The Relentless Pleasure of Little

It won't come as a surprise that I'm not a fan of fussy. It's one thing to pay attention to details, and yet entirely something else when a thousand itsy bitsy elements march around a page. I came to this realization when I was in college. It was the height of the post-modern period. The more the merrier. Modernist restraint was a misguided trend that led to ugly plain dentist office buildings. Mangle that type and add some hand-drawn squiggles that had deep conceptual meaning to three people? Sure, go for it.

Richard Neutra, Silverlake, Los Angeles

Somewhere in there, I visited one of my professors at her house to look at a project. She lived in one of the Silverlake Neutra houses. I expected the dentist office banality but found the most exquisite, harmonious, and quiet space. How could this be? Modernism worked? The next day I began removing elements rather than adding them.

One of my favorite books is Chair by Peter Bradford. This is modernism. It is direct, true to materials, clear, minimal, and bold. The usage of Helvetica in only a few sizes and a couple of weights is relentless. Like Brutalist architecture, the design is not about dainty and delicate. It is raw and rugged, but remains flawlessly refined and elegant.

Bradford's design is design with a big "D" (not Dallas). The type is type, the rules are rules, the black and white images are black and white images. Nothing is pretending to be something it isn't. If life were only the same.

some images here from

Unsinkable Brown

Recently, a client asked for brown as a color option on a project. A couple of years ago, I would have resisted. But, brown has slowly been creeping into my mind. First, I found myself admiring the brown tile at the Honolulu Airport. Then, I decided I should move away from my earthquake safe Melmac dinnerware. So, I bought several settings of Heath Ceramics dinnerware.

The Heath colors are subtle, subtle and subtle. Seeing one brown combined with cream or tan plate convinced me that brown could be alright. Some of my favorite design solutions are brown. Does this mean I'm mellowing, or developing, God forbid, good taste? I still resist any attempt to put brown in bathrooms. Brown wall, tiles, fixtures, or accessories should never be used there. I won't go into details, but how do you know if someone previously had an "episode" in the bathroom if everything isn't bright white?

Why Design

How many times have I, as a designer, tried to explain what I do and why it has value? When meeting with my accountant or having dinner with civilian friends, "Are you still doing that art thing?" The other side is people asking me if they should use the $100 logo service or their neighbor's kid who knows Photoshop. And finally, designers telling me they can't impress upon a potential client why that logo is worth more than $100. So I wrote a new course on Lynda/LinkedIn, The Value of Professional Graphic Design, aimed at the people who hire graphic designers, and the second section, to designers.

Also, I'm not as fat as I look in the course. I had a "nipplage" or nipple showing shirt that didn't pass muster, so I was asked to wear another shirt under it.

If you need to hire a designer, watch it. If you need to articulate your value as a designer, watch it now. I worked hard to keep it direct, clear, and free of meaningless marketese language. Here's the blurb via

There are no shortcuts for professional graphic design. Whether it's a logo, business card, or website, bad design drives away business. But clients often wonder if finding and hiring a professional is worth the effort. Meanwhile, designers struggle to articulate their value to clients who are tempted to DIY.

Sean Adams champions design internationally on behalf of his work with AIGA. Here he breaks down the walls between designers and clients so they can have a more collaborative and successful experience. There are whys and hows, dos and don'ts, and simple strategies for finding good partnerships, cooperating on designs, and negotiating fees, from both sides of the table. Plus, learn ways to gauge the return on investment and provide proof the design is working.

Topics include:

  • Why hire a graphic designer?

  • How do you find a graphic designer?

  • How much do graphic design projects cost?

  • How much should graphic designers charge?

  • What are a graphic designer's responsibilities?

  • How can a graphic designer prove a design is successful?

Good News

Getting into college today is a hell of a lot tougher now than it was in my day. There are all those forms and tests. Everyone is trying to get into the same places. A couple of months ago, Matt Manos at VeryNice, connect me to a really swell group of people at College Access Plan (CAP). They help high school students that don't have the support they need to find their way through the quagmire of tests and options. It's nice to work with people that do good things for others.

When people say design is just decoration and not relevant, I think about the work for CAP. Maybe the annual report will help persuade a donor to give more. Or make it easier for someone to be the first person in his or her family to go to college and do great things. When I decided to move onto a different track and do work to help others, this is exactly the kind of project I hoped to do. Thanks Matt.

Sloppy, Lazy, Loafers

I once had a party and ran Bye Bye Birdie  on the television with the sound off. It looked so good, so much nicer than any framed image on the wall. If I could only achieve that intense and saturated color in Bye Bye Birdie I would die happy. 

What a wonderful world of happy people in bright colors. I watched it again this weekend. Just earlier some friends were complaining about teenagers today. "They don't understand the value of money, or hard work," one friend said. Another insisted, "They're lazy. They only want to look on their phones and text." Then, in Bye Bye Birdie, made in 1963, Paul Lynde sings a song about teenagers then. And what were the lyrics?

Kids, who can understand anything they say?
Kids, they are disobedient, disrespectful oafs
Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers
Kids, they are just impossible to control
Kids, with their awful clothes and their rock an' roll
Why can't they dance like we did?

Perhaps the teenagers today will be singing the same thing twenty years from now when their kids are using hoverboards and ignoring everything they are told about the sacrifices of using your actual fingers to text.

On Good Work

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, I’ve been called a media whore, PR hound, and the Paris Hilton of design. I prefer to think of myself as the Marcus Welby of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are graphic designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, I moved as quickly as possible along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE! LOVE ME!!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

The only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.

Call Me Eunice

One of the upsides of being obsessive is having perfectly organized drawers. One of the downsides is that I become engrossed in the wrong story. When we read Wuthering Heights in high school I was bored to distraction by Cathy and Heathcliff. Whiney, whiney, whiney. They were pretty people who did a lot of whining. I wanted to know what happened to Heathcliff’s tortured wife, Isabella. Unfortunately, she is only a secondary character and we are left to imagine her story.

The same is true in the case of What’s Up Doc?Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand play the main characters, Howard Bannister and Judy Maxwell. But, I only care about Madeline Khan’s character Eunice Burns. She has a nice wig, wears good Republican dresses, and is quite concerned about maintaining traditional behavior. Eunice is incredibly annoying and wonderful. And as they say, if someone has dressed with propriety and buttoned every single button, they must have a huge fire inside to be contained.

Eunice: I'm not looking for romance, Howard. 
Howard: Oh? 
Eunice: No, I'm looking for something more important than that, something stronger. As the years go by, romance fades and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is? 
Howard: Senility?
Eunice: Trust! 
Howard: That's what I meant.

I know that I’m supposed to like Ryan O’Neal’s confused professor character and Barbra Streisand’s wacky free spirit, and they’re fine. But the entire movie should have been about Eunice. I would suggest a remake, Call Me Miss Eunice.

High Notes

In my taboret, I have two notes I will save in a fire. I have a quickly scribbled note from Tibor Kalman congratulating me on a project and a note from Tony Palladino, complimenting my first UCLA Extension poster back in 1998. The note from Tony was, for me, the equivalent of an Academy Award. At the time, I was getting slammed left and right by the groovy design set since I wasn't layering images on images, mangling type, or making purposely oblique messages. The UCLA poster was about my philosophy; keep it simple, pure, and playful. Tony’s note was an affirmation that I might be doing something right.

Tony Palladino’s work is inherently American. He was born in Manhattan in the 1930 and spent his youth in the vibrant and gritty world of New York during the depression. He may have adopted some of the principals of Bauhaus Modernism, but it is filtered through a layer of American high energy and spontaneity. Like jazz, Tony’s work is rigidly crafted, but bursting with an energy that does not play politely. His solutions are brave and unapologetic.

The SVA poster hand-drawn with markers is actually hand-drawn with actual markers. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would be a sketch, and the final poster would be a polite geometric set of vector art lines, dull and elegant.

The American identity is complex. It is a mix of Puritanism and extremes. It is pragmatic and didactic. And, it is about optimism. Tony’s humor is clear in all of his solutions. This levity, craft, vitality, and intelligence are a miraculous combination. Add in Tony’s poetic vision, and the results are rare and spectacular.

Sean Adams, UCLA Summer Sessions, 1998

When Colors Collide

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964

Last week at the How Conference, a guy came up to me after my presentation and said, "You are so amazing with color. I wish I could do that. What should I do?" He wanted to know what books to read or if I had any snappy tricks for creating a palette. I answered, "Do whatever you like, just do it with confidence." The point is, no two colors dislike each other. People say, "Oh, that was an awful color combination," or, "You can't use those colors together. They'll be hideous." They are wrong.

I find "awful" color palettes all the time. But if you take them apart and use them like there is no tomorrow, people will think you're brave and leading the way. At least, that's what I think, because that's what they say to me. But they could be walking away and saying, "What the hell was that?"

In all fairness, I am hopeless when it comes to choosing colors for the living room or any space I inhabit. What if I pick the wrong color for the sofa? What if the chairs clash? I need to listen to my own advice and let the taste police judgement go. I'll be super confident when guests come and marvel at the rust, turquoise, and magenta furniture.

Tech Rap

When I put cable and wifi in at the house in Palm Springs, it came with a land line. I hate the land line telephone. I need to disconnect it at my house in LA. It rings endlessly and is never for me. I've taken to pretending to be disturbed and confused when answering, "Hello, is Mr or Mrs Adams at home?" and I yell, "Why do you keep calling me? Who are you? What is going on?" I do this in a very Sorry Wrong Number tone.

I'm glad we don't have video phones that were predicted in the 1970s. Face Time and Google Hangouts require special lighting and a vaseline filter over the computer's camera. 

I have a series of images I was planning to use on a project that died. The old tech, so big, chunky, and heavy. Rap sessions to discuss feelings around the tech, and ferns in the office. It sounds so relaxing.