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.

Please Remain Seated

I was cleaning out my garage yesterday and a neighbor stopped by to say hello. The door of my garage leads into my rumpus room (yes it's knotty pine, no we don't play bridge in there). There are several Disneyland attraction posters in the rumpus room and she saw them on the wall. "Oh, I love your posters," she said, "I mean I really, really love them." I thanked her and then worried she might come back with a weapon.

This happens anytime anyone sees them. Even hardened academic post-modern/critical theory obsessed designer types like them. "Hmm, that isn't bad, I guess," they say.

Why is that? First, they are remarkably well designed. Second, they're big and people like big things. Third, they remind the viewer of a good experience. And finally, they tap into the common iconography of travel and adventure.

So, let's start with the influences. The Disneyland Hotel poster (above) borrows arrows from Beall's Rural Electrification poster, and geometric shapes from Russian Constructivism.

Clearly the WPA National Parks posters informed the design of many of the Disneyland attraction posters. The illustration style is representational. Larger than life scale defines the space. Dramatic lighting and bold colors dominate. The Grand Canyon Diorama poster is a close cousin to the See America poster.

Early American modernism, ala Lester Beall and Joseph Binder, is related with stylistic elements such as arrows and the use of implied perspective created with scale. The Skyway poster's perspective employs the same device of extreme scale as the Binder Air Corps U.S. Army poster.

The idea of a strong foreground combined with a distant vista links the Frontierland and The National Parks WPA poster. The color choices in both examples veer from the expected, a sunny blue sky or water, to more dramatic options such as an orange sky on the WPA poster and ochre water on the Frontierland poster. Flat color and simple shapes define a silkscreened process in both examples.

Most important, however, is the inclusion of narrative. The posters promise a story. They exhibit bobsledding with super tan people, dangling from a thin wire on a gondola, or braving wild animals through the Grand Canyon Diorama. Each poster conveys a sense of time, place, and typically makes the viewer part of the action.

Yes, this has been an adventure through a serious dissertation on Disneyland attraction posters. But there is no cause for alarm. We have concluded this post, and future posts will return to less words.








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 Friendly Swiss

Herbert Matter

There are two sayings in Hollywood that I like: "The ass you kick on the way up is the one you kiss on the way down," and "Blame others, take credit, deny everything." I know quite a few people that live by the motto of blame, credit, etc., and ignore the ass kicking advice. I've known fine designers who, after the first taste of fame, became heinous and awful divas making demands and driving kind conference organizers to tears. And I know fine designers who have been famous for years and are the first to wrestle credit away from others. My friend, John Bielenberg, suggested I start a magazine or blog that is like Vanity Fair of the design world, telling all the stories. That sounds fun, but I'd like to keep at least the few friends I still have.

Conversely, I am endlessly amazed at the down to earth, generous nature of some of the industries legends. 90% of them are just good people, willing to help others, devote time, and always have a funny story at dinner. From what I understand, Herbert Matter was one of the least pompous designers in the field. I've never heard anything that paints him as difficult or negative. From all accounts, he was a true mensch. You wouldn't expect that from his work. It's so brilliant and confident that the author would have all the right in the world to be a jerk. But, it's proof that either we as designers are, on the whole, pretty darned good. Or we're nitwits and falling behind while other in different professions claw, stab, and blackmail their way to the top.

Don't be alarmed, three "Herbert" stories in a row does not mean the next one will be about Herbert Hoover.

Yes, It Can Be This Good

This could be YOUR home

I've had many conversations with designers who want to start making products. "I was thinking it would be cool to make stationery and paper goods for people," is the most common concept. This sounds nice, but there really are too many stationery and paper goods things out there already. That doesn't mean we don't talk about it as well. I'm always up for diversification. My ideas tend to not go very far.

First, I wanted to open a brothel that was nicely designed. I imagined a "W" Hotel kind of brothel, not the kind in old mobile homes with flocked red wallpaper. As it turns out, this is illegal in California. And Noreen wasn't that keen on the concept.

Then I wanted to make a bar for alcoholics. It seems like total sobriety is rather severe, so why not make a bar where the drinks are super weak. You could have ten cocktails and still be fine. Also, we would make more money because the drinks were watered down. This idea didn't work either. I now know that you can't give alcoholics just a little drink.

Noreen solved the problem when she realized we had products already. Twenty years of posters that people buy from us already. We thought about making a section of our website a shop, but that's a lot of work. So we went to people who already know what they are doing and have great taste. Our friends, Doug Jaeger and Kristin Sloan have a fantastic online store. Now anyone can buy limited edition AdamsMorioka posters and wallpaper entire rooms. And it doesn't encourage alcoholism or prostitution.

 

Show your friends your fine taste

Kitchens should be cheerful

Variation is the spice of life

Getting Lit

Dunham & Deatherage

When I was in middle school, I had friend who's family owned an inexpensive motel in downtown Reno. Yes, it was that glamorous. After playing basketball we'd go to his house and his mother would give us quarters that came from the slot machine in the motel office. We'd take the money and buy pizza then hang out in my friend's big brother's room. I'm sure everyone had a friend with a big brother who smoked pot, had an American flag hanging on the wall, needed a haircut or two, and loafed around all day. I should have been impressed by his coolness factor, but never really was. He was always too stoned, looked dirty, and his balls would fall out of his too short shorts when he passed out. But his room was covered with black light posters lit by an overhead black light. Seriously groovy.

The black light posters of the 1960s and 70s were printed with fluorescent inks and displayed under black light that intensified their psychadelic-ness. If you've been on a dark ride like Buzz Lightyear at Disneyland, you know the effect. The subject matter was aimed at horny teenage pot smoking boys: naked women, marijuana references, rock and roll, and comics. Some of the early Fillmore posters were beautifully designed, the later ones fall into the category of black velvet paintings of leopards. I can't decide if they are truly hideous or so hideous that they transcend into wonderful. I do know that if you find yourself in a friend's room filled with these you may be with the wrong crowd.

Silver Surfer

Alexander Rotany, 1972

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Steve Sachs, 1967

Zodiac Lovers 1975

War Queen, 1970

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David Norda, 1968

Enjoy, 1973

Movin' On Up

I’m heading off to introduce my good friend, Julie Beeler for an AIGA lecture. Now Julie is one of the smartest people I know. She’s cracker-jack fast and makes me feel like a low grade somnambulist moron. So the idea of designing a poster that captured her skill, intellect and the amazing work at Second Story was scary. Of course, I ignored all that and started on my own wacky craft project. You know you’re in trouble when you find yourself asking the office, “Do we have any tiny felt flowers? Does anyone know how to make yarn look like a bow?” I expected Julie to recoil when she saw the poster and exclaim, “You moron!” But, she took the high road and said she liked it just fine.

Cat People

Here is an old trick if you are in vaudeville or desperately need to have something approved: add a cat or dog. I know it’s said to never share the stage with pets, but when the crowd is angry, nothing works better to make everyone happy. This is how it works. You are working on an annual report. Every cover is rejected. The client yells at you, This is garbage. Get out!" Now, try adding a kitten or puppy; voila, as if magic the approvals roll in. While judging a competition, I overheard a judge say, “Oh, it’s not so good. But it has a cute dog on the cover. I have to vote for it.” See how easy it can be.

I did have an instance in class when the cat or dog trick didn’t work. The assignment was to design a poster around a meaningful cause (this was a wayward attempt to do something for social good). The posters ranged from issues such as abortion, marriage equality, veterans issues, and censorship. The idea that never made sense to me, though, was cat rape. The designer of this subject told me, “It’s true and awful. There are gangs of young men in Los Angeles who roam the streets looking for cats to rape.” I was stunned. Who knew such a thing happened? I know anything kinky can be found online, but I cannot imagine that this activity is so widespread that it needs addressing with public service posters.

If I were an logical person, I would have said, “No. That won’t work, pick a different subject.” But I was transfixed by the mechanics of this activity and wanted to see the design solution. Did the gangs have outfits with fake whiskers? Were they aroused when reading The Cat in the Hat? How did they feel about the white Fancy Feast cat on TV? Would they be “cat” burglars?

Stupidly, I argued with her. “This isn’t possible anatomically. Really, think about that. And cats are cranky and scratch you if you pick them up. I can guarantee that not many people are interested in putting an angry, meowing, squirming, scratching, and biting feline close to a sensitive area of the body.” She didn’t back down, and insisted this is an ongoing epidemic of violence. Maybe she knows something I don’t and the media is ignoring it because it is so heinous.

Pattern Recognition

Once in awhile, I find a great piece of design I’d never seen. This week, I discovered Herbert Bayer’s cover for Arquitectura magazine. Yes, I’m a sucker for intense color and pattern. But, then, who isn’t? I love when a designer uses pattern to reference cultural ideas. If we strive to create work that makes something mundane spectacular, pattern is a wonderful tool. Giovanni Pintori’s 1949 Olivetti poster uses simple numerals to make a compelling message. These examples look so effortless, and playful, we are led to believe they were easy solutions. Oddly, this is not so. I’ve seen some purty darned ugly patterns in my time. Patterns that make no sense, have no significance, and are simply a last resort created because Adobe Illustrator has a “duplicate” function. So, if you’re thinking, “Gee, I could just make a pattern for the next project. I’d be done in 10 minutes,” stop. It will take more time than you expect, you may fail and fall into a shame spiral. But, if you are patient and work hard, you may create something wonderful.