The Long, Long, Long Signs

This is a combo type nerd-sign nerd post; so if you hate type or signs, go no further. One of the challenges of working within ADA signage codes is size. When code requires 1-inch tall letters, you tend to find condensed typefaces. Otherwise you can end up with a “Stairwell” sign that is several feet long. I was enormously jealous when I stumbled upon the [Brownjohn,][1] [Chermayeff & Geismar][2] signage system for Chase Manhattan in 1961. The ability to use beautiful extended letterforms on signs is a luxury we no longer have. 

The forms are so incredibly sleek and sophisticated. The signs take advantage and exaggerate the horizontality of the very long name. The incredibly long directory is perfect in a world of black suits, white shirts, and thin ties. My favorite item, however, is the round directory. It is like a satellite that has landed in an office lobby. What a joy to have that much real estate for a sign. 

I've used vertical space and designed incredibly heavy directories, such as the Stein Eye directory. But never had the chance to put a tiny house sized sign in a lobby.

The period between 1960 and 1980, the sexual revolution, was a brief moment in the history when having sex did not lead to life threatening issues. So free love reigned. Did Robert, Tom and Ivan know how lucky they were to live in a time when “free-type” was the norm. This was a short period when it was safe to use light extended type when you felt the urge. I can imagine the horror on a client’s face if I presented a 15-foot directory with sleek long type. They would run screaming from the room, yelling, “Why? Why? Why so long?”


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.

Un Año De Amor

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Signage is serious. People may not find a restroom in time. They may get lost and miss the Gap. If you are a signage designer you must be serious. You must make big, black, monolithic directories that include serious information. There is no room for fun. None. Don't even think about color. Helvetica, red and black dammit!

Urban signage is hard. There are multiple committees made up of government officials who previously worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The signs need to be clear in a complex and changing environment. They need to withstand weather, vandalism, climbing children, and birds. These are the factors that lead to the 2001: A Space Odyssey black monolith directories.

Lance Wyman's system for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics are what every Olympics tries to outdo, and nobody has come close (sorry to my friends who have designed some of these. they're swell, but not 1968 Mexico City). But, today I want to talk about Wyman's program for the Mexico City Metro from 1969. This solution achieves all the difficult  goals, but maintains a sense of exuberance and joy. The program reflects a Mexican color palette and sensibility. And it looks like it was fun to design. How can a subway system with orange, pink, teal, and avocado green not be magnificent? I would ride the Los Angeles Metro all the time if it had icons of grasshoppers, sailing ships, and a duck for a station.

Wyman's work is a beacon of optimism in a dull, drab, and serious world.

 

 

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Stamp, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Tipo font, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Station icons, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

Lance Wyman, Mexico City Metro, 1969

 

The Rape of the Northland

I was once asked after a lecture, “How do you respond to the accusation that you are mining the past?” I should have talked about appropriation, pastiche, nostalgia, and using familiar forms to create a sense of reassurance. But did I? No, of course not. I said quickly, “Mining the past? I’d say raping the past.” This is one more example of my nitwittiness adding to the sense that we are shallow and stupid people spending their days surfing.

Years ago, we designed the signage program for all Old Navy stores. I was especially happy with the primary directional signage for the flagship stores. The sign was made with interchangeable disks that could be rearranged by a store manager. There was concern that children might try to climb it, but my idea of adding barbed wire fencing around it was dismissed.

Then I found an example of Alvin Lustig’s exhibition for American Crayon at the Aspen Design Conference. Damn that Alvin Lustig, he beat me to the lollipop idea. Lutsig’s environmental work is light and delicate. The signage for Northland Shopping Center is one of my favorite programs. Why don’t shopping centers still look like this? The signs are fresh, optimistic, and functional. They use three-dimensional space structurally. And they are not garish, desperately screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” Now I need to be careful not to design a sign that has an asterisk symbol on the top of the poles. Wait, I think I have.

Fearful Symmetries

Guests visiting AdamsMorioka for the first time are often disgusted. William Pereira designed our building in 1969 as the Great Western Savings and Loan headquarters. Today it is the headquarters for Flynt Publications. The classic mid-century aesthetic has evolved into a lush “Las Vegas casino” style. I’ve grown to embrace the beautiful silk flower arrangement on each elevator lobby and the faux-marble elevator walls. The disgust our guests experience comes from our door sign. Clearly Tiffany Heavy and Optima are not expected here.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “black rock.” The New York headquarters for CBS designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962. The signage for the building is a flawless version of Didot. Lou Dorfsman commissioned a new version of the font specifically for CBS. This served as the corporate typeface for over a decade. As designers, we disagree on many issues: Fillmore posters sucked or ruled, modernism is over or relevant, AdamsMorioka does vapid and fun or smart and seductive. I don’t think anyone would argue, however, that the CBS Didot signage and collateral is remarkable.

Think of it this way: a client asks you to do a signage program, a designer in your office suggests Didot, what would you say? If I weren’t aware of the CBS program, I’d probably say, “Are you out of your mind? Do you really think that’s legible? Who is going to fabricate these letterforms and not break the very thin parts of the letters? Get the hell out of my office! In fact, leave for good.” Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that. I’m the nice one. Noreen would say it.

Sour Pussy on the Beach

I’m back from vacation and the settlers cabin is, once again, open for business. Last week we spent our annual post Labor Day vacation at Kona Village on the big island of Hawaii. While others were photographing their newlywed wife on the beach, or close-ups of the turtles sunning themselves, I was shooting type. At one point as I sat on a chaise lounge reading about my grandmother’s cousin Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and FDR, other guests were wildly photographing the turtles. “Why?” I ask myself. What are you going to do with a bunch of photos of a turtle? Then I took time to photograph the hand-made Stop sign.

If you think you’re a super groovy designer who is first at making lots of funky hand drawn type on posters, get a clue. Kona Village’s signage program is decades old and has the grooviest type I’ve ever seen. And you’ve got to love a place that is truly sustainable by taking bits of wood and logs and making signs. It’s not like the Four Seasons next door, with the fancy pants typeset signs.

In addition to taking photos of signs, I read seven books, ate enormous amounts of ahi, and put my phone in the safe. One of the benefits of visiting at the same time each year is seeing the other guests who visit at the same time each year. This leads to an atmosphere not unlike a summer camp with the same friends each year. Of course, someone is always willing to not play along. For almost a decade we’ve seen the same people and become great friends. But there is one woman who refuses to smile or say hello. Even when I have pointedly looked straight at her and demanded a cheery “Hello,” I’ve only received a sour face and mutter of “hmm, hello.” I decided this was unacceptable rude behavior and someone suggested she had a “sour puss.” After that I only called her “Sour-Pussy,” until my friend Jill noted that it didn’t sound like I was talking about her sour facial expression.

The Long, Long, Long Directory

This is a combo type nerd/sign nerd post; so if you hate type or signs, go no further. One of the challenges of working within ADA signage codes is the size. When code requires 1-inch tall letters, you tend to find condensed typefaces. Otherwise you can end up with a “Stairwell” sign that is several feet long. I was enormously jealous when I stumbled upon the Chermayeff & Geismar signage system for Chase Manhattan in 1961. The ability to use beautiful extended letterforms on signs is a luxury we no longer share. The forms are so incredibly sleek and sophisticated. The signs take advantage and exaggerate the horizontality. The incredibly long Directory is perfect in a world of black suits, white shirts, and thin ties. My favorite item, however, is the round Directory. It is like a satellite that has landed in an office lobby.

The period between 1960 and 1980, the sexual revolution, was a brief moment in the history of man when having sex did not lead to life threatening issues. So free love reigned. Do Tom and Ivan know how lucky they were to live in a time when “free-type” was the norm. This was a short period when it was safe to use light extended type when you felt the urge. I can imagine the horror on a client’s face if I presented a 15-foot directory with sleek long type. They would run screaming from the room, yelling, “Why? Why? Why so long?”

Rootin' Tootin' Type

Western typography, Walt Disney World

Designers are obsessive. We tend to not do things halfway. If we collect thimbles, we must have every kind ever made. If we like Trade Gothic, we’ll defend it to the death. When we travel, we are the odd people seen taking pictures of a doorknob, or every manhole in Amsterdam. I’m no different. While other people are busy taking photos of their families in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, I’m shooting the typography on the sign in front of Frontierland. I have a special love for western type, and there’s no shortage of it at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. For your viewing pleasure I have collected much of this typography for you.

As an aside to those guests taking the family castle photo, for the love of God bring your subject closer and let the castle be in the background. Unless you need to see your subject’s shoes, they will be tiny people in the distance and you will wait forever for everyone to pass. This is my insane pet peeve. I want the job that allows me to kindly suggest to guests that this is a bad thing to do.

Suicide and iPhoto

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

It’s easy to spot a designer. They’re usually the ones taking photos of a doorknob or a sign. I’m no different. My iPhoto page probably looks like most every other designer—little boxes with typography. Virginia City, Nevada is not the same place that Mark Twain wrote about while working at the Territorial Enterprise. It’s a little cheesy. There are fudge stores, souvenir shops, and tours of defunct silver mines. It is, however, a treasure trove of Victorian typography. And you must love a town that has a Suicide Table, which is what we called my grandmother’s dining table on days when she made the saltiest Taco salad in the world.

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

The Suicide Table (not my grandmother's dining room)

Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City, Nevada

Sign detail

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

my iPhoto Typography album