I filmed an interview yesterday for a documentary. One of the questions posed to me was, "Why is design important in this instance?"  I answered with all the correct statements about value, perception, customer experience, you know the drill. But then I told the nerdy truth. As designers, we love things like a serif that others don't see or care about.

For example, I am a sucker for ampersands. I love the challenge of creating a mark with one, or finding the perfect one for a headline. I once replaced every Garamond ampersand in a book, set entirely in Garamond, with a Sabon ampersand, slightly reduced. Because it was better. Did the final reader notice? I hope not. It should have appeared natural and unobtrusive. 

I love the variety of choices from Duchy that is close to the original et (and) in Latin, to the slight variation on that with Cochin Italic, to the pure symbol of Bauhaus. There are some clear winners in the world of ampersand: the Pistilli Roman, Sabon italic, Sentinel, and recently, Museo versions. But, sometimes it's good to be bad. That's when you invite Behemoth, ITC Tiffany Heavy, and City along. But I have a special place for Doyald Young's Young Baroque. That ampersand is fine.

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.

Brilliant Corners

Last week I had lunch with one of my favorite designers, Michael Carabetta. Since Michael is the creative director at Chronicle Books, the subject turned to, yes shocking, books. Michael suggested I look at Paul Bacon’s work. The more I researched Bacon’s work, the clearer it became that this was a remarkable treasure of incredible work. The book and album covers are energetic, surprising, and spontaneous. They never feel forced or overworked. Yesterday, I briefly fell in love with a new cookbook’s design. Then, after looking at Bacon’s work, I quickly recognized how the cookbook was desperately overdesigned.

Bacon’s love for jazz is apparent in the work. It feels open and clear, never rigid or constipated. However, the spontaneity should not be misunderstood as easy. The ideas are big, smart, and beautifully crafted. We can look back and say, “Times were different. You could walk in a room, present a solution and everyone would cheer. The they’d head out for martinis, cigarettes and flirting.” But, like today, I’m sure everyone had an opinion and wanted something different. Bacon’s work is a testament to the ability to express an idea articulately and sell it. There is obvious passion here.

James Victore’s article on captures Bacon’s essence beautifully. I love that he can, “tell a joke so dirty that it would singe off yer eyebrows.” This reminded me of my great friend Doyald Young, and that made my day.

The Big Valley of curly type

Doyald Young inscribed one of his books to me with this phrase, “To Sean, a friend, classicist, and typophile.” I take this is a compliment. I hope Doyald didn’t mean classicist as a bad sense of class distinctions. Perhaps at his dinner, I shouldn’t have insisted his maid not look me in the eye. I appreciate this compliment, and consider myself fairly traditional typographically. I have friends who have taken their children to some of Paris, London, and Rome for cultural education. They visit the Louvre; take classes in pasta making, and tour private collections. I’d like to say I did the same, hence my refined sense of classical typography. But my cultural influences were born in a small cow town in northern Nevada, and a ranch with endless volumes of National Geographic and Nevada magazine.

As I grew older, I went through that bad phase, when I rejected all of that. I moved to New York, only used a handful of classic fonts, the finest papers, and sat at only the right dinner parties. Dumb. I know now that the best dinner parties are the wrong kind of dinner parties. What fun is it until someone is in tears, something breaks, or a fight starts? And I rediscovered my low-end cultural influences. Curly type, bad silhouettes, odd western typefaces, and terrible photography are much more fun.

A Generous and Compassionate Country

For the last couple of days, I’ve been putting together the gallery space at Art Center. But that’s another story. I stopped the insane measuring and rearranging to go down to the theater and see’s new documentary on Doyald Young. Yes, I put completion of the gallery before graduation at risk. But, there was no question. Doyald, Lynda Weinman, a great film: uh, yeah I’m going to that.

It’s a challenge to make what we do seem interesting to civilians. Hmm, I have a choice of watching car chases and steamy love scenes, or a documentary on someone who works with letterforms. Typically, the 3d explosions win. In this instance though, the letterform film is the right choice. I could carry on about Doyald for hours: he’s one of my great friends and mentors, has a salty sense of humor and the best jokes, is an inspiration to teach and truly help young designers, and, yes, talented as heck. But you can find all of that on the AIGA Medalist page, except the dirty joke part.

At Saturday’s commencement ceremony, he will receive Art Center’s Alumnus of the Year Award for his dedicated work as an educator and lifetime of legendary work in typography, logotypes and alphabets. At Saturday’s commencement, he’ll receive an honorary degree from Art Center, where he studied Advertising in the ’50s, and where he has taught lettering and logotype design in the Graphic Design Department for decades.

This is what made the evening so remarkable: the 2010 graduating class was in the theater also. While Doyald made a few closing remarks, they looked on with mixtures of awe, delight, gratitude, and excitement. In school, they learn how to make beautiful form and combine this with conceptual thinking. This short time in the theater is, perhaps, one of he most valuable hours of their education. This generation of designers is shown first-hand, what it means to be a “good” designer with dignity and magnanimity by one of the great masters. Fifty years from now, when they sit where Doyald is now, they will know that talent is nothing compared to kindness and generosity.

What a difference Doyald makes

AMPAS® By-law booklet

Last Monday a student at Art Center asked me, “Sean, how do I know if this is good?” Of course, as a teacher, I responded, “If I do.” But we all know how hard it is to judge our own work. For most of us, every project could have used another five months to refine the typography or images. When we were asked to design the identity system for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences®, we were thrilled. This was one of those projects that were a perfect fit for our experience, interests, and professional sphere. My philosophy around identity is easy: keep it simple, no Scotty dogs that are also coffee mugs, and make it a strong foundation. The obvious answer for the AMPAS® logo is the statuette. I’m a simple person and I like obvious. Why do something unrelated when there are decades of equity built into the statuette’s form?

We went through the long and intensive process that every designer has been through. In the end, I was pleased with the final result: an icon for the statue and a clear wordmark. Then I gave it to the master, Doyald Young. I expected Doyald to clean up the forms and give it some refinement. But I was shocked when he sent back his version. I thought mine wasn’t half bad, but Doyald’s version sings. He took my clumsy steroid filled icon and turned it into an elegant and gracious form. The letterforms received the same finesse. To this day, Doyald will tell me with benevolence and kindness, “I just fixed some curves.” But I’m sure he ran choking to the bathroom when he first opened my logo file.  Doyald defines “gentleman” and “master.”

AMPAS® logo: Sean's clumsy version

AMPAS® logo: Doyald's beautiful version

The Academy Awards®: Doyald's elegant version

AMPAS® membership certificate design

AMPAS® stationery

Doyald's books: buy them.

Designers in Black, part 1

Sean Adams and the wonderfully jewelled Madame President, Debbie Millman

Last Thursday, I attended the AIGA Design Legends Gala in New York. I was in Kona the week before, and it was a helluva flight from Hawaii to LA to New York, but the Gala is an evening that reminds me why I’m a designer. Of course, there are inspirational speeches and presentations. Debbie Millman gave an eloquent speech about the current economy and why designers are more important than ever. The Medalists, Carin Goldberg, Doyald Young, and Pablo Ferro were remarkable and seeing their work is exactly the shot in the arm I needed. But, many of you are probably asking, who looked good? Fortunately, I’m shallow and took my camera to find some of the best dressed. Now I admit I’m bad at this job. I started and then had a couple of Gin and Tonics, then the gorgeous Marian Bantjes sat on my lap, then I lost interest in the photography. Nevertheless, for your pleasure, here are some of the highlights I found before forgetting I needed to do this post.

Stefan Sagmeister with snappy tie and Marian Bantjes in a dress of her own fabric design

Petrula Vrontikis unbelievably gorgeous and dapper Armin Vit

Pam Williams outdoing Madame Pierre Gautreau by John Singer Sargent

This defines classic and glamorous, Michael Donovan and Nancye Green

This defines classic and glamorous, Michael Donovan and Nancye Green

Board heartthrob Brad Weed and beautiful wife Susan Pappalardo


Immaculately dressed Michael Vanderbyl and ever-charming Gaby Brink

Sean and Kenna Kay absolutely perfect