Rewriting the Definition

Whenever I complain that the biggest issue is the size of Garamond, or why does the client insist I use their corporate blue, the whole profession becomes about something small. 

Fifteen years ago I was so clear in my direction and goal to clean up the world, and finding inspiration was so easy. Maybe it’s because I’m older, or busier, or jaded, but finding inspiration is more difficult for me now. Finding a wonderful booklet at a used bookstore, or discovering a graphic novel in a Japanese department store was endlessly exciting. Today the process is less about seeing and more about learning. Reading about history, specifically sociological history is inspiring to me now. How did humans relate to one another in 17th century Virginia, or what political issues informed the cold war, or how did photography impact the Civil War? These discoveries don’t lend themselves to the kind of inspiration that is about seeing, but they move me to reconsider why I do something. But I am a visual person, and still love finding that odd magazine cover from 1967, or riding through It’s a Small World, or discovering the color palette from Bye Bye Birdie. 

Like most designers, I endlessly sketch in my notebook, and have hundreds of historical images in my iPhoto file. All that input seems to get mixed up in my head and comes out when I don’t expect it. It’s usually a few months after I’ve completed a project that I’ll run across something and say, “That’s where the color palette came from.” I rarely look at my notebooks, but the process of drawing something burns it into my brain.

 I would love to say I’m an avid user of design magazines and annuals. But I’m not. I’m happy to read an article, but I don’t thumb through them looking for ideas. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I spend time looking at our collection of Graphis Annuals from 1953-1970. I’m not looking at them to copy a poster or book cover. I’m more interested in the way designers during that time utilized symbol and metaphor. It’s a good prompter to start thinking. For example, I might be working on a piece that needs to talk about “new.” I start a list of words that relate: egg, stork, etc. Then I might come across an image of a gift box for an old ad for Bonwit Teller, so I add gift box to the list. I’m not interested in replicating that Bonwit Teller ad’s look and feel, but I’m willing to let the idea of a gift box represent “new”.

 I think about the redefinition of design all the time—and I mean all the time. Whether it’s working on the meaning and definition of this for AIGA, or dealing with the direction of AdamsMorioka. It’s clearly a field that is fracturing into many pieces. This is good, because it forces us to be communicators, not merely form-makers. And it’s bad, because without guidance, the profession can lose all power and become a million tiny tribes. But I’m more concerned about design’s standing with the business world. I want to be respected and have a seat at the big table, and I should. I know that design will be the force that pulls all of the pieces together and makes something a success. But, I are our own worst enemy. Whenever I complain that the biggest issue is the size of Garamond, or why does the client insist I use their corporate blue, the whole profession becomes about something small. I need to be immaculate and skilled at our craft, and I also need to think big.

 2006 Sundance Film Festival

I’ve worked with the Sundance brand for almost a decade. There are basic issues that drive all of the communication. The Festival is one component that is highly visible. The process begins with us sitting down with Robert Redford and discussing his thoughts. I ask him if there are any big ideas he wants to explore, or any issues he feels are pertinent. For the 2006 Festival, he talked about the idea of storytelling being the basis of all filmmaking. I took that conversation and started sketching.

I were working with the idea of storytelling, which is rather broad. At the time I was reading a book by Graham Hancock, Heaven’s Mirror that among other things, talked about the power and longevity of myths. During our first meeting, I found myself sketching little thumbnails of different myths. I didn’t take them seriously because I thought, “Nobody really wants to hear about the Trojan War after high school.”

I tried many ideas that were all pretty awful. This was the fifth Sundance Film Festival I’ve done and there are only so many ways to say, film and Park City. At one point I thought about hiring a design firm, and then I thought, “wait, I have one of those.”

After presenting several variations and feeling stuck, Bob said, “Don’t worry about me, or what I think. What would you do if I weren’t involved and you didn’t have to worry about what I wanted, or the marketing team, or anyone else?” I immediately thought about my little sketches of myths. Fortuitously, I was looking through Saul Bass’ title work for my class at Art Center and I came across his work for Around the World in 80 Days. There was something wonderful about this sequence that used illustration and engravings. 

This all came together when I decided to recreate myths that I all know, but recast them with our own actors, and build new sets using engravings and flat art. I presented the idea, Bob was thrilled and I began brainstorming which myths could work. 

Determining which stories would be recognizable became the biggest challenge. I knew I wanted a singular image that illustrated a myth that had components related to the filmmaking and Sundance experience. 

But was the myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun known to a 21st-century audience? In the end, I used several stories: Moby Dick, and the idea of obsession; Adam and Eve, which is about temptation and knowledge; the Trojan Horse, and deception; and Icarus, which is about ambition and failure. In the end, this experience reminded me to trust my own instincts and not pre-edit my ideas. 

 

Mexico Restaurante y Barre

Larry Nicola is one of the foremost chefs and restaurateurs in the United States. I had worked with Larry for over 15 years on several of his restaurants. When he asked us to work on his next restaurant, Mexico, I expected it to follow the idea of Larry’s other restaurants that have needed a high-end and high quality attitude. In our first meeting, Larry said he wanted Mexico to feel like a vacation, and be fun and energetic. 

The keyword that Larry used was low-tech. This was the starting point. As designers, I are committed to perfection. The printing must be the highest quality, the typography must be flawless, and the forms should be precise. Now, typically, the inspiration point for this project should have been a visit to Tijuana, but this wasn’t the case. I was cleaning out a drawer at my grandparents’ house and found the operations manual for their Whirlpool dryer, circa 1970. The headline type was a remarkably ugly version of Modern No. 20 with added swashes. “Could I make the ugliest typeface ever?” I asked. 

When I returned to the office after finding the Whirlpool manual, I started drawing Hobo Italic Swash. This seemed like the perfect font for Mexico. I determined then to use only low-tech materials. The forms and icons are all hand-painted, the typography is courier from the typewriter, the hand-drawn Hobo Italic Swash, and the production techniques are the least expensive possible. Early versions were abandoned for being too precise. Each step was augmented by one of the designers’ find of a low cost solution. 

Menus are typically costly and custom. Our creative director, Monica Schlaug, found an off-the-shelf vinyl menu and convinced the manufacturer to make it with turquoise vinyl, which he hadn’t used in decades.  When designing the website, Monica came across a homemade website using a repeat tiled image, so this was applied to Mexico’s site.  

Chris Taillon, our senior designer, repeatedly repainted the icons to become less perfect, and designed a system of stickers that were printed on rolls at a low-cost sticker company. The goal with each part of the project is to make it feel like someone put their entire heart and soul into the piece, but didn’t really know what they were doing. 

Whenever I have abandoned any part of the project, it’s been because the form or design was too well considered. In each instance, I’ve repainted the image, or messed up the composition further. Strangely, it’s hard to un-train yourself from making good composition and subtle color distinctions. [end caption]

Years ago, I worked with David Hockney on several books. Spending time in David’s studio taught me to work in broad strokes, fearlessly. The Mexico project reminded me of that. The joy and delight I have felt working on it comes through on each piece.