Sunset stripped: a case study in bad graphic design

Courtesy of Aaron James Draplin of Draplin Design Co.
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Sunset Motel in Sedalia, Mo., and its infamous sign.

Sunset Motel in Sedalia, Mo., and its infamous sign.

Aaron James Draplin is a national treasure. If I have a graphic design hero, he is it.

I discovered him several years ago when Advertising Age, I think, offered a link to a video of Draplin taking viewers through his design process for a company logo.

Draplin does great work, but so do many other graphic designers. What really sets him apart is his unbridled passion (and the salty language with which he conveys it) for graphic design’s history and place in American culture.

Earlier this year, I bought his book, “Pretty Much Everything,” which catalogs his life, career and work and generally inspires me every time I look through it.

‘Drunk eBaying’

It’s the only graphic design book I’ve ever owned. Coincidentally, I bought it as I was looking forward to a road trip that would take me back to Missouri, where I attended journalism school and had my first newspaper reporting job. That job was in Sedalia, which is where pages 184-185 of his book led me.

“That Damn Sign,” is the title of the spread, which describes an episode of what Draplin called “drunk eBaying” that ended with his purchase of a 28-foot vintage motel sign. The fact that he could fit only a couple of pieces in his Passat wagon makes for a humorous footnote to Draplin’s bigger lesson.

For it’s the sign that replaced the one he bought that makes his case for why “America’s f—–, graphically at least,” as he explains in the video below. (You can see the old sign at the 1:30 mark.)

‘Add something special’

I didn’t recall the Sunset Motel from my days in Sedalia, but I just had to see it on my brief trip to Sedalia in late April. The “new” sign is still standing (see photo at top of page), and the motel itself appears little changed since Draplin photographed it a decade ago, save for a change in paint color used on room doors and new posts supporting the roof overhang.

The motel is on the southern end of Sedalia, while I stayed several miles away downtown at the historic Hotel Bothwell, with its beautiful neon signs. (Hotels in Sedalia are cheap: $45 for the Sunset, $88 for the Bothwell.)

In retrospect, Draplin wrote in his book, he felt bad about how big his video about Sunset’s sign got and “how it might affect the people/person who did the work.”

He continued:

“And I’ll take this opportunity to apologize to whoever made the sign. I can’t and won’t accept the shitty design, though. There’s just no excuse for that.

“As designers, we are privileged with making things the whole world will see. Or maybe just in Sedalia. But still, it’s our job to make good stuff and honor the client’s wishes. And maybe add a little something special to the American landscape.”

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