Smiley Smile

LEFT: Close To You (1970) Art Direction: Tom Wilkes. Photography: Kessel/Brehm Photography. RIGHT: The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers(1971) Art Direction: Craig Braun. Photography: Billy Name.

At a recent conference, one of the audience members asked me, “Are you always this cheerful and upbeat?” My first thought was, “Are you mad? I’m mostly unpleasant.” The question should not be surprising to me, however. For twenty-five years I have been described with these words: friendly, clean, all-American, and Southern California. I've never contradicted this message. In fact, I reinforced it. But I now find it odd that regardless of age, what I do, and how my work evolves, those words still follow me. I’ll just look on the bright side. 

As designers, we strive for a well-communicated, pure message. Our goal being to reinforce the brand and create proprietary value. Consider the Carpenters. Now some of you may be thinking, "Oh, I love them." and others, "Really, the Carpenters? Really?" But the Carpenters were packaged and branded with a clear and specific message, one that, at times, was contrary to reality.
 

From 1970 through 1976, every Carpenters single was a number one or two on the charts. They had five top ten albums and sixteen consecutive top twenty hit singles. The Carpenters are one of the most successful musical brands of the second half of the twentieth-century. Their image was relentlessly upbeat, clean, and sweet. The press described them as Pepsodent-smiling, sticky-sweet, and pleasant. These are valuable attributes for your son or daughter’s prom date but minimized the Carpenters musical talent or success.

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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.

On The Sentimental Side

As I sit here at my desk writing, I am listening to the Longines Symphonette Society's version of My Favorite Things. You may think this is a hyper-hip new group that one finds on KCRW. But it is not. It is as easy listening as it sounds. It amazes me that I can find such a wealth of easy listening on Spotify. Why would hipsters listen to The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra's Music for Romance? They may be cool and have beards, bangs, and beanies, but I'm sure even hipsters entertain. And perhaps they would prefer the dulcite tones of Lawrence Welk during dinner rather than STRFKR.

On that note, I pulled out some of my favorite records. It's easy to make fun of the design of these, but is that really fair? Yes, they have sexual overtones and everyone has a doped up rufie and druggy look. But consider the audience. These records were played during dinner or cocktail parties. 

Perhaps the goal was a swingers type situation with guests. Then they are perfect. Or, one's date might put one on the hi-fi, turn the lights low, ply a date with alcohol and... Again, the form and content address the message.

I will admit, I love the A Man and A Woman cover.

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.

Twelve Inches of Pleasure

I'm currently writing a new course for Lynda.com, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History. You'd think this would be easy. I know the history, have the images, and am so old I knew Guttenberg personally. But condensing all of the Bauhaus into a three-minute format and making sure it doesn't sound like, "Bueller, Bueller, anyone?" is tricky. It's a great challenge and fun.

When I started writing about design in the 1970s, I kept circling around album covers. The emotional impact of these artifacts is extraordinary. Sure, there was great corporate identity and typography at the time and more than enough to discuss with those alone. But when I mention a specific album, people light up. "Oh, I stared at The Tubes cover for hours trying to figure out how it worked." or "I kept the Frampton cover on the top of my pile of records just to see it when I woke up every morning.

When I went to college, Roland Young was one of my teachers. I was 19 and knew everything. On the first day, when I realized that Roland was responsible for a big part of the record covers I loved, I was impressed. And that's not easy for an asshole 19 year-old. Today, Roland is a good friend. I took over his Communication Design 1 class at Art Center and still hear from almuni, "Wow, when I had Roland for that class my life changed." My students say, "You were funny."

I recently discovered his cover for Joan Baez, Where are you now, my son?. This cover may seem unassuming and quiet, but it's masterful. The sharp typography with the confidence to be just what it is and the texture of the grainy image is contrast at its best. The image of Baez that speaks to the object of a printed photograph is about a moment in time and intimacy. The Smiths tried this later with some covers, but the original is still my favorite.

Roland's body of work and career, from working with Lou Danziger to art director to teacher, is immense and impossible to show without a major book. Publishers, publishers, anyone?.

Ho in Hawaii

I was waiting with my nephew, Chance, outside the Haunted Mansion and asked him about his favorite bands. Of course I didn't expect to know any of the ones he said; he's a teenager. When he asked me, I told him I liked older music like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney.

I'm sure this felt like talking to someone from ancient Mesopotamia to him, but he's always polite, and said, "I like them too." I didn't reveal the more embarrassingly uncool truth, that I like cheesy Hawaiian music. Sure I appreciate the authentic Hawaiian music, but I have a soft spot for the schlocky stuff.

I buy many of these records at Amoeba Records. They're always in the 99 cent bin, or left outside to be taken away free. Clearly there is low demand for Don Ho's Hawaii-Ho (which is not about prostitutes on Waikiki).

Yes, sometimes they are too bad, even for me. The Blackwood Brothers Quartet album cover reads as either a gay wedding or white party, but it turned out to be gospel music in a Hawaiian style. I don't know what happened to the actual record, but the cover for Hawaiian Polka Tour with Eddie Blazonczyck's Versatones is remarkable. You can't ignore the Jim Jones style portrait on the cover.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the design is not half bad. Alfred Apaka's Hawaiian Favorites, the Ilikai Hotel'sMusic of Hawaii, and of course, Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaiiare classics. There's some good letterforms too. I assume the message with these is, "primitive, wacky, and carefree." That sounds like my normal weekend.

The Old Lime Green and Violet Mare

Last week Noreen brought bacon-flavored beer to the office. I can’t say it was wonderful. It tasted like beer that had some bacon strips in the bottle. She also had maple-flavored beer. I could have made that with a Sam Adams and bottle of Mrs. Butterworth syrup. Which leads me to one of my favorite idioms, Psychedelic Victorian. You take some upstanding Victorian typography and elements, and run them through an acid trip color system. It doesn’t hurt to exaggerate typographic flourishes and mustaches. The record covers suggest music such as Maple Leaf Rag sung by The Doors. But, most of it is just nice barbershop quartet and ragtime music. If you ask me, however, someone new and groovy should start singing some of those good old songs like Oh’ Susanna.

Brilliant Corners

Last week I had lunch with one of my favorite designers, Michael Carabetta. Since Michael is the creative director at Chronicle Books, the subject turned to, yes shocking, books. Michael suggested I look at Paul Bacon’s work. The more I researched Bacon’s work, the clearer it became that this was a remarkable treasure of incredible work. The book and album covers are energetic, surprising, and spontaneous. They never feel forced or overworked. Yesterday, I briefly fell in love with a new cookbook’s design. Then, after looking at Bacon’s work, I quickly recognized how the cookbook was desperately overdesigned.

Bacon’s love for jazz is apparent in the work. It feels open and clear, never rigid or constipated. However, the spontaneity should not be misunderstood as easy. The ideas are big, smart, and beautifully crafted. We can look back and say, “Times were different. You could walk in a room, present a solution and everyone would cheer. The they’d head out for martinis, cigarettes and flirting.” But, like today, I’m sure everyone had an opinion and wanted something different. Bacon’s work is a testament to the ability to express an idea articulately and sell it. There is obvious passion here.

James Victore’s article on aiga.org captures Bacon’s essence beautifully. I love that he can, “tell a joke so dirty that it would singe off yer eyebrows.” This reminded me of my great friend Doyald Young, and that made my day.

Tequila Sunrise

If you were “with it” in 1967 you went to cocktail parties in Malibu, drove a yellow Corvette, made macramé plant holders, and listened to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. You may already know Herb Alpert from Casino Royale (the first one), or Pee Wee Herman’s dance to Tequila. In today’s hustle and bustle world, I find Herb Alpert to be the perfect music for the drive home. It’s relaxing, fresh, and pretty groovy. I have a special weakness for 1960s Victorian revivalist typography. This is the kind of typographic layout seen at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. Alpert’s 1965 album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, is the prime example of this. I tried using this kind of composition on a magazine project recently. I thought it was the hippest thing I’d ever done. The client just laughed and said, “That reminds me of something old timey. Like a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour.” And…