People often ask me to explain how I choose colors on a project. "You're so good with color," they say, "What is your process?" My process is to liberally take color palettes from anywhere. Some call it stealing, I consider it appropriation.
I have a collection of crocheted hangars my grandmother made. I don't use them because I'm too OCD and all the hangars in the house must be the exact same white plastic or wood version. But I do love the crochet hangars. The colors are wonderful. So I made a color palette out of them. It's not high design. It's not a careful exploration of values and tones ala Johannes Itten. It's a palette from 1970s yarn.
I'm impressed at how many of these my grandmother, Oma, made. She was an avid crocheter and made many afghans, hats, and sweaters. I don't understand the afghans. Since they are made with big crochet holes, they don't really keep anyone warm. And as much as I admire Oma's fortitude and talent, I was never a big fan of receiving a crocheted sweater. They aren't really hip in the 6th grade.
It could have been worse, 1970s crocheted clothing is far worse than any bad gift you will ever receive. The next time you complain because Aunt Bess gave you hideous patterned sweater, be thankful it isn't a rust and mauve crochet caftan.
I planned on doing a post today to rant about bad clients. Sure there are some that were indecisive or unclear, but I can only think of one who was someone I'd love to run into, when I'm driving and he was walking. Then I looked through Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi's book, John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The ranting concept seemed small and petty compared to the vastness of the Alcorn work.
I'm not opposed to small and petty, but each spread is breathtaking. Steven Heller calls Alcorn the 4th Beatle of Graphic Design. He was the youngest (21) member of Push Pin Studios in 1956. His work with Push Pin and Lou Dorfsman at CBS is smart, sophisticated, and elegant. He never succumbed to a "cutesy-pie" approach common to illustration in the 1950s. As he matured as a designer, the work takes on layers of sensuality. There is no restrictive diet here; the shapes, images, and typography are rich and full.
This maximalism expanded when Alcorn moved to Italy. After 1971, the illustrations are a feast of vibrant and complex forms with pleasure and passion, like good Italian cooking. The work is a reminder of the joy in design. It reinforces the good parts, not the murderous tendencies and anger management problems, but creative expression and love of craft.
You know how teachers are always saying, "I love teaching, the students teach me as much as I teach them."? It's true. Yes, in a high-falutin' idealistic way, but usually in odd and unexpected knowledge. This week, I learned that raping an old person is called "grape" after "grandparent rape". I learned that I could turn off that annoying double click isolate feature in Illustrator. And I learned the worse thing a young man can say to a woman is, "Make me a sandwich." I don't know why. I'd be happy to make someone a sandwich, it doesn't seem that egregious.
The absolute most exciting piece of information was lingscars.com. My students in Type Design 5 found it for me. I'm sure I'm behind the curve on this one. Everyone already probably knows about it, but humor a square designer who spends time looking at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection. Lingscars.com is the most incredible website ever designed. It has everything from singing people, a Darth Vader mask, a walking chicken, and flight attendants doing a safety demo. If that isn't enough, the code is genius.
One of my favorite clients is Blake Little. I've known Blake for twenty years. He's the first call I make when I need a remarkable photographer for a project. Blake is also able to make me look halfway decent in photographs. The upside of this is that I look good in a headshot, the downside is that someone meets me in person and says, "oh, hmm."
A few years ago, Blake asked me to design his book, Dichotomy, followed by The Company of Men, and Manifest. I'd love to say they are incredibly challenging, but this is proof that it's hard to go wrong with great content.
Blake's most recent book, Preservation, is about to be released and there will be an exhibition of the work at the Kopeikin Gallery in February. Blake's work has an inherent sense of energy. Whether it's a piercing gaze, or coiled strength, or kinetic motion, the subjects share an intensity of power. The Preservation images have the same quality, but in this case, the energy and motion is frozen. The subjects appear to be unexpectedly trapped in amber. The result is a cross between a Rodin sculpture and frozen figures from Pompeii.
I thought I was being radically alternative to create an ultra-rigid grid and system for the typography as a counterpoint to the fluid imagery. But I have a feeling it's an instance of a designer getting caught up in the tiny details and saying, "But don't you see, the missing cross-bar on the 'A' changes the meaning entirely."
I was cleaning out my garage yesterday and a neighbor stopped by to say hello. The door of my garage leads into my rumpus room (yes it's knotty pine, no we don't play bridge in there). There are several Disneyland attraction posters in the rumpus room and she saw them on the wall. "Oh, I love your posters," she said, "I mean I really, really love them." I thanked her and then worried she might come back with a weapon.
This happens anytime anyone sees them. Even hardened academic post-modern/critical theory obsessed designer types like them. "Hmm, that isn't bad, I guess," they say.
Why is that? First, they are remarkably well designed. Second, they're big and people like big things. Third, they remind the viewer of a good experience. And finally, they tap into the common iconography of travel and adventure.
So, let's start with the influences. The Disneyland Hotel poster (above) borrows arrows from Beall's Rural Electrification poster, and geometric shapes from Russian Constructivism.
Clearly the WPA National Parks posters informed the design of many of the Disneyland attraction posters. The illustration style is representational. Larger than life scale defines the space. Dramatic lighting and bold colors dominate. The Grand Canyon Diorama poster is a close cousin to the See America poster.
Early American modernism, ala Lester Beall and Joseph Binder, is related with stylistic elements such as arrows and the use of implied perspective created with scale. The Skyway poster's perspective employs the same device of extreme scale as the Binder Air Corps U.S. Army poster.
The idea of a strong foreground combined with a distant vista links the Frontierland and The National Parks WPA poster. The color choices in both examples veer from the expected, a sunny blue sky or water, to more dramatic options such as an orange sky on the WPA poster and ochre water on the Frontierland poster. Flat color and simple shapes define a silkscreened process in both examples.
Most important, however, is the inclusion of narrative. The posters promise a story. They exhibit bobsledding with super tan people, dangling from a thin wire on a gondola, or braving wild animals through the Grand Canyon Diorama. Each poster conveys a sense of time, place, and typically makes the viewer part of the action.
Yes, this has been an adventure through a serious dissertation on Disneyland attraction posters. But there is no cause for alarm. We have concluded this post, and future posts will return to less words.
As some of you know, my most recent course on Lynda.com launched yesterday. This one, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History, was incredibly fun to make. I was challenged to create a course that would provide the basics of design history and make it interesting. I could have gone down the track of, "This is a poster by Jean Carlu in 1929. It has an umbrella. Next slide." But I'm interested in why Jean Carlu made this poster, what was happening culturally, and why it works.
I assume most people think about history as a horrible task, tainted by boring lectures on the War of 1812 in high school. So, how could I make this subject relevant and communicate my passion for the subject. No I don't jump up and down and get overly excited. I simply laid out the facts. The more you see, the larger your visual vocabulary adds to your design skills. It's as if writers were told to not bother reading Dickens or Twain. "Oh don't bother with those, they're old. Just read wikipedia. That's good enough for a writing education."
There's also the joy factor. We all share that same feeling of pleasure when we see something wonderful or discover a new idea. So I designed the course to explain what was happening politically and culturally and how that led to the choices made in design. Why did the Bauhaus designers reject decoration? Why did the Fillmore posters refer to Alice in Wonderland? Why did the Nazis barge into Jan Tschichold's apartment and arrest him and his wife?
Of course there is another version, the Vanity Fair course, that has all the secrets and juicy rumors. But that will need to wait until I'm older or can make up stuff and not get caught.
I am quite proud of my most recent project, to build a bookcase in my office at home. It still needs some trim work, but the books are in and nothing has collapsed. The most surprising aspect of the project was how many books I had. Who knew? These are only the design books, there are other bookcases in the house with more. I had quite a few duplicates that I tried donating to the Art Center library, but they didn't need them. I didn't want to throw the books away. I considered burning them in the driveway and telling my neighbors they were evil books: Catcher in the Rye, etc.. But I left them in a box on the curb, and they were gone in an hour.
Of course, that doesn't stop me from buying more. One of my favorite publishers is Unit Editions. It's a collaboration between Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook in London. They focus on books with incredibly high quality and remarkable content. Rather than producing 25,000 copies of a book about business cards on cheap paper, Unit Editions publishers smaller quantities that will last for generations.
When I hear people ramble on about sustainable practices and how they used recycled paper for their brochure I nod approvingly. But, in the end, isn't the truly sustainable action to create an artifact that will be used, saved, and not thrown in the trash?
As Lou Danziger told us as students, "Stop buying drugs. Buy books instead." Very good advice, although as a student, I was spending my money on Cup o' Noodles not drugs.
Recently, a young designer met with me and talked about obsession. "I'm worried it's wrong, but I get obsessed about something and can't stop," she said. She wasn't talking about Justin Bieber or heroin. She gave the example of string art. "I can't stop looking for it online and want to learn how to do it." Who doesn't?" was my reply.
I don't know where she heard that being obsessed was bad. Sure, if you're stalking someone and build a shrine with sacrifices for them you may have a problem. But I've been working on my OCD family tree for years and never tire of it. Paula Scher makes wonderful paintings of maps. Marian Bantjes works with pattern. Massimo Vignelli couldn't get enough Bodoni. Being obsessed is part of the job.
Ken Briggs was a British designer responsible for many of the beautiful posters for the National Theatre in London. Clearly, Briggs was obsessed with the New Typography, inspired after seeing a copy of Josef Müller Brockmann's Neue Grafik. The posters relentlessly use Helvetica, golden section proportions and grids. But, Briggs took the rigid rules and tweaked them with surprising color choices and offbeat photographic solutions. He added a dry British wit to a sterile approach.
Briggs didn't do this once, or for a couple of months. He did it over and over and over. And thank God for that obsession. The lesson here, obsession makes perfection.
One of the tenets of post-modernism is self-referential expression. This post, then is the post-modern one. This is a post about this blog.
When burningsettlerscabin first launched, I designed a nice Victorian logo for the masthead. It worked well with the minimal layout and I had fun making it. After awhile, I grew tired of that version. And its started to feel vertiginously close to hipster design. So I made a new one. This became an on-going hobby. The point of this blog is as shallow as it gets. If I'm interested in something or find an inspirational artifact or solution, I write about it. It's that simple. If I want to, I write. If I don't feel like it, I don't. I know this is absolutely the most wrong thing one can do with all the rules of social media. But, I have so many other rules in life: typographic, social manners, organizing linen closets, age appropriate clothing, and the list goes on.
The masthead follows the same logic. If I feel like making a new one, I do. If it's heinously hideous but I like it, I use it. So, in response to the requests to post one or the other mastheads here they are.
While some have said burningsettlerscabin is their "lite" (yes, spelled that way) version of Design Observer, consider this: In this post, self-referentiality [and the epistemological skepticism it implies] is central to postmodernism and takes its typological and typographic cue from the self-referential, though not mutually exclusive, aesthetics of nostalgia, irony, and satire.
See, the settlers at the cabin are way smart.
There is a huge difference between a dull photograph of Yosemite Valley and an Ansel Adams photo. Adams didn't photograph Yosemite Valley, he shot the weather in the valley.
Left: Carleton Watkins, Right: Ansel Adams
In the same way, there is a lot of bad surfing photography. It's the same shot over and over, someone tube-riding shot from below. LeRoy Grannis' photos, however, are good, really good, surfing photos. They are not the same shot over and over. Beside the obvious issues of lighting, composition, color, and content, Grannis' images work because they are not photos of surfing. He photographs the people surfing. The images are about culture and community. They objectively depict the surf community in the 1960s and 70s. This separates the work from traditional sports photography. The action is the backdrop to the individuals in the frame.
They also work because everyone is super groovy, even the elderly spectators with bitchin' sunglasses.
This is frustrating: I suggest that a student have more fun and freedom on a project and they return the next week with the most itsy-bitsy slight change. I don't understand the timidness. It's as if they believe God will strike them dead if they use a quickly drawn gesture, or too much color, or an enormously scaled grainy image. So I get the tidy and polite vector art solutions or lovely but dead photographs. It really drives me to murder. I'm the opposite of the cranky professors who say, "Oh, that's gone too far." I beg them, "Please, please go so far that everyone in the room is shocked and aghast at your complete lack of restraint."
I'm not pushing students to go outside of their comfort level and work in broad strokes to be mean. I don't want them to spend their lives designing tasteful wine labels and polite brochures. I want them to be wonderful.
The example I use is Herb Lubalin and Ralph Ginzburg'sEros magazine. Eros was short lived, only four issues from 1968 to 1971. By today's standards it tame. You can find more explicit imagery by doing a google search for "cat". Lubalin uses the page like a giant canvas, not a small magazine. When he uses negative space, he does past the comfortable spot. When he handles headlines, he does bad things like smashing the copy together in a corner. The images are dramatic and play with radical scale and cropping. At the same time, the thing is refined to death.
Partners at a law firm usually make more than graphic designers. That's ok because they have to wear real life work clothes and we don't. And we can have fun. That's the trade-off. Why be miserable and uptight, and a graphic designer. You can do that as a financial analyst and make much more money.
Spread images via: http://westread.blogspot.fr/
I spent last week at the Four Seasons Hualalai. We go there every year, typically in September. The staff at the Four Seasons is incredible. I don't know how, but they always remember our names (we may be on the problem guest list). They are genuinely happy to be working there, and can solve any problem. You know you're being treated well, when people come to your beach chaise to clean your sunglasses.
I've truly become the angry old person/high maintenance guest. We stay in the Palm Grove, which is the quiet zone. It's very zen and peaceful. A couple of days into the trip a few really annoying people sat in the pool drinking and shouting about football and SDSU. The next day, we saw the same dudes playing golf and blasting rock music from their golf cart. Not good form.
A few days later, a group of doctors for a conference acted like the Palm Grove pool was Fort Lauderdale at spring break. Okay, I know this sounds jerky, but after doing everything possible to cancel the noise, I called the front desk and asked for some help. Security showed up and they either lowered their voices or all went back to their rooms to pass out.
Later, I felt bad when I was told they were cancer doctors. They're saving lives and I'm cranky that they are having fun in the pool.
I decided that this was simply the way of the world. Those times of good manners were a thing of the past. I was the problem and needed to accept change and get over it.
But, I was wrong. The next morning two senior managers tracked us down in person and apologised. Boy, did I feel dumb. I was truly amazed. You've heard me say before, follow the three "R"s with clients when something goes wrong: Recognize the problem, express remorse, and resolve it. They did that. If it were me, I'd be scared to talk to me. That old uptight white guy is complaining about the noise. How fun can it be to talk with him?
I'll keep this simple. I like work that doesn't try too hard. It's so easy to work on a project until I've beaten every last bit of life from it. It's good to know when to stop. And the work I like best looks like the designer did one thing like set the type in Akzidenz Grotesk and then said, "Yeah, I'm done." Perfect.
Young designers tell me all the time, "Are you sure, it seems empty." But the idea makes it full, and in fact it's not empty, it's filled with a ton of negative space. I think of it like dark energy and dark matter. It's strong enough to hold everything together. I deeply covet Richard Danne's desk calendar from 1974. I think there's that place in hell that I've mentioned before (the one where amateur musicians pull a guitar out at a party) for people who steal. But, I'd steal it.
All of these projects are confident and clear. They resonate with harmony because every tiny detail has been refined, refined, and refined. So try this on your next project. Do one thing and stop. It'll be hard and the evil workings of layers in Photoshop or Illustrator will be calling, "Add more, add more." Resist.
I'm currently writing a new course for Lynda.com, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History. You'd think this would be easy. I know the history, have the images, and am so old I knew Guttenberg personally. But condensing all of the Bauhaus into a three-minute format and making sure it doesn't sound like, "Bueller, Bueller, anyone?" is tricky. It's a great challenge and fun.
When I started writing about design in the 1970s, I kept circling around album covers. The emotional impact of these artifacts is extraordinary. Sure, there was great corporate identity and typography at the time and more than enough to discuss with those alone. But when I mention a specific album, people light up. "Oh, I stared at The Tubes cover for hours trying to figure out how it worked." or "I kept the Frampton cover on the top of my pile of records just to see it when I woke up every morning.
When I went to college, Roland Young was one of my teachers. I was 19 and knew everything. On the first day, when I realized that Roland was responsible for a big part of the record covers I loved, I was impressed. And that's not easy for an asshole 19 year-old. Today, Roland is a good friend. I took over his Communication Design 1 class at Art Center and still hear from almuni, "Wow, when I had Roland for that class my life changed." My students say, "You were funny."
I recently discovered his cover for Joan Baez, Where are you now, my son?. This cover may seem unassuming and quiet, but it's masterful. The sharp typography with the confidence to be just what it is and the texture of the grainy image is contrast at its best. The image of Baez that speaks to the object of a printed photograph is about a moment in time and intimacy. The Smiths tried this later with some covers, but the original is still my favorite.
Roland's body of work and career, from working with Lou Danziger to art director to teacher, is immense and impossible to show without a major book. Publishers, publishers, anyone?.
Speaking after Stefan Sagmeister at a conference is a bad idea. I've done this many times. It's not that Stefan is nothing less than a true gentleman and good friend, it's that when he finishes, I can look out at the audience from the side of the stage and see people streaming out en masse. "Well that's what I came for, time to go," they must be saying. I'm not crazy about doing this, as I tend to come off as, "and now for the easy listening break."
Years ago, I spoke at a conference following someone, not as generous as Stefan, who was one of the hip and cool designers at that time. She talked about the critical theory and deconstruction of meaning regarding a logo she designed that looked exactly like Helvetica, but the crossbar of the "A" was removed. People seemed enthralled. I just thought, "and..."
Now, I've become that person, waxing on about the importance of the differences between Haas Grotesk and Helvetica. Sorry. I know everyone has a major hard-on for Helvetica, but I can't look at it as anything but the less attractive sister of Haas Grotesk, like Jan and Marsha. Originally, Helvetica was Haas Grotesk, but over time changes were made for expediency. Christian Schwartz redrew Haas Grotesk in 2004, based on Max Miedinger's 1957 version.
Compared to standard issue system Helvetica, it's elegant, crisp, warm, and legible. It doesn't suffer from the "generic" look of Helvetica. I've been using it probably more than I should. I promise, however, to not talk endlessly about the lower case "r" at my next lecture. Maybe just a little.
Several readers have sent me notes asking for a family history post. So, I'm heading way, way back for this one to 1295 AD. The story of my 17th grandmother and 17th grandfather is filled with soap opera drama.
Isabella de Capet of France, also known as the she-wolf of France, was the only surviving daughter of Philip IV, King of France (16th grandfather). She was engaged to King Edward II of England as a child to cement a treaty between England and France.
The fun begins when she marries Edward II. It seems that he enjoys the company of young men, his "favorite" when they married, Piers Gaveston. Obviously this can cause discord in a marriage. Gaveston ends up being captured and executed by angry Barons who weren't too keen on Edward's policies and unorthodox arrangement. After a failed campaign to conquer the Scots, Edward was even more unpopular.
Now, he took up with a new favorite, Hugh de Spencer (yet another 17th grandfather). For several years, Edward and de Spencer imprisoned and executed enemies, confiscated lands from the barons, and punished extended family members and courtiers. Eventually, Edward and de Spencer confiscated all of Isabella's lands and imprisoned her. This was a good sign to Isabella that the marriage wasn't really working well.
Isabella returned to France and began an affair with Sir Roger Mortimer (18th grandfather). Together, they raised an army and returned to England to dethrone Edward II. Edward and de Spencer fled London, but were captured by Isabella and Mortimer's forces. She had de Spencer hanged, castrated, disemboweled, drawn and quartered. She was very mad. Edward was forced to abdicate the crown to his son, Edward III (16th grandfather).
Now, the story gets confusing. The official story was that Edward II fell and died while imprisoned. Rumors spread that Isabella had him murdered with, sorry for the graphic part here, a red hot poker put up his rectum. Recently historians have argued that evidence points to Edward escaping and living the rest of his life as a hermit.
Isabella and Mortimer now thought they had it all wrapped up. Edward III was too young to rule, so they were ruling England, making lots of money, and everything seemed swell. But when Isabella became pregnant with Mortimer's child, which would have created a new heir, Edward III was pissed. So he raided their castle, captured Mortimer and had him executed, even after Isabella begged for his life saying, "Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer!"
Edward III took on his role as King of England and exiled his mother to Norfolk. She lived well, as one of the richest women in England and died at 62. She was buried with Edward II's heart. This is real life, and so much more exciting than Game of Thrones.
I was waiting with my nephew, Chance, outside the Haunted Mansion and asked him about his favorite bands. Of course I didn't expect to know any of the ones he said; he's a teenager. When he asked me, I told him I liked older music like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney.
I'm sure this felt like talking to someone from ancient Mesopotamia to him, but he's always polite, and said, "I like them too." I didn't reveal the more embarrassingly uncool truth, that I like cheesy Hawaiian music. Sure I appreciate the authentic Hawaiian music, but I have a soft spot for the schlocky stuff.
I buy many of these records at Amoeba Records. They're always in the 99 cent bin, or left outside to be taken away free. Clearly there is low demand for Don Ho's Hawaii-Ho (which is not about prostitutes on Waikiki).
Yes, sometimes they are too bad, even for me. The Blackwood Brothers Quartet album cover reads as either a gay wedding or white party, but it turned out to be gospel music in a Hawaiian style. I don't know what happened to the actual record, but the cover for Hawaiian Polka Tour with Eddie Blazonczyck's Versatones is remarkable. You can't ignore the Jim Jones style portrait on the cover.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of the design is not half bad. Alfred Apaka's Hawaiian Favorites, the Ilikai Hotel'sMusic of Hawaii, and of course, Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaiiare classics. There's some good letterforms too. I assume the message with these is, "primitive, wacky, and carefree." That sounds like my normal weekend.
Here's one of the differences between being a surgeon and a designer: surgeons are required to be meticulous and have an OCD level to details. If they are, in most probability, people live and have healthy outcomes. Designers are required to be meticulous and have an OCD level to details also. If we are, nobody except another OCD designer notices. The upside is that bad word-spacing doesn't kill people.
I can spend hours kerning the crap out of a headline. Does anyone apart from me care, or notice? Probably not. We zoom in to a gazillion percent to make sure a point is absolutely precise, obsess over the difference between Adobe Bodoni and Monotype Bodoni. But of we didn't, we'd be slobs and hack designers, and it wouldn't be as much fun.
Herb Lester Associates produces a wonderful collection of guides to different cities. Let's face it, most city guides look like the Map to the Stars Homes. The Herb Lester guides are not only pertinent to travelers who prefer something more interesting than mobbed, but are detailed to death. Every tiny piece of type has been considered. The illustrations are wonderful and change from map to map. I know the designers were working on a the files at 400%, and it shows. Even the packing tape on the envelope is a work of art (which I plan to steal).
In this instance, I noticed. Every thoughtful and beautifully crafted detail adds to the overall extraordinariness of the guides. The lesson here, go ahead and fine tune the shit out of the details. If only one person in the world sees it, you've succeeded.
Some fonts are bad. They are like that photo of a horrible car crash that you can never unsee. It's not because they are cursed or especially ugly (well, some are), it's because they have been mutilated and left to die. As I've grown older, I'm drawn to typefaces that may, perhaps, strain the limits of good taste.
Last week, I used Davida, designed by Louis Minott in 1965, on an annual report project. Noreen suggested I was not following the corporate system and could be opening the door to future infractions. I saw it as adding some zest and excitement. I see so much good taste sans-serif typography on a daily basis that I'm starving for something wrong.
The problem was getting a good cut of Davida. The original is really well drawn and formed. But someone along the way discovered it in the bin of forgotten typefaces and beat it regularly. The digital version is a far cry from where it began. It's been around the block. My only choice is to redraw it myself and try to save it.
The lesson here is to find the original version of any font, see what it was meant to be before someone redrew it in a dark basement. I pledge to continue to rehabilitate Davida regardless of the current typographic style du jour.