Wonky Type Wonderland

Let’s be honest, when I’m at a party I love when someone gets rip-roarin’ drunk and makes a crazy fool of himself. Usually that person is me, and I’m wearing the lampshade. I can’t say I recall any of the most embarrassing moments, although I did have a taxi go through a Jack in the Box drive thru at 2 in the morning.

I also love when type gets drunk and wonky. I’m not talking about type that is a tiny bit “wacky”. I like the stuff that is out of control all over the place. The 1950s and 60s were a haven for drunk type. I imagine, based on Mad Men, that the designers were smashed at work, so the type followed. Today, there is less crazed drinking at work (most days). This results in stand-up sober, polite typography. Which is fine when it’s at a meeting of neurologists or CEOs, but let’s agree that type should be let out to have a groovy time once in a while.

The Opposite of Nothing

When I was in college, I rigorously adhered to neat and minimal aesthetics. “Sean,” Lorraine Wild said, “Try loosening up. Do something that isn’t polite.” Lou Danziger told me, “Do something ugly.” Since I couldn’t understand this, they suggested I take a year and study in the fine art department. Theoretically, this would lead to a creative epiphany and I would be flinging depressing paint colors around a room. It all started fine, and I made some big expressive paintings of Patsy Cline. On the next iteration, I added text to create an image/text narrative. Then I decided the image wasn’t necessary, so I painted only the text. Finally, I didn’t like the hand-made expressive quality of the text; it seemed forced. So I typeset the text in 8 point Bodoni and mounted it to the canvas. By the end of the year, I had come full circle and was creating minimal type driven work.

I am in awe of those who can work with complexity and decoration and maintain a sense of rigor. So often, this approach can lead to something sentimental and feel like an overwrought Get Well card. Like all good design, a sense of joy is critical. Jessica Hische’s covers for Barnes and Noble Classics are a great example of this. The intricacy of detail is countered by a clear sense of order. The result is something that has an emotional connection to the viewer. You may not have owned a worn copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but Jessica’s cover looks like the one you would have had next to your bed. The reality of something is never as important as our memory. These covers tap into our own narratives and remind us that books are treasured. I also appreciate that Jessica said I was like a "really cool Uncle," as opposed to "my ancient grandfather."

The Other Side

You can’t tell if something is dark without also seeing something light. In the same way, it’s hard to know when something is bad, when it’s all you’ve known. When I was growing up, we moved constantly, as if my parents were on the run from the law. When I left home at 18, we’d moved 22 times on three continents. I didn’t realize this was bad until I was able to stay in one place for more than 18 months.

I had another realization like this last week. I was at Walt Disney World and saw someone wearing a completely groovy t-shirt with the original Walt Disney World 1971 logo. I assumed it was an old shirt until I found it in a store. Richard Terpstra designed the shirt this year. On a side note, Terpstra is a genius at creating new products that have a sense of history and never seem forced or bad replications. Then, I found more t-shirts that I loved. Yes, they all nod to the past and fall into a post-modern pastiche concept. Yes, they are ironic and something someone would wear at a coffee house in Brooklyn or spice store in Silverlake. But, I could wear them too. That’s a real accomplishment to create a product that can run the gamut from hard-core hipster to Fred MacMurray.

Now, why was this a realization? Because I’m not used to seeing something this well designed on my side of the country at Disneyland. I’m a huge fan of Kevin Kidney items, and own an amount of them others find “eccentric”. The other merchandise at Disneyland is, well, cheesy. I hear about the issue of annual passport holders not buying merchandise at Disneyland often. I’ve had an annual passport since 1984 and don’t buy t-shirts. But I’ve only seen the overwrought glittery hyper-cute Disneyland t-shirts.

The cat’s out of the bag for me. I’ve seen what is possible. Someone in Florida at Disney Park merchandising is doing something wonderful and exciting. They’re taking risks and designing for an audience other than the Housewives of Anaheim. Bravo (no pun intended).

The Young and The Restless

LA LA LAND from | Yero | on Vimeo.

It’s that time of year again when a new batch of designers lands in the real world. I’ve been told that approximately 30,000 design students graduate each year and enter the market. This sounds terrifying but shouldn’t be. The reality, as in most of life, is that the cream will rise to the top. Out of that huge number, there is a much smaller group dedicated and really talented designers. I was worried as I approached graduation. Lorraine Wild gave me this advice, “if you’re good, willing to work hard, and keep learning, you’ll do well. Nobody good slips through the cracks.” It turns out that this was true; short of those people I know who self-destructed by smoking pot all day.

Here, then, is a slate of amazing designers who graduated last Saturday from Art Center. I know each of them, and can vouch not just for their abilities, but also for their dedication and willingness to work.

However, just to make this clear, I am not an employment service. The last time I posted a group of grads, one of them sent me an email clarifying that she would only work in Los Angeles or San Francisco and would not accept less than $50,000 salary. To this I sent a simple reply, “Not my problem.” Yes, I too can be mean.


Josh Finklea - http://joshfinklea.info Teodros Hailye - http://teodros.tv Tyler Hamilton - http://www.tylerhamiltondesign.com/#!home|mainPage Ben Hickman - http://benhickmandesign.com James Ihira - http://cargocollective.com/jamesihira Kevin Lam - http://kevinclam.com Scott Langer - http://work.scottlanger.com Chanmi Grace Lee - http://chanmigrace.info Chul Lee - http://chulgrafik.com Christian Morin - http://mdistrict.net Tomo Ogino - http://tomoogino.com Aldis Ozolins - http://aldisozolins.com Yerem Tagvoryan - http://yero.tv


Ominbus Film Festival from chul lee on Vimeo.


SyFy Summer Identity from T on Vimeo.

In a Landscape

We’ve discussed my musical taste here previously. It’s exactly what would be expected: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and American patriotic music. Fly Me to The Moon is fine at the office, but I’ve been discouraged from playing John Philip Sousa’s version of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Years ago, when we worked with MTV, I had to nod and pretend I knew who everyone was discussing. Fortunately, Noreen is hip, so she could explain it to me.

There was one music related project, however, that I understood. The Getty Research Institute exhibited a collection of musical notations in 1995. We designed the catalogue. I paid attention in college when experimental twentieth century music was discussed. So I could grasp the idea. Experimental music requires a different type of language to be played correctly. Musical graphic notation allowed for symbols and other forms to convey the information as to how the piece should be played. In some instance, the idea of chance is included with the usage of materials such as multiple layers of acetate.

I may not recognize Nicki Minaj when she is standing in line with me at LAX (I just thought this woman in front of me was oddly overdressed), but I can tell you how the I Ching is an influencer in John Cage’s music.

Words and No Pictures

Designers often ask me what I look for in a portfolio. I always look at typography. There are a million decisions and variables in type. If someone can manipulate the complex issues of legibility, form, scale, and meaning with combinations of 26 letters, and create something wonderful, they can probably manage any project. But what makes good typography? It’s not about choosing beautifully drawn typefaces (but that’s a big part), or setting everything at 4 point (some of us like to read the words). It isn’t about maintaining a rigid Swiss structure (but that’s a good place to start). It’s about making a dynamic, exciting, and meaningful experience.

I’ve seen solutions that are incredibly elegant, but make no sense. A refined cut of Didot is probably not needed for a poster about seal clubbing (the animals and blood, not the musician and nightclubs). I don’t like typography that's just nice. There’s enough boring stuff to look at already. If the type is classical and elegant, it should be so beautiful that you want to throw up. If the subject, such as The Angry Black South needs simple communication, let it be just that: simple communication. I like to think of typography as pictures of words. Which makes the statement, A picture is worth a thousand words,” a very complex math problem.

Hold Me Now

How many times have you come home after a long day to find all of your wall hangings crooked? I don’t know if tiny earthquakes cause this, or someone is purposely making them crooked to prove they’ve been cleaned. If I had one massive painting on each wall, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But I have photos and paintings specifically arranged. I plan the groupings out on the computer, measure with my Schaedler ruler (if you don’t own one, stop right now and buy one) and make sure everything is square with a level. This is not OCD.

Last weekend I was determined to solve the problem. Some people lie in bed awake at 3am wondering about a serious issue. I lie there trying to decide what adhesive will work best to fix the pictures in place. After much trial and error, Quake Hold Museum Putty works best. This is how to achieve perfectly square images that will always stay in place.

  1. Roll out a piece of the Quake Hold like a roll of dough
  2. Cut pieces off, about 1/8” each
  3. Roll these into little balls
  4. Affix the little Quake Hold balls to the bottom corners of the frame
  5. Use a small level to make sure the frame is correct, and push the bottom into the wall

Voila, you pictures will remain in place even when small children attempt to dislodge them. And when you want to remove them, give them a little pull, and they lift right off, no damage to the wall or frame. Then you will no longer be ashamed when you find a guest glancing at your wall.

Art-Nouveau Feeder Fetishist

What I want to talk about here is fat. Not “phat” fat, but fat fat. Everyone is concerned about the country getting fatter. But what happened to typography and shapes in the late 1960s and 1970s? They got fat. I understand the issue of anti-consumerism. Coming from an anti-establishment counter-culture environment in the 1960s, companies needed to make messages and products “big.” Bigger was better, and if it could also be in earth colors and look natural, even better. If I actually purchased an item, rather than making it on my loom at home with macramé, I wanted to know I was getting my money’s worth. So we see fat logos, wide lapels and ties, big shirt collars, bell bottoms, and giant brown cars.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I like fat Victorian shapes. It’s as if the Garamond and curly shapes ate too many French fries and went from delicate to, well, very, very healthy. All the years of praising refined letterforms and deriding bold serifs have led to this shameful admission. Granted, in the hands of a master such as Herb Lubalin or Tom Carnase, the results are spectacular. But, when abused by someone less adroit, the result is clunky, horsey, and vomitous (yes this is now a word when discussing ugly typography). I hope this post will prove my veracity and commitment to the truth. We only tell the truth here, at any cost. This admission will, no doubt, ruin any chances of ever receiving an AIGA medal, being invited to join AGI, or being spoken to by any of my friends. So be kind when you find me at a conference sitting alone as other designers point and whisper, “Oh, yes, it’s true. He has a secret thing for the chunky type.”


In Search of Lost Time

I love a good diorama. Actually, I love the bad ones too. They talk to me, not about the setting or subject, but about time. There is something so odd and comforting as the Neanderthals, elephants, or honey badger stand frozen in time and space. It’s as if they are trapped in a time-dilation event behind the window. In their world, time moves normally, but for us they stand motionless. Then there is the subtext of death. These animals are no longer alive. The Neanderthals, Paiute Indians, and early settlers are artificial. They have glassy eyes and forever engaged intently on the task at hand. The Mise-en-scène represented to us is not a static grouping of animals or people. The diorama attempts to convince us that this is reality. This is the magic of narrative. As human beings, we immediately construct the story and imagine ourselves on the never changing hot African veldt, damp Amazonian jungle, or Ice Age tundra.


Main Title

There’s an old saying, “It’s easy to do good work if you have a good subject.” For us, this is true with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We’ve worked with AMPAS for several years, from the identity to this year's 84th Annual Academy Awards tickets. I spent much of the winter working on the AMPAS Annual Report. To an outsider, this might seem like a simple task; use some photos of the Academy Awards and you’re done. The Academy, however, is a remarkable organization also involved in preservation, science and technology, cultural diplomacy, and celebration of excellence. There are events, exhibitions, and awards throughout the year. The issue, then, becomes an embarrassment of riches. There is simply too much to include in one publication. Like a good film, editing is a critical part of the project.

The design of the annual report moved away from a traditional corporate publication, and maintained an editorial structure. The larger ideas, such as collective history are presented. We treated each section as its own feature with its own typographic language.

I was griping to Noreen last week, “Why do we get discounted as being ‘Hollywood’? Entertainment is one of the nation’s largest exports. It’s as much a business as publishing or finance.” But, seriously, snap out of it. I can’t complain. We have the privilege of working with a client such as AMPAS, and making a centerfold with Sophia Loren.

The Odd and the Ugly

As someone who needs organization, I spend an inordinate amount of free time collecting family photos, labeling and cataloguing them. I’m fortunate that I have a wide network that can send me a photo of a painting in a hall, or I can track down distant uncles, aunts, and cousins on the Library of Congress website. When I post about someone in the family, I try to find the flattering image. But there is a collection of the weird that I keep hidden. Like Diane Arbus images, these photographs seem to be of marginalized subjects.

There are odd out of place outfits, such as Hallie Erminie Rives Wheeler in full kimono. I find the painting of Constance and Maud Rives to be quite odd. Whose idea was it to dress them as Little Bo Peep? I have a macabre image of William Fontaine Maury in open casket. Why did my grandmother save this? It’s very “The Others.” What's with the cow? Was this the last prized possession after the Civil War? There is a strange photo of my mother and aunt with the poodle. Why did nobody say, “Mary Kay, you look like Sybil.” Most disturbing, though, and my favorite is an image of my sister, brother, and me in bizarre masks. What I want to know is where is that clown mask now? It’s the scariest mask known to man. I’d like to use it when I drive to meet with clients.

Film Starts Here

In 2001, we started working with Sundance. Over the next 9 years, we had a wonderful time working on the Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Channel, Sundance Institute, Sundance Resort, and a few other Sundance properties. It’s hard to complain about a project, when you are meeting Robert Redford in a beautiful valley in the mountains of Utah. We had a great appreciation for the role Sundance plays in preservation, independent thinking, and artistic integrity. And, something close to our hearts is Sundance’s connection to the American west as an idea. It isn’t about the west of cowboys and Indians, but about vast open space, pioneering thinking, and optimism.

Working with the creative team at Sundance, specifically Jan Fleming and Robert Redford, was a true collaboration. And while it sounds like the party line, that’s how we do our best work. I also love working with Robert Redford because he insists on calling Noreen (Morioka), “Maureen Noriega.”

Death Takes a Holiday

I’m not too keen on New Year’s resolutions. It seems to me that if something is worth doing, or not doing, why put it off. As I tell the crew at AdamsMorioka, “We show God how pleased we are with him by not procrastinating in our tasks.” They love me for my helpful advice.

If I had to make a New Year’s resolution it would be to drink less. It’s not that I go home and tear through a bottle of cheap gin, waking up in a pool of vomit. My grandparents always had a cocktail before dinner, so it makes sense. But, perhaps, switching from the martini glasses to the giant Melmac mug was a mistake. My plan, however, was waylaid by the beautiful gift of Death’s Door Vodka. Francesca, who makes my daily life run properly at the office, gave it to me for Christmas. She knows me very well. I like good typography, and I like drinking.

I try to veer away from promoting current designers and work here. Since I started writing articles and books over a decade ago, I found that doing an article on one designer pisses off the other 300,000 designers. So I stick with the dead, or well loved. But in this case, I can’t resist. Grip Design in Chicago designed the packaging. I love that it’s unique and beautifully crafted, but it doesn’t slip into gimmick alcohol packaging. The name, Death’s Door, is the tour de force. Items such as alcohol, automobiles, skateboards, and space heaters should allude to the fact that they may kill you. I don’t want to buy a Feature Comfort Space Heater, I want the Exterminating Angel of Fire Heater.

Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk

Originally, I planned to do this post about modernism done well, and modernism done badly. For example, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe is done well. A black box office building on Ventura Boulevard is not so good. The JC Penney annual report for 1970 is a great example of beautiful and precise modernism. George Tscherny’s design is crisp and clean. The Helvetica is elegant. This is what a Swiss grid and Helvetica can be in the hands of a master. This is, obviously, the intent for the current JC Penney Helvetica style.

But, while doing research for this post, I came across the website, www.wishbookweb.com. It’s a treasure trove of shopping catalogues. The 1970 JC Penney Christmas catalogue has nothing to do with the annual report beside the date. It’s a remarkable time capsule. The clothes are, of course, funny. It’s the odd subtext of the pages that make it such a pleasure. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did see some plaid shirts that I wanted to buy. But you cannot call 1970. Nobody answers, and there were no answering machines.


And now, from high modernism to nifty hats and big pockets on the front of pants.

I don't think anyone looks good in His n' Hers styles. Couples should not match unless they are in a groovy band like Kids of the Kingdom.

This is further proof that matching outfits are wrong. And these simply look illicit.

There is an odd prevalence of men holding women on the ground in this book. It's quite submissive and frankly disturbing. I believe the women should be allowed to stand, especially if forced to wear department store headbands. Even I know that's uncool.

Am I wrong or is this a page of "swingers"? And I don't mean the dancing to swing music people. These are the people who live down the block and invite you to a "key" party. Don't go. It will end badly.

What can be said? First, these are bathmats with holes cut for sleeves. Second, these vests scream, "beat me up! Please!" A nun would cross the street to beat up these kids.

A Hideous Child from the Dead

Thanksgiving is an important time of the year for us here at the cabin. We make a special batch of moonshine, Ma takes out the real fancy dishes, Pa and the little ones gather berries for fresh pies. And folks come from miles away to tell a yarn and share some good cookin'. Actually, Thanksgiving for my family has always been a favorite holiday. I hate Halloween and New Years Eve. I can't get overly excited about Easter. But any American holiday such as the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving is alright for us. It's not that we're wildly patriotic. It's the holiday that doesn't offend anyone. There's no religious overtones, and nobody needs to dress in costume or stay up past 10pm.

This year I'm thankful for so many things. It would be a long list so I won't go into detail. But the most important thing that all of us should be thankful for is that the child above is not ours.

Slow Boat to China

A great episode of the Twilight Zone is Time Enough at Last with Burgess Meredith. Meredith plays a man who loves to read, but is annoyingly interrupted by those around him. He survives a nuclear war while reading in a bank vault, and then discovers a post-apocalyptic world with no people and all the time to read for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he drops his glasses and is left with time and books, but cannot see them. I have a similar irony, albeit less dramatic.

I love dishes and drinking glasses. I have too many of these. But, I live in a region where earthquakes cause breakage. I’m also concerned that my guests will break a glass or dish. So I keep the collections in a cabinet, and use the Melmac plastic dinnerware. I typically say, “I know you won’t mind using plastic, but we’re all family and can be casual.” Of course I say this to everyone regardless of my relationship and carefully watch the dish cabinet. I realize this is selfish and stupid. Is my goal to maintain a complete set of Russell Wright Iroquois Casual dinnerware intact until I die?

One of my absolute favorite sets is Salem China Company’s Pat Prichard Nostalgic Old America from 1956. Viktor Schreckengost designed the forms, and Pat Prichard created the art. Old Gloucester is a fantastic collection of New England forms such as clipper ships, rooster weathervanes, baked beans, and a seaside village. I guess baked beans are big in New England. Old Comstock depicts a western scene with happy horses, old west saloons, and a stagecoach. Clearly, this is New England nostalgia from another time. Unlike the HBO mini-series John Adams (yes related), there is no depiction of surgery with no anesthesia. And on Old Comstock, unlike Deadwood, there is no whoring or liberal use of the “C” word (and I don’t mean China).


I love numerals. I don’t know why, but I love the chance to use them. Maybe I like them because they are another language than letters that is pure and universal. Or, perhaps I just think anything looks better with a big numeral. This attraction leads me to photograph numbers around the world. As usual, while other people are photographing their families, I am taking photos of the gate numbers at the Honolulu Airport, or a street number in New Orleans Square. The title sequence for Lost in Space is a number lover's heaven. Last week, I worked on a spread of only numbers for the Academy’s annual report. That was a good day.

Aloha Oy

I’m sure many of you watched Pan Am on Sunday night. Many of us watched it, not for plot or character, but for details. Beside the odd Doctor Who Tardis issue (the inside of the Boeing 707 grew into a wide-body 747), many of the details were correct. The on-board graphics and set design were as obsessive to detail as Mad Men.

As I watched Pan Am, I thought a better program would be Aloha! It would be the same idea, but set in 1976 and on Aloha Airlines. Think about it, you get Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Pan Am, and Mad Men all rolled into one. Aloha is, unfortunately, no longer flying. The reasons cited are economic pressure due to September 11, competition on inter-island flights, and increasing gas costs. I, however, believe the trouble began the minute Aloha dropped its fantastic identity. How can Bookman Swash ever be wrong? They made the tragic, yet typical error, of “updating” when they would have been the hippest airline if they waited a couple of years