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, the medalist page, and this site Also look at my 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



Jennifer Morla, photo: Jock McDonald

I was in Las Vegas yesterday doing a speaking engagement for AIGA Las Vegas and Mohawk. The term "design rock star" was thrown about quite a bit. While this might seem flattering, it's remarkably unsettling. I'm just me, kind of a bozo. A "design rock star" is someone like Jennifer Morla. Since we're on a roll with powerful women designers in San Francisco, Jennifer must be included. She is from the generation that followed Marget Larsen and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. She began her career when San Francisco was a field of Michael's (Vanderbyl, Cronin, Mabry, Manwaring, Schwab...). See no girls here. Jennifer entered the scene and stood as tall (sort of) as the dudes.

Jennifer made and continues to make work that could only be made in San Francisco. It is playful and light, Victorian and sleek, dark and complex. Like San Francisco, the work is a study in contradictions. A DWR catalogue has organic imagery of a bird set, not in a forest, but on a minimal modernist white background. Jennifer's felt screen uses forms that would typically be constructed with materials such as lace, but are re-presented with a utilitarian textile. The Mexican Museum recasts Frida Kahlo as a large set of photo-mechanical halftone dots, denying the painterly or sentimental representation typical of Kahlo. Each project slams one form against another creating work that is always unexpected and wonderful.

I can't say that envy is a big part of my emotional composition. I know that everyone has their own wacky shit going on even if the exterior looks perfect. And like every designer, I have the sensation of joy and discovery when I find a designed item that I wish I'd done. However, when Jennifer showed me her solution for the Clorox 100 Anniversary book, I was jealous. I was envious that she did something so remarkable and simple using the Clorox plastic material as the cover, and I would never have thought of that. And I was really envious that she owned that artifact. I wanted to have it for myself. This is pretty positive proof that a solution is great. I regret my sinful thoughts of envy, but excuse myself as it was caused by the extraordinary. And she has the most magnificent laugh.


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Reject the Small

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Sea Ranch

After my last post about Marget Larsen, Michael Vanderbyl reminded me about the remarkable Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Solomon was another woman working in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. And, again, another incredible talent who left the field too early. In Solomon's case, she left graphic design in 1977 to pursue a career as a fine artist.  This was predicated by the choices and options that were available to a working woman designer with children at that time.

As Solomon points out in a recent interview in Creative Review"Now that I happily live alone with my dog I have time to think, and I realise that I was always so frantically busy making money to live, taking care of my daughters and worrying about men, that I never had time to think, least of all about my work. At my office I just drew up the first design I visualised so that I could leave to pick up Chloe or Nellie from school, shop for dinner, cook and clean, play wife and do all the stuff that working mothers do."

Reading this description without seeing the work would point to delicate and polite typographic solutions, not Solomon's aggressive and bold aesthetic. This work has balls. It is unapologetic, confident, and in your face. It transforms architecture and space. When she left the field, Solomon wanted to unlearn the Swiss modernism she was taught. Put this in the context of work in the 60s and 70s; precise, refined, and modernist design spoke to the idea of expertise. Raw, hand-made, and "bad" work was counter-culture, rejecting the idea of expertise and authority.

What Solomon created, was indeed counter-culture. While it relied on modernist forms, it pushed them past the limitations of rigorous Swiss typography and commanded attention.


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Left of Center


Many of you have written me and asked, "Sean, WTF? What happened to Burning Settlers Cabin?" The simple answer is that I have four jobs: AdamsMorioka, Art Center, AIGA, and As you know, I was also in Berlin for three months for the Art Center TestLab. And, of course, I have a very busy routine hanging out at the country club drinking martinis, tennis lessons, and playing golf every afternoon. But now, I'm getting a handle on it all and back to bring optimism back to the world.

In between my freshman and sophomore year at college, I was asked to interview at Landor and Associates for an internship. The interview was remarkably humiliating. The first comment being, "Uh, you might want to consider cleaning up the rubber cement on your projects, and using something other than a chainsaw to trim them." The downside was no internship. The upside was a great lesson that my sloppy, messy CalArts portfolio wouldn't fly in the actual professional world.

In my head, I imagined all the work in San Francisco to be like the remarkable packaging Marget Larsen did there. Her projects for Joseph Magnin were light and playful and people coveted them. They have a tinge of counter-culture, Victorian eclecticism, and clear Modernism. Most importantly, they were fun. They didn't look constipated, uptight, and angry. It was clear that the designer enjoyed making them. Today, when every project is run through ten committees and budget is the highest concern, it is hard to imagine anyone giving the green-light to a box that turns into a Thonet chair or multi-colored set of game boxes. Larsen's work is ground-breaking and was widely imitated. She had the misfortune of working at a time when few women in the profession were recognized on a coast where only "far-out and wacky" work was produced.

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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.

Marget Larsen

Marget Larsen, cardboard Thonet chair

I have a romanticized idea of design in the 1960s and 70s. I imagine the designers of that time sitting at their drafting tables, ordering type, calling an airbrush illustrator, sketching wildly on their large pads, and jumping into their Corvettes to hang at a local Victorian bar with the other designers. Early in my career, I went to Robert Miles Runyon’s office in Marina Del Rey for an internship interview. I recall a woody interior with macramé and hanging ferns. It was very “Regal Beagle” from Three’s Company.

I never met Marget Larsen, she died prematurely in 1984, but I imagine her in this way: “Here’s a sketch,” I imagine her saying to young designer in a white shirt and black tie, “I’m thinking Caslon.” then sitting back and drawing curly-cues. The work is sublime and looks so effortless. Of course, it was probably much more difficult.

Larsen worked in San Francisco. She worked on ads for whisky, bread packaging, and fashion stores. Her touch was delicate and bold at the same time. There is a slight touch of Victoriana and assemblage in the work. Her sense of typography for ads designed while she was at Weiner & Gossage elevated their genius copy and gave them national standing. These ads move away from the traditional composition of product image, headline, secondary copy and logo in the bottom right corner. They are designed with the presumption that the audience is literate and can read. My favorite Larsen design is the cardboard Thonet chair. It’s one of those ideas that I see and say, “Why didn’t I think of that? Can I copy it and nobody will know?” Since I’m publishing it here, I guess not.

Marget Larsen, Dean Swift Snuff

Marget Larsen, Paul Masson ad

Marget Larsen, Irish Coffee ad

Marget Larsen, Whiskey ad

Marget Larsen, Parisian Sourdough Bread


Marget Larsen, Dean Swift Snuff packaging, 1964

One of my students recently asked me if this blog was all 1960s stuff. Absolutely not. I’m completely temporally promiscuous. That being said, the CA Annual from 1964, CA’64, is especially wonderful and filled with pieces not often published. Marget Larsen is an unsung hero of the design world, and her Dean Swift Snuff packaging is rich and beautiful. And finally, George Tscherny’s design for the Burlington Annual Report is concise, ordered, hopeful, and elegant. There is a light and witty example of fumetti (a style of making comics from photographs) done for ADLA (Art Director’s Club of Los Angeles now incorporated into AIGA Los Angeles) by Gollin, Bright, and Zolotow. First name references for those of you who didn't hang out with the LA designers in 1964 are: Robert Miles Runyon, Saul Bass, Keith Bright, Norman Gollin, Milt Zolotow, and Buddy Berke.

George Tscherny, Burlington Annual Report 1964

George Tscherny, Burlington Annual Report 1963

George Tscherny, Burlington Annual Report 1963