The Design of Comfort

Several years ago, the organizers at TypeCon asked me to do a presentation on the typography of Disneyland. I assumed that the research would lead to a collection of novelty typefaces. What I found, however, was an incredibly dense design solution beyond typography with intentional choices to create a specific experience. The typography, color, scale, point of view, sounds, and smells worked as a whole communicating energy, invention, American ingenuity, mid-western values, and reassurance.

Main Street, USA, is the entry point at Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and other Disney parks globally. It is a representation of small-town America at the turn of the twentieth century. Main Street is not a perfect recreation of a town in 1890. There are no garbage filled doorways, telephone poles, muddy streets, and rather unpleasant drunk people carrying guns. Main Street is a representation of the idea of a mythical small town.

Disneyland’s original designers came from a film background. They designed every element to work cohesively to convey a narrative. Main Street is not a cute and saccharine mini-mall of false fronts. It is a well-considered and detailed construction.

The park’s guests are not spectators in the environment. They are actors on a stage. The designers created the experience of entering the park to simulate the beginning of a motion picture theater experience. The guest passes through a dark tunnel below the railroad tracks in the same way that theater lights dim as a film starts. 

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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/ 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.

The View from Here

I gave a talk about the narrative design of Disneyland at the Cusp conference a couple of years ago. I covered the idea of a cinematic experience and viewer participation. The visual landscape of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World is carefully planned to create an experience like a film. For example, the tunnels on either side of the Main Street train station act like the darkening of a theater, then the guest passes onto Main Street and the “film” begins. But, the viewpoint is not straight down Main Street toward the castle. It’s to the right or left, then as the guest moves into the park, the view is revealed. The castle acts as a draw, or in Disney terms, a “weenie” and the guest is pulled toward the center of the park.

Each vista is planned to serve as a setting, information delivery vehicle, navigation device, and entertainment. At the same time, the overall sense of security and familiarity is created. Think of the experience this way: there are long shots of a Panavision nature, medium shots of singular buildings, close-ups of pedestrian level windows and doors, and detail shots of individual elements such as a birdcage on a porch or old apothecary bottles in a window.

While others are taking photos of their friends or family members in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, I’m shooting the long shots and details. I’ve found shooting panoramas by standing in one spot and rotating 360 degrees, or moving down the street and taking a picture every twenty feet to work well. Of course it looks crazy, but so what?

As a side note, once again, bring your subject close and let the castle be a background. Unless you need to shoot their entire outfit with shoes, we don’t need to see their entire body. There is no need to be upset when people walk between you and the subject 50 feet away. If I see you do this I will purposely walk between you and the subject and stand there.

Walt Disney World Main Street east

The Innocents Aboard

If you come to Disneyland with me, you will have a dull time. Since I can go at any time, any attraction with a line is out of the question. I avoid the parade after seeing it for the first time. I prefer a slow and easy experience. I like sitting on Main Street, riding the Disneyland Railroad, and the Mark Twain Riverboat.

It’s not that the attractions with lines aren’t worth the wait. I typically say, “Oh, too long. Let’s do that next time.” So, you can see, after walking around the park with me passing every attraction, you would not be happy.

Here’s the secret to sitting on Main Street: get some popcorn, or ice cream and sit on a bench at the Railroad Station. If you buy ice cream, never go to Gibson Girl. Use the Main Street Cone Shop, which is on the side street behind the Market House. Don’t sit on the curb, unless you're watching a parade. It’s like being homeless at Disneyland and people may step on you.

When you ride the Mark Twain, head for the Promenade Deck (the second floor for land-lubbers) and the bow of the ship. Everyone else will race up the stairs to the top Texas Deck, or scramble for the chairs on the Main Deck. Relax, and take in the scenery. There’s no need to race around the ship like a headless chicken; you can ride it as many times as you like. And go to the bathroom before boarding. You don’t want to be on the far side of Tom Sawyer Island and tugging on doors hoping to find a restroom. There isn’t one.

Nostalgia for Retro

LP Cover, 1955

I like retro-retro. This is a little complicated and we could quickly veer into post-modern appropriation and pastiche of a previous era’s appropriation and pastiche. Don’t worry, I won’t. Put simply, I like a reinterpretation of another time's nostalgia, like the 1970s version of the 1950s on Happy Days, or the 1960s love for the 1920s.

Starting during World War II, there was nostalgia for America at the turn of the century. There is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone involving a harried executive and a small town, Willoughby, in 1890, Meet Me in St. Louis has a Technicolor version of Missouri in 1904, and, of course, Main Street, USA at Disneyland is a perfect example of a 1950s interpretation of small town America, 1890-1910. Fitting perfectly within this arena is Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland jazz band formed by Ward Kimball and a group of animators at the Disney studios in the 1940s. The band wore turn of the century fireman outfits, antique fire hats, and had a 1914 American La France fire truck. They made 13 albums and often performed on Main Street. This aesthetic and their LP covers talk about a perceived simpler time, when an increasingly complicated 1950s public imagined an even simpler time when firemen formed their own band and sat on the porch of the old firehouse with a Dalmatian and creaky rocking chairs.

LP cover, 1958

LP cover, 1956

LP cover, 1956

LP cover, 1954

LP cover, 1955