Denver Egotist

Q: On your corporate website, the last line of the “How” section reads, “The unique factors at AdamsMorioka are many, but most importantly, they don’t just talk; they make the message real.” Can you explain what you mean by “making the message real?”

A: “Branding” and “Strategy” have become buzzwords that are easily thrown around. Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” I’ve found that much of what passes for strategy is actually regurgitation. It is simply a re-presentation of the facts a client knows with no new ideas, conclusions, or actions. As designers, we have the opportunity to have a strong affect on business and society. This can’t happen if we only talk, it is important to take the thinking and make it real; give it life by taking action, making things, and taking action.

Q: Do you feel it’s still advantageous today for a design or creative firm to be located in a large metropolitan city, as yours is in Los Angeles, versus, say, Denver?

A: In the end, it depends on how a designer wants to live his or her life. Los Angeles is an entertainment town. Like living in a coal-mining town, at some point you’ll end up working in a coal mine. If you are looking for entertainment projects, Los Angeles is a good bet. If you want to work with financial institutions, New York is good. It seems to me that Denver is a great place to be to take advantage of many industries. It’s easy to access, and central (more or less). There is a rare quality of life in Colorado, and I don’t think the value of that can be underestimated.

Q: How would you rate Denver and its firms in the scope of the national design community?

A: Frankly, there is some kicking work being done here. Maybe it’s the light, or the mountains, but I’ve seen a freshness and authenticity that I don’t see often. The best thing about serving as AIGA president is the opportunity to meet designers all across the nation. There is a misconception that the most interesting work is being done in one region only. I’ve found remarkable designers everywhere. Honestly, this isn’t presidential PR talk. There are amazing people in places you’d least expect, from Orlando to Nashville, Portland to Charlotte, Reno to Denver. This country is filled with fine diamonds waiting to be introduced to the rest of the world.

Q: As the newest president of the national chapter of AIGA, convince us a membership in the Colorado chapter is money well spent.

A: That’s a great question. In the first place, I have come to believe strongly that the design profession is at a critical and historic juncture. As the profession expands, it is broadening and can if we don’t work hard, fracture. We can either proceed into multiple small and powerless factions, or we can find the common ground that unites us as a profession of creatives. I often hear designers say they aren’t part of AIGA because they are not “joiners.” But all designers are invested in the future of the profession. Moving forward we need to push on many fronts, to be compensated appropriately, to be given the tools we need to succeed and remain inspired, to be recognized and respected by business and government, to expand our community with diverse designers and voices, and to make sure that those coming behind us are given the richest education possible and every opportunity. We can reach these goals, and knowing the unique way designers solve problems, address the larger issues of our society. But that can’t happen, you will have no impact or voice in the direction of the design world by sitting alone in a kitchen, isolated.

Specifically on a regional level, the Colorado chapter is one of the strongest and most vital of 62 chapters. On a national scale, AIGA is very good at addressing national issues. But every region has unique challenges. AIGA Colorado has the leadership and energy to be the resource for Colorado’s design community to thrive and grow. And, AIGA Colorado has some pretty great events.

Q: You’re a professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, recognized as one of the top schools in the world for art and design education. What are three progressive things Art Center is teaching its students that Colorado’s art schools should be teaching their own students?

A: I don’t know what the curriculum is at every school; they may be doing the same things as Art Center, or better. I appreciate that Art Center has taken a strong position on ways to educate designers to be the best communicators possible. There is no “silo-ing” of media, a student is taught to think and make, and decide which media best expressed his or her idea. I believe it is almost impossible to teach designers how to be proficient in every technology, be great thinkers, great form-makers, and understand business and culture in the span of 4 years. In the end, we are on a fast moving train that isn’t stopping. By the time we learn a program or technology, a new product shows up. So the best approach is to teach students how to be great conceptual thinkers with immaculate craft and skill. Give them the basic skills technically, and set them out on a lifetime of learning.

Q: How do you find time to balance all the roles you have right now, including being a partner in a design firm, AIGA national president and as a professor at Art Center? Do you still have time to do the fun stuff, like create?

A: This is truly the most challenging part of my life. I never considered not being engaged in public service, or giving back to the community. It’s a family tradition on both sides going back to John Adams and George Washington, and must have been drummed into us as children. I find it rewarding and exciting. I have a great partner, Noreen Morioka, who is as committed to the community as I am, and makes it possible for me to do these things. And my staff must truly hate me by now, but they never say anything. They’re the ones doing the hard work.

But, to be honest, there are times when I feel a little overwhelmed. I just started writing our 4th book, focused on 20 of the Masters of Design internationally, and I write a monthly column for Step magazine about a different designer each month. Terry Stone, who is an integral part of AdamsMorioka, recently mentioned that she thought my career was a little lopsided. That I was spending 80% of my time promoting and working for the welfare of other designers, but doing very little for myself. I don’t know how to solve this yet. I wish there were another 8 hours in a day, but I’d probably just take on more. I’m open to suggestions.

Q: You’ve got a lot of trophies on your office shelf, including recognition from Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, the New York Art Director’s Club, as well as having a solo exhibition on AdamsMorioka held at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What’s your view on the importance or unimportance of winning awards throughout a design career?

A: Everyone wants to feel validated and respected by their peers. Winning awards is one way to achieve that. At the start of a career, it’s a critical step. It’s a way to be seen by others who may not know you, and feel some satisfaction that you did a good job. On the other side of the coin, it’s a way for others to see your vision and be inspired. This seems to me to be the most important aspect of entering competitions like AIGA 365 and 50 Books. We are all timid to let our own light shine brightly, but when we do, we give others permission to do the same.

Q: If you could point to one decision you made as a young, less established firm that was key in helping bring you up to the level you’re at today, what would it be?

A: We learned this the hard way, the very, very hard way: work with clients who treat you with respect. Good clients know other good clients. The bad ones always seem to know other bad ones. And everyone has the right to be treated with respect. There is one person in the world who can yell at me, that’s my mother. But fortunately she’s and old-school WASP and doesn’t do that.

Q: You’ll be speaking about lessons in fear on Wednesday night here in Denver and the mistakes fear has caused you to make. If you could go back to the beginning, is there one mistake you would definitely want to make again?

A: I don’t think I want to make any of them again. And hopefully, we’re not repeating any. I wouldn’t go back and change any of them, except for our first speaking engagement that was truly, truly awful. Who knew you couldn’t edit an hour-long speech down to 15 minutes while on stage?

Q: When all is said and done, what do you want your most significant contribution to the design world to be?

A: Of course I’d like to be recognized for doing good work, not just that bright, So Cal stuff, but the most I can hope for is that the time and energy I put into the community will make a difference. I want every designer, regardless of race, gender, style, attitude, age, and medium to be compensated, recognized and respected for the very rare talents each has. Design is the oil that keeps the machinery of the economy and our democracy running. We’ve seen examples in other countries; bad design slows the machine down, no design grinds it to a halt.

Q: Why should we come hear you speak on Wednesday instead of working a late night at the office like every other weeknight?

A: I think there’s booze.