Smiley Smile

LEFT: Close To You (1970) Art Direction: Tom Wilkes. Photography: Kessel/Brehm Photography. RIGHT: The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers(1971) Art Direction: Craig Braun. Photography: Billy Name.

At a recent conference, one of the audience members asked me, “Are you always this cheerful and upbeat?” My first thought was, “Are you mad? I’m mostly unpleasant.” The question should not be surprising to me, however. For twenty-five years I have been described with these words: friendly, clean, all-American, and Southern California. I've never contradicted this message. In fact, I reinforced it. But I now find it odd that regardless of age, what I do, and how my work evolves, those words still follow me. I’ll just look on the bright side. 

As designers, we strive for a well-communicated, pure message. Our goal being to reinforce the brand and create proprietary value. Consider the Carpenters. Now some of you may be thinking, "Oh, I love them." and others, "Really, the Carpenters? Really?" But the Carpenters were packaged and branded with a clear and specific message, one that, at times, was contrary to reality.

From 1970 through 1976, every Carpenters single was a number one or two on the charts. They had five top ten albums and sixteen consecutive top twenty hit singles. The Carpenters are one of the most successful musical brands of the second half of the twentieth-century. Their image was relentlessly upbeat, clean, and sweet. The press described them as Pepsodent-smiling, sticky-sweet, and pleasant. These are valuable attributes for your son or daughter’s prom date but minimized the Carpenters musical talent or success.

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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/ 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.

Holistic Spirit and Vision Quest

A few months ago, I began work on a new course for, Foundations of Branding. Okay, I admit, I wanted to call it something more unique such as Foundations of Holistic Spirit and Vision, but Branding was more understandable. I did this course because I've heard too many designers struggling and working with a client on one project, then never again. It takes three times as much time and money to engage a new client than working with an existing one. When we are incorporated into the bigger picture and broader vision of a company, we can collaborate with a longer relationship. It's better for both sides.

It's fun to create examples like a standards manual for a fake college, in this case Medfield. But, working on these courses is hard. If I were a writer I could bang them out, but they take me forever. I obsess over the image assets, "Is that chart clear enough, does it help the viewer understand?" The biggest hurdle was worrying about what others might think. I know someone out there is saying, "Oh that moron, that's not how you handle determining audiences." I had to let that fear go, and just do my best. The two sides of the coin are: being criticized by someone cranky, or helping a designer do better and expand his or her role. My choice is pretty obvious.