Sending the Elevator Back Down

Filmforum, 1994

When I decided to step away from AdamsMorioka and focus on, forgive the do-gooder tone, working with younger designers, or sending the elevator back down, I worried that people would think I stopped designing myself. Then I realized this was vanity and pride and had no place in moving forward. But every once in awhile it rears its ugly head. At a meeting today, someone asked, "do you have time to work with your own clients in addition to the Art Center work?" I had to admit I recently turned down a signage project because I was already over booked and did not want to start a studio with large staff again. But, I just finished a bandana design for a client.

I felt small. But again, that has nothing to do with the work. It's just pride. And doing something or not because of pride is always a bad idea. The day ended with seeing work I could never imagine doing myself from a group of younger designers. That made it worth it.

I'v been adding work to the BSC site over time, which is like using a time machine. I found a series of projects I did back in 1994, before AdamsMorioka, AIGA, Lynda.com, and Burning Settlers Cabin. You aren't supposed to share old work. It makes you look old. But it reminded me that I was once that young designer, who was helped enormously by Saul Bass, Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Bierut, and Paula Scher.

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.

Obsessed

Recently, a young designer met with me and talked about obsession. "I'm worried it's wrong, but I get obsessed about something and can't stop," she said. She wasn't talking about Justin Bieber or heroin. She gave the example of string art. "I can't stop looking for it online and want to learn how to do it." Who doesn't?" was my reply.

I don't know where she heard that being obsessed was bad. Sure, if you're stalking someone and build a shrine with sacrifices for them you may have a problem. But I've been working on my OCD family tree for years and never tire of it. Paula Scher makes wonderful paintings of maps. Marian Bantjes works with pattern. Massimo Vignelli couldn't get enough Bodoni. Being obsessed is part of the job.

Ken Briggs was a British designer responsible for many of the beautiful posters for the National Theatre in London. Clearly, Briggs was obsessed with the New Typography, inspired after seeing a copy of Josef Müller Brockmann's Neue Grafik. The posters relentlessly use Helvetica, golden section proportions and grids. But, Briggs took the rigid rules and tweaked them with surprising color choices and offbeat photographic solutions. He added a dry British wit to a sterile approach.

Briggs didn't do this once, or for a couple of months. He did it over and over and over. And thank God for that obsession. The lesson here, obsession makes perfection.

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The Bad, The Powerful, and The Beautiful

At lunch a few weeks ago, Paula Scher asked me if I had any criminals in my family history. The British considered most of them criminals and traitors during the revolutionary war. During the Civil War, some ended up in Union prisons. The most notorious family member was Lewis Thornton Powell, a distant cousin (we have common ancestors on the Lewis, Thornton, Powell, and Harrison lines). Powell was convicted and hanged with the other conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Otherwise, the family scandals or rumors of unorthodox behavior were of a romantic nature.

William Christian Bullitt married the noted communist and ex-wife of John Reed, Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds). She slowly went mad, had an affair with Gwen Le Gallienne and died alone in Paris. Amelie Rives Chanler Troubetzkoy divorced her first husband; Astor heir Archie Armstrong Chanler, then married Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy. Troubetzkoy was described by the women of New York and Newport society as “a fine specimen of a man.” Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's true love from 1915 until his death in 1945. She was with him the day he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia.

The most controversial story is about the nature of cousin Joshua Fry Speed’s relationship with President Lincoln. If nobody ever discussed Lucy Mercer and FDR at dinner, you can imagine that the Lincoln and Speed issue was never mentioned. The facts are these: Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois as a young attorney. Upon his arrival, he went to Speed’s store to inquire about a room. Speed suggested Lincoln stay with him, as he had a large bed. Lincoln moved in and they lived together for seven years. Speed eventually returned to the family plantation, Farmington, in Kentucky to marry Fannie Henning. Lincoln had a nervous breakdown and went to Farmington to recover. He then returned to Springfield and married Mary Todd. Speed and Lincoln remained best friends, although a cooling occurred during the civil war. Speed was a southern Democrat and opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. He made many confidential trips to Washington to visit Lincoln, and saw him two weeks before the assassination (refer to Lewis Thornton Powell above—see how convoluted this all is). Speed’s brother, James served on as Attorney General in Lincoln’s administration.

Now whether this friendship was platonic or more isn’t particularly important to me. Who knows? Who cares? What matters to me is that this is now an interesting anecdote to be told at cocktail parties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Story

Lately, you may have noticed a longer time between postings here. Yes, of course, I’ve been busy. A new term at Art Center just began; I’m working on a new book, several time intensive projects, and heading to the Dice conference tomorrow to speak. Nevertheless, I’ve been busy for years. The saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” applies to me. The issue is graphic design. I spend all day with it. I teach, write, and yammer on about it. Lately, when I think about posting something I look at possible design pieces and think, “I am so over this.” Don’t worry. It’s a passing phase, and I’m bound to find some design I’m inspired by soon.

To escape typography, I watched Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ryan’s Daughter again recently. They are all remarkable. If you haven’t seen these, they aren’t what you think. Yes, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter are love stories. But they are played out on such a vast scale against epic times. And, they are extraordinarily and exquisitely designed.  David Lean’s vision is clear and refined. Julie Christie (who looks remarkably like Paula Scher) is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The Panavision cinemascope and color is unbelievable. These are big, big, big movies. This is what a movie is supposed to look like.

I admit, there are some aspects that didn’t age well. Everyone’s makeup in Doctor Zhivago is a little heavy and runs toward a groovy 1965 dark eyes, light lips look. As T. E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole captures a complex and troubled character, but he should have said “no,” to the third application of mascara.

Finally, there is a scene in Ryan’s Daughter that is my favorite in any film. It’s only a moment, when Sarah Miles lies on the forest ground and looks up. The camera points up to the tree's canopy. There is no music, only the sound of the rustling leaves and creaking of the branches as they barely move in the wind.

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.

Yes, Master. I will do your bidding.

The UCLA Extension Masters of Design program was conceived and managed by InJu Sturgeon. InJu had the genius idea to elevate the utilitarian course catalogue covers working with some of the world’s best designers. Paul Rand designed the first cover in 1990. The program soon became the coveted assignment. Other designers including Saul Bass, Paula Scher, Woody Pirtle, Ivan Chermayeff, and Michael Bierut have tackled the same assignment: education, Los Angeles, the season, and extension. In 1998, we were honored to be asked to design our first cover. This was daunting, solving the same assignment as some of our heroes. Michael Vanderbyl was the encouraging voice for us, and convinced us to have fun. The series could easily have become a hodge-podge of crazed egos. But InJu’s remarkable skill handling designers consistently leads to some of the best work. When working with InJu, it is immediately clear that there is no room for diva-esque behavior. Hence my typical screaming, demanding, and abusive approach was not welcome. And I have never net anyone so adept at motivating me to do better.

Mash-up o' Crap

I have a big plastic bin labeled “Favorite Things”. This bin is filled with; you guessed it, our favorite things. Every few months I go through the bin and weed out the garbage. It seems that the Favorite Things bin can become a dumping ground for any item that has no home. If you came into the office and found the bin, you would probably say, “Whoa, what a bunch of crap.” I imagine Michael Bierut’s Favorite Things bin filled with beautiful items designed by Massimo Vignelli, Paula Scher, and Woody Pirtle. Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand’s box has rare books by Paul Klee, Alvin Lustig, and Paul Rand. Michael Vanderbyl must have a box filled with a magnificent collection of classic black and white photography.

Our bin, as you can imagine, is filled with Dixie Cups, a piece of wallpaper with a repeat pattern of antique cars, 1972 maps of Berlin from a European Bus company, and other worthless artifacts. Today, I will begin the slow reveal of the items. Today’s mash-up of crap is a 1964 travel pack of Kleenex Tissues, a Technicolor brand envelope, a lovely package of napkin/guest towels, and a Dinah’s Fried Chicken menu. Don’t say you can’t find the height of western culture here at the cabin.

Nitsche Didn't Say, "Design Gods are Dead"

There’s been an ongoing debate for a few years regarding design heroes. Some say the younger generation no longer needs or wants heroes, others argue that heroes are a vital part of our design experience. Personally, I cannot imagine my career without the inspiration and guidance of so many “hero” designers. In school, I looked at their work and tried to understand how they made something, and what I could take from that knowledge. When I graduated I followed the career paths already blazed by these designers. When we started AdamsMorioka, I turned to them for support and advice. Today, I show their work to my students. I do this, not so they can copy someone, but to show them different ways of thinking and making. I have never taught a class when someone did not say, "I never knew. I never thought about it that way."

Last night, I went to the AIGA Bright Lights event. This was previously the AIGA Design Legends Gala, but it was renamed this year. Brian Collins pointed out to me that Design Legends Evening sounded like a drag show in Las Vegas. Jennifer Morla, Steve Frykholm, and John Maeda were honored with the AIGA Medal. This event has always been like the best high school reunion you can imagine. It’s as if every single great friend you’ve had is in the same room. This is also a time when we celebrate and recognize the achievements in our profession. This may seem frivolous, insular, and self-congratulatory, but it isn’t. It’s vital that we support and celebrate one another. It elevates all of us and maintains our commitment to excellence and generosity.

I don’t want to live in a world where there are no heroes, where all designers have been deemed ordinary. What we do is a remarkable gift, unique to each of us. I want to look at someone’s work and be humbled. I want to be at an event and feel awkward meeting a famous designer. We need heroes for ourselves and for those outside our profession. Some are saying there are no heroes, that this is an idea of the past. But they simply do not know where to look.

John Maeda, AIGA Medal 2010

Just Say No to Snarky

Last week I went to Chicago to speak at the Cusp Conference. Pat and Greg Samata, Dave Mason, and Kevin Krueger of smbolic are the organizers and couldn’t have been more gracious, or accommodating. I’ve known Pat and Greg for 15 years and they have always been a huge inspiration to me. Some of the presenters made me rethink some basic issues. It was an amazing experience.

During a break, I sat down with a well-known character in the design world (to be named when I write the book, when I’m old). For 15 minutes, he told me about his enormous success, invention of everything, and impatience with everyone else in the world. He said nothing positive about anything else. He finished with a fine story about slamming other speakers at a different conference.

Now, I may be old fashioned, but I’ve spent a career with designers who embody generosity. From Saul Bass, Michael Vanderbyl, Paula Scher, Dana Arnett, Michael Bierut, Jennifer Morla, and a long, long list (also to be included in the book), the example has always been to give back, reinforce others and be kind. I think the days of unkind and snarky designers are over. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, “whenever we tear at the fabric of the lives which another designer has painfully and clumsily woven for himself, whenever we do this, then the whole profession is degraded.” I would propose that the next time another designer is patronizing or unkind to you, you say this, “You sir, are no gentleman,” unless it’s a woman, in which case, “You, madam, are no lady.” You may slap them with your gloves, if you are inclined to a duel. Unless it’s me, then remember I’m easily confused.