I admit I'm a chump for crappy photos. It's a 4K world and everyone wants to see every pore on a subject's face. Sharper, sharper, SHARPER! seems to be the battle cry. But like most execution issues this can be the cover for a really sucky concept. "What do you mean there was no plot? Didn't the Golden Gate Bridge look totally real when it was hit by the tsunami?"

There is something about poor quality black and white image that speaks to authenticity. The image is so sad there must be a good idea in there. Fuck the Draft is one of my favorites, and here you have a choice to order one and have another sent to several choices including Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, Mrs. Shirley Temple Black, and Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. 

I also enjoy this page from a typography book that equates typefaces with personalities and architecture at the time of its development. The message here, regardless of the mug shot quality photos, is that Johann Goethe liked Italienne, Karl Marx couldn't get enough Clarendon, and Madame Curie insisted on Akzidenz-Grotesk. Could be true, what do I know? 

These images also talk to memory and carry emotional resonance that is often lost with high-definition ultra sharp iamges. The next time you are handed a gritty and sad black and white photo to use, don't be angry. Embrace the badness. Love the anti-sharp.

X Stands for the Variable

Over a year ago, I began talking with Nik Hafermaas about a graduate program in graphic design at ArtCenter. The undergraduate program had been through a remarkable revitalization and metamorphosis, and the time was right to apply the same thinking and ArtCenter's stellar reputation and network to a masters degree.

I've spent over two decades looking at portfolios from recent MFA grads from other schools. While they were almost all impressive and conceptually thorough, I saw a disconnect with the professional world. Projects were personal and unique, but were often so removed from applicable design I wondered if the designer would be terribly bored leading a branding campaign.

In 2011, ArtCenter embarked on a new course "to learn to create, and influence change". The Graphic Design MFA program embraces new ideas, innovation, and technology, while maintaining a connection to the profession here and now. We can explore the "C" word that everyone runs from, craft: typography, form, content, and the artifact. And we had the physical and intellectual resources to be the leader in leadership and entrepreneurial thinking.

What was truly unexpected was the reception the philosophy of innovation in the real world for real people resonated. Very quickly, several of the profession's leaders signed on as Advisory Board and Visiting faculty. This connection to the field and practice is critical as they will help guide the program, injecting ideas and wisdom based on their professional, rather than purely academic, experience.

Today the site for the ArtCenter Graphic Design Graduate (MGx) program is live and we are building an amazing space with a national American furniture company. I'm excited to serve as the Director of the program, providing designers with the skills and tools to not just succeed, but be the next generation of leaders.


Massimo Vignelli, 1971

Like most people, I like order. I prefer my desk to be neat and my books arranged correctly. I have recurring nightmares about a house with an incredibly messy hidden room. Consequently, I'm a sucker for Swiss design. It's that rational golden rectangle that is used relentlessly. I am in awe of the designer who was able to make everything sync so precisely. It must take days to map out every tiny detail to fit into the mathematically rigid grid absolutely perfectly.

Often, when I'm asked, "Sean, just how do you use the golden rectangle? Do I shove everything into it? What if my page size isn't A4?" I suggest that the designer use the golden rectangle as a loose guide. Drop it down, turn it on it's side, see what works best for you. Then adjust the layout so it relatively aligns to the grid. I know someone in Switzerland just threw themselves in front of a train after hearing that, but what else can we do in America with out hideous 8-1/2 x 11 page size?

In my view it's better to try to walk the straight and narrow with the golden section, even if you don't hit it perfectly. It's better than working willy nilly all over the place as if a squirrel was making layout decisions. Now some post-modernist just threw themselves in front of a bus.

Otl Aicher, Rolf Müller, 1972

Siegfried Odermatt

Rolf Müller, 1972

Gottschalk + Ash

E. + U. Hiestand

Carlo Vivarelli

I Go to The Hills

Every day I hike to the top of a hill in Griffith Park. I know this is very The Sound of Music, climbing a mountain in the fresh air and getting good exercise. I don't sing. There are other people hiking and that is scary.

My hiking trail

I will admit, with some fear, that I actually like The Sound of Music. There are good lessons here: face life's problem and climb every mountain, ford every stream, and have confidence in yourself when no-one else will, and think about your favorite things like brown paper packages tied up with string when you are sad.

What works in the movie is not the story about singing children. Like the Baroness, I think they should be sent off to school. It's Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews that keep it from slipping into too saccharine. 

I saw a production on Broadway of the revival and it sucked big time. Without Christopher Plummer or Julie Andrews it was sooooo sweet. It made me want to do something really vile and repulsive after too get off some of the gooey and cloying acting. Plummer has a slightly sardonic and edgy tone that says, "I may discipline any one of you severely with no warning." Andrews also reads as kind and firm, but maybe a little nasty. That's what saves it and makes it work; that injection of the negative in the midst of all the goodness.

And there is that filthy language. I'm sure everyone already knows this, but it happens when Maria returns to the Abbey and meets with the Mother Superior. Before singing Climb Every Mountain, Mother Superior asks, "What is it you cunt face?" That nun had some anger issues and it seems rather passive aggressive to slip that in when pretending to be helpful. 

Herb Lubalin, 1965

The Promiscuity of Images

Ettore Sottsass, 1946

And now, to swing to the other end of the Bauhaus philosophy, I recently found this piece designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1946. Typically, when Sottsass comes up in conversation (and yes, I'm that groovy and cosmopolitan, it happens all the time) I think about the Memphis design movement or the 1969 Olivetti Valentine typewriter. Sottsass designed this portfolio soon after being released from a Yugoslavian concentration camp and moving to Milan. 

Ettore Sottsass, 1946

It's clear from this that his approach rejected the minimal and functional Bauhaus. He not only disregards a grid or sense of order, his use of imagery is promiscuous at the least. Victorian clip art, modernist photography, and hand-made forms compete with pieces of typography and magazine clippings. While it doesn't rely on melting clocks, the piece is related to the Surrealist movement, happening at the same time. The elements exist as disparate symbols in the unconscious, pieces of everyday life that combine in a dream.

I've had a special admiration for Sottsass since I learned that he took 1,780 photographs on a short trip to South America, and for years photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman. He also wanted to publish a book consisting of pictures of walls. I would buy a book of photos of walls.


Beatings at the Bauhaus

This is what I hate: I'm giving a lecture about Herbert Bayer and the Bauhaus and someone is sleeping. Not just nodding off here and there, but face down on the desk. First, if you're so tired you can't be interested in the Bauhaus, you should get medical attention. Second, I'd understand (sort of) if I were doing a lecture on the variations of black-letter typefaces, but the Bauhaus is filled with subversive behavior, radical shifts in thinking, World War I death and destruction, and Nazis marching into people's apartments and arresting them.

When someone sleeps through all of this, I'd like to (forgive the cursing here) smack the mother-fucking shit out of them. But we don't do that in polite society.

I compare this with a visit I made to the Bauhaus a couple of years ago with 12 of the most Cracker-Jack students I've known. For a designer, this was like returning to the source of all life. And these students were following an educational pedagogy based on the Bauhaus' approach. This, in extraordinarily simplified terms, the studio approach, working and making, using craft and design for industry. 

Of course, rather than ending our visit with an espresso and pastries, we honored the Bauhaus students with beer. Oddly, everyone managed to stay awake through the entire journey. 

A Tale of Two Cities

Epcot Center, calling the creepy robot on a land line, 1987

I've been cleaning out books lately. There are many duplicates and books I'll never read. I tried donating them to Goodwill, but they don't accept books. I considered making a pile of books on the driveway, setting them on fire, and yelling "burn, hateful Catcher in the Rye Satan book," But my neighbors already are wary of me so I didn't.

One of the books hidden behind another book was Walt Disney World and Epcot Center, 1987. I'll forgive the Cooper Black on the cover because the interior is so happy. The Epcot Center section is filled with images of people enjoying a creepy robot, watching belly-dancers, shopping for caftans, and watching marching Minute Men. I like the star filter, wide angle lens photos of the China Pavilion and American Adventure. I wish my iPhone had that filter.

In comparison, my photographs of Epcot (below) seem to be of another place. Mine are typically empty of people, details of signs, and vacant walkways. If the book had my images rather than the happy photos, people would expect either wonderful solitude or suicide. 

The depressing version

Making the Bed in New Orleans

“When did you realize you had gone from being a designer to being a personality?” one person asked me at the AIGA conference in New Orleans last week. Someone else said, “I can’t believe I’m talking with you. You’re a celebrity.” Good so far, but then added, “You should be a game show host.” April Greiman addressed me as the “Bob Barker of graphic design” repeatedly. Somewhere along the line I wanted to make a t-shirt that read, “I’m actually a designer. I am more than my hair.”

We all make our own beds. Hosting Command X is one of my greatest joys. Working with these seven young designers and seeing their amazing bravery is unbelievably satisfying. I’m not giving that up even if the world decides I am well known only for being perky onscreen. I know seeing me onstage doing this reinforces the “game show host” persona. If that’s the price to work with the Command X superstars, I’ll pay it. 

But, at my core, I’m a designer. I’d rather work on a complex issue and find a smart solution than host the $25,000 Pyramid. I need to figure out how Michael Bierut walked this tightrope. If it were up to me, he’d have Charlie Rose’s job, and I still consider him one of our greatest designers.

I think it’s the hair. I can’t do anything about that. It just happens by itself wanting to be game show or newscaster hair. Maybe I’ll cut it super short, and then people will say, “Oh, that Sean Adams, boy he's fugly, but yeah, isn’t he a graphic designer?”

The Fast Road to Hell

Live Trace User

Live Trace User

I believe that Satan has woven himself into our lives and is preying on those who are tempted by laziness. What I am talking about here is the evil that is part of the digital world: Photoshop filters, pre-made or computer generated color palettes, and worst of all, truly a fast path to hell, live trace.

These shortcuts save time but the result is work that could be done by a house cat. I preach to young designers, "God gave you an opposable thumb so you could use it. You are not a cow with hooves. Draw the hand-drawn type!" and "If you have the use of your legs, be glad, and use them. Step away from the Aeron chair and walk somewhere to make an image, find inspiration, or just think."

I worry that an entire generation may end up designing strapped to a chair in front of the computer and pecking at the keyboard with a stick held in their mouths.

Now I don't dislike the computer, I like it just like everyone else. But off the shelf solutions minimize our gifts. Take color palettes for example. Yes, you can choose from the stock swatches in Illustrator, now your colors look like everyone else's. Or you can make your own. "Oh no!" you may be saying, "I'm scared of color." But it's actually quite easy.

The world will open up to you as a treasure chest of color. I don't want to seem melodramatic, but avoid Satan's temptations, make your own palette, or you may burn in hell.

This is how I make a palette:

1. Walk around the world and take photos of colors you like.

2. Create a photo album to house your images on your computer

3.  Create a common system for the palettes. One folder with consistent naming and documents of the same size and style.

Adobe Illustrator page: draw blank squares that will be swatches

4. Create a "Color palette template" with black squares in Adobe Illustrator.

5. Place an image you photographed.

6. Use the eye dropper tool and fill in the swatch squares on the page. Fill as many or as few swatch squares as you like.

7. Delete the image. 

8. Select all unused: delete these swatches

9. Add Used Colors

10. Save as a consistent name, e.g. Griffith Park Palette

11. Now when you need a palette on a project, add the custom one you made by selecting:

Open Swatch Library: Other Library.

The Tree of Life

Don Birrell, Nut Tree restaurant receipt

When I was a child, and we drove from Reno or Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, my grandparents always stopped at the Nut Tree in Vacaville. My grandfather had a Mercedes sedan that he drove at the speed limit or slower, so a trip that might take three hours was a five hour journey. The stop at Nut Tree was the intermission on the long trek.

Don Birrell designed the graphics, packaging, interiors. He brought Eames furniture, Marilyn Neuhart wall hangings, and a modernist aesthetic to what could have been a Dennys. I recently found a receipt, just as beautifully designed as every other element. The iconography is terrifyingly close to how I make logos, which proves I was stealing ideas as a five year old

Russell Adams, Heather Adams, Nut Tree 1969

Sean Adams, Nut Tree, 1969