¿Dónde es la fiesta

I'm going to retire a couple of projects I talk about when doing a speaking engagement. So it's time to move them here.

Mexico Restaurante y Barre was a project that had no budget. So rather than fighting this and trying to maintain the highest quality with minimal resources, I suggested we use the philosophy, “Quality is job 2.” Why make it good if it could be done cheaper? 

This sounds good in theory but is difficult as it goes against every impulse I have as a designer. So, rather than designing something that was contrary to my sensibilities, I hired a designer with no talent. 

He had taken one class on design at a community college and then set up shop. He was enthusiastic and would spend hours finessing something. But, again, no talent. Awful with color. Didn't understand typography. And used analog equipment since he never learned any digital tools. And he was kind of a slob.

This designer, let's call him Percival, however, was fictional. He became our alternate personality when working on the project. Like Sybil suffering from multiple personality disorder after her severe abuse during childhood, designing Hobo Italic Swash pushed me into the Percival personality.


Percival wanted the design to feel like a great evening in Puerto Vallarta or Tijuana, minus the part where you wake up the next morning in a street gutter, bleeding, with no recollection of what you’ve done (like a normal weekend). 

He hand-painted the icons and frames with a bad brush using his left hand. He ordered fluorescent paper for the menus and tracked down seafoam vinyl covers (after using Google for "cheap menus"). He ran the bad icons around the borders of the stationery system and didn't bother to proof the text that switched between English and Spanish mid-stream.

Percival's color sense was tragic. No experience with color theory, so the colors vibrated and he designed hideous wallpaper for the stairwell. 

And then, as if things weren't bad enough, he took a batch of my photos from Mexico and applied them to the postcards, with no sense of the content. This led to many odd images, such as a postcard of a random apartment building. La gota que colmó el vaso de agua.

There were some high points. Since there was no budget for a big neon sign, he tracked down a sign painter who painted the logo on the building. But he managed to slip in the order to paint the building magenta. This led to many embarrassing moments at dinner parties when I was asked, "Have you seen that tacky monstrosity on Santa Monica Boulevard?"

I didn't fire Percival after the project was completed. He often returns to help me write drunken email messages at 3am.


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.

Getting Angry, Baby?

You can’t live in Los Angeles and not have some kind of food issue. Everyone I know is vegan, gluten free, pescetarian, lactose intolerant, only raw food, or only eats local food in season. Ordering at restaurants is like an interrogation in an Iranian prison, “Tell me! Is there any wheat? Don’t lie. I will know!” I try to be as trouble free as possible. My only constraint is too much meat. I probably won’t order the Meat Lovers Platter at Claim Jumper.

Twenty years ago, some of our friends invited us to dinner with their out of town guests. These guests were older and went to Nickodell Restaurant whenever they visited. The older part is important because Nickodell was an ancient restaurant near Paramount studios. It must have been a hot spot in the 1940s, but had declined in a bad way. It sounds like a groovy dive that should be fun. But, the evening was a cross between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Blue Velvet. The inside of Nickodell was standard issue Hollywood: vinyl booths, nicotine stained dark walls with framed photos of old movie stars, and dim lighting.

The out-of-town couple started the evening with several martinis. They quickly began arguing. After ordering appetizers, they switched to wine, and continued the vicious attacks on each other. By this time, I was feeling sick. Then the food came. An extremely old waitress wearing something similar to a 1940s nurses uniform slowly wheeled an old metal cart to the table. The couple’s giant slabs of beef sat on the top shelf. As she wheeled the cart away, they attacked their bloody and rare steaks, slammed down two bottles of wine, and yelled at each other while chewing. This was the impetus for my aversion to excessive amounts of meat.

However, this has not dampened my love for the Porterhouse Room logo. Robert Sinnot designed this around 1950 for the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. It’s a beautiful mark and proves that a logo does not need to be all hard lines and flat geometry. My only issue is that I can’t tell if the cow bull has no eyes, or alien eyes.

Everyday is like sun day

When I start talking about identity design, everyone loses his or her sense of humor. “Logos? That’s no laughing matter,” is the tone. There’s no room for funny in logo design or ID systems. Don’t you people understand this is a serious business? Of course it’s serious business. It’s the cornerstone and foundation of a company’s communications plan. But does that mean every logo should be a hard lined box with a tortured letterform, and a system with a vertical blue bar on every piece of collateral? I would say, “No.” Communications should engage and delight. That applies to identity design as well as a website, brochure, or signage program.

A great example of this approach is Alexander Girard’s design for La Fonda del Sol restaurant. In 1960, Restaurant Associates hired Girard to oversee all elements from the logo to the plates. Located in the Time & Life building in New York, La Fonda del Sol embraced the international ambitions of Rockefeller Center. Girard’s identity is varied and uses a multiple set of icons. What, you say, more than one logo? Was he mad? I don’t know about Girard’s psychological health, but it works for me. The restaurant paired the hand-made, craft of Mexico with a high-end and cosmopolitan tone. The solution was years ahead of a tongue-in-cheek tone now used by Jet Blue and Virgin Air. I especially like the newspaper ad that reads, “Will the lady who lost her composure during Fiesta at La Fonda del Sol please come back this Sunday?” I’m not so sure about the completely non-politically correct Siesta ad.

Mai-Tais and Suicide, Is it Bad?

One of my favorite spots was Trader Vics at the Beverly Hilton. It used to be a very Sinatra Beverly Hills crowd, but then the other group, producers and prostitutes, found it. Unfortunately, it was recently updated. Why, I don’t know. I guess it was on the verge of being very cool, so time to make it tasteful. At the other end of the spectrum is Trader Dicks at the Nugget in Sparks, Nevada. It’s amazingly cheesy in a 1980s porn movie way. I actually love it more. If you are looking for an evening of serious career alcoholic drinking with mai-tais, this is the place. This is dangerous, though. You can either revel in the plastic flower, velveteen booth, and fried pupu platter wonderfulness, or it can go the other way. If you are the type who drinks and has crying jags, this atmosphere may lead to the most depressing evening of your life. But it’s Reno, and a gamble as to whether the night ends with hilarity or an intentional overdose.

The Devil's Net is Made with Onion Rings

Jack in the Box restaurant, 1964, courtesy of Charles Phoenix

I like to tell my crew, family, and friends, “We prove our resolve and courage by resisting temptation.” Oscar Wilde said, “Do you really think it is weakness that yields to temptation?  I tell you that there are terrible temptations which it requires strength, strength and courage to yield to.” And President Reagan said, “Middle age is when you're faced with two temptations and you choose the one that will get you home by nine o'clock.”

The Tacos at Jack in the Box, and Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken are two temptations that, like a narcotic to a junkie, sound so good as an idea, but end badly. They smell so nice and call to each person passing like Odysseus’ sirens. And then when you have finished your meal, you immediately feel deep regret and shame. “Why did I eat that?” I berate myself. Fortunately, this temptation only rears its head on long road trips, at the most once every two years.

The version designed in the early 1960s uses the entire building as a sign and a symbol. It’s clean, simple, and efficient—a masterpiece of modernism. Russell Forester designed the “big box” restaurant and said, “It’s not really a building. It’s an envelope to enclose machines to dispense food.” Meets the big tenets of modernism if you ask me. Plus the talking drive thru Jack (in the box) is so much more fun than a big board with illuminated photos of food. When I yield to temptation I want the whole cheesy enchilada with clowns, bright colors and wacky type, not a tasteful urban yet sophisticated attitude.

The Jack in the Box drive thru contraption

Jack in the Box, late 1950s

Hot Diggety Dog

Hot Dog on a Stick logo

You may remember my emotional rant about Ihop recently and its tragic mistake to lose the “pancake” concept. I am heartened when someone gets it right. Hot Dog on a Stick is a favorite of most people I know. Teenage boys like to stand by and watch the young women employees pump the lemonade machine. Kids like the cheese on a stick.

I like the design aesthetic. Somebody smart decided to stay with the look that has a decidedly 1960s vibe. I’d like to believe that this was on purpose, not because somebody simply forgot to rebrand and then it came back into style. The look is what a hot dog stand should be: bright, cheerful, playful, and simple. There is a rigor in its implementation that should make any hard-core identity manager swoon. The drinks match the color palette of the logo, the uniforms reiterate the attitude, and the minimal menu reinforces the core experience: hot dogs on a stick. Life is serious, but corn dogs really aren’t. This is a perfect combination of form, function, and communication fusing together perfectly.

Hot Dog on a Stick stand

Hot Dog on a Stick packaging

Hot Dog on a Stick uniforms

Hot Dog on a Stick drinks and uniforms

The lemonade pumping

Hot Dog on a Stick signage

México espectacular

Mexico Restauranté y Barra, AdamsMorioka

One of our favorite clients and good friend, Larry Nicola, came to us recently and asked us to work on a new restaurant, Mexico. We had worked with Larry on Nic’s, Beverly Hills, and now Larry wanted to open a restaurant that would feature traditional Mexican food with the best ingredients, and Larry’s amazing culinary flair. In our first meeting, he said he’d like it to feel like a great evening in Puerto Vallarta or Tiajuana, minus the part where you wake up the next morning on the street with no recollection of what you’ve done. We approached the project with a low-tech philosophy. If we could do something by hand, we did, if we could manufacture something cheaper, we did. We did a huge amount of research, collecting Mexican restaurant menus from everywhere. Not surprisingly, they were wonderful. And we created a fictional person who would design everything. This person would be a restaurant employee with no design training, but a huge amount of enthusiasm and passion; someone who would give every piece her all with the very best intentions, but just get it wrong. We even convinced the off-the-shelf menu company to make the very low cost menu holders in turquoise, which they repeatedly reminded us might be garish. And?

Mexico take-out menu

Menu research

Senor Frogs menu research

Caliente, menu research

Uno mas bar, menu research

menu research