Yes, Master. I will do your bidding.

The UCLA Extension Masters of Design program was conceived and managed by InJu Sturgeon. InJu had the genius idea to elevate the utilitarian course catalogue covers working with some of the world’s best designers. Paul Rand designed the first cover in 1990. The program soon became the coveted assignment. Other designers including Saul Bass, Paula Scher, Woody Pirtle, Ivan Chermayeff, and Michael Bierut have tackled the same assignment: education, Los Angeles, the season, and extension. In 1998, we were honored to be asked to design our first cover. This was daunting, solving the same assignment as some of our heroes. Michael Vanderbyl was the encouraging voice for us, and convinced us to have fun. The series could easily have become a hodge-podge of crazed egos. But InJu’s remarkable skill handling designers consistently leads to some of the best work. When working with InJu, it is immediately clear that there is no room for diva-esque behavior. Hence my typical screaming, demanding, and abusive approach was not welcome. And I have never net anyone so adept at motivating me to do better.

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…

The Shape of Air

There are not too many things in life that make me angry. I like to think I am fairly even. Those of you close to me can stop snickering. But, there are a couple of things that make me furious. I want to slug someone when I’m doing a lecture at school, and he or she is texting or working on the computer. I know they aren’t taking notes; they’re shopping or chatting with friends.  I hate people who drive with the seat so far forward that they are two inches from the steering wheel, and think 15 mph is too fast. And I really get mad when I suggest that a student takes time to look at the work of someone, and they don’t, and their project still sucks the next week.

When anyone is having trouble with shapes, I send them to look at A.M. Cassandre’s work. When I was in school, Lou Danziger did the same for me. I did take time to look and it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. A.M.Cassandre worked in Paris from the early 1920s until his death in 1968. His work took elements of Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, and Bauhaus Modernism and molded them into a unique form. The posters look effortless and fluid, but they are held together with rigor and structure. He had a remarkable sense of scale. The small flock of birds at the waterline on the Normandie poster creates a heroic scale. His Dole Pineapple posters are as sensual as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is his sense of shape that is genius. Liquid and solid, effortless and exact, the shapes create harmony and balance. So, if I suggest looking at Cassandre, the subtext is “Your shapes are awful.”

Images from the Louis Danziger Collection

Nothing to Love

Seeing what is not there is one of my favorite design techniques. I am so impressed with work that does this, as I can’t. SpotCo’s work for The Book of Mormon uses this technique to perfection. Jumping back a century, which I like to do, I also am a huge admirer of Ludwig Holwein and Hans Rudi Erdt. Holwein was the best-known German poster and advertising artist for the first quarter of the twentieth-century. He had a remarkable ability to use the available printing technology, not so good, and turn it to his advantage. Simple solid forms, and the absence of a specific element are hallmarks of Holwein’s work. If you’re of fan of the “less is more” approach, then you should love Holwein’s “nothing is more.”

Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Ludwig Holwein, 1926
Ludwig Holwein, 1923
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1907
SpotCo, 2010


Delusions of Grandeur

My grandmother was born in 1901. While she didn’t live in Virginia before the civil war, she told stories about her grandfather and his bucolic existence. In her world, everyone was kind, gentle, good, and came from good families.  When she talked about emancipation, she remained unmoved, telling us, “Well, after granddad freed his slaves, why they refused to leave. They loved him so dearly, they all cried, ‘oh, please let us stay.’” My brother, sister, and I tended to look at her and not know what to say. So we politely nodded with frozen, terrified smiles. It never occurred to her that they these people had been held in bondage for two hundred years, had little education, no prospects, or anywhere to go.

I’ve been reading a biography of another family member, Thomas Nelson Page. Like my grandmother, he seemed to live in a dream world. Page was a well-known author, who wrote books that promoted the idea of, once again, a romantic antebellum American south, filled with chivalry, fine ladies, and happy slaves. Page was 12 years old when the civil war ended. He was born at Oakland Plantation in Virginia. He was descended from two prominent families, Page and Nelson. Like most Virginia gentry, he was related in multiple ways to most of the other gentry.

I can understand how seeing life before the war as a child, and then facing the destruction and upheaval during and after the war could color his perception. He could not grasp the full ramifications of slavery. In other ways, Page saw the reality. Old Virginia was ruled by a small group of the aristocracy, and after the war replaced with a moneyed, capitalist class where family names had little value. His world and its benefits had collapsed. As it had for many others, including my grandmother. So they retreated into a past that was kind, and slavery was justified as a paternalistic obligation.

This is what I find difficult to understand: Page was enormously successful in the North. His book, Marse Chan (Master Channing), was a best seller, as well as other antebellum nostalgic novels, In Ole Virginia, Two Little Confederates, and The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock. The concept of a great broken civilization, and the lost cause, played out repeatedly in popular culture. This Moonlight and Magnolia style culminated in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The lesson here, then, has something to do with self-delusion, or a way of ignoring all facts to embrace a preferred history.

Before my grandfather died, he called me over, “You see, Sean, there is something wrong with your grandmother in the head. She can’t understand that we are on a railroad journey.” In reality, they were at home, but my grandfather was convinced they were traveling by rail around the American west, and somehow the US Post always found them. He was sure his worldview was correct, and my grandmother was wrong. How many of our own perceptions are delusions? Maybe I’m not actually going to work each day, but sitting in a sanitarium somewhere.

Cruel Story of Youth

Communication Design 1 is the class at Art Center that is a student’s introduction into ideas, idea making, and the power of images. It’s also a hard class to teach. And sometimes other teachers have a snobby attitude, “Oh, those lower level classes. Well, I would never teach one of those.”  Now I know how people felt when my family members would say, “Bless her soul, what a sense of style. Of course, I could never wear something like that.”

I remember my first class in college. It was with a great designer, Milt Zolotow. First, I couldn’t believe I was in the same room with Milt. Secondly, he was standing right next to the words, “Fuck You,” that someone has scribbled on the wall. Now I am in the same spot, standing in front of people on the first day of their first class. I make sure there are not swear words on the wall next to me. The hard part of CD1 is helping students realize great concepts when they may not have the technical skills yet. But, when they pull it all together, the results are spectacular.

The final project is designed to push their limits and force some introspection, rather than simply making nice jam labels. The assignment is to design a poster for a fictional conference that is about dangerous ideas. The students determine what idea is dangerous for them. The best results come from someone taking a risk. The solutions that fail are usually safe and nice, and that’s all. I’d rather someone tackles a really difficult issue and go down in flames, than do something “nice.” For months I hammer on “less is more,” “make it clear,” “why is that there?” “What does it mean?” and “No bold serifs.” Then I throw a curve ball and ask someone who is twenty years old to tell everyone his or her deepest issues. That’s the fun in teaching.


Higher Education

My first teaching assignment was at Art Center in 1992. Yes, I am that old. At times, I felt like I was banging my head against a concrete wall, but for the last several years, it’s my favorite part of my job. Of course, there are still times when I’d like to throw a chair, but as someone who is there to encourage, inspire, and educate, that would be bad.

Last term’s Communication Design 4 class was a particularly exciting group. Yes, there was the typical range of students: amazing and dedicated, just fine, and stoners (I'm sure everyone is on the pot). This group was heavily slanted toward the amazing side. The class is about research, strategy, identity, systems, and application across multiple media. Thank God I didn’t have to take this in school. It’s hard. I did assignments like a coffee table book version of The Preppy Handbook.

Hanlu Cao made an incredible identity for China Broadcasting based on a changeable Chinese tangram. Shana Torok’s system for MOCA is a circus of energy and ideas. Ellen Flaherty took Bombay Gin and gave it a fresh life. Some of the programs challenged the idea of identity, like Michelle Cho’s poster for a new LAX system. And some were fantastic, stable, and beautiful old school logos like Bo Yeoung Han’s Fuji id. I love Lily Gregorian's poster for LAX with Betty White and the slogan "Deal with it." And Paul Hoppe's identity for the sausage restaurant Wurstkuche, with a logo made from cut paper is genius..

But, nobody should get a fat head. I still felt like throwing chairs when an assignment was late, or my instructions were not followed explicity.

Der Unzulänglichkeit Menschlichen Strebens

I have a complicated relationship with Herbert Bayer. He was a remarkable designer who shaped Modernism, the Bauhaus, and modern design. And he worked for the National Socialist party. It is difficult to talk about Bayer without addressing his complicity with the Nazis. Here is the issue: we can look at Bayer’s other work, such as Das Wunder Des Lebens and find a remarkable sense of scale, montage, three dimensional space, and typography. But, like the filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who claimed she didn’t realize she was making Nazi propaganda, Bayer’s complicity shadows the work. Another booklet by Bayer, Deutschland Ausstellung was created for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The client was the National Socialist Party. This piece deserves a post to itself, but I cannot discuss Bayer and whitewash the context.

Bayer raises questions that are not easy to answer. Who do we work for? Are they good? What are the levels of wrongdoing we will tolerate if we are lauded and rewarded for our work? In a 1940s black and white movie, these answers would be clear and simple. The hero decides to bypass fame and fortune for the good of family, or society. But, unfortunately, we are complex and contradictory.

I was judging a competition several years ago, and one of the entries was for a client that used hate-based propaganda. I didn’t vote for it, but one of the other judges felt I should ignore the content and base my choice on design and communication alone. If we are responsible as communicators, then the content of the work we do is the heart of every project. I’ve used the hypothetical situation of judging an incredible piece for the Nazis as an example. Is it in, or out?

images from the Louis Danziger Collection

Nitsche Didn't Say, "Design Gods are Dead"

There’s been an ongoing debate for a few years regarding design heroes. Some say the younger generation no longer needs or wants heroes, others argue that heroes are a vital part of our design experience. Personally, I cannot imagine my career without the inspiration and guidance of so many “hero” designers. In school, I looked at their work and tried to understand how they made something, and what I could take from that knowledge. When I graduated I followed the career paths already blazed by these designers. When we started AdamsMorioka, I turned to them for support and advice. Today, I show their work to my students. I do this, not so they can copy someone, but to show them different ways of thinking and making. I have never taught a class when someone did not say, "I never knew. I never thought about it that way."

Last night, I went to the AIGA Bright Lights event. This was previously the AIGA Design Legends Gala, but it was renamed this year. Brian Collins pointed out to me that Design Legends Evening sounded like a drag show in Las Vegas. Jennifer Morla, Steve Frykholm, and John Maeda were honored with the AIGA Medal. This event has always been like the best high school reunion you can imagine. It’s as if every single great friend you’ve had is in the same room. This is also a time when we celebrate and recognize the achievements in our profession. This may seem frivolous, insular, and self-congratulatory, but it isn’t. It’s vital that we support and celebrate one another. It elevates all of us and maintains our commitment to excellence and generosity.

I don’t want to live in a world where there are no heroes, where all designers have been deemed ordinary. What we do is a remarkable gift, unique to each of us. I want to look at someone’s work and be humbled. I want to be at an event and feel awkward meeting a famous designer. We need heroes for ourselves and for those outside our profession. Some are saying there are no heroes, that this is an idea of the past. But they simply do not know where to look.

John Maeda, AIGA Medal 2010


Anyone who has seen Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell will have a relative they can identify as “so Auntie Mame.” This means eccentric, full of life, free spirited, and living life by her own rules. My grandmother was “so Auntie Mame,” but so is my mother, my aunts, my great-grandmother, my sister, and from what I’ve learned, generations of women in the family. I’m sure you can imagine the family get-togethers when all the women in the family are out-doing each other with, as RuPaul says, charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

If you are an Auntie Mame type, then everyone else, myself included, are “nice people who work very hard.” Or, worse, they are parvenus. In the movie, Gloria Upson is that type. She is snobbish, tasteless, and awful. I’d love to have friends like Gloria Upson and Bunny Bixler. She’s so top drawer. I do have a great grandmother who was a Bixler, and a great-great grandfather nicknamed Bunny, or Pinky. So I’m sure they would gladly welcome me at their snobby club. We could play ping-pong, drive in their brand new big American car, and buy brand new fashionable things at top-drawer stores. This is, no doubt, much more fun than returning year after year to Brooks Brothers and J. Press to buy the same gingham shirts and khakis.


Artists and Models

It frightens me when students don’t know Norman Rockwell. Before Norman Rockwell became America’s favorite illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker held that position. So, for those of you who are yearning for important illustration history, here it is:

Leyendecker is best known for his Arrow Collar ads and Saturday Evening Post covers. Leyendecker, however, is largely forgotten outside the illustration community. The story behind this is an untapped mini-series.

Leyendecker immigrated to America in 1882. He went to the Chicago Art Institute and later moved to New York with his brother and sister. In 1903, he met Charles Beach, who became his favorite model and lover. Beach was the Arrow Collar man, and received fan mail from across the country. Leyendecker reached the height of his success during the 1920s. Leyendecker and Beach lived lavishly, hosting scandalous parties with New York’s social set. Leyendecker’s brother, Frank, was also rumored to be gay. In the early 1920s, Frank and his sister, Mary, had a spectacular falling out with Leyendecker and Beach. The row ended with Mary spitting in Beach’s face. They moved away, and Frank died alone one year later.

Leyendecker left Manhattan, and purchased a large estate in New Rochelle with a staff of servants. During the 1930s, Leyendecker’s commissions began to slow, and he was forced to scale back his lifestyle. Yes, it’s awful, but he had to let the staff go. He and Beach continued to maintain the estate alone. At some point here, Beach began to limit Leyendecker’s contact with the outside world, and vice versa. Norman Rockwell, a longtime friend, complained that Beach had, “built a wall around him.” In 1951, Leyendecker died with Beach at his side. His funeral was sparsely attended. Whether this was due to his sexual orientation, or the wall Beach had built is speculation. Rockwell, however, did attend and served as a pallbearer. Leyendecker left instructions for Beach to destroy everything. Fortunately, he stopped at discarding the paintings and sketches. He sold these at a yard sale for the high price of seven dollars. In 2004, Christies sold a Leyendecker painting for $209,100.00.

Extracurricular Activities

I advise people to do their own projects if they are feeling stifled at work. Arnold Varga did just that. Working as an art director in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, he produced a wonderful range of ads on a freelance basis. His ads for department stores Cox, and James Horne Co. are fresh and witty. They somehow skirt the issue of showing a dress with a big "Sale" sticker. Varga worked steadily as a small agency until he retired in 1970. When asked about his work, he replied, “It’s informative. It’s honest. It doesn’t hurt the eye when you look at it.” It don't get better that that.

May I Tickle Your Fancy?

I was at a photo shoot a couple of weeks ago that involved photographing middle-school kids. One girl, with freckles and pigtails, was wearing a Wonder Woman shirt. I was concerned about rights issues so I asked her who made her shirt. It must have seemed creepy to have a silver-haired man in his 40s asking a 14 year old where she bought her shirt. I was pulled aside and asked to let others ask the questions. Who knew?

If that seemed suggestive, then how can you explain Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather? Ticklefeather? Is that code, or a marital aid? And she’s lucky. The sexual overtones (and I mean overtones) aside, I love Mrs. Ticklefeather. Her best friend is a Puffin (once again, suggestive) and she has lots of Victorian furniture and porcelain dogs. I’ve never quite grasped the entire story. It seems that her Puffin friend disappears and is almost beheaded. Eventually he returns and they play on a Greek urn together. It’s a simple story that has overtones and subtexts. There’s a movie in here somewhere.

Color My World

Last Monday, I was talking with Clive Piercy about teaching. We both agreed that the most difficult aspect was assuming a student knows something when they don’t. For example, when I talk about PMS, I assume that the class knows I’m talking about ink, not a biological issue. I have learned the hard way this is not the case. I now carefully explain that it is a production issue and I’m not treading on territory where I have no experience. The same is true about certain artists and designers. “You don’t know who Norman Rockwell is? Are you kidding?”

Joan Miro is one of those artists I assume everyone knows. Doesn’t everyone have a parent or intellectual relative who owns a Miro poster? As I’ve recently learned, I might as well have been discussing astronomy to a housecat. Of course, there was a point when I didn’t know Miro either. Once I discovered his work, a new world of shape, scale, color, and spontaneity opened for me.

Here’s Joan Miro in an offensively short description: Joan Miro was a Spanish artist born in 1893. He didn’t align himself with any specific movement, although his work has clear connections to Surrealism and Cubism. He rejected conventional painting and embraced the non-representational. Miro worked in multiple media: printmaking, painting, collage, objects, and sculpture. His bold color usage influenced the development of Color Field painting. His non-objective imagery evolved the Abstract Expressionists. After Miro died in 1983, his work continued to grow in popularity. Today most therapist offices have a Miro poster.

Finding Robert E. Lee

When I went to Virginia last year for a series of speaking engagements, I spent half a day at the Virginia Historical Society. Half a day was far from enough time. I could have spent a week looking through documents and images. On one hand, walking through the exhibitions was exhilarating. On the other, it was incredibly frustrating. At each turn, I found an object or a painting of a family member or distant relative. That was the fun part. The downside was that I was alone, and it seemed odd to gasp, then grab a nearby person and say, “That thar, why that’s my great-grandpappy.” So I went about this incredible discovery with only the guards to keep me company.

I feel amazingly lucky to have so much of my family’s history intact and easy to access. I’m also glad to know that my grandmother wasn’t totally loony and making up stories. My great-great grandmother, Ocatvia Mildred White, was General Robert E. Lee’s first or second cousin. I’m not sure which since the intermarrying tended to create a tangled mess of fishing lines. My grandmother was quite proud that her Grandmama Octavia was General Lee's god-daughter. Now I won’t go into a lengthy historical review of General Lee’s biography, but he seemed to be rather an upstanding man. One of my favorite images from the VHS is this photograph of General Lee after the Civil War. It was taken in 1869, when Lee was president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. It’s an arresting and haunting image, with a composition that highlights a sense of isolation. It doesn’t feel heroic like other Lee images; it’s a quiet surrender.

My Little Town

Every once in awhile, I run into Jeff Keedy out walking his dog. I’ve known Jeff for a long, long, long time, since I was 20 years old. This week, I was thrilled to hear that The Museum of Modern Art selected Jeff’s typeface, Keedy Sans, for its permanent collection. Jeff designed Keedy Sans in 1991 and explains its concept, “Most typefaces are logically systematic; if you see a few letters you can pretty much guess what the rest of the font will look like. I wanted a typeface that would willfully contradict those expectations.”  I like living in a neighborhood with someone who walks his dog, chats about the weather, and is that smart.

There’s a multitude of incredibly talented designers making wonderful typefaces. It’s not well known, but we make typefaces also. It’s usually in the service of a specific client. We designed “Bob” for Sundance, specifically named for Robert Redford so the in-house designers could never say, “I just don’t like Bob.” We designed Taco for our friend, Larry Nicola’s restaurant, Mexico. We’ve even monkeyed with a font here and there. One of our clients at Cedars-Sinai didn’t like the numeral “1” in Sabon, and I hated the “0”. So we fixed them.

I admit I’m envious of Jeff’s abilities and conceptual approach. In the last couple of years, we’ve forced our interns to design typefaces with questionable taste. I’d love to say it’s because we’re interested in the intersection of decoration, pastiche, and legibility, but I can’t. It sounds mean, but I need them. I don’t know where, but I’ll find a home for them. Maybe I can use Octavia in all caps with swashes for body copy. And I like forcing people to do something that makes them want to go home and take a Silkwood shower.

C'est le ton qui fait la musique

For those of you too young to remember life before iPhoto and the picture books, there once was a time photographs were physical objects, and went into a shoebox. If you wanted to make a book for your friends, you needed to stick the photos into ugly Holly Hobbie “photo-books” with plastic and waxy boards. Of course, now we can simply order a book of our personal images from Apple and, except for the “crayon” theme, make something tasteful.

One of my favorite publications is Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet. For years, Brodovitch took snapshots at the ballet. He didn’t hire Richard Avedon to shoot them. He didn’t use a flash or worry about perfect lighting. The result is often a blur of motion and light. In 1945, this was not “real” photography. Using the standards of the time, these are simply amateur snapshots. Fortunately, this rigid definition didn’t deter Brodovitch. The blurred motion and full bleed images create the sensation of the ballet, as opposed to simply documenting it. The ornamental typography doesn’t attempt to be international style, modernist, or “high-design”. It is exuberantly about the ballet.

As I’ve said before, I truly admire work that has the courage to be about joy and delight. Ballet is a masterpiece. While we look at the book now as “high design,” it is, in fact, about something frivolous and transitory. But, aren’t those the things in life that are the most wonderful?

Between the Lines

Years ago, I knew a designer who was a speed addict. He stayed up all night drawing blades of grass. In his mind, there was no design solution that didn’t involve tiny blades of grass. A poster for a festival in Italy led to grass in the shape of Italy. New layouts for a book of poetry, why not use grass on the cover? I’m not a speed addict, but I am obsessive. I happily work on my crazy family chart, or re-organize the garage several times a year. I love obsessive work. This ad for the advertising firm, Mel Richman is just that. Someone with a lot of time drew every little activity at the agency. This was created in 1955, so it makes sense. There were only three networks on television with limited programming. People, undoubtedly, sat in their living rooms staring at the wall wondering what to do. Obsessive drawing was clearly a good solution for the relentless boredom.

Coats and Cars

Unlike many men, I am able to think about more than one thing at a time. Well, not really at the same time, but one thought quickly follows another. Unfortunately, my dual thinking ability frequently puts the wrong things together. For example, I was explaining Sonia Delauney’s work recently, and I immediately jumped to Madeline Kahn’s car in High Anxiety. If you haven’t seen High Anxiety, Madeline Kahn’s Cadillac matches her Louis Vuitton jumpsuit. The car is covered in the same Louis Vuitton pattern. Of course it’s a sight gag. But why was Sonia Delauney’s matching coat and Citroen not funny? I know it’s not supposed to be funny because I was asked to stop laughing in Modern Art when I saw the Delauney Citroen at school.

Perhaps Delauney planned her matching coat and car as a sight gag, also. She expected great outbursts of laughter and applause, but was met with serious contemplation and intellectual deconstruction. We all need to feel the sorrow and tragedy of Delauney’s failed career as a comedian.