Nothing

Somebody once said, "You don't choose to be a designer. It chooses you." Unfortunately, this is true. Otherwise, I would have followed the path my grandparents' wanted and gone to Harvard, then the JFK School of Government and now be a Senator or Governor.

I've found lately, that I am interested in "non-designed design." That's the stuff that is purposefully or unintentionally void of any design intent. It lacks any sense of typographic expertise of skill and is alarmingly without any pretense of being "designed." Tibor managed this by adding the genius of language, visual and written. But every once in awhile, I see something so badly designed, I love it.

Tibor Kalman, Restaurant Florent

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.

Time for Time

I recently answered a question for a magazine article about focus. Oddly, Michael Vanderbyl told me about two international clients who insisted that he must, “f#%k us!” It was very important he, “f#%k us very hard!” Only later, after several awkward silent moments did he realize they meant “focus.”

Time, of course, is at the heart of the issue. Is there enough time before the deadline to focus on a solution? Can you carve out time during the day to not be interrupted? Does the email requesting another pdf. need to be answered immediately? For me, it’s easy. I can’t think about more than one thing at a time and am rather dull witted. So I have no choice. I must concentrate with no distractions to solve any problem.

I also realize that work expands to fill the time you give it. And nobody has run screaming into the path of a bus because they didn’t receive an email response about a paper issue. Time to think and concentrate uninterrupted is not a luxury; it’s a requirement, regardless of the profession.

Which brings us to this incredible promotion about Time designed by Massimo Vignelli and Peter Laundy fort Champion Paper in 1983. I’ve carted this promotion around with me since I received it in college. It’s a little dinged up, but one of the possessions I don’t allow away from my desk. And it took several hours today to photograph it, stitch the pages together in Photoshop, and post it to this blog. But, it’s important, so it deserved the time.

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.

Nothing Matters


Mies van der Rohe's statement, less is more, is a basic tenet of modernism. It was a rejection of the decadent 19th-century eclectic Victorian excess. After the terrors of World War I, designers rejected the decorated and regional aesthetic adopted by the upper classes. To avoid another war, they sought to find a universal form of design. It would be based on pure geometry and mathematics. These had no political associations. When all people adopted these simple and pure forms, peace would flourish. 

But people are people. We like things. Nobody wants to live in a cold concrete cell with a mattress and steel chair. But, after the roller coaster of last week's election, I'm up for the simpler approach. 

Restraint is the hardest skill to master as a designer. To stop feels lazy, or unfinished. But the results of saying, "I'm done." can lead to simple and clear harmony. To continue can slowly move a solution from sublime minimalism to ordinary. With the right words, one black and white line of text on a page has power. Add an image, second color, and border, and it's nice. Only nice.

Just say no. Stop, and let something be what it is and no more. Do nothing.


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.

Why Design

How many times have I, as a designer, tried to explain what I do and why it has value? When meeting with my accountant or having dinner with civilian friends, "Are you still doing that art thing?" The other side is people asking me if they should use the $100 logo service or their neighbor's kid who knows Photoshop. And finally, designers telling me they can't impress upon a potential client why that logo is worth more than $100. So I wrote a new course on Lynda/LinkedIn, The Value of Professional Graphic Design, aimed at the people who hire graphic designers, and the second section, to designers.

Also, I'm not as fat as I look in the course. I had a "nipplage" or nipple showing shirt that didn't pass muster, so I was asked to wear another shirt under it.

If you need to hire a designer, watch it. If you need to articulate your value as a designer, watch it now. I worked hard to keep it direct, clear, and free of meaningless marketese language. Here's the blurb via Lynda.com:

There are no shortcuts for professional graphic design. Whether it's a logo, business card, or website, bad design drives away business. But clients often wonder if finding and hiring a professional is worth the effort. Meanwhile, designers struggle to articulate their value to clients who are tempted to DIY.

Sean Adams champions design internationally on behalf of his work with AIGA. Here he breaks down the walls between designers and clients so they can have a more collaborative and successful experience. There are whys and hows, dos and don'ts, and simple strategies for finding good partnerships, cooperating on designs, and negotiating fees, from both sides of the table. Plus, learn ways to gauge the return on investment and provide proof the design is working.

Topics include:

  • Why hire a graphic designer?

  • How do you find a graphic designer?

  • How much do graphic design projects cost?

  • How much should graphic designers charge?

  • What are a graphic designer's responsibilities?

  • How can a graphic designer prove a design is successful?

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.

On Good Work

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, I’ve been called a media whore, PR hound, and the Paris Hilton of design. I prefer to think of myself as the Marcus Welby of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are graphic designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, I moved as quickly as possible along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE! LOVE ME!!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

The only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.

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.

High Notes

In my taboret, I have two notes I will save in a fire. I have a quickly scribbled note from Tibor Kalman congratulating me on a project and a note from Tony Palladino, complimenting my first UCLA Extension poster back in 1998. The note from Tony was, for me, the equivalent of an Academy Award. At the time, I was getting slammed left and right by the groovy design set since I wasn't layering images on images, mangling type, or making purposely oblique messages. The UCLA poster was about my philosophy; keep it simple, pure, and playful. Tony’s note was an affirmation that I might be doing something right.

Tony Palladino’s work is inherently American. He was born in Manhattan in the 1930 and spent his youth in the vibrant and gritty world of New York during the depression. He may have adopted some of the principals of Bauhaus Modernism, but it is filtered through a layer of American high energy and spontaneity. Like jazz, Tony’s work is rigidly crafted, but bursting with an energy that does not play politely. His solutions are brave and unapologetic.

The SVA poster hand-drawn with markers is actually hand-drawn with actual markers. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would be a sketch, and the final poster would be a polite geometric set of vector art lines, dull and elegant.

The American identity is complex. It is a mix of Puritanism and extremes. It is pragmatic and didactic. And, it is about optimism. Tony’s humor is clear in all of his solutions. This levity, craft, vitality, and intelligence are a miraculous combination. Add in Tony’s poetic vision, and the results are rare and spectacular.


Sean Adams, UCLA Summer Sessions, 1998

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.

With a Swirl

Herb Lubalin

I've been told by leading strategists about millennials and what they want. According to marketing experts these people (born between 1980 and 2000) have no interest in artifacts, individual design heroes, or anything not about social causes. I am polite, and listen to this as long as I can before saying, "Okay, that's bullshit."

I spend an enormous amount of time with this generation of young designers. I'll generalize here. They love making things, finding incredible artifacts, and detailing the craft to perfection. They have design heroes and ask for any suggestions for other designers they should know. They work in teams, but have their own distinct vision and value the individual. They care about doing good and want to make this integral to their choices, but they have huge loans and recognize they need to make a living. In comparison to my generation who primarily wanted to get drunk and skateboard, they are remarkable people.

So for today's entries, there is no collaborative strategic focus. No post-it notes were taped to a board to create these. The designer didn't document the process and stop when it was time to make something. These are examples of swirly love.

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.

The Tree of Life

Don Birrell, Nut Tree restaurant receipt

When I was a child, and we drove from Reno or Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, my grandparents always stopped at the Nut Tree in Vacaville. My grandfather had a Mercedes sedan that he drove at the speed limit or slower, so a trip that might take three hours was a five hour journey. The stop at Nut Tree was the intermission on the long trek.

Don Birrell designed the graphics, packaging, interiors. He brought Eames furniture, Marilyn Neuhart wall hangings, and a modernist aesthetic to what could have been a Dennys. I recently found a receipt, just as beautifully designed as every other element. The iconography is terrifyingly close to how I make logos, which proves I was stealing ideas as a five year old

Russell Adams, Heather Adams, Nut Tree 1969

Sean Adams, Nut Tree, 1969

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.

The Pleasure of Small Problems

Sean Adams, 2014

Last week, I finished a poster for Dialogues: Poster Art of the Soviet Union. I could do anything I wanted. I chose to stay away from 45 degree angles and Constructivist typography. They just didn't go well with Khrushchev's testicle quote. I had a great time working on it, and hope it is useful for the event. But is it graphic design?

For a long time, the battle cry of design has been "problem solving." Well, what isn't? Create an urban signage system to help revitalize mid-Manhattan. Yep, problem solved. Design an information guide and website to help in an environmental disaster, check. Make an identity system and collateral for a homeless shelter, uh huh. But the problem with narrowing the focus of design onto only a tiny aspect is the inherent exclusion of anything that is deemed as not serious problem solving. If there isn't a multi-page case study, with dense research, clear results, and a sans serif font, then it's not design.

But where does that leave the work that is, frankly, just amazing without a giant purpose? Using the metric of justifying all design by the density of the issue negates most of the work that moved the profession forward. That Paul Rand Apparel Arts Magazine cover with the propeller, really? That had a deep purpose and widespread effect on the garment industry? No, so it's out. The same goes for Saul Bass' beautiful poster for The Music Center, Alexey Brodovitch's Ballet book, and a long list of work that shaped me as a designer.

I'll stick with not defining graphic design. It uses words, symbols, and images to communicate. Some of it solves problems that are big, some solve the problem of making me happy for a moment. That's good for me. Leaving this open allows for work that may be simply ridiculously wonderful.

The History of Joy

As some of you know, my most recent course on Lynda.com launched yesterday. This one, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History, was incredibly fun to make. I was challenged to create a course that would provide the basics of design history and make it interesting. I could have gone down the track of, "This is a poster by Jean Carlu in 1929. It has an umbrella. Next slide." But I'm interested in why Jean Carlu made this poster, what was happening culturally, and why it works.

I assume most people think about history as a horrible task, tainted by boring lectures on the War of 1812 in high school. So, how could I make this subject relevant and communicate my passion for the subject. No I don't jump up and down and get overly excited. I simply laid out the facts. The more you see, the larger your visual vocabulary adds to your design skills. It's as if writers were told to not bother reading Dickens or Twain. "Oh don't bother with those, they're old. Just read wikipedia. That's good enough for a writing education."

There's also the joy factor. We all share that same feeling of pleasure when we see something wonderful or discover a new idea. So I designed the course to explain what was happening politically and culturally and how that led to the choices made in design. Why did the Bauhaus designers reject decoration? Why did the Fillmore posters refer to Alice in Wonderland? Why did the Nazis barge into Jan Tschichold's apartment and arrest him and his wife?

Of course there is another version, the Vanity Fair course, that has all the secrets and juicy rumors. But that will need to wait until I'm older or can make up stuff and not get caught.

Books on Fire

I am quite proud of my most recent project, to build a bookcase in my office at home. It still needs some trim work, but the books are in and nothing has collapsed. The most surprising aspect of the project was how many books I had. Who knew? These are only the design books, there are other bookcases in the house with more. I had quite a few duplicates that I tried donating to the Art Center library, but they didn't need them. I didn't want to throw the books away. I considered burning them in the driveway and telling my neighbors they were evil books: Catcher in the Rye, etc.. But I left them in a box on the curb, and they were gone in an hour.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from buying more. One of my favorite publishers is Unit Editions. It's a collaboration between Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook in London. They focus on books with incredibly high quality and remarkable content. Rather than producing 25,000 copies of a book about business cards on cheap paper, Unit Editions publishers smaller quantities that will last for generations.

When I hear people ramble on about sustainable practices and how they used recycled paper for their brochure I nod approvingly. But, in the end, isn't the truly sustainable action to create an artifact that will be used, saved, and not thrown in the trash?

As Lou Danziger told us as students, "Stop buying drugs. Buy books instead." Very good advice, although as a student, I was spending my money on Cup o' Noodles not drugs.