I bless the rains down in Africa

The first year Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened, we made a family trek to Florida to see it. The weather was remarkably authentic to equatorial Africa. Florida in July is, strangely, rather hot, humid, and oppressive. This forced the animals to sleep in the shade or hide. Leaving, we all agreed it was incredible looking, but perhaps, the Vegetable Kingdom would be more appropriate. A couple of years later, we returned when it was not yet high noon and 115 degrees. This time, the animals were out wandering.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Animal Kingdom. It is visually sublime. The attention to detail is amazing, and the pervasive story of man taming, or not taming, nature is beautiful. But the attractions scare me. I like the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction, but after going on safari in Africa, it was nice, but not really the same thing (yeah, that sounds kind of snooty). The rest of the time, I wander around terrified I will be forced to go on the scary attractions.

It’s hot, and I don’t want to have a fainting spell on the Expedition Everest roller coaster, or the dizzy and spinning Primeval Whirl. That’s embarrassing when grandmothers with canes happily ride these with no fear. I am extremely terrified of the extremely terrifying Dinosaur attraction. The first and only time I went on this, I put my hands over my ears, closed my eyes, and basically curved up into a fetal position on the “time travel” vehicle. The snapshot taken automatically at the end of the ride captures a car of happy laughing people, and someone who looks like he is having a seizure.

Actual safari in Africa, Sean Adams and Marian Bantjes


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.


Recently, a young designer met with me and talked about obsession. "I'm worried it's wrong, but I get obsessed about something and can't stop," she said. She wasn't talking about Justin Bieber or heroin. She gave the example of string art. "I can't stop looking for it online and want to learn how to do it." Who doesn't?" was my reply.

I don't know where she heard that being obsessed was bad. Sure, if you're stalking someone and build a shrine with sacrifices for them you may have a problem. But I've been working on my OCD family tree for years and never tire of it. Paula Scher makes wonderful paintings of maps. Marian Bantjes works with pattern. Massimo Vignelli couldn't get enough Bodoni. Being obsessed is part of the job.

Ken Briggs was a British designer responsible for many of the beautiful posters for the National Theatre in London. Clearly, Briggs was obsessed with the New Typography, inspired after seeing a copy of Josef Müller Brockmann's Neue Grafik. The posters relentlessly use Helvetica, golden section proportions and grids. But, Briggs took the rigid rules and tweaked them with surprising color choices and offbeat photographic solutions. He added a dry British wit to a sterile approach.

Briggs didn't do this once, or for a couple of months. He did it over and over and over. And thank God for that obsession. The lesson here, obsession makes perfection.

as you like it tour 1
as you like it old vic

Stolen Memories

Have you ever accidentally stolen something and felt like Lindsay Lohan or Winona Ryder? I’m not talking about jewelry, scarves, or children. This is about accidental design theft. It happens to everyone, myself included. I’ll finish a project, be quite pleased with it, and then months or years later find the original inspiration. Usually it’s a piece of design that I love, but have filed somewhere in my brain. My unconscious mind must be saying, “Remember that Alvin Lustig poster? Steal that.” Consciously, I simply presume I had a wonderful idea.

When a friend sends me an example of how they were ripped off, I usually tell them “Imitation is the best compliment.” Sometimes it’s obvious, a poster for an event in Alabama looks exactly like one by Marian Bantjes. Or, a student designs a poster for Vertigo and gives me Saul Bass’s poster. On my way to work, I pass a billboard for the band XX’s new album Coexist. It is remarkably similar to a poster we designed for the AIGA Capital Campaign in 1999. Now, I know an “X” is an “X”, and claiming I was copied is like claiming I own the golden section. I’ve decided to use it as an affirmation, that 13 years later, the original poster is super groovy.


Bless the Beasts and the Children

People always tell me how funny kids are, “Oh, Jane said the funniest thing last night,” or, “You should have heard him explain how the solar system works. It was so cute.” But I find children to be rather poor at storytelling. I typically get this story, “… and then I put my left sock on…” My grandmother would stop us when we were telling her stories and say, “This is boring.” We learned to plan a conversation with her and avoid stories about outfit options.

One thing I’ve learned is that the most talented people have the best stories and information. Michael Bierut always has something interesting. Michael Vanderbyl has hilarious stories. Marian Bantjes has a wealth of information about subjects I never considered. For example, Marian knows what to call any group of animal. I would say, “Hey, dude, check out that bunch of zebras.” Marian knows this is not a “bunch”, but a dazzle of zebra.

Last week, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation held their annual gala in Washington D.C. We designed a poster for the gala as a tool for children and members of the United States Congress to learn animal group names. Obviously, the actual goal is to raise awareness for the ICCF’s mission to promote the projection of U.S. leadership for international conservation worldwide. It was an honor to have this opportunity, and I know Marian will be proud that I know this information now.

Just Say No to Safe


Once in awhile, we’re lucky to have a confluence of events that create an epiphany. These are mine: Marian Bantjes’ documentary by Lynda.com, a lecture at the AIGA Pivot Conference, a hellish week of one crisis after another, and the German newspaper Die Welt. Let me explain.

I’m sick to death of “safe.” Somewhere along the way, I forgot that my job is to create wonder, excitement, thought, and challenge the status quo. During the recession, I found myself acceding to committee decisions and research that led to benign and banal solutions. Marian always reminds me that I am able to make whatever I want. Our job as designers is to make extraordinary, not nice and forgetful. At the Pivot conference, there was a subtext that graphic design was no longer relevant, individual vision must be assimilated into collaboration, and artifacts were about “delight” with the same weight as a nice floral arrangement. One speaker relentlessly hammered the audience with factually flawed doom and gloom, suggesting that charts, submission of the individual, and meetings were the future of the profession. Let me off now if that is true.

On Friday, I reached a snapping point. Every job was a rush, every deadline critical. The designers in the office were panicked. So I stopped everything. We are designers, not a quick print shop. Stop, think, make something great. If it takes more than five minutes, good. Of course, everyone went right back to work, but with a sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s good to remember we are not performing neurosurgery and a patient is on the table with half a skull.

On Saturday, my oldest and best friend Erica Shapeero, who has the most fabulous life of anyone I know, returned from a trip to London and Munich with Die Welt. This issue was designed to honor an exhibition by Ellsworth Kelly. The culture editor, Cornelius Tittel, convinced the newspaper to run Kelly shapes in place of all photographs. It’s genius, brave, and uncompromising. How do you convince a newspaper to swap the soccer image with an Ellsworth shape? Unbelievable and wonderful. This reminded me that I started as a designer to make incredible things, challenge others, and myself, not to make nice, listen to banal strategy, and trade remarkable for benign. There is a reason this blog is named burning settlers cabin, not the quiet settlers cabin. Light the house on fire. Fuck safe.

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.

Inside Job

Writing books is hard. First you are required to write; that’s hard. Then you need to find images. That's hard. And you must have the rights to use the images; harder. Somehow my friend, Steven Heller, manages to do this continuously. If I heard that the United States government was going after Steven for having a monopoly, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you need a well-written book about design, go no further.

Steven’s recent book, Graphic, Inside the Sketchbooks of the World's Great Graphic Designers, co-written with Lita Talarico is a gem. Sharing your sketchbooks is not easy. They reveal a sliver of your internal processes. In some instances, such as Ed Fella, it is clear that Ed’s head is a complex swirl of forms and ideas. Ken Carbone’s remarkably beautiful and numerous sketchbooks betray a mind that is disciplined, careful, and sees a world that is lush and beautiful. Michael Bierut’s sketchbooks seem to point to an obsession with the letter “M”. They also have that wonderful mixture of words and images that is integral to Michael’s work. Marian Bantjes sketchbooks, are, surprise, unlike anything actual human beings can create. Since she lives in the backwoods of British Columbia, and alien abduction movies seem to be set there, well, you do the math.

My sketchbooks do a wonderful job of revealing just how shallow I am. Pretty colors and funny charts. I was there when they were created, and typically, I was sketching while someone was explaining something. This led to my standard response of looking up from my book, as if I were taking notes, and saying, “I’m so sorry, could you repeat that?”

The Big Cold

Before I started BurningSettlersCabin, Bill Drenttel asked me if I would do an article for Design Observer on refrigerators. Bill specifically wanted to see designer’s refrigerators. So I sent notes to a bunch of friends and asked them to send me images of their refrigerators. Immediately, Marian Bantjes sent me her photos. Thank you Marian. Then, nothing. I asked again, and everyone said, “no problem.” But nothing ever arrived. It seemed that I had asked for something too private to share. I have no idea what others keep in the fridge that is so shocking. We found a stack of frozen Big Macs in my dad’s refrigerator. Maybe famous designers are doing the same, but can’t reveal that.

I love my refrigerator, and have no issue showing it. It’s a Sub Zero Pro 48. When I have guests, they invariably ask, “Sean, just how do you keep your refrigerator so neat?” The secret is plastic bins. Keep all the mustards in one, and all the miscellaneous condiments in the others. Anything oddly shaped is kept separate. I worry that my refrigerator is too big, but we have 7/8 sized refrigerator at work, so it evens out. My advice to everyone is not to use plastic bins in the fridge (although you should), but to look into every designer’s fridge when you visit. Just what is so shocking and terrible that everyone runs when asked?

I Yam What I Yam

I'm fairly vanilla, okay, very vanilla. I don't have any part of my body pierced, or tattooed. My teeth are all white, and I stay away from rhinestones on my nails. I have, however, always loved nautical tattoos. If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be of a clipper ship or anchor. Norman Collins, also known as Sailor Jerry was the master of nautical tattoos.  It seems appropriate to only have a tattoo that a sailor would have, like Popeye. If I had a clipper ship on my chest I would walk around shirtless, smoke a corn cob pipe, and tell tall tales of the sea.

Lovely Marian

Ranger , Marian Bantjes, Michael Boshnaick, Noreen Morioka, Sean Adams

Earlier this year, Noreen and I spoke at Design Indaba in South Africa. Marian Bantjes was on of the other speakers and we all went on safari together. Marian is a perfect travel companion. I’ve always been a huge fan of Marian’s work. I’ve known Marian for a long time, but am guilty, like most people, of pre-judging her. I assumed that since she was Marian, and an internationally famous designer that she would barely deign to speak to me. But, if you know her, you know she is nothing like that.

After flying across the world, spending a week on safari, and worrying about being the opening speakers at a huge conference, I was exhausted. One night in the midst of a cocktail party, I realized I couldn’t be friendly to one more person, and hit a wall. I excused myself and went back to my hotel room to decompress. Five minutes later, Marian knocked on my door and insisted on having a quiet dinner with me. She spent the rest of the evening with me and we had dinner and watched a DVD on my computer. She could have stayed at the cocktail party, and then gone on to a fancy dinner, where she was the belle of the ball. This is the mark of a true friend and good to the core person. Marian may be one of the most amazing talents of our time, but to me she is a remarkable and rare person.

P.S., look for a big announcement from Marian soon.

Marian Bantjes, Design Indaba magazine

Marian Bantjes, Design Ignites Change poster

Marian Bantjes, Design Ignites Change poster detail

Marian Bantjes, Transparent Things / Nabokov

Sean and Marian, South Africa

The grass is always greener

William Christian Bullitt, Paris 1939

This last year has been a hard one for everyone. It’s easy to think that the next guy has it better. Michael Bierut never has to get work and solves problems instantly, Dana Arnett has no worries, Marian Bantjes is sitting calmly at her studio in the woods or feeding the happy woodland creatures, Sean Adams is listening to the Beach Boys and driving around Beverly Hills. But like everyone else, they and I still pump gas, pay bills, load the dishwasher, and worry. I tend to think the same thing about previous generations of my family. They seemed to spend time touring Europe, leisurely riding through the countryside, and occasionally running for office. My grandmother’s cousin Bill (William C. Bullitt) was one of these people. I have photos of him looking dapper and sophisticated. He, seemingly, led a charmed life of privilege.

I recently finished a book, So Close To Greatness, about Bill Bullitt and his life was far from charmed. Like all of us, he worked hard for his beliefs, juggled a career and family, and wanted respect from his peers. He was born in Philadelphia in 1891 to the Philadelphia arm of the family. He went to Yale and Harvard Law. He served President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. He was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then France, and was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle. This would all appear, on paper, to be charmed. But, life wasn’t that easy.

Bill Bullitt’s second wife was Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds), widow of the radical communist, Jack Reed. Bullitt and Bryant lived in Paris and were part of the ex-pat community of the 1920s. Once again, on paper, this was a golden time. But Louise slowly went mad, became an alcoholic, enjoyed entering dinner parties in the nude, and they were divorced. The invasion of the German army ended Bullitt’s service as the ambassador to France. After his return to the United States, he lobbied to be part of Roosevelt’s cabinet. A mislaid plan to expose Secretary of State Sumner Welles’ predilection for Pullman porters ended his friendship with Roosevelt and ended his political career.

However, throughout all of these trials, Bullitt remained gracious and elegant. His response to the invasion of the German army was to order all good champagne and caviar to be taken with him and the embassy staff to the basement. “We may be killed,” he said, “But I’ll be damned if we’ll be annoyed.”

William Christian Bullitt, Camp Pasquaney, 1918

William Christian Bullitt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

Louise Bryant in Russian costume 1920

William Christian Bullitt and Pie-Pie

Oh, To Be 80 Again

Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka, Blake Little photographer, 1997

It’s Wednesday, and I’m on the road to the AIGA Make Think Conference in Memphis. I’ll do my best to post about the conference (and not the standard press release stuff) over the next several days. Yesterday, I needed to find some images for a Japanese magazine including a portrait of Noreen and me. Now we have the official AdamsMorioka headshots that have been forced down everyone’s throats, but I came across all of the old images as well. So for a walk down memory lane, we will prove that we’re not so vain that we won’t remind people what we looked like 15 years ago (thinner and darker hair).

Noreen named the image above, "The War Bride" photo. We were trying to be serious in the hopes that people would believe we weren't just happy and clueless nitwits.

This photo was made for a Strathmore case study promotion. They asked us to look "professional". I think we look more like extras on LA Law.

Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka, Penny Wolin photographer, 1995

We were working on a book for David Hockney. On our first visit to his studio on Mulholland, Noreen asked for Gin and Tonics and for him to take Polaroids of us and make art. He gave us the Gin and Tonics, and kindly took Polaroids and made cool printouts.

David Hockney, Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka, 1998

When we spoke at the Aspen Design Conference, we brought matching sweater without any planning. Being from LA, we aren't sweater rich, and these were the ones we bought at the Norway pavilion at EPCOT. In the middle of this bike ride, Noreen passed out in front of the Jerome Hotel. She begged for us to leave her, but it seemed wrong to leave a half-conscious woman lying on the sidewalk.

Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka, Aspen, 1996

A large French design company had expressed interest in merging with us. We thought this was a good excuse to go to Paris for a few days. The highlight of the trip involved Noreen, the Louvre, off-limits areas, security guards, and a chase. After meeting us, the French company owners politely said good-bye with a terrified look on their faces.

Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka, Michael Boshnaick photographer, 1999.

Jump forward to last year and our trip to South Africa for the Design Indaba conference. We spent several days on safari which was truly life-changing. I was concerned that Marian had been given the rifle, but was reassured that it only had 2 bullets, so she couldn't take us all out.

Donald, our ranger, Marian Bantjes, Michael Boshnaick, Sean Adams, Noreen Morioka, Rattrays South Africa, 2008

Surprisingly, the media in Capetown was deeply involved with the Design Indaba conference. It was great to see mainstream media cover all of the design arts and designers so passionately. The Design Indaba staff were incredible at organizing the interviews. As you can see, we have graduated to looking very mature and professional. Or we look like morticians.

Noreen Morioka, Sean Adams, TV crew, Capetown South Africa 2008.

Designers in Black, Part 2

Marian Bantjes and dapper Stephen Doyle

Continuing on from yesterday’s shallow posting about the attire at the AIGA Design Legends Gala in New York, I want to make sure that we don’t cover the articulate messages, inspirational medalist stories, or engaging conversation. So back to the issue everyone has on mind, who looked good and who looked like hell? I’m actually too nice to do the worst dressed list, For the most part, everyone looked purty darn snazzy. There were a few missteps, but I’m sure some would find these “adventurous”. I’m too old school and think there is nothing wrong with the classics. The best fashion moment happened the next day, when Marian Bantjes and I went to Debbie Millman’s really amazing house for cocktails. After a couple or more G+Ts, Debbie agreed to show us her second choice dress that didn’t make the cut. I’ve never seen Debbie in orange, and she should wear it all the time. For a moment, we felt transported to a glamorous evening, Palm Springs, 1971. Debbie, I strongly advise you to wear the orange dress to every client meeting.

Jennifer Morla and Chip Kidd stylish in stripes

Connecticut bigwig Kim Rogala sleek and slim

Glowing and silky Louise Sandhaus

Lovlier than her logo behind her, Lynda Weinman

Emily Carr proves that designers CAN wear color

Terry Irwin silver fox

Madame President Millman in 2nd choice dress

Slim Aarons, Palm Springs 1971

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

How to do good layout

Cover design options, Create magazine

A few  months ago, we were asked to look at a new magazine. Our good friend Tom Biederbeck was the editor, and a pleasure to work with. We solved the problem of the interior fairly quickly. The work would be prominent, colorful, and take center stage. The graphic language would be 2 color, minimal and extremely rigid. The headline font would change for each issue, using a recently designed typeface. I need to credit Marian Bantjes for some of the great thinking. I’ve found the cover design of a magazine to often be the political lightening rod of a project. We played with a variety of logos and cover layouts, and at one point suggested using portraits of a designer featured in each issue, ala Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, try as we might, none of us are George Clooney or Angelina Jolie

Feature design, Create magazine

Feature design, alternate headline font

Feature spread, alternate headline font

Feature spread

Cover design option

Cover design option

Cover design option, giant sell-lines

Cover design option, Michael Vanderbyl

Cover design option, Noreen Morioka, Marian Bantjes

Cover design option, Sean Adams, image by Blake Little

Vanity Fair magazine

A Trailer Park in Heaven

Marian Bantjes attacked by bear at Grand Daddy Hotel, Capetown In February, Noreen Morioka, Michael Boshnaick, Marian Bantjes and I went to South Africa for the Design Indaba Conference. One of the highlights was finding a trailer park on the roof of the Grand Daddy Hotel in Capetown. When we heard about this we raced over to have cocktails and rudely insisted on seeing each one while they tried to clean. We were hoping for something more in the spirit of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show: hopeless, depressing, black and white, with an air of deseperation. But people probably don’t like staying at places like that.

Grand Daddy Hotel, Capetown, South Africa

Love of Lace by Tracy Lynch

Love of Lace by Tracy Lynch