Mixing Metaphors

George Tscherny, 1970

Here is the issue: 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. We experience life watching a play on a proscenium stage. This view of life leads to a way of articulating concepts based on the mise-en-scéne of a narrative. Imagine this: the assignment is to design a poster for American Airlines and celebrate “spring in Paris.”

A standard solution might be to use a photograph of people sitting at café tables and the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, or a happy couple strolling through Le marché aux Fleurs de l'Ile de la Cité (the flower and bird market). Many contemporary film posters adopt this articulation of an idea. The formula tends to follow the convention of three floating heads of the actors and a vignette of a scene below. 

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3 Heads and a Scene

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.


I'll keep this simple. I like work that doesn't try too hard. It's so easy to work on a project until I've beaten every last bit of life from it. It's good to know when to stop. And the work I like best looks like the designer did one thing like set the type in Akzidenz Grotesk and then said, "Yeah, I'm done." Perfect.

Young designers tell me all the time, "Are you sure, it seems empty." But the idea makes it full, and in fact it's not empty, it's filled with a ton of negative space. I think of it like dark energy and dark matter. It's strong enough to hold everything together. I deeply covet Richard Danne's desk calendar from 1974. I think there's that place in hell that I've mentioned before (the one where amateur musicians pull a guitar out at a party) for people who steal. But, I'd steal it.

All of these projects are confident and clear. They resonate with harmony because every tiny detail has been refined, refined, and refined. So try this on your next project. Do one thing and stop. It'll be hard and the evil workings of layers in Photoshop or Illustrator will be calling, "Add more, add more." Resist.

Stationery: spelled with an "e" for envelope

My friend, Kathy McCoy, recently asked if I had any Herbert Bayer images from his Colorado days. She checked with Lou Danziger who pointed out that we were the caretakers of his monumental slide archive of graphic design. After I pulled everything together, it was obvious that Bayer designed a lot of stationery, and I mean a lot.

The world is screaming insanely, "Print is dead, print is dead, the end is near!"  People may not be using letterhead for a casual note that can work on email, but they still use it in more formal situations. The good part of this is that clients want the best stationery with the options, not the down and dirty cheapest one. Now it really matters.

Bayer designed most of these at the Bauhaus and before he emigrated to the United States. The letterheads are all asymmetrical, use the golden section as a guide, and are designed for functionality. Since Modernism demanded that functional should be paramount, this makes sense.

When I design a letterhead I like to help the user also; add a short rule to delineate the fold, put a bullet where the date is typed, and guides that identify the margin.

Bayer takes this a little more seriously by identifying the location of every type of information. I'm certain that nobody tried to use too small of a margin or fail to line the date up with the type. I get the sense that this would have been a pretty serious infraction and all hell would break loose in the halls of the Bauhaus.

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.”
















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.

Not Flat

When I was a young designer, Lou Danziger showed me a booklet designed by Herbert Bayer. It took my breath away. Bayer used a Trompe-l'œil effect to simulate a collection of flowers on top of an open spread. This was one of those moments similar to noticing the arrow in the FedEx logo. It was as if a light had been turned on and the world looked entirely different. The page isn’t a 2-dimensional form? It’s a window into a 3-dimensional world? Who knew?

Clearly Bayer knew this. He used the Trompe-l'œil effect on other pieces including a Nazi propaganda piece in 1936. Paul Rand used the effect on a cover for American Apparel magazine beautifully. I’ve attempted to incorporate this idea into several pieces. Usually someone pipes up and says, “Is that some dirt on the page? What is that? Is that a bug?” Then last night when I was on press with Cedars-Sinai’s Discoveries magazine, my wish was granted. The editor, Laura Grunberger worked with us to create settings for a story on inspiration and new medical devices. In the midst of the press check, I was upset that someone had written on the press sheet before me. But, no, it was part of the effect of the setting. What joy.

Images from the Lou Danziger Collection

The Path Not Taken

Louis Danziger

For the past week I’ve been cranky, very, very cranky. There was a guy at the locker below mine at the gym who was getting dressed slowly and staring at the wall while I waited to get into my locker. I restrained myself from slamming him against the wall. Driving home yesterday, a minivan with the stickers of the family cut me off twice before deciding to turn right from a left hand lane. I wanted to follow them and drag the driver from the car. And I seem to be getting the message that no good deed goes unpunished repeatedly. Clearly less coffee is in order. I am then reminded that some of my heroes are the most patient and compassionate people I know.

Most Mondays at Art Center, I see Lou Danziger working with a student in the Faculty Dining room. He is doing the same thing with patience and invaluable help that he did with me when I was in school. Back then, I thought, “That makes sense, I’ll try that.” Now I realize how fortunate I was to work with Lou. It seems that there are two courses that you can follow as a designer. You can become increasingly bitter and angry and deride younger designers, or you can give back, mentor others, and champion younger designers. Lou clearly chose to be a mentor. I’m at that fork in the road where I need to make that choice. Perhaps I will choose to be a good mentor to designers, but a serious a-hole to people on the street.

The Award Awards 2

AIGA 1962

A few months ago, I posted some of the remarkable awards Lou Danziger gave me. We’ve considered framing them and putting them on our conference wall. It would look very impressive. But, a potential client might not understand how we won an award in 1962. A young woman, who was showing Noreen her portfolio, asked her if her father had started AdamsMorioka with me. So I guess I could pass for winning these, and Noreen could be the younger daughter of my original business partner.

I’ve always thought it was somewhat cheesy to have a wall of awards. We like to take the stance of, “We won’t boast.” We put our awards in a filing cabinet somewhere. If they were as beautiful as Lou’s was, though, I’d pull them up and fill a wall. Or maybe I’ll just use Lou’s and place them too high to read clearly.

AIGA 1970

AIGA Membership

Art Director's Club of Chicago

CA 1963

Art Directors Club of Los Angeles

Art Directors Club of Los Angeles, 1956

Art Directors Club of Los Angeles

New York Art Directors Club 1960

God bless Lou Danziger

Fortune magazine cover

A few weeks ago, Lou Danziger called and told us he was willing to part with his history slide library. Noreen immediately took him up on the offer and drove to his house to retrieve the treasure. I’d seen these slides before. Many, many, many years ago I was in Lou Danziger’s history of design class. This class was after lunch in a dark, warm room. Clearly, set up for sleeping. Now I wasn’t a kiss-ass (well, sort of), but I sat next to Lou and the old slide projector and was riveted. I remember the Lou’s description of the compositional structure of a Jules Chéret poster, and the ambiguity of color of a Josef Müller-Brockmann piece, but I was especially drawn to Alvin Lustig.

There was something tragic about his short life. He went blind from diabetes, insisted on continuing to design, and died at forty. His work is sublime. As usual, Steven Heller is the authority on Lustig, and his article “Born Modern” is an insightful and comprehensive analysis. I continue to be inspired by Lustig’s book covers. Including many of his pieces, I use the cover for Lorca’s 3 Tragedies as an example of juxtaposition in my class at Art Center. I like to think that this is a tribute, teaching at the same place he studied and lectured, and using his work as the highest example of an idea.

Fortune magazine cover

Alvin Lustig book covers

Camino Real book cover

3 Tragedies book cover

UPA logos

3 Wagons Full of Cotton book cover

Industrial Design magazine cover