When The World Was Young

Lester Beall

There is a point in life when I stopped being the youngest person in a meeting and then was the oldest. I find myself talking with someone who I assume must be older than me, and then learning we’re the same age. I recently realized that my grandparents were close to my age now when I was born. These points may sound sobering and point to a longing for youth; “Oh to be 80 again,” as Benjamin Franklin said. But, besides wishing I had the same waist size of my 30-year-old self, I have no desire to return to being in my twenties. 

When I started in the profession, I was the youngest such and such for a long time. Somewhere along the line as the generation before me retired or moved on to greener pastures, I became the old guard. This happens to all of us, which is better than being hit by a bus. 

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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/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.

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.

Nothing Matters


Mies van der Rohe's statement, less is more, is a basic tenet of modernism. It was a rejection of the decadent 19th-century eclectic Victorian excess. After the terrors of World War I, designers rejected the decorated and regional aesthetic adopted by the upper classes. To avoid another war, they sought to find a universal form of design. It would be based on pure geometry and mathematics. These had no political associations. When all people adopted these simple and pure forms, peace would flourish. 

But people are people. We like things. Nobody wants to live in a cold concrete cell with a mattress and steel chair. But, after the roller coaster of last week's election, I'm up for the simpler approach. 

Restraint is the hardest skill to master as a designer. To stop feels lazy, or unfinished. But the results of saying, "I'm done." can lead to simple and clear harmony. To continue can slowly move a solution from sublime minimalism to ordinary. With the right words, one black and white line of text on a page has power. Add an image, second color, and border, and it's nice. Only nice.

Just say no. Stop, and let something be what it is and no more. Do nothing.


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.

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

 

Is History Dead

There are some people who take design a little too seriously. Years ago, I knew a designer who refused to speak to me or look at me in the eye. Yes, it's understandable when you get to know me, but this was about design philosophy. I preferred clean, simple, and honest design with optimism. He was a self-identified post-modernist who saw the world as distopian and wanted to reflect that in his work. That was fine by me, I loved his work. It just wasn't what I did.

Even last week at the Paul Rand event I did at Design Within Reach, someone walked up to Louise Sandhaus and me, looked at both of us, turned from me, and said to Louise, "I'm happy to see YOU." Puhleeze. It's not like we're on a reality show.

P. Scott Makela was a post-modernist, genius, and all around nice guy. He never was anything but a good and generous friend. He did work that was different than mine, and that's what makes the field so exciting. He was one of the first people to give me encouragement early in my career. 

I was helping a designer on a project last week based on the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It gave me a chance to look back at some of Scott's remarkable work. The typography in Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream video is beautiful, crisp, and launched a digital revolution in font design. 

Scott's work with Laurie Haycock Makela, his wife, changed the profession. It stretched everyone's idea of digital possibilities, and it's damned beautiful.


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.

Paul Rand Migraine

Continental Airlines, Hawaii poster

On Wednesday I did a panel discussion with Louise Sandhaus and Michael Carabetta about Paul Rand. It was lively and the audience was full of great stories, strong opinions, and well dressed designers. Unfortunately I had the most horrific migraine and had to try to appear upbeat. Now some of you may say, "Just be yourself, everyone would understand." But a photo of Louise and Michael cheerfully discussing a Rand book cover while I stare into space vacantly won't translate well on facebook. 

As a result, I left as soon as the event finished and didn't have a chance to say hello to many people in the room who I really like. I'm sure they saw me hurry out and though, "What an asshole diva." And...

Following up with a post about Paul Rand is rather pointless. It's amazing, but he gets more coverage online than funny cat videos. So I end this week with simply the cool stuff I found or like, and one Paul Rand.

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.

The Pleasure of Small Problems

Sean Adams, 2014

Last week, I finished a poster for Dialogues: Poster Art of the Soviet Union. I could do anything I wanted. I chose to stay away from 45 degree angles and Constructivist typography. They just didn't go well with Khrushchev's testicle quote. I had a great time working on it, and hope it is useful for the event. But is it graphic design?

For a long time, the battle cry of design has been "problem solving." Well, what isn't? Create an urban signage system to help revitalize mid-Manhattan. Yep, problem solved. Design an information guide and website to help in an environmental disaster, check. Make an identity system and collateral for a homeless shelter, uh huh. But the problem with narrowing the focus of design onto only a tiny aspect is the inherent exclusion of anything that is deemed as not serious problem solving. If there isn't a multi-page case study, with dense research, clear results, and a sans serif font, then it's not design.

But where does that leave the work that is, frankly, just amazing without a giant purpose? Using the metric of justifying all design by the density of the issue negates most of the work that moved the profession forward. That Paul Rand Apparel Arts Magazine cover with the propeller, really? That had a deep purpose and widespread effect on the garment industry? No, so it's out. The same goes for Saul Bass' beautiful poster for The Music Center, Alexey Brodovitch's Ballet book, and a long list of work that shaped me as a designer.

I'll stick with not defining graphic design. It uses words, symbols, and images to communicate. Some of it solves problems that are big, some solve the problem of making me happy for a moment. That's good for me. Leaving this open allows for work that may be simply ridiculously wonderful.

Nothing

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.

Sideways

Gan Hosaya, 1969, ad  

There are times when a project just looks bad, like dog crap. I slave over it endlessly, and then I realize all it needs is to be turned on its side or upside down. Voila, it works. That's the issue when you don't print anything out and only see it on a screen. Sure you can turn your screen upside down or turn it on its side, but that could result in dropping it. The easiest solution is to send a file to print and than flip that baby around in all directions. What was once banal and expected becomes avant-garde and unsettling.

I love work that is sideways or upside down. It gets away from the standard point of view that we have in everyday life which is straight on from about 5 or 6 feet tall. Miraculously, you can see a different view from above or below, or lying on the ground and seeing the world on its side. This is why God gave people bendable joints. Photography at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s took advantage of this ad-nauseum. It was as if everyone there was climbing up the walls and hanging from the balconies. But the images are wonderful.

Posters and ads with moving vehicles are especially adaptable to this technique. Gan Hosaya's 1969 poster for Yamaha is one of my absolute favorite pieces of design ever produced. Think how dull it might have been if he simply let the image be turned 90 degrees. So the next time you're out taking photos, climb up on a table and shoot everyone from above. You'll be asked to leave, but end up with a snappy photo that isn't the same head and shoulders of someone holding a drink.

 

Martin Munkasci, 1935

Diving at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, Queensland, 1938

Paul Rand, Apparel Arts cover

Herbert Matter, 1935

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Max Huber, 1957

Max Huber, 1948

Joseph Binder, Graphis magazine, 1948

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsinkable Brown

Recently, a client asked for brown as a color option on a project. A couple of years ago, I would have resisted. But, brown has slowly been creeping into my mind. First, I found myself admiring the brown tile at the Honolulu Airport. Then, I decided I should move away from my earthquake safe Melmac dinnerware. So, I bought several settings of Heath Ceramics dinnerware.

The Heath colors are subtle, subtle and subtle. Seeing one brown combined with cream or tan plate convinced me that brown could be alright. Some of my favorite design solutions are brown. Does this mean I'm mellowing, or developing, God forbid, good taste? I still resist any attempt to put brown in bathrooms. Brown wall, tiles, fixtures, or accessories should never be used there. I won't go into details, but how do you know if someone previously had an "episode" in the bathroom if everything isn't bright white?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defense of Garish Acts

A few weeks ago I attempted to repaint my living room in sophisticated silver grey. This was a mistake. What looked beautiful in the Restoration Hardware catalogue looked like a prison cell in my living room. If I wanted to interrogate visitors, or slam them up against a wall with a shiv this would be perfect. I called my trusty painter Jeirro and he repainted it back to aqua and watermelon pink. Clearly I am doomed to what others refer to as bad taste or garish color.

In defense of garish color I point to some of our finest designers, Paul RandArt PaulTadanori Yokoo, and Paul Bruno. We think of these people as refined craftsmen. But did they shy away from magenta and orange, purple and lime green? No. They embraced it and ignored the calls from the sophisticated elite, “More beige, please.”

I’ve often used the baby mobile argument. If beige mobile and a brightly colored mobile are presented to a toddler, he or she will always gravitate toward the bright one. The bad things in life, rotten meat, deadly deep water, and coffins are dull and grey. The good things, non-poisonous berries, swimming pools, and pink Cadillacs are bright and cheerful. This is why clients react badly when presented a baby shit green poster, and cheer for the bright yellow and happy pink one.

Paul Rand, 1964

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.

Forbidden Love

Call me out of touch, but I love books. I recall being told in college to "spend money on books, not pot." Unfortunately, I was spending money on Top Ramen, not books nor pot. I'm not a book snob. I'm thrilled to find a copy of Tidewater Virginia as well as a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. While I spend many hours showing Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig jackets, I have a secret love for the jackets of the unknown. With titles such as Saphira and the Slave Girl, which sounds faintly lesbian-esque, how can you go wrong?

The New York Public Library has a remarkable digital collection of book jackets from 1926-1947. These aren't chosen by a select group of designers for high design aesthetic value. Research Libraries typically remove dust jackets and discard them before shelving the books. From 1926-1947 anonymous librarians collected and saved jackets they found interesting. They range from unbelievably wonderful, Greatest Show on Earth, to the odd, Less Eminent Victorians. As a collection, the design trends and resources become clear. The lack of color during the World War II period is obvious. The minimal usage of photography shows, not a preference for illustration, but the issues with printing technologies at the time. As it was common for an illustrator to be hired to draw the cover jacket, much of the typography is hand-lettered in wonderful ways.

The books here have a subtext of personal care. Someone handled this artifact, chose the cover, and carefully stored it in a scrapbook. Perhaps it's because my grandfather had a wonderful library, and my grandmother was never without a book, but these books all seem to have been loved.

Shown here is the first of a series on this subject. The book jackets images include the spine.

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 Only Constant is Change

I recently completed an identity program for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. I typically don’t use the Cabin to show my work, but this time I had a reason. The LFLA identity is a perfect example of the nature of flexible I.D. It has 8 possible typeface options, and 8 possible color options. The user can combine any of the two, resulting in a whopping 64 possible combinations. This conceptually links to LFLA’s commitment to be not about one idea only, but the widest range of voices, concepts, and information.

Twenty years ago, a logo was required to be one single design, with a fixed state of being. This still works, but people view brands in a different way. Perhaps it was the complete overload of logos by the end of the twentieth-century. Or, the viewer is able to process multiple ideas simultaneously (think about the complexity of a CNN screen). I’ve found that people under thirty are especially “logo promiscuous.” A logo can change color, form, and location. If one element is proprietary, which today is typically, the name, multiple versions work fine as identifiers.

So the issue then becomes not about pure identification with a neutral tone, but the integration of a mark into a complex system. I often talk about quantum physics in presentations. This bores everyone to no end. But, I look at communication today as an ever-changing set of parameters existing in a constant state of flux. At the same time, the communications must talk to several audiences in multiple ways about different ideas. A flexible identity system allows for a wider range of communicative strategies.

This all makes me wish for the days of hard-core old school corporate identity. Paul Rand designed the abc logo, told them it was black and not to mess with it. Easy as pie, but to add another simile, the reed that cannot bend will break.