On Bad Decisions

For many years, I have warned others that using that uber-mondo-groovy typeface may impress others at first, but then will become an embarrassment, like a bad high school haircut. I used this reasoning with a certain authority, often described as “smugness” by others. I had large hair in high school, but it was basically a bigger version of my hair today.

Then I found a series of episodes of American Bandstand on YouTube that included me. These make the bad type choice seem laughable. Not only did I choose excessively trendy clothes; I wore them on national television. I’m sure at the time, I thought my yellow Ton Sur Ton shirt from Paris and red Vans were so totally on track. I added my paint splattered Swatch watch to show that I was creative. It was a train-wreck of 1980s Southern California style. Fortunately, it was a detour. As evidenced below, a photograph from my pre-school on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Far left, I am wearing close to my current everyday clothes.

Sean, far left: in madras, khakis, and Converse sneakers

Sean, far left: in madras, khakis, and Converse sneakers

The choice to be on American Bandstand may seem odd. It started with an idea my best friend Erica and I had to go on a local dance show aired on public access in the Valley. We thought it would be fun and Ironic (remember, in Art School, one thinks this way). Erica’s dad suggested we think bigger and do Bandstand. Why not? It was even more ironic. Erica, her cousin Tina, my friend Peter and I sent photos and a note explaining why we wanted to be on Bandstand to Dick Clark Productions. A couple of weeks later, we received letters asking us to join the next taping of six episodes.

It began as an ironic conceptual art project, but quickly became a serious issue once we realized that we needed six different outfits. I could pull off one or two groovy looks, but six was excessive. Somehow we managed, although some of the choices were far more disturbing as seen by the examples posted below.

The lesson here:

  1. Don’t use trendy typefaces

  2. Stay away from groovy clothing choices

  3. Get a haircut if your hair is giant

  4. Don’t go on a dance program and dance in a listless and “art school I don’t care about anything” way.


For those young people who have no idea what American bandstand is:

American Bandstand is an iconic audio-visual time capsule encompassing four decades worth of dances, performances, fashions and fads in popular music. The show, hosted by Dick Clark from 1956 to 1989, introduced new musical acts to generations of Americans. (https://www.dickclark.com/shows/american-bandstand)

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.

Great Expectations and Bleak House

I’m one of those odd people who loved high school. I recall sitting in the cafeteria at Seaside High School my senior year thinking, “This is the best time of my life.” Sad, you probably say. Middle school was another story. But, then, does anyone think middle school was the highlight of his or her life?

Being thirteen was hard. I had just returned from grammar school in Australia and had an accent that seemed “snobby” to the other students at Archie Clayton Middle School. My mother was between husbands and we were living at my grandmother’s house. I kept my clothes in a box and slept on a cot in my great-aunt’s room. Good times. In addition, I now realize I had awful taste in shirts.

I had a couple of tricks that helped my daily attitude. As corny as this seems, I tried to recall all the good things that happened each day before I went to sleep. I also was constantly in a planning state for a trip to Walt Disney World. I know, the whole story is sounding Dickensian. I had an issue of World magazine and the fact sheet Questions. Looking at the Questions piece now, I’m not amazed by the low prices, but by the incredibly tight leading of justified Avant Garde Light. How could I read this? I also spent hours trying to decipher the images in World magazine (remember no internet, and 3 television channels). There is one couple that seems to be everywhere. Who were they? How could they be so carefree? Then there is that yellow creature. WTF? I don't know what that is.

One of my favorite blogs is Passport to Dreams Old and New. Cracker Jack writing and incredible images makes this a daily stop for me. One post points directly to this question. The Beard Dude and his Farrah Fawcett-esque girlfriend show up often. Today, I spend a large amount of energy trying to drive clients away from posed and artificial images toward a more authentic journalistic approach. Now, I see how wrong I have been. At 13, I bought the message that this couple had all problems solved and this vacation was the highlight of their existence. From now on, I’m going to request photography of posed couples, men with beards, women with Farrah Fawcett hair, and an unbridled enthusiasm in the most mundane activities.

I make fun of these artifacts now. But these pieces of paper made the difference for me between intense focus and planning of a vacation, or selling dope and robbing 7-11 stores.

Why Did They Tear Down That Wall?

When I was in high school, I was asked to design a mural for the cafeteria wall. Of course, I had no idea how to do that and ended up making a 1970s supergraphic of a series of fat horizontal stripes and an abstraction of a seagull flying above. There are small miracles; nobody documented it. The next year was my first year at art school, and I discovered the Gastrotypographicalassemblage. This was Lou Dorfsman’s version of my high school cafeteria mural, minus the Airport ’77 supergraphics. The wall is a wonderful collection of 3-dimensional letterforms created by Lou Dorfsman, Tom Carnase, and Herb Lubalin in the mid-1960s for CBS. The result is a wood-type shop exploding next to supermarket. Sadly, the wall was demoslished in the 1980s and now sits in storage, awaiting rescue. I can only hope that my wall was painted over by another artist in residence after I left high school.

My hair

The other day I was told, "You have Cape Cod politician hair." I think this was a compliment, unless you hate Cape Cod and politicians. But, we always want what we can't have. In high school, I was desperate for cool Keith Partridge hair. I wanted the feathered, easy, and groovy look. My hair is, unfortunately, big. It doesn't grow long like Keith Partridge's hair, it just gets bigger like Sideshow Bob. I tried endlessly, but my attempts ended with enormous hair that gets wavy. It is not fun to be asked if you use a curling iron when you are in the 9th grade.

Sean, Seaside High School, class of '82

Seaside High School id card, 1982

Sean, more big hair and bad attitude

Sean, freshman year, attempt at feathered hair gone bad