When to Take the Other Path

From Moxie Sozo by Emily Potts

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.) (father's side; GGGGG grandfather: mother's side; GGGGG Uncle, GGGGG 1st cousin)

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

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.