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The Soul of Hunger: A Review of I Am Almost Always Hungry

I am Almost Always Hungry by Cahan & Associates

Last month I was talking to a friend, who also happens to be a graphic designer. Most of the conversation was forgettable, until we got into a discussion about books.

When I asked what she was reading, she exclaimed, “I Am Almost Always Hungry, the Cahan book. I love it, I can always flip through it and get some ideas.”

She insisted that I should look at it too. So the next day I went to the library and got my copy. When I picked it up, I prejudged it immediately, “Christ, another giant design book… probably all style with no substance.” It’s easy to feel this way about designer monographs. Most of them are short on content. There’s so much attention given to the work, that little time is spent putting it into context. And I Am Almost Always Hungry is not short on context. It’s a collection of trend-setting and award-winning designs accompanied by reflection and observation.

Cahan & Associates have done some wonderful work. And I appreciate their aesthetic. But isn’t it enough that their designs circulate amongst users, readers, consumers, award annuals, and the public at large? No, because a book situates them in the company of their peers. Having a book means you’ve arrived. I Am Almost Always Hungry places them on the shelves near Rand, Tschichold, Hoffman, and Brockman, along with firms like Pentagram, Tolleson, and Tomato.

While Pentagram is a more time-tested firm, Cahan & Associates have pioneered a new aesthetic, one that is appropriated by designers I’ve spoken with from Seattle to Omaha to New York City. (Everybody I know has ambitions of doing a red flood, with neither type nor photographic halftone interrupting the spread—just like the 1997 COR Therapeutics Annual Report.) The book is a beautiful and weighty object with French Folds, translucent paper, and Cahan’s trademark color floods. Overall it’s rich in presentation and meaning if you’re willing to look, read, and think about it all.

It was a lot to sort though. The book is so rich in variety that I bounced backwards and forwards and backwards again. During that flip through, I encountered some uncomfortable spots that made sense upon completion like illustrations of employees’ meals. What I enjoyed were process notes and drawings that recalled Charles and Ray Eames or Buckminster Fuller. What I loved were the five spreads of objects “Found on the way to work.” As objective as designers strive to be, we cannot escape subjectivity. We cannot escape the most mundane influences, like electronic components or apple cores we spot while walking down the street or stepping into a taxicab. Such random encounters make headway into our creative ritual; anything can be of significance in our process. I Am Almost Always Hungry is about such processes, and this is its most important attribute.

Just as valuable are essays by Ken Coupland, Tom Vanderbilt, and Glen Helfand. They put Cahan & Associate’s work into context, and challenge design beyond artifacts produced; there is analysis, process, and content beneath the surface. As Glen Helfand states in his All You Can Eat essay, “Strategy is equal to (if not more important) than style.”

We go beneath style in I Am Almost Always Hungry. Drawings, notes, client interviews, calculations, word games, objects found on the way to work, and yes, the food eaten at the office all contribute to the firm’s process. The library, network hub, scanner, light table, sample storage, and chalkboard are even situated amongst the firm’s key players including its principal, Bill Cahan; people are just as important as tools in the creative odyssey.

Near its close, we are rewarded with a series of narratives about those adventures. Anecdotes, strategies, and objectives accompany samples of their annual reports, advertisements, identity programs, and catalogs. It’s appropriate that the firm’s work is situated at the conclusion of the lengthy 172-page build up. But, I’m guilty of skipping all over the book.

With so many designers appropriating the work of Cahan & Associates, it’s unfortunate they don’t see more. When my friend claimed, “I love it, I can always flip through it and get some ideas,” she was suggesting that I Am Almost Always Hungry motivated her. In other words, she got ideas from thumbing through the book’s reproductions. Like many designers, who are guilty of appropriation, this book will be inspirational. A reader at Amazon.com was not ashamed of saying, “By itself, this book has no soul, but it’s worth buying to appropriate from.” For the rest, I hope you identify with what lies deeper. Beneath the surface of I Am Almost Always Hungry we learn that hunger is internal. Sometimes the process is the soul. And if it drives compelling work, what’s so bad about that?

Book Information
I am Almost Always Hungry by Cahan & Associates
Princeton Architectural Press
Paperback: 224 pages
ISBN: 1568981996
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Jan.19.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Rick Moore’s comment is:

I bought this book the week it was released. Of all the books in my library, this one has to be my favorite (right next to Steve Heller's book on Paul Rand). These guys are so clever and innovative, and I love that they included their thought processes--in the form of sketches--to show that designers do still think about the work they must do, rather than sitting down in front of the computer and playing until something magically appears (Something of which I am guilty more often than not anymore). Thanks to Bill & Co. for giving us such a great piece of inspiration.

On Feb.02.2004 at 05:30 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Besides the fact that this book as actually more than eye-candy, the eye-candy factor is more than top notch. Of all the monographs out there, this is by far one of the best, its production is impeccable as well as the design and the pacing of the book. Most of it is unnecessary in terms of literary content, but damn, does it look fine or what? It's an inspiring book. That designers choose to plagiarise it page by page is a shame.

It's just a great designer book. And that is not a bad thing.

On Feb.03.2004 at 10:56 AM
Jason’s comment is:

Absolutely, Armin. In retrospect, maybe I didn't give the book enough credit in terms of its design detail and production value. Frankly, I encourage others to experience the book and form your own opinions.

On Feb.03.2004 at 11:04 AM