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.

Come Fly with Me

Continental Airlines, Boeing 747, 1970s AA-747-vi

I've been away from the burning settlers for awhile doing my five other jobs. Some of you already know that I've signed on for a second term as President of AIGA. This time it's as a co-president with the very brave Drew Davies. I'm getting ready to film a new course I've written, Fundamentals of Layout, for I'm teaching at Art Center. I'm doing Command X at the AIGA Head, Heart, Hand Conference. And, of course, still a partner at AdamsMorioka. In September, I'm heading to Berlin for three months and leading testlab Berlin. I always think I'm industrious, but I'm probably just frenetic.

When I decided to go to Berlin I immediately began to get quite nervous. Sure I'm nervous about moving to another country, learning German, and leading 12 incredible students. But, I was mostly concerned about the air travel. I'm not scared of flying. I'm scared of flying in coach.

I'm often told I live in a bubble, usually by people who don't know each other. It's not a compliment. It's usually followed by, "You make me sick." So it might be true.

My reasoning is this: I can't work in a little seat. I'm too tall. If I lose billable hours, I cost the firm money. If I fly in first class, I can work, so the ticket price usually matches my hours. See, it all makes sense.

Unfortunately, I'd really prefer to fly in first class on a 747 in 1975. I know everyone goes on and on about how air travel has become worse than the bus and people used to dress to travel. But when I see the photos of life on a 747 in the 1970s, it's looking pretty groovy. People seem more interested in lying around and having swinging singles parties or getting high on marijuana. I'm not into that kind of thing, but I would love to fly in an orange and rust cabin.

It's all too navy blue and grey now. Perhaps the reasoning is that passengers are more comfortable with a square and professional flight crew than one that looks like they are shooting a porn movie.





Wayne Thom 7208_0623_13_747_Interior


AC 747 11

1970s aircraft interior

The Angry Dog and Soft Core Porn

Last week at the AIGA Pivot Conference, Command X was, as always, a huge success. The young professionals who are contestants are the bravest people on the planet. There is no way in hell I would get up in front of 1,500 designers and defend my choices. This year’s group, Spencer Charles, Wendy Hu, Matt Hunsberger, Susan Murphy, Mark Nizinski, Jesse Reed, and Sarah Sawtell are remarkable designers with nerves of steel. The judges, Ellen Lupton, DJ Stout, Michael Vanderbyl, and guest judges, Karl Heiselman, Chip Kidd, and Matt Munoz had the unenviable job of determining who moved on to the next challenge. Michael Bierut hosted the competition, and I mentored and filmed the behind the scenes updates.

Behind the scenes, drama ensued. Michael Vanderbyl was reprimanded by an attendee for suggesting the use of a shamrock on a piece. Supposedly this is deeply offensive to Irish people. I asked Command X contestant, Susan Murphy, who is an actual Irish person, if she was offended, and she was fine with it. In fact, she suggested many names and comments that could be quite offensive to the Irish.

And then another speaker attacked my great friend Bonnie Siegler for Command X. According to an onlooker at the party where the bloodthirsty attack occurred, Bonnie stood defenseless as this person became increasingly furious. As this onlooker said, “it was like a chained angry dog who was let off its leash. There was spitting, snarling, and lunging.” I didn’t realize that “fun” is clearly a filthy word we should never use. Design should be laborious and we should refrain from making artifacts. Charts and meetings are the future.

As usual, nothing shocking happened to me, except for the scandal in Marian Bantjes room. Marian needed to learn how to tie a tie. I can’t do it backwards, so I sat behind Marian to teach her. The result was a photograph that looks like a cover of Viva or Oui magazine, or a soft-core porn film. Thank God it was Marian and I wasn’t teaching one of the Command X contestants how to tie a tie.

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