core of the issue is perception and building a foundation. Over the last 20 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve been called in repeatedly to take on an identity project after another firm has failed. When I’ve asked to see what didn’t work, I’m given a pile of 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper, each one with a different logo idea. Whether or not any of these were great or awful isn’t relevant. The error was presenting like a smorgasbord of stylistic options.

First, no logo ever lives in a void. Showing a mark on an empty page is deceiving. It will never appear in this setting. Second, persuasion and consensus building is a large part of the job. We take for granted that a client knows all that we know. But they don’t. They only know what they’ve seen already. And they’ve been conditioned to think a logo is a wackadoodle illustration that demonstrates their product. Logos identify, they do not describe. If Apple had made a logo that looked like the first Macintosh, they could never create iTunes, or an iPhone.

Saul Bass told me to never speak about design to a client. He didn’t mean stonewall them when they ask about a typeface or color. The idea is to talk in a language they understand and give them reasons beyond simple aesthetics for your choices.

This is probably stupid of me, and I’m revealing some of our inner processes. But if this process helps another designer solve a problem, we all look better. When we present identities, we walk the client through each step and explain in simple English why we make certain choices. This allows the client to participate in the process and eliminates the perception that designers are just goofballs making pretty shapes. It also creates a document that can speak for itself. So, below, find a typical document we create to present an identity.

LFLA_ID_Presentation_07.19.11c

 

 

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.

The Eyes of Lester Beall

One of my favorite clients is Cedars Sinai. I love learning about complex medical issues, and working with smart and logical people. A common issue I face is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. I want to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers. Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Incredible designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high rez 4 color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time, and I like to imagine Beall slaving away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snows outside.

from the Lou Danziger collection

 

Looking Back

And now, back to something about plain old graphic design. Down in the basement of AIGA National Design Center in New York is an old vault. The vault is filled with amazing treasures from the history of AIGA since the early 20th century. Most of these pieces were designed by some of the most prominent designers of the time, and celebrate the profession at a specific moment in history. It’s a good measure of “high design” of each era.

Every designer is told that work should be timeless. But that’s impossible. Design is not Darwinian; it doesn’t get better as the world evolves. We are products of our time and place on this planet. I don’t believe I’m doing better work than someone in 1970 just because it’s 40 years later. I don’t worry too much about “timeless” design, which is probably fairly obvious for those thinking I’m still in 1962. To me, these pieces are as incredible today as they were when they were produced. Actually, they’re probably considered better today, because someone down the street isn’t saying, “Ooh, I hate that guy. His work sucks, and I hear he yells at his employees. This poster ain’t that good.”

How to be a Good Designer

History of Electricity cover

Years ago, Lorraine Wild showed me a publication that Eric Nitsche had designed for General Dynamics and it changed the way I look at design. Nitsche had been a hero of mine for years. I tend to like the designers who aren’t the huge names, but do great work just under the radar, like Alvin Lustig, or Lester Beall. Am I self aware? Probably not. Steven Heller wrote a wonderful essay about Nitsche in 1999. Nitsche is not the rock star like his contemporaries, Paul Rand, or Saul Bass, but he is remarkable. His simple modernist aesthetic combines a scientific rigor and precision with an emotional fluidness. That’s not easy.  Michael Bierut says, “Design is 90% persuasion.” (Michael forgive me if I have the percentage wrong, its' not that I don't try hard, it's that I'm stupid). How Nitsche convinced his clients to give him enormous amounts of real estate on a page for nothing is genius. When I showed one of his spreads from a General Dynamics project to Chris and Monica in my office, they both said, “Yeah right. A client would demand that you make the image bigger, or add a few paragraphs.” We’ve religiously collected Nitsche’s books, and I’ve been warned by my staff to not share this secret. But I am convinced that we all need as much inspiration as possible these days. Does that sound political? Sorry, it’s in my DNA.

April issue of Gebrauchsgraphik, 1956

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

History of Transportation, cover

Advertisement, general Dynamics

postcard, General Dynamics

Annual Report, General Dynamics, spread

General Dynamics, Convair 800 advertisement