The Eyes of Colin Forbes

Most articles about Colin Forbes focus on the founding of Pentagram. Which he did. So if you want the full story about that, there is a website surprisingly devoted just to Pentagram. But, I am surprised how quickly that story takes the lead. For me, his work is the big story. It’s smart. Period. It’s not clever in a “isn’t that cute and clever,” way. It’s intelligent and connects with viewer on many levels. This isn’t easy. I can make something that’s clever: it’s an “I” and an exclamation point at the same time. I can make something smart: chart 1 leads to the text determining a desired response. And I can make something beautiful: Oooh, those orange poppies in a mass on a purple background look great.

It’s hard to do all three things at once. Forbes’ work doesn’t fall back on hackneyed clichés or overly rational, yet dull, presentations. It connects with us emotionally, and provides a pay-off of understanding combined with joy.

Forbes changed the business of a design practice, and was a successful and lauded AIGA President. However, his most important contribution is his ability to make great design look effortless and provide delight. There is a wall at the AIGA National Design Center that has portraits of all AIGA Presidents. When I first saw my photo up there I had two reactions. First, do my eyes look cross-eyed in that photo? And second, how in the hell did I end up on the same wall as Colin Forbes. His eyes don’t look cross-eyed.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Cliff May ranch house

When we bought our first house, I told the realtor that we wanted a nice 1950s ranch style house. “Are you sure,” she asked several times. I was shown a great house with a knotty pine den, and kitchen that had won an award in 1955. But, we were also shown several 1930s Spanish Mission style houses. “Everyone loves these,” I was told. Nevertheless, we bought the ranch house. Now, ranch houses seem to be a sought after style. Today, it’s called mid-century modern. When I was 12, I spent hours drawing floor plans of ranch houses. Yes, it’s odd, and I’m sure points to a strange neurosis. They were all based on a book of Cliff May floor plans.

Cliff May was one of the most influential residential architects of the 20th century. He pioneered the ranch style house based on early California Spanish houses. These houses took advantage of the climate with an emphasis on the relationship between the indoors and outdoors. May described it clearly, “The early Californians had the right idea. They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.” Volume in San Francisco designed an incredible book on May. The book itself is worth having even if you despise ranch style houses.

In the hands of someone like May, these houses are remarkable, warm, and inviting. In other hands, you can end up with E.T. or Poltergeist -ville.

Jennifer's Body... of Work

Tomorrow, my wonderful friend Jennifer Morla is having an opening in San Francisco. I am trapped at my desk and will miss the fun, but at least I can talk about her here. Now I know, someone is probably muttering, “Why promote someone else? It should only be me, me, and me. I’m cranky.” In this instance, it’s obvious. If we looked at the work of Jennifer Morla alone, we should bow at her feet. Jennifer’s vision is so clear, and focused, its razor sharp. Her work is intensely energetic and unapologetic. It has a no holds barred approach paired with surgical finesse. And then, there’s Jennifer herself. She’s committed to the profession, an educator, and an industry leader. She is also a remarkable and rare friend. Whenever I feel tired and think, “I can’t take so and so out for dinner. It’s a Wednesday night.” I consider what Jennifer would do. She would ignore being tired and go to dinner. Which she has done for me many times.

On one visit to San Francisco for a speaking event at CCA, she, Clement Mok, and Michael Vanderbyl stayed up late on a Wednesday and took me to dinner. Afterward, Jennifer drove me to the CCA apartment. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the exact address. I only knew it had a steel door. We found a house that matched the description, and the key fit.

Once I opened the door, however, I realized I was in someone’s hallway. There were coats on a rack, little children shoes on the stairs, and umbrellas in a stand. I didn’t know if the CCA apartment was upstairs, or down the hall. I also, wasn’t convinced I hadn’t broken into someone’s house. I opened the door on the right; it was the garage. I opened the door on the left down the hall; it was a closet with clothes. At the end of the hall, the door opened onto a bedroom. Either this was the CCA apartment, or someone’s bedroom who wasn’t home yet.

I put my pajamas on and went to bed, hoping that I wasn’t sleeping as a surprise guest for a sleepy owner. Nobody ever came home, but I didn’t want to be discovered sleeping in their extra bedroom by the innocent family upstairs, so I left at 5:00am and waited for the sun to come up.

Jennifer is having an opening Friday, November 5th at 6pm at California College of the Arts, 1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco.

Delight and Disgust

Everyone loves a story about the misunderstood artist, reviled in his time, and then lauded in his old age. Morris Lapidus is that story. When the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau Hotels were built, Lapidus was called vulgar, pretentious, artificial, and tasteless. Both hotels, however, were incredibly successful. The design challenge was to build a hotel where “the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day will look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create the hotel.” The result did this. Lapidus used a cinematic approach to architecture. His buildings look the way America in the 1950s thought luxury looked like, via Hollywood. Granted, some of the design, such as the Lapidus Residence bathroom, escapes me. But, if you like fancy, it sure is “fancified”.

I find it endlessly fascinating that populist work is typically deemed, “unworthy,” while something created for a small minority of elite intellectuals is “worthy.” If a basic tenet of Modernism is to create good design for the masses, this is contradictory. Lapidus weathered the decades of criticism and kept working. In 1970, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s critique of Lapidus was typical: “Lapidus is a sleazy, self-promoting careerist, an architect on the prestige-make. Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. He made his pile and excuses his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public).”

We can dissect the virulent antagonism in multiple ways. Since the work was designed to appeal to the masses in Florida, and was not in New York or Chicago, there is a distinct sense of regional and class elitism. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that his work was “uninspired superschlock.” This was a criticism of Lapidus’s ornate decor, but Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, suggesting anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, by the time Lapidus had retired, and was 97, the architecture community began to acknowledge his work. The book, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy, is a wonderful collection of exuberant and interesting work that challenges our ideas of taste and modernism.

Images below are from this book

A Morality Tale

A couple of weeks ago on Mad Men, Don Draper decided to stop working for tobacco companies. When this happened, I immediately thought about George Tscherny’s packaging for Lark cigarettes. Which left me with a moral dilemma. I’m not crazy about smoking, but my family made their living from tobacco for the first two hundred years in America, and the Lark packaging is so good. Fortunately, Mad Men is a television show, and no cigarette company has approached me to design a campaign. I must be remarkably shallow. These are the kind of moral dilemmas that most designers immediately can answer, “Absolutely not!” But I really like the Lark packaging.

Yes, No, Yes, No, I Mean Maybe

I’ll admit it; I’m contradictory. I’ve learned this is a good thing to say. I can get away with so many things. When I change my mind, I can say, “I know I said I like yellow, but now I want brown. I’m contradictory,” or, “I gave that Boardwalk Empire show a chance, today I decided it's boring.” At a lecture a couple of weeks ago someone pointed out that although I talk about clarity and a modernist approach, some of our work had ornamentation. My response, “Well I’m contradictory.” See how well it works.

Consequently, I love Tadanori Yokoo’s work. Theoretically, it should be too complex, layered, and decorative, and I should only like John Massey. But, Yokoo endlessly inspires me. His work is related to psychadelia and the Fillmore tradition in spirit, but also has a unique approach to space. Like traditional Japanese prints, distance is visualized by the placement on the page, not a western 3-dimensional perspective. His work takes traditional elements and combines them with western iconography and popular culture. He doesn’t carefully and harmoniously combine these; they seem slammed together with remarkable energy. Don’t get me wrong, though, I also love John Massey. Why? Yes, you know.

The Color of Light

I have a stack of prints that I inherited sitting in my flat files at home. Once in awhile I’ll go through them, and consider framing one and putting it up. But I don’t have room, so they stay in the drawer. There are a couple of Maxfield Parrish (1870 - 1966) prints that I love, but can’t get past the image of one hanging in the den at the ranch. It just seems to “little old lady” to put one up. Nevertheless, they are beautiful. I could do without the lounging androgynous characters in Greek temples, but the landscapes are remarkable.

Both Ansel Adams and Maxfield Parrish worked through the beginning of the 20th-century. They shared the idea of creating images that went beyond traditional landscapes. Adams didn’t photograph the landscape; he photographed the weather. Parrish didn’t paint the landscape; he painted the light. The colors are iridescent. I’ve been told that he painted in layers, much like a printer lays one color on top of another, and the translucency of the paint produces a richer, more complex effect. Parrish also had a sense of narrative. The house in New Moon has a warm glow of a light inside, creating a sense of security, comfort, and warmth.

Nobody Ever Called Pablo Picasso an A-hole

Most good designers know that the best logos are the simplest ones. Of course, it’s difficult to account for a long and arduous process of strategy, typographic studies, hundreds of icons, and system elements, and countless meetings when the result is a simple logo. Simple is hard. Desperation is not pretty on a date, or in design. But, it’s no fun to hear someone say, “That’s it? That took six months and cost ‘X’ amount of dollars?”

This is the same as looking at a Picasso and saying, “I could have done that,” or “my six year old child could have done that.” But, apparently, you or your child didn’t do that, and he did. That’s why he’s Picasso.

One of my pet peeves, including people who don’t use turn signals, is faux handwritten type. If it’s meant to be handwritten, I’d like to see something that was, surprisingly, written by hand. Those fonts that imitate handwriting have been put on earth by Satan to tempt people into laziness. Picasso’s posters should serve as the best example of this. His handwritten copy is light, playful, and energetic. If these posters were typeset in Felt Tip (no offense to the Felt Tip people), they would be flat and dull. And don’t even think about these typeset in Leonardo; you will never close your eyes again and not think about that tragedy. You will wake up in a cold sweat screaming most nights.


This morning during an interview, I was asked, “Where do you find inspiration?” This is a common question, and I understand the curiosity, but it’s complicated. Like every other creative person, I’m inspired by a million tiny details every day. I know the correct answer is, “Well, I just can’t get enough of Alvin Lustig.” That doesn’t work for me. Not that I don’t love Lustig, but there are too many other influences daily.

My mind works much like the dog in Up. I’ll be choosing blue Pantone colors and then, “Squirrel,” I’m doing something else. Today while looking at blue PMS chips, I thought, “Blue Note,” and found myself reading the Blue Note Album Cover Art book. I’d forgotten how truly incredible every cover is. Reid Miles was the in-house designer at Blue Note and designed most of the covers. From 1955 to 1967, he combined minimal abstract forms with an intense color sensibility. While Miles is often associated with Bauhaus rigor, his covers are more closely related to Color Field and Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. I often tell people that “cool” is a terrible trap leading to desperate work and endless suffering. I admit, however, that Miles’ covers are cool—the good kind of cool.

The Invention of Flirting in America

The women on my mother’s side of the family have always been attractive. This comes with a price (sanity). There is a long-standing tradition that a distant grandmother brought flirting to the New World. As it turns out, this story was correct. Cecily Reynolds came to Jamestown in 1610 aboard the Swan. Her uncle Captain William Pierce, with his wife Joan, served as chaperon on her voyage. At the age of 14, Cicely married Thomas Bailey. Unfortunately he soon dropped dead from malaria. She then quickly married Samuel Jordan.

The Jordans neighbors were John Rolfe, who had married Matoaka Pocahontas Powhatan. After her death, Rolfe married Capt. William Pierce’s daughter, Jane Pierce.

Cicely survived the Jamestown Massacre in 1622 by, as the story goes, standing firmly at her front door and refusing to move. The Powhatan Indians were impressed with her fortitude and beauty and let her live. That story seems a little far-fetched, but who knows? Soon after the Massacre, Samuel Jordan dropped dead, too. Now, this may seem too coincidental. One husband after another dies suddenly. Marrying Cicely may have seemed like a death sentence. But, in Jamestown death was common.

Within three or four days of Samuel Jordan's death, Cicely agreed to become the wife of Rev. Greville Pooley. She was pregnant with Samuel Jordan’s child, so she asked that the engagement be kept secret. However, Rev. Pooley was so impressed that he had won Cicely’s hand that he spread the word. Not a good move, now a furious Cicely refused to go through with the wedding. Rev. Pooley sought to hold her to her promise. William Farrar, the administrator of her late husband's estate defended her, causing the first breach of promise suit in America. Farrar then became husband three.

They were married for 10 years, and then in 1634, Farrar, surprisingly, died too.

Cicely Reynolds Bailey Jordan Farrar then married my distant grandfather, Peter Montague. Peter came to Jamestown in 1621 aboard the "Charles" at the age of 18. Peter and Cicely had seven children including Mary Montague, George Washington’s grandmother. This marriage lasted for 25 years until Peter Montague died in 1660.

Finally, at 59, Cicely Reynolds Bailey Jordan Farrar Montague married husband five, Thomas Parker. There were no children from this marriage, and Parker died three years later. Unfortunately, as was the case with many women, after this we lose records on Cicely. As a member of my mother’s family, I can surmise that, at this point, she had thick wavy white hair, a wry and dark sense of humor, and perfect grace.

C'est le ton qui fait la musique

In honor of Bastille Day, I am posting scenes from the incredible film, Playtime, directed by Jacques Tati. Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films have a running theme of cold modernism and urbanity interrupted by human nature. I’ve never particularly understood the Playtime’s plot. It’s in French, so that’s an issue for me. But, nothing seems to happen. Monsieur Hulot is put in a series of funny situations and the sets are wonderful. I know they are supposed to be cold and sterile. They represent the decay of true non-conformity and human creativity. I, however, love them. So much glass, steel, and modern devices can only be good for people.

Seduction and Symbols

It’s not considered hip to like Norman Rockwell. But, fortunately, I gave up on the hip idea a long time ago (hence the madras shirts and khakis I wear). Last term, I suggested that one of my students look at the Norman Rockwell Four Freedoms. I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d suggested researching an obscure 14th century painter. This was a terrifying moment. People’s grandmothers like Norman Rockwell. I assumed everyone in the civilized world knew at least a few paintings. I was wrong, and that is the tragedy of today’s wayward youth. They all need a good dose of Rockwell’s wholesome small town. That would keep them away from the constant huffing.

Obviously, this world is a mythical place sort of like Pleasantville. Rockwell’s paintings go beyond the sentimental. They carry symbols and iconography that allow us to manufacture a clear narrative. It is not just a picture of the teacher’s birthday. The scene is set with a multitude of clues. The coat in her hand and chalk eraser on the floor communicates her surprise. A line of small gifts is on her desk. Each of these tells a story of the children preparing for this day at home, or on the walk to school. Even the tiny section of the American flag sets the scene in a minimal way.

The Problem We All Live With, painted in 1964, depicts Ruby Bridges walking to the newly integrated Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. It is the most requested piece at the Norman Rockwell Museum. This incredible painting succeeds with the use of a tool I often discuss, seduction. The unassuming and innocent approach welcomes the viewer into the piece, and then communicates a complicated and disturbing subject matter. The racial slurs on the wall, and thrown tomato contrast with the girl’s white dress and confident stride. The touch of a notebook with stars and the red and blue pencils suggests the American flag subtly. This is not sentimental, or purely journalistic. Rockwell was a genius at utilizing symbols, color, and scene to convey a narrative in a single moment.

Grandpappy Walker

Since it’s almost Independence Day, I decided to post about someone in my family who was involved with the revolution. Sure, there are the likely suspects: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. And, they are indeed family members on either my mother of father’s side. But we all know those stories. One of my favorite distant grandfathers wasn’t as well known as the these others. Dr. Thomas Walker was born in 1715. He was Thomas Jefferson’s guardian, the first white man to explore Kentucky, and did a whole batch of impressive things.

But I like him because he risked everything for the revolution. By 1776, Dr. Walker was 61 years old and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He wasn’t a destitute revolutionary; he was firmly set as a member of the gentry. It would be as if a comfortable CEO of a Fortune 500 company decided to join a revolution today. Typically comfortable old white guys don’t do this. 

In 1781, British Colonel Banastre Tarleton marched on Charlottesville with the intent to capture then Governor, Thomas Jefferson. When the British Army reached the family estate, Castle Hill, my distant grandmother and Dr. Walker delayed them by preparing a fine breakfast. Legend has it they also supplied liquor. This gave the patriot Jack Jouett time to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislators of Tarleton's plan to capture them, and they escaped.

Just after the American Revolution, a traveling author visited Castle Hill and wrote an account of his interview with Dr. Thomas Walker:

"One day, in a chat, while each was delivering his sentiments of what would be the state of America a century hence, the old man [Walker], with great fire and spirit, declared his opinion that, 'The Americans would then reverence the resolution of their forefathers, and would eagerly impress an adequate idea of the sacred value of freedom in the minds of their children, that if, in any future ages they should be again called forth to revenge public injuries, to secure that freedom, they should adopt the same measures that secured it to their brave ancestors.'"

Thomas Anbury (Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, 1776-1781)

Castle Hill, Virginia

Castle Hill, Virginia

This is Not Humor. This is Filth.

There are certain phrases that you hear, and they are with you forever. I have the standard uplifting phrases such as, “Walk on with hope in your heart,” or “Hard work and suffering will get you closer to God.” I also have the remnants that pop in for a visit once in awhile. For no apparent reason, I will be shown something, and I immediately hear, “And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour!” I also hear, “My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.” This is useful for any unsavory dining experience.

These phrases are taken from Joe Orton’s Edna Welthorpe letters. Edna, and other fictional characters were created by Orton to write complaint letters. Edna wrote about bad pie filling, or engaged in an ongoing argument with a catalogue company. Other characters wrote letters to the theater showing Orton’s plays to complain about the low morals. I often wonder what I would do if I didn’t work. I can tell you that I would definitely make it a point to write a complaint letter every day. It would be fun.

15th November 1958.

Dear Sirs,

I am puzzled by several letters I have received from you. Apparently you are under the impression that I am organising something for you, or at least that someone in this flat is. I assure you that there is no one called Mr Orton living here. I am a widow and dwell alone. 
You state that catalogues are expensive. I have no doubt that they are, but what, may I ask, has that to do with me. You surely cannot imagine that I have stolen your catalogue. And as for selling anything which your firm makes ... Please believe me if I arrived at the New Acol Bridge Club with a catalogue under my arm and explained to my friends that all goods were at cash prices, yet payable by small weekly installments, why I think they would laugh at me. 
Will you please stop sending letters to me, or I shall seriously have to consider putting the affair into the hands of my solicitor.

Yours faithfully,

Edna Welthorpe. (Mrs)

30th April 1965

Flat 4,
25, Noel Road, 
London, N.1

Dear Sir,

I recently purchased a tin of Morton's blackcurrant pie filling. It was delicious. Choc-full of rich fruit. Then, wishing to try another variety, I came upon Smedley's raspberry pie filling. And I tried that. And really! How can you call such stuff pie filling? There wasn't a raspberry in it. I was very disappointed after trying Morton's blackcurrant.

Please try to do better in future. And what on earth is `EDIBLE STARCH' and 'LOCUST BEAN GUM'? If that is what you put into your pie fillings I'm not surprised at the result.

I shan't try any more of your pie fillings until the fruit content is considerably higher. My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.

Yours sincerely,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


In finding so much to praise in 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane,' which seems to be nothing more than a highly sensationalized, lurid, crude and over-dramatised picture of life at its lowest, surely your dramatic critic has taken leave of his senses.

The effect this nauseating work had on me was to make we want to fill my lungs with some fresh, wholesome Leicester Square air. A distinguished critic, if I quote him correctly, felt the sensation of snakes crawling around his ankles while watching it.

Yours truly,

Peter Pinnell


As a playgoer of forty years standing, may I say that I heartily agree with Peter Pinnell in his condemnation of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'. I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour! Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people. I hope that the ordinary decent people of this country will shortly strike back!

Yours truly,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


I was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people.

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


I cannot recall a successful play - from, say, Othello to St Joan, from Tamburlaine to Look Back in Anger - which concerned itself with 'ordinary decent people'! Ordinary, decent people are the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country but they do not make subjects for exciting, stimulating, controversial drama. John A Carlsen 
Sir - Mr Carlsen's suggestion that Othello (the noble Moor!) and St Joan (belatedly canonised) are not decent people I find more than controversial. I find it completely unacceptable!

Jay Chakiris


Any oasis in the wasteland is welcome. And Entertaining Mr Sloane is not a mirage which disappears when the thirsty traveller approaches. If we find the customs of the country differ from our own - what else is foreign travel for?

Donald H Hartley

17 Again

Two years ago, Design Observer posted a very funny article, Fifteen Minutes of Fame. The point of the article was to imagine who would play whom if the graphic design industry were a movie. I was paired with Ryan Seacrest. I was hoping for George Clooney, but in all fairness, this is a pretty good match.

At a recent dinner, my good friend Pam Williams played a game where we went around the room and guessed what people were like in high school. This wasn’t about what they looked like, but was about their personality and which character they fit. For the past few weeks, I’ve been gathering suggestions from many of you, so here is the first batch. Apologies to anyone who feels that I’ve gotten it dead wrong, but it’s done with love. And you’ll notice I put myself in the spot that was suggested to me, not where I wanted to be (Jake in Sixteen Candles).

Now I’m going to risk offending my friends more than normal. I’ll start with people I know and can find a good match, and I’d be happy to hear any other suggestions. And remember, before calling me, stop, and calm down. Making angry calls never works.

John Maeda

Books and Borg

In 1986, I moved to New York and started my first job as a designer for The New York Public Library. This was a perfect fit. Book design was my first love. I was fortunate to work with two people who were masters of fine typography, Marilan Lund and William Coakley. In 1987, the Library held an exhibition on Bert (Bertram) Clarke. I knew Clarke as the designer at A. Colish in Mount Vernon, New York. There is nothing flashy in his books. The beauty is in the fine detail.

Centered typography can easily end up looking like a thermometer. I recall Marilan Lund telling me that a good symmetrical composition should be like a delicate but strong crystal chandelier. Clarke’s typeface choices are relevant to the material and always surprising. The typography on the title page for The Thistle Golf Club is not only regal, but echoes the form of a thistle. The heart dingbats for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are delightful and subtle. I love the treatment for the wonderful title, “A Few Rambling Remarks on Golf.” If you look closely, you can see the shape of a chandelier in all of these compositions.

There is a beautiful sense of accomplishment to groom text and focus on the most minute of typographic issues. On Star Trek Voyager, the Borg’s religion was perfection, and creating order from chaos. If only they had found Clarke’s books, they could have stopped their relentless path of galactic destruction. Hey, this might be nerdy, but you’ve got to give me props for mixing classical typography with the Borg.

Driving in Circles

One of our great mentors was Saul Bass. Saul was endlessly supportive and encouraging. Saul was the first phone call we received that first day at AdamsMorioka when the phones were turned on. Losing Saul was a huge loss that we still feel. After he passed away, The Academy held a memorial service at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Another memorial was held in New York. The New York memorial focused on Saul’s identity and graphic work. The Los Angeles memorial was about his title sequences. Seeing these on huge screen with incredible sound was life changing. I love showing my first term students some of Saul’s title sequences. They are inspired and awed, especially by the lack of CGI. It’s amazing what can be done with a few lines and some type.

One of the often-missed sequences is for Grand Prix. There is no flying type, no intense digital effects, and no techno music. Live action, some simple type, and genius editing make a dynamic introduction. The repeating images, repeated usage of circular forms, and sound of the race let us know the subject, tone, attitude, and pace of the film we are about to see. We’ve often said that our job is not to make lots of sweet frosting, but to make a solid cake. Grand Prix is this, the core of an idea expressed elegantly and minimally.

The World is a Circle


Last week, we started working with a new client who demanded that Noreen be at every meeting. Now, I’m used to this. When I come into a meeting and throw a chair, or urinate in the corner, clients are disturbed. In reality, we’re both quite polite and friendly. The only time I ever became angry during a meeting was 15 years ago, when a young architect stopped me and said, “I’d like to give you some basic rules about composition.” To which, I replied, “I don’t know how to respond to that… Noreen?”

Initially, some clients do a little racial profiling. Noreen is Asian and a woman, so she must be mysterious, exotic, and deeply creative. I’m a WASP and a man, so I must be logical, dull, and handle the bookkeeping. At AdamsMorioka, our roles are well defined; Noreen is in charge of all client relations, I’m in charge of creative. This doesn’t mean that we don’t voice opinions, or have debates about creative or business issues. In the end, I have final call on a creative issue; Noreen has final call on a client issue.

We do, however, have divergent cultural backgrounds, and this makes the work better. We often design the poster when we do a speaking engagement. I’ve had the most fun designing posters that speak to this juxtaposition of Asian and Western influences. I designed a poster for a DSVC lecture takes one of my favorite posters by Yusaku Kamekura and re-purposes it. I know the difference between an homage and piracy. I credit Kamekura on the poster.

Yusaku Kamekura is one of the “first generation” of great Japanese designers. In 1951 he helped establish the Japan Advertising Arts Club, and took part in the ‘Graphic ’55’ exhibition with Paul Rand and other international designers. In 1978, he became chairman of the Japan Graphic Designers Association. This is a big deal. Noreen mentions often that she’d like to be invited by JAGDA to be a member (note to JGDA members reading this). His posters merge Swiss modernism with a Japanese aesthetic and usage of space. The primary 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster is magnificent in its simplicity.  Kamekura uses the golden section and repeating circles to create harmony. On the surface, nothing could be more obvious: Japanese flag and Olympic rings. “And?” you may be asking, “So what? That’s too easy.” This is similar to someone looking at a Picasso and saying, “I could have drawn that.”  My response, “But you didn’t.”

When Gray is Good


One of my favorite possessions is a Graphis magazine, No. 69 from 1956. We’ve opened it so often that it’s falling apart. I tried taping it back together since this is something you do when you get old. But now the cover has fallen off of it. There is a rather dull feature on calendars, but an incredible profile on Milner Gray. Gray (1899-1997) was a British designer who founded the Society of Industrial Artists and the Design Research Unit (not to be confused with Ellen Lupton’s Design Writing Research). His work is primarily in the realm of packaging design, although he did identity and environmental design for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Gray takes heraldry and traditional forms and treats them with a modernist bent. Simple shapes are combined with flourishes and Victorian typography. There is a contradictory sense of minimalism and ornamentation.

Unfortunately, Gray is one of those remarkable designers who have been sadly neglected in print or online. Someday, I’d like to write a book about all of these unsung heroes who changed the profession quietly.

And Now for Some High Culture

Now we are traveling from 1970 and hot pink notepads to eighteenth century Japan. There is a scene on Mad Men when Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) shows everyone his new Japanese print, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎, 1760–May 10, 1849). This is the erotic print of a woman and her favorite octopus at play. Hokusai was an artist and printmaker during the Edo period. He was a genius at utilizing traditional Japanese methods and introducing western art concepts. At first glance, it may seem that these are simply traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints.

Hopefully, this won’t seem like a Wednesday afternoon in art history when everyone falls asleep, but I’m going to explain some of the reasons why Hokusai is so amazing. His most famous print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, is a perfect example. He uses the western approach to perspective; a small Mt. Fuji expresses distance. The wave in the foreground echoes the shape of Mt. Fuji. This is contrary to traditional Asian methods that show perspective by layering objects on top of each other. The most distant objects are at the top of the page and are not smaller. He also introduces working class fisherman, also a western concept, as opposed to representing only the nobility.

I love the sense of wind expressed so delicately in Ejiri in Suruga Province (Sunshū Ejiri). The simple line used to draw Mt. Fuji allows the air to feel light and active. And Blind Men With An Elephant taken from Hokusai’s notebooks is beautiful, light, and humorous. Now you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with anything?” For me, this work ties together so many wonderful elements that I admire: craft, levity, minimalism, innovation, and experimentation. See, that wasn’t so bad. Not at all like those sleepy afternoons in Art History.