Since the release of Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986, graphic designer and educator Louise Sandhaus’ name has become unanimous with the sun-kissed colors, breezy patterns, and seductive, laid-back Californian design that she so expertly explores and champions in her lauded book.

It’s no surprise that Sandhaus learnt her trade in the state that she’s become so associated with, and after finishing her design degree at CalArts, Sandhaus ended up at another essential Californian brand (though not a memorably well-designed one): Taco Bell.

It was at Taco Bell, of all places, that Sandhaus discovered what was to become one of her primary interests as a designer. Today she explains how her stint at the fast food chain led to her UX and UI work for the L.A. County Museum of the Arts exhibition, Made in California: Art Image and Identity, 1900-2000, and in turn, how designing for Taco Bell paved the way for how she approached her unprecedented book.

Louise-Sandhaus

“After I got out of CalArt’s grad school in 1994, I knew I wanted to teach, but not in the conventional way. I wanted to find other methods for preparing people for the activities they might be doing.

“I ended up getting a freelance position with a company called External and Internal Communications in Marina del Rey, California. They hired me as an art director on a project for Taco Bell, which wanted to electronically run all of its ‘store operations’—or individual Taco Bells—through a single touch-screen system. Basically, the company’s employee turnover was becoming a big cost, and designing instructions that would take employees through procedures would save a lot of time and money.

“As the art director, I was tasked with putting a face on the new software, and I immediately thought, ‘This doesn’t seem right.’ I told them that we needed to integrate what the software looked like with what they were trying to achieve. Whatever the task was that the employee was trying to do, we needed to think about how to deliver that through the interface. That way it would be what we now call designing ‘user-friendly’ experiences.

“To achieve this outcome what I ended up designing was a methodology for working with the engineers so that we could develop the project together. It was the first time I really thought about user experience. It’s common to think and talk about this today, but it was just on the threshold of design discussions at the time.

“We started work in late ’94, and then at the end of ’94 I went to study at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in the Netherlands. When I returned in January ’96, I picked the project back up. Taco Bell was now owned by Tricon (Pepsi’s restaurant division), which now also owned the project. The backend had been developed, so it was all about the UI. I worked on it for maybe another nine months.

“And then… the project was killed! I’m pretty sure they had a new CEO or someone who maybe thought it was a bad idea. Who knows?

“The whole thing stayed with me, though: the idea of thinking about how people use things—the ‘user experience.’ I went on to teach at CalArts and through an opportunity connected to Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (LACMA) I met senior curator Stephanie Barron. It was in our conversation that I suggested the notion of approaching a museum exhibition as a ‘user experience’—once more about what the visitor’s experience might be and how that would help to understand the curator’s point of view. The phone rang the next day. It was Barron, interested in the potentials of the approach that I had described, and she wondered if I wanted to work on their upcoming huge millennial show, Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000. ‘Absolutely,’ was my response, and I partnered with architects Tim Durfee and Iris Anna Regn for the project, forming DRS.

“To approach the project we created a book/presentation that 1) illustrated how we understood the exhibition concept to confirm that the design team and 10 curators were all on the same page, and then 2) how our approach would orient the visitor in this concept and in the physical space. The book included user experience walk-throughs to convey how the visitor understood the ideas and knew how to navigate the rooms. Again, as with Taco Bell, I realized that it’s as much about the methodology that you use to approach the user experience as it is the design of the experience itself.

“In many ways, what I learned from these two projects led to my book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936–1986. First of all, spending three years working on a show about art in California meant that I looked at a lot of art that was being identified as ‘Californian.’ Graphic design, which was included in the exhibition as ephemera, asserted the kinds of widely disseminated, popular images of the Golden State that these artists were confirming, or contradicting, or complicating. For me, the design work sparked an intrigue about what might constitute ‘Californian’ graphic design; it spurred my book.

Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936-1986 by Louise Sandhaus
Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936-1986 by Louise Sandhaus

“The book is also very much about user experience, about reading and contextualizing design in a certain way. I wasn’t interested in a conventional historical narrative; instead I thought about offering multiple perspectives so that the reader could formulate their own ideas about the work.

“That’s the lineage from that Taco Bell project all the way to what I’m doing now. It’s so vivid and clear to me: working on the Taco Bell system is where my interest in user experience first began. It marked the beginning of a trajectory that’s taken me to where I am today.”