May

I was fortunate to have three Mentors when I was at CalArts (yes Mentors, as in an official title, not a Yoda-like master): April Greiman, Lorraine Wild, and Lou Danziger. These three widely varied points of view gave me a range of conceptual approaches that have been incredibly useful over my career. 

Recently, Tracey Shiffman collected a suite of materials from Lou for me to scan and archive. To see one project is wonderful, but to see a collection of work at once, well that made my month.

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.

Il dolce far niente

Lou Danziger, UCLA Extension

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.

 

When I worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, I built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Mendell and Oberer's cover for Bukowski's Notes of a dirty old man, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. And Paul Rand's stationery for Westinghouse is clear and confident. But, my favorite, is Ray Eames' handmade book, 1970.

It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

Ray Eames, handmade book

Chermayeff and Geismar, Pan Am

Mendell and Oberer

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.

Books on Fire

I am quite proud of my most recent project, to build a bookcase in my office at home. It still needs some trim work, but the books are in and nothing has collapsed. The most surprising aspect of the project was how many books I had. Who knew? These are only the design books, there are other bookcases in the house with more. I had quite a few duplicates that I tried donating to the Art Center library, but they didn't need them. I didn't want to throw the books away. I considered burning them in the driveway and telling my neighbors they were evil books: Catcher in the Rye, etc.. But I left them in a box on the curb, and they were gone in an hour.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from buying more. One of my favorite publishers is Unit Editions. It's a collaboration between Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook in London. They focus on books with incredibly high quality and remarkable content. Rather than producing 25,000 copies of a book about business cards on cheap paper, Unit Editions publishers smaller quantities that will last for generations.

When I hear people ramble on about sustainable practices and how they used recycled paper for their brochure I nod approvingly. But, in the end, isn't the truly sustainable action to create an artifact that will be used, saved, and not thrown in the trash?

As Lou Danziger told us as students, "Stop buying drugs. Buy books instead." Very good advice, although as a student, I was spending my money on Cup o' Noodles not drugs.


Twelve Inches of Pleasure

I'm currently writing a new course for Lynda.com, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History. You'd think this would be easy. I know the history, have the images, and am so old I knew Guttenberg personally. But condensing all of the Bauhaus into a three-minute format and making sure it doesn't sound like, "Bueller, Bueller, anyone?" is tricky. It's a great challenge and fun.

When I started writing about design in the 1970s, I kept circling around album covers. The emotional impact of these artifacts is extraordinary. Sure, there was great corporate identity and typography at the time and more than enough to discuss with those alone. But when I mention a specific album, people light up. "Oh, I stared at The Tubes cover for hours trying to figure out how it worked." or "I kept the Frampton cover on the top of my pile of records just to see it when I woke up every morning.

When I went to college, Roland Young was one of my teachers. I was 19 and knew everything. On the first day, when I realized that Roland was responsible for a big part of the record covers I loved, I was impressed. And that's not easy for an asshole 19 year-old. Today, Roland is a good friend. I took over his Communication Design 1 class at Art Center and still hear from almuni, "Wow, when I had Roland for that class my life changed." My students say, "You were funny."

I recently discovered his cover for Joan Baez, Where are you now, my son?. This cover may seem unassuming and quiet, but it's masterful. The sharp typography with the confidence to be just what it is and the texture of the grainy image is contrast at its best. The image of Baez that speaks to the object of a printed photograph is about a moment in time and intimacy. The Smiths tried this later with some covers, but the original is still my favorite.

Roland's body of work and career, from working with Lou Danziger to art director to teacher, is immense and impossible to show without a major book. Publishers, publishers, anyone?.

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.

 

The Goodness of Nothing

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.

When we worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, we built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s 1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Doyle Dane Bernbach’s 1964 campaign for Jamaica, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

The Opposite of Nothing

When I was in college, I rigorously adhered to neat and minimal aesthetics. “Sean,” Lorraine Wild said, “Try loosening up. Do something that isn’t polite.” Lou Danziger told me, “Do something ugly.” Since I couldn’t understand this, they suggested I take a year and study in the fine art department. Theoretically, this would lead to a creative epiphany and I would be flinging depressing paint colors around a room. It all started fine, and I made some big expressive paintings of Patsy Cline. On the next iteration, I added text to create an image/text narrative. Then I decided the image wasn’t necessary, so I painted only the text. Finally, I didn’t like the hand-made expressive quality of the text; it seemed forced. So I typeset the text in 8 point Bodoni and mounted it to the canvas. By the end of the year, I had come full circle and was creating minimal type driven work.

I am in awe of those who can work with complexity and decoration and maintain a sense of rigor. So often, this approach can lead to something sentimental and feel like an overwrought Get Well card. Like all good design, a sense of joy is critical. Jessica Hische’s covers for Barnes and Noble Classics are a great example of this. The intricacy of detail is countered by a clear sense of order. The result is something that has an emotional connection to the viewer. You may not have owned a worn copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but Jessica’s cover looks like the one you would have had next to your bed. The reality of something is never as important as our memory. These covers tap into our own narratives and remind us that books are treasured. I also appreciate that Jessica said I was like a "really cool Uncle," as opposed to "my ancient grandfather."

No Splashing. No!

Somehow by attrition, I have become the “go to” designer when color is involved. This amazes me because my color theory is pretty simple: everything works with everything. Just don’t be wimpy. I love hateful combinations such as almond, maroon, and teal. I’d make every project avocado, burnt orange, butter yellow, baby blue, and magenta if I could. But, oddly, I love black and white. It’s the color combination used the least. Everyone assumes it’s ubiquitous, so everything is full of color. When was the last time you saw a stark black and white ad, billboard, or television commercial? Color is an evil temptress; we attempt restrain, but are lured with the promise of excitement. Be brave. Try black and white. This isn’t black and white with a splash of orange. No. No splash. You must deny any additional color.

The Shape of Air

There are not too many things in life that make me angry. I like to think I am fairly even. Those of you close to me can stop snickering. But, there are a couple of things that make me furious. I want to slug someone when I’m doing a lecture at school, and he or she is texting or working on the computer. I know they aren’t taking notes; they’re shopping or chatting with friends.  I hate people who drive with the seat so far forward that they are two inches from the steering wheel, and think 15 mph is too fast. And I really get mad when I suggest that a student takes time to look at the work of someone, and they don’t, and their project still sucks the next week.

When anyone is having trouble with shapes, I send them to look at A.M. Cassandre’s work. When I was in school, Lou Danziger did the same for me. I did take time to look and it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. A.M.Cassandre worked in Paris from the early 1920s until his death in 1968. His work took elements of Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, and Bauhaus Modernism and molded them into a unique form. The posters look effortless and fluid, but they are held together with rigor and structure. He had a remarkable sense of scale. The small flock of birds at the waterline on the Normandie poster creates a heroic scale. His Dole Pineapple posters are as sensual as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is his sense of shape that is genius. Liquid and solid, effortless and exact, the shapes create harmony and balance. So, if I suggest looking at Cassandre, the subtext is “Your shapes are awful.”

Images from the Louis Danziger Collection

Pattern Recognition

Once in awhile, I find a great piece of design I’d never seen. This week, I discovered Herbert Bayer’s cover for Arquitectura magazine. Yes, I’m a sucker for intense color and pattern. But, then, who isn’t? I love when a designer uses pattern to reference cultural ideas. If we strive to create work that makes something mundane spectacular, pattern is a wonderful tool. Giovanni Pintori’s 1949 Olivetti poster uses simple numerals to make a compelling message. These examples look so effortless, and playful, we are led to believe they were easy solutions. Oddly, this is not so. I’ve seen some purty darned ugly patterns in my time. Patterns that make no sense, have no significance, and are simply a last resort created because Adobe Illustrator has a “duplicate” function. So, if you’re thinking, “Gee, I could just make a pattern for the next project. I’d be done in 10 minutes,” stop. It will take more time than you expect, you may fail and fall into a shame spiral. But, if you are patient and work hard, you may create something wonderful.

Reading Between the Lines

My father had a binder from work that was indecipherable. Yes, I can read, that wasn’t the problem. The company word mark had be twisted and turned into an insane pattern. That would be fine if he worked for a head shop, or music label. But he worked for an upstanding corporate computer program development firm, ADPAC. He wore a suit everyday. This was before computer companies played Nerf basketball. He explained that the point of the illegible, twisted pattern was to try and read it when you were high. I didn’t pursue it any further, and devoted myself to rational, modernist, legible typography.

As we grow older, we become more like our parents. Now, in my case, I certainly will not be getting high (except on life, because that’s just me), or taking LSD. However, I’ve grown to love the posters that are illegible. The point on all of these was to get stoned, or take acid, or something that puts you in another state of consciousness, and then stare at the poster. If you have a black light this only heightens the experience with the fluorescent inks. If you stare at it long enough, the message will slowly reveal itself. Alternatively, you may imagine yourself to be a piece of pie, in which case the experience is lost.

These images are from the Lou Danziger Archive.

Two, Two Symbols in One!

AdamsMorioka (hey it's my blog), UCLA Extension Summer

I’m sitting at Bob Hope Airport (Burbank), waiting for a flight. My post today is subsequently limited to what I have on my computer. Fortunately, I have a lecture that I give to my students about idea making. OK, yes, it could be dull. However, you can’t complain there was no educational value in the Burning Settlers Cabin.

Here is the problem: we experience the world in scenes. We watch scenes on television, we see them in life from eye level, and we see them in our mind when we listen to the radio or read a book. I realized this when I noticed a trend with my students. All of their solutions tended to be a depiction of a scene. If the assignment were a poster for “spring in Paris”, they would return with solutions of people sitting at tables with the Eiffel Tower behind them. But this is boring. This is what most movie posters are.

Lou Danziger taught me about the “fused metaphor”. This formula can be used when designing that combines symbol A with symbol B to produce a new result. This is my process: I make a list of every symbol, for example, Summer in Los Angeles: summer; sun, beach, beach umbrella, swimming pool; Los Angeles; freeway, oranges,  palm tree, etc. and then combine the symbols. What happens if you combine a freeway with the sun, or an orange and the beach? The solution is a combination of symbols that have more resonance than a scene of people sitting on Venice Beach.

Louis Danziger, American Paintings
Louis Danziger, American Paintings
Louis Danziger, The New York School
Louis Danziger, The New York School
Ivan Chermeyeff, War and Peace
Ivan Chermeyeff, War and Peace

Ivan Chermeyeff, Pepsi-Cola World
Ivan Chermeyeff, Pepsi-Cola World
Ivan Chermeyeff, Pepsi-Cola World
Ivan Chermeyeff, Pepsi-Cola World
George Nelson, The Misfits
George Nelson, The Misfits

George Lois, AIGA Paperbacks
George Lois, AIGA Paperbacks
Lou Dorfsman, CBS The Morning Show
Lou Dorfsman, CBS The Morning Show

Paul Rand, Origins of Modern Sculpture

Paul Rand, UCLA Extension Winter

Paul Rand, Modern Art in Your Life

The Award Awards

AIGA 1962

Terry Lee Stone and I were talking about the good old days of competitions.  We both agreed that we loved all of the printed ephemera that was produced each year for either AIGA 365, or the New York Art Director’s Club Show, or Western Art Director’s Club. I know this is really, really bad. It’s not a sustainable practice, and the world is a more caring place now that we do these communications digitally. But, to be asked to design everything from the poster to the award certificate for one of these competitions was a choice project. When Lou Danziger was moving out of his studio, one of Frank Gehry’s first buildings, he called Noreen and me and asked if we wanted anything. We managed to walk away with a George Nelson H leg table, Lou’s custom wood flat files, a copy stand, and Lou’s box of awards. For 15 years, the awards been carefully archived away.

Now, they have been released and some are displayed here. I especially love the 1962 AIGA award, presumably designed by George Tscherny. The “XIX” award can be seen on the walls of Sterling Cooper on Mad Men. The green and pink NYADC club award from 1963 has the most incredible swirls. And, finally, the AIGA mailing label on the tube, I know Paul Rand designed the AIGA logo, and the multi-talented Bart Crosby refined it, but this is tempting.

ADLA as seen on Mad Men

NYADC 1963

AIGA mailing label

ADLA

AIGA 1963

AIGA 1956

AIGA 1964

CA 1963

ADLA