Before Mad Men, There Was Ben Day

Client: “Can we have the logo a hair bigger? I can’t read it.”

Ben Day: “. . . You want the logo bigger. Is that what I heard? Tell me, would you say ‘Hey Mr. da Vinci . . . Leo, we want Mona there to show some teeth?’”

Client: “It’s barely legible.”

Ben Day: “First of all, you don’t read my logos, you commune with them, you receive insight from them.”

Second to Paul Rand, Ben Day has to be my favourite (although fictional) graphic designer. The film and all of the material produced in association with it exposed a little bit of truth in every designer I have known—including myself. Ben Day Playbill

“This story is not true. For all his vibrancy, Ben Day does not exist. But we think a little piece of him lives in the hearts and minds of all creatives. Where an idea, fragile as it is, can be nurtured beyond the confines of mere capatalism, helping us move forward as a people . . . until of course, a client crushes your idea like a little bug.” Closing screen for Ben Day

Ben Day, is a 1995 black comedy by Dana Arnett. Ben is the fictitious creator behind Happy the Hamburger Helper Hand, Americas most beloved corporate icon. After an eight-year rut, Ben finds a new source of inspiration in ‘closet man’ and his groundbreaking work results in both awards and an unparalleled ego.

“I am an award winning creative. The rules of normal society no longer apply.” Ben Day

The film was directed by Dana Arnett and Bob Rice, and stars Kyle Colerider-Krugh as Ben Day. If you haven’t seen Ben Day before or haven’t had the chance to watch it in a while, sit back and enjoy the entire 48-minute film that VSA Partners uploaded to Vimeo:

“Ben Day” Potlatch Paper—Short Film from VSA Partners on Vimeo.

365 Ben Days and More

There were many pieces created to accompany the film including a set of postcards (one of which I had above my desk for ten years) and a calendar designed by VSA Partners.

365 Days of Ben

Photo: AIGA Design Archives

This parody on daily planners has the calendar year interspersed with Ben Day’s accomplishments. The anecdotes humorously indicate Ben Day as playing a role in many of this century’s major design achievements” From the AIGA Design Archives

The calendar included tips on dressing for meetings, charts of beef and poultry cuts, and a ‘breathtakingly stylish’ design for an atomic bomb.

Ben Day Playbill

The only piece I have left is the playbill that was handed out by Potlatch and once again, designed by VSA Partners.

Ben Day Cueless

Cueless, a made up typeface with no letter Q.

Ben Day Coated and Uncoated

In one of Day’s many dramatic presentations to Potlatch, the concept of coated (and uncoated) papers was illustrated through the now-famous (glazed and plain) donut demonstration.

Ben Day International Symbols for No and Yes

The international symbols for “No” and “Yes” circa 1951. Many years after the release of the acclaimed “No” symbol, Day released his own oppositional “Yes” rendition of the famous graphic. To date, the “Yes” solution is perhaps the most unrecognized international symbol. In Day’s words, “This symbol bridged the communications gap.”

A little known tale involves a practical joke Ben launched on Saul (Bass). He sent him a broken limbed doll, and when Bass opened the package, the parts crashed in a random pattern on the floor. Bass looked at it, and the title sequence for Anatomy of a Murder was born.”

The playbill includes stories from Steve Jobs, Paula Scher and many others giving him credit for everything from the Macintosh to the Beatles White Album (the original artwork was misplaced at press time.)

Dana Arnett on Ben Day

In Design Dialogues, Dana Arnett discusses the impetus to make Ben Day:

“Potlatch Paper Company, our underwriter, wanted a video paper promotion—you know, something that they felt could tell their story and excite their customers. They definitely thought we were going to come back to them with some cool paper film. We convinced them, through some very intense coaxing, that their money was better spent by making a deeper connection with the audience. After all, here we are three years later still talking about Ben Day.”

Bonus Video

Design Thinking Out Loud: Beyond Design is an excellent video of Dana Arnett speaking about VSA Partners, context and solving problems.

Fill in the Gaps

“I keep turning the tables on people so often that I need to use a Lazy Susan.” Ben Day

I have dug around for as much information as I could find on Ben Day but know I am missing quite a bit. I would love to get my hands on a copy of the 365 Ben Days calendar, or have someone remind me of the quotes that appeared on the postcards—I believe one was “Helvetica! What else is there?” If you can help with information abut the legendary Ben Day, please get in touch.

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