At The Edge of The Basin

I'm asked repeatedly what part of New England I'm from. It might be the madras shirts and khakis that lead to this belief. But, as many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada.

When I was growing up it was a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. The biggest thing to happen was when the Misfits was filmed several years before I was born. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more upscale, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, many establishments dropped the "western/cowboy" themes and relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. 

I'm also often asked, "Where do you get your color sense?" This is asked with a slight tone, not as in "The soft and tasteful tones are so subtle in your palette." The unspoken words are, "Good God almighty, what made you do THAT?" I used to think it was the Southern California influence, but I now realize it was Reno. How could I grow up and choose the winter light gray and beige when my formative years were spent in a place with giant neon Primadonna showgirls? In the end, I was left with a color concept veering toward garish and a set of George Nelson furniture from Harold "Pappy" Smith, the owner of Harold's Club.

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.

The City of Trembling Leaves

It may seem that I spend an eccentric amount of time reading books on American history or novels by Edith Wharton. Yes, that is true, but I recently read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. It is a collection of stories, most located in the harsh Nevada landscape. Hence the name Battleborn, Nevada’s nickname, and the frequent connections to silver, Nevada: The Silver State. Often I stopped at the end of a paragraph astonished by the remarkable language. The style is unforgivingly sharp, crisp and spare paired with mournful, poetic and florid. As an example in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” she writes:

The coroner’s report noted that her tumors were visible, and in the glaring light of the microscope seemed “like hundreds of hairlike silver ribbons.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Nevada desert might describe Watkins’ stories as desolate and empty people inhabiting a landscape of the same nature. But, the stories are not this. These are people who seemed crushed by the weight of this landscape, trapped and controlled by external fate. They participate in a pre-determined narrative unable to exert free will, and when they do, they simply maintain the plot.

When I was 19, a group of us drove up to Virginia City in the middle of December. We made a short super 8 film, drank too much beer in the gothic western cemetery, and considered ourselves quite sophisticated and cynical. Of course, at 19, most everyone feels this way. We were a group who spent summers together at Lake Tahoe, or driving to clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. But we had grown apart when we went to different colleges. In Watkins’ story “Virginia City,” she writes:

There are plenty of good reasons to find yourself in Virginia City, but there’s only one reason. We came to time travel.

When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why did I not see this? That is what that day was.” I was dumbfounded as if I had just learned that the earth was round.

When reading this book, I continued to think of Diane Arbus. Arbus is unrelated to anything in the stories. But she had a magnificent way of photographing the edges of society with a compassionate eye. Watkins could easily have slipped into the tone of an outsider exhibiting the freaks to us. But she manages to maintain the same compassion and connection with her characters.

For me, like my cards, Sad Places for this isn’t about poverty or humiliation. It it about giving up, or exerting the smallest effort to exist. It is about the last attempt at happiness, the plastic flowers in the frozen ground.

Days of Nothing

I think in charts. I try to picture a chart diagramming the amount of images created by humans through history. I see an image of the earth surrounded by 100 cave paintings, and slowly adding images, with a massive jump in the last 20 years. When we needed to process film, we were more selective about the images we made. The internet has provided a place for all of us to load every digital image we make, regardless of the mundane subject matter. Since I like mundane subject matter of ordinary life, this is good.

I recently found a set of images on the Elko County Rose Garden website. I can’t remember why I was at the Elko County Rose Garden website, which is sort of like having a blackout and waking up in Tijuana, “What? How’d I end up here?” There is a section on the site of images of Currie, Nevada. Currie is a town that is for sale if you want a town. Pretty mundane and wonderful.

I’m a big fan of photographers Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Jeff Brouws. These Currie, Nevada photos are incredible in the same vein. I don’t know if it is intentional or accidental, but these are beautiful. I love the empty vastness, and the sense of giving-up. The compositions are wonderful, and the subject matter is beautiful. In this instance, I’m not going to decide if these images have pedigree and judge them accordingly. I’m just going to like them.

The Age of Wonder

When work is challenging, I wonder if it would have been easier if I had been born in Virginia in the 18th century. It seems to me that I would have it made regardless of my intelligence or abilities. If I wanted to be a senator or governor, I would simply need to tell my father or grandfather and it would happen. Then I remember that there was no indoor plumbing and you could die from a small cut. So it’s not a good idea. As it is, my family left Virginia, and I was born 200 years later.

I was born at exactly the right time and place to see remarkable motel signage. As many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada. When I was growing up it was still a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more Vegas, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. They relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. I may not have been made a governor because I was related to the current one, but I have seen wonderful things, especially the Nevada Club logo: a little Nevada shaped cowboy.

Home Means Nevada


Whenever I go back to Reno, I’m amazed not by how different things are, but how they stay the same. The minute I step off the plane and see my first cowboy hat, I know it’s Reno. To me, it’s still a nice small town where Reno High School wins every game, and ranchers drive in to have a drink and blow their paycheck on Fridays. Of course it’s like every other town in America, and far more complex and diverse. Reno has another element that makes it different from other ranching towns in the west like Denver or Laramie. You can blame it on gaming, but it’s something else. I joke that Reno 911 gets it right at times, but The Misfits captures that feeling best.

My mother tells stories about the filming of The Misfits in 1961. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Monty Clift stayed at the Mapes Hotel downtown. People talked for 20 years about the event. The still images shot during the filming capture that indefinable quality that talks about the wide open spaces of Nevada, not as a John Ford western, but as an enormous setting occupied by isolated individuals.

Spinning Showgirls and Cows

Prima Donna Casino, 1970, spinning international showgirls

Many of you know that I was born in Reno, Nevada, Yes-sir-y Bob, I was birthed at Saint Mary's Hospital in 1964. Most people only know about Reno as a divorce town with dude ranches of divorcees, or from Reno 911. Sure it has a seedy side, what town doesn't? Wait there's Celebration in Florida—scary even to me. It was a great place to grow up. It's nestled up against the Sierra Nevadas in the high desert. Lake Tahoe is 20 minutes away, and much of everyone's time is spent hiking, skiing, and doing all types of outdoor activities. When I was growing up, Reno was still a cattle town with a few casinos on a small strip of Virginia Street.

I hate too admit it, but this strip had a huge influence on my design sensibilities. How can you be taken to the lunch counter at a place with a 20 foot tall showgirl that spins outside, and not be influenced? The western scene painted on the side of Harold's Club is pretty snappy; I'm more than happy to steal it if someone would let me. In fact most of my Knoll and Nelson furniture came from Harold's Club founder, "Pappy" Smith's estate. He was purty hip in 1955. There is an innocence to these images. The design was meant to be exuberant and playful. Good taste be damned. I'm sad that casinos today seem to be weighed down under the weight of focus groups and strategy, determining what theme will motivate gambling, and directing the design to the smallest detail. I'm sure nobody was thinking about human manipulation and revenue per square foot when they put the wonderful spinning atom on top of the Reno arch.

What most people think Reno is

Pappy Smith's Harold's Club

the Reno arch: the good one

Oxford Motel, 1969

Carousel Inn, it's a circus in every room


Suicide and iPhoto

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

It’s easy to spot a designer. They’re usually the ones taking photos of a doorknob or a sign. I’m no different. My iPhoto page probably looks like most every other designer—little boxes with typography. Virginia City, Nevada is not the same place that Mark Twain wrote about while working at the Territorial Enterprise. It’s a little cheesy. There are fudge stores, souvenir shops, and tours of defunct silver mines. It is, however, a treasure trove of Victorian typography. And you must love a town that has a Suicide Table, which is what we called my grandmother’s dining table on days when she made the saltiest Taco salad in the world.

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

The Suicide Table (not my grandmother's dining room)

Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City, Nevada

Sign detail

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

Sign detail, Virginia City, Nevada

my iPhoto Typography album