The Interviews

Sean Adams


Life after AdamsMorioka

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
April 25, 2017

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It’s really no wonder that Sean Adams is such a natural leader. Whether serving as president of the national AIGA for more terms than anyone else, directing a team of designers at his former award-winning agency, AdamsMorioka, or leading the graphic design graduate program at ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles—he’s an actual descendant of three U.S. Presidents: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. (You’ll have to ask him to explain how that happened, and who slept with whom.)

But, just because he is the most polite, clean-cut, well-groomed guy at any design conference, doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road. People assume he’s had a charmed life, but that’s not necessarily the case. Like his long-lost relatives, he paved his own way to success despite a “whackadoodle childhood,” as he describes it. He was raised in the desert of Reno, Nevada, by parents who were perhaps more concerned with their own needs than their children’s. As unconventional as it was, Adams looks back on it now as his “normal,” though sometimes he’s surprised he survived.

Thank god he did! The graphic design world is a much better place with him in it. Here we talk to him about leaving his successful design agency, his role at ArtCenter, and his new book on color.

Was it a tough decision leaving the firm you and Noreen Morioka built and maintained for more than 20 years?

Yes and no. Around that time (fall 2013), I was in Berlin with my students for a semester, and I was really happy. When someone pointed that out to me, I was like, “Wow, I have not felt this happy in 20 years.” Then I started to realize, I’m happy because I’m worrying about my students more than myself or overhead or a client issue. Then I really started to consider that I’ve got maybe 20 years of good working life left in me. Do I want to spend those years simply doing what I’ve been doing, just out of habit, or is it time to take a new path? I really wanted to focus on young designers and students and the design community.

Noreen and I had been working together for over 20 years. I was turning 50, she was turning 50. It was time to make a change. It was a hard thing to do, obviously. Your identity is tied up with this brand built over 20 something years and it’s successful and you’re like, it’s time to let go.

Is there also kind of a relief, where you don’t have to worry about overhead and running a company with employees?

I loved having employees. We had great designers over the years. Another reason the sign was pointing for me to leave, was when my creative director, Monica [Schlaug] left. She had been with us for 10 years. I worked hand in hand with Monica every day. When she left, I remember talking to her in the hall and saying, “Please do not leave me here alone.” That was a bad sign.

I realized I didn’t want to break in a brand new creative director and start all over again. It was time to move on to the next chapter. There were obviously other things going on behind the scenes that helped make the decision for me. But, in retrospect, it was just time.

Have you always wanted to teach or was it something you just grew to love?

I think it’s something I always assumed I would do. You graduate, you work for a while, you start doing some interesting work and getting better known, and then you start teaching. It never occurred to me that that was a path you wouldn’t take.

I think the first time I taught I was like 26 years old. ArtCenter called and asked if I would teach a typography class. I did and it went horribly. I was terrible. Some of my students were older than me, and they were like, “What the hell?” One of them actually said, “Why am I listening to you?” I was just too young to wrangle a class. Then a few years later, I started teaching at Cal Arts and I loved doing that. I had such great teachers when I was in school, and I always felt it was my job to sort of help replicate that experience for someone else.

About 10 years ago, I realized I was enjoying myself at school more than work. I always had a Monday morning class, and I couldn’t sleep Sunday nights because I was so excited about going to school. So when I was offered a full-time position at ArtCenter about 7 years ago, I jumped at it.

I loved the idea of helping other designers. Not molding them in my shape or what I think they should be, but helping them to become who they’re supposed to be.

Tell me how you built this graduate design department at ArtCenter.

Big tech companies would send scouts to recruit the undergrads, and they all said, “You know, we love your undergrads. They’re talented and they know what they’re doing, but we wish you had something a little higher up because we’d love to start placing people at a more senior level.” That became an issue.

How do we prepare them? If Facebook wants to hire them as a senior creative director right out of school, they need to know how to manage a team. They need to know what team building strategy will work and what won’t. We just had an undergraduate program, and I offered to build a graduate program. My boss, Nik Hafermaas, gave me his blessing.

I looked at all the schools out there and what they were teaching. I made this little diagram, where on one axis there’s print to interactive and on the other axis, it’s commercial to experimental. I mean, that’s a whole design project. I found the majority of the programs were focusing more toward personal exploration and print, and less on the professional or commercial. I felt like there was a space in there that we could occupy that was closer to the professional world and less about personal exploration, and moving it a little further away from print and more into interactive technologies and new media. It worked. My applications are up 200% this year.

I’m going to jump over to your work at Lynda.com. You’re doing a lot of courses for them. Doesn’t the Lynda model compete against what you’re doing at ArtCenter?

No, I actually see it as complementary. We use the Lynda.com courses ourselves. Not mine—I don’t force my students to watch my courses, that would be sort of torturous. We use the more technical courses for things like, how to use InDesign and Photoshop. Basic things that we don’t have the time to teach. We teach ideas. So if a student says, “I don’t know how to deal with this,” or “I don’t know how to make this thing happen,” I tell them to go to Lynda.com and look it up.

The reason I started doing Lynda.com courses is because it’s accessible to anyone any place in the world. As AIGA president, I traveled all over the country, so I’ve probably spoken at every conference or college in the United States at this point. So, I’d end up in the middle of Missouri, at a small community college and realize that they had maybe two graphic design teachers. Nobody taught design history or professional ethics or things like that. Lynda.com can reach those people and give them the resources that they couldn’t get otherwise because they’re not living in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Minneapolis or Chicago.

When I was in high school, the only book on graphic design was a book on Nazi propaganda. So, that’s all I knew. So all the work in my portfolio looks like Nazi propaganda. I’m amazed I wasn’t arrested.

My life would have been so much better if I had access to graphic design resources. I mean, I didn’t even know how to get typesetting done because my art teacher was a ceramics teacher. I love the fact that with Lynda, I can reach those people that don’t have access to all of that information readily.

You have a book that just came out, called The Designer’s Dictionary of Color. You’ve tackled this subject before. Why another color book and what’s different about this one?

I have the time and fortunately I have the luxury to do projects like that. I realized I wanted to do something that wasn’t a replication of the Color Design Workbook, which is specifically for designers about how to use color. It’s very instructional and it’s great for that. It’s been a bestseller for 10 years, and I just did an updated version.

It was kind of interesting because I was writing both books at the same time, but it was easy. I knew that the thrust of the Dictionary was not just graphic design oriented, but color in general, and focusing on cultural issues, and ways to deal with clients when it comes to color.

I loved the fact that I got a good chunk of examples from remarkable young designers who just haven’t been published all over the place. I got help from other institutions when I was looking for fine art and architecture or car design. I’m really happy with the way it came out. It’s beautifully printed. Jessica Helfand wrote the Foreword for me. That woman can write around anyone. She sent me her text and I was like, “Oh my god. I write like a fourth grader.” She’s unbelievably good.

What is the worst color crime you see being committed by designers?

When they’re being wimpy. That is the worst color crime. Somewhere along the line, somebody told someone, you can’t put those two colors together or this isn’t correct if you do this with color. That’s bullshit. There is nothing incorrect that you can do with color.

When you see someone tip-toeing around color, that’s the crime. That’s when it’s like, come on! Just get in there with some bravery and do it! I’ll have students bring in work and I’m like, “What happened to that image? Why is your background beige?” They’ll respond, “Well, I de-saturated the image because it looked too bright.” I’m like, “Are you crazy? What? You don’t de-saturate things, you up saturate things.” You’re supposed to have fun with it. It’s color for God’s sake. It’s not nuclear science. People love color.

I offer this example all the time: Hang a mobile that’s beige above a baby’s crib and hang up the mobile that’s all bright colors. What are they going to play with?

 

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