Il dolce far niente

Lou Danziger, UCLA Extension

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.


When I worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, I built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Mendell and Oberer's cover for Bukowski's Notes of a dirty old man, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. And Paul Rand's stationery for Westinghouse is clear and confident. But, my favorite, is Ray Eames' handmade book, 1970.

It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

Ray Eames, handmade book

Chermayeff and Geismar, Pan Am

Mendell and Oberer

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/ 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.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Years ago, I did an interview about designing your own stationery system. “You don’t need to demonstrate everything you can do at once,” I said, “I believe this is the place for restraint.” Clearly, I ignored my own advice. I now have a stationery system that does everything but take you out for dinner, and then to bed. But, c’est la vie. Life’s too short to waste it on restraint.

Liz Farrelly recently released a new book, Designers’ Identities. When Liz originally asked me to contribute to the book, I expected to have my package returned with a big “NO” written across it. We don’t have a cool name that would work for a band. We don’t use lots of tiny type in a swirl. I was pleasantly surprised to find the book rich with pretty darned good work. There are some amazingly beautiful solutions and very few that are trying too hard (like ours).

I have fallen in love with Richard Ardagh’s Elephant This is one I wish I’d done. Christopher Simmons has the most incredible envelope ever. Stefan Bucher has sparkly stickers that I need badly. There is an entire page of the amazing Rick Valicenti’s promotions. Rinzen in Melbourne has an array of stickers everyone should use. To top this off, the book, as expected from Liz, is well written and curated, and beautifully printed.

And just to prove we’re not all happy and candy, we just redesigned our stationery—in black. See, we’re serious too.