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?”

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/ 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.

Riverboats and God

Memphis City seal

There is obviously an enormous amount of vernacular typography in Memphis. It's a treasure-chest of hand painted signs and funny placards. Walking to lunch with the other members of the Gang of Four (what I hear we've been called: Michael Vanderbyl, Dana Arnett, Jamie Koval, and our special guest, Bonnie Siegler) I came across this remarkable sign. A riverboat on a city seal, and a very cool shape; there is a God.

Riverboat detail

Door decal

Terror and Courage in Memphis

the back of Michael Bierut's head at Command X

I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club at DFW on my way home from the AIGA Make Think Conference. While spending time with friends is the best part of a conference to me, Command X was a highlight. Similar in structure to Project Runway, Command X works this way: seven contestants are assigned a project, such as redesigning the Cap’n Crunch cereal for adults. They present their solutions and four judges ask questions and make comments. Two contestants are retired on each episode, leading to the final winner. This year, I took the “Tim Gunn” role, interviewing and mentoring the designers in their work area. I did this because Tim and I have the same hair color. Each morning at 8am I met the contestants in their work area and we filmed an update. We then rushed the footage up to the main stage to be presented to the audience during the morning sessions.

Last season's Command X winner, Nichelle Narcisi works here at AdamsMorioka. I asked her about the experience before coming to Memphis, and she downplayed it. But  this is hard. I don’t have the courage to do what these young designers did. They took on a challenge, produced a solution in 24 hours, presented it to a daunting group of legendary designers (Host, Michael Bierut, judges: Bonnie Siegler, Chip Kidd, Paul Sahre, and several guest judges), in front of 1500 designers, and then defended the finished project. Oddly, they had little problem doing this. I was more nervous for them, than they were themselves. The solutions worked, and sometimes they failed. But, this was less important than the overriding emotion in the audience: awe and respect for these incredibly brave young designers.

The final challenge, to design a piece for civil rights, created three unique and successful solutions. Monina Velarde left the stage as the winner after receiving a standing ovation. I watched from the wings as they announced the decision, and tried to give all of them a measure of support when it was all over. I asked them if they were OK, and glad it was finished. They all said they were too exhausted to feel anything, but I’m pretty sure the odd gaze on their face was shell shock.

It is easy to minimize this as a funny reality show, but these seven designers threw themselves to the mercy of the judges, the audience, and the blogosphere. It is far easier to stay in the shadows and never risk public criticism. Few people have the courage to stand in front of the moving train of public opinion. Nevertheless, finalists Alison Yard Medland, Monina Velarde, and Ryan Fitzgibbon collectively said it best backstage just before heading out for the final decision, “Someone out there might be inspired, or feel a little better about their work.” Damn those kids and their remarkable nature.

Matthew Carl, Elmont, NY

Ryan Fitzgibbon, San Francisco, CA

Bobby Genalo, Brooklyn, NY

John Graziano, Lewisville, TX

Alison Yard Medland, Silver Spring, MD

Monina Velarde, Wheaton, IL

Katherine Walker, Chicago, IL

Many thanks to Alissa Walker at and for some of these images

The early morning interview, Ryan Fitzgibbon and Sean Adams

Ryan Fitzgibbon

Alison Yard Medland

Bobby Genalo

The Cap'n Crunch solutions

Alison Yard Medland, Ryan Fitzgibbon, Monina Velarde

Katherine Walker, John Graziano, Matthew Carl, Bobby Genalo