By the early 1990s the state of design, communications and strategic planning had reached a point that could be best described as ‘baroque.’ The messages, vehicles for delivery, and thinking were convoluted, oblique, and purposefully misleading. Let me back up further. The anti-commercialism and mistrust of the corporate and governmental structure in the 1970s manifested itself with, not a retreat from mass production, but an attitude of disguise. If the products and messages could be disguised as ‘non-materialistic, non-corporate, non-establishment’, perhaps they would sell.
As this idea is in contradiction to the stated purpose of mass-production and consumer activity, the messages and visual manifestations of the message became schizophrenic. The excesses of the 1980s reversed the trend of anti-consumerism, but the reaction of the design world seemed only to grasp the idea of excess. Visual work became more complex and layered, the messages followed the same dysphasia. Seeping into this chaotic and complex system was the idea that the makers of the visuals were complex and troubled artists, or creatives with a language incomprehensible to the non-designer.
In contrast to this schizophrenia and contradictory messaging, the idea of AdamsMorioka began, fittingly on the PeopleMover in Tomorrowland. After years of traversing the decaying system, Noreen Morioka and Sean Adams sat on the PeopleMover, somewhere between Tomorrowland Terrace and America 360 Vision, these words were crafted: clarity, purity, and resonance. The words’ power lay in the absolute contradiction to the then convoluted approach of creative work and basic marketing concepts. Work, messages, thinking, and collaboration should be clear and easy to grasp. There was nothing wrong with plain English that could be understood in a contract or printed piece. In 1993, as society had grown cynical and distrustful of the messages being provided by much of the creative world, a pure and honest approach was the only viable option. And finally, without the idea of emotional resonance, a return to ideas, not meaningless collage, these fresh ideas would be cold and meaningless.
The basic principles of Modernism, design for the masses, simplified forms, form follows function, are typically attributed to European influences such as De Stijl, and the Bauhaus. The American evolution of Modernism adopted these items, and combined them with basic American attributes of honesty, plain-speaking, democratic ideals, and a simpler aesthetic. My aesthetic and conceptual approach is based on this mutation. A straight line can be drawn from the Puritans of 17th century New England, to the 18th century Shakers, 19th century western pioneers, 20th century International Style designers, to this contemporary brand of American Pragmatism.
My initial venture into a larger public arena was met with surprise and excitement by clients and end users. It was also met with anger, hostility and resentment from much of the design world. This could best be exemplified with two situations. At a meeting with a C level executive at a large corporation, a mistrustful and angry face changed to a wry smile when I said, ‘It’s okay to like what you like.’ And, in an article from a newsletter for the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, this cliche, ‘children should be seen and not heard. Sean Adams’s ideas are immature and unrealistic. I’d like to hear what he says after ten years in this industry.’
Ten years later, that same C level executive had maintained a successful relationship with me, and the author of the newsletter article had maintained his stance. Over the next ten years, the message of clarity, purity, and resonance slowly rippled through the profession. Design leader and publisher William Drenttel talked about the renewed idea of clarity at a national conference in 1995. Several large design and strategy firms publicly stated that they were revising their contracts to read in plain English. A leading furniture and interior designer recently stated that her business followed the philosophy of ‘Clarity, purity, and truth.’ Finally, several years after retirement, noted design legend Jim Cross was quoted, ‘Sean kept the faith.’
More Clarity, Purity, and Resonance
This does not mean that all work became simple with easy to read type and heavy white space. Or that strategy returned to a simple 1920s General Motors approach. This message of clarity, purity, and resonance mutated itself to fit the environment. The general Zeitgesit of the time reflected a need for simpler, more honest communications. The democratization of technology enabled widespread dissemination of designers’ tools. Pretending that typesetting was a secret and technical world was no longer possible when children use Garamond, Times Roman, or Helvetica. The =philosophy can express itself with a simple black and white poster, or a multi-layered marketing plan. The unifying theme of honesty always pervades.
This approach evolved, incorporating familiar forms on visuals to create a sense of reassurance. Collaborators like Fred Seibert at MTV, and Jan Fleming at Disney and Sundance, introduced them to a world beyond making only. We began to tackle the design, not just of printed pieces and visual systems, but of corporate culture, internal and external. The idea of a system evolved beyond the standard logo and manual, and became a tool for creative inspiration and reexamination of product and the market. Sean Adams explained this at a speaking engagement in Buenos Aires in 2000. ‘We live in a visual world. All of us-designers, the general public, and our clients-were raised looking at and responding to images. To provide a long-winded grey slab of text in 200 pages to a client may seem like a catalyst for change, but it is irrelevant. One of the most powerful approaches we can use to reach all aspects of a client’s business is to utilize visuals to explain, and visual systems to lead a transition of thought.’
Utopia vs. Distopia
We are given the opportunity to affect lives. If we do our job well, a client’s business succeeds, a product sells better, or an event is a success. This enables individuals to work, make a better living, send their children to college, expand their lives. Each of us provides one more grain of sand to tip the scales. The world may be complex, messy, and contradictory, but design can help recreate that world.