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.

Il dolce far niente

Lou Danziger, UCLA Extension

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.

 

When I worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, I built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Mendell and Oberer's cover for Bukowski's Notes of a dirty old man, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. And Paul Rand's stationery for Westinghouse is clear and confident. But, my favorite, is Ray Eames' handmade book, 1970.

It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

Ray Eames, handmade book

Chermayeff and Geismar, Pan Am

Mendell and Oberer

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 Being A Creative Director

UCLA Extension catalog cover, designed and creative directed by Sean Adams I know that it is "Where Wednesday" on Burning Settlers Cabin, and I bet you are asking: Where is Sean Adams? He's not here in Los Angeles. However,  I had the opportunity to interview Sean recently on what it means to be a creative director. Here's our conversation:

Q. Do you consider yourself to be a creative director?

A. “Yes. As a partner at AdamsMorioka, it’s my job to drive the projects conceptually and manage the aesthetics and quality. This doesn’t mean that I tell a designer to use Franklin Gothic, red, and yellow (although I’d like to). This means that I have access to the larger ideas of the project and can help direct the choices made to meet that criteria.”

Q. How long did it take you to feel like you had developed the expertise required to direct others?

A. “It’s a natural course to start a career and think you must do everything yourself. It took several years before I was able to lose that control, primarily out of necessity. I can’t think of a specific project that caused this change. There was a period about ten years ago, when I realized that I could not handle everything—either physically, mentally, or emotionally. The only option was to delegate, and allow others to manage parts of a project.”

Q. What does it mean to collaborate creatively?

A. “To listen without judgment. A terrible idea can lead to an extraordinary idea. But if you dismiss the bad ideas, without asking what is underneath that idea, you’ll lose the chance to run in new territories.”

Q. Got any tips for someone who wants to be a creative director on how to:

Get the best out of other creative people?

A. “Know the big picture and the important issues. Allow the creative team to be creative. Even in a hard-line corporate system, there is always room for new ways of thinking. This does not translate to let them do whatever they want. Being free and doing ‘wacky’ is not solving problems.”

Deal with clients?

A. “Listen, listen, listen. They’re not stupid. They know their own business better than you do. They don’t know how to articulate creative concepts, so it’s the designers job to interpret, not to dismiss an idea or concern because it seems ‘dumb.’”

Manage teams?

A. “Manage them. Know who is responsible for what component, and make sure they know. It’s too easy to think someone else is taking care of something, and pass on the ownership.”

Venakado Stationery, designed by Monica Schlaug, creative directed by Sean Adams

Q. How would you describe the work you are doing now?

A. “Exciting, and sometimes scary. The creative part of the job is fairly easy for me, the changing technologies are the tricky part. I don’t mean new software that we use, but the way technologies are impacting our clients’ businesses. What is the internet and mobile world doing to broadcast? How does information need to be restructured for a audience raised on new technologies? Can I still use red and yellow?”

Q. What is the most satisfying part of your job?

A. “Knowing that our work has helped with successful results, that people kept their jobs, or made more money, or had their idea communicated.”

Q. In summary, what do you think are the two most important skills a person needs to be a successful creative director?

A. “Translating and analytical skills”