Sean Adams: Second Thoughts

This is number 15 in our Second Thoughts series, following on from our interviews with Andy Altmann, Simon Waterfall, Nicolas Roope, Michael Bierut, Dick Powell, Rosie Arnold, Michael Wolff, Mike Dempsey, Bruce Duckworth, Erik Spiekermann, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy and Steff Geissbuhler. In case you missed why we’re doing this, the same series of questions are asked to well-known design and creative people. This week, Sean Adams.

Sean Adams is a founding partner of AdamsMorioka in Beverly Hills. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; Step, Communication Arts, Graphis AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the New York Art Director’s Club. AdamsMorioka has been exhibited often including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Sean has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally in the ID40. He teaches at Art Center College of Design and is a frequent lecturer and competition judge internationally. The co-author of Logo Design Workbook, Color Design Workbook, and the series, Masters of Design, Sean's clients at AdamsMorioka include The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Adobe, Gap, Frank Gehry Partners, Nickelodeon, Sundance, Target, USC, and The Walt Disney Company.

How old were you when you first suspected you could become a designer? I was asked to design a poster for the school senior musical when I was a sophomore in high school. This turned into an ongoing order of posters, flyers, and banners for school concerts, plays, special events, elections, and rallies. Obviously someone figured out that child labor was cheaper than hiring someone.

I loved it. I was obsessed by typography and this gave me a chance to cut class when I claimed I needed to meet a deadline for the school. The biggest problem was my complete lack of knowledge. The school art teacher was a pottery person. The only book on graphic design in the library was a book on Nazi propaganda. Subsequently, all my work looked like projects for Hitler Youth.

Sean's Highschool poster for Death of a Salesman

Did you see or experience something early in your life that was a significant influence? My parents took me to see Barbarella when I was four. It was the first movie I saw. I insisted on seeing it repeatedly. I desperately wanted a fur-lined spaceship with flying type.

Who were your early heroes (and what do you think of them now, in retrospect)? Lou Danziger changed the way I thought about design. He introduced me to symbols, metaphor, and simplicity. Thank God Lou was at CalArts when I started. Otherwise I would be trapped in an endless cycle of flying meaningless type. His work is still classic and remarkable.

What’s your recurring dream (or nightmare)? There are two that run back to back like a double feature. First, I am at a speaking engagement and forgot my presentation, and I’m not wearing pants. Second, I’m working on a house fixing things, and then realize there is an entire third floor in shambles that I didn’t notice. Sorry, if I were smarter, these dreams would probably be more oblique.

Describe the worst boss or client you’ve ever had. When we first started the firm, our largest client enjoyed calling many times during the day and requesting meetings all the time. He also liked to tell me how great we were at 10am, and call at 3pm and scream that we were totally wrong and threaten us. I was terrified they’d fire us. One day while driving to work I realized that we would do much better if I spent the same amount of time and energy getting new work that I spent trying to understand this client. So we quit. They were hopping mad and shocked. That was a good day.

What’s your worst Apple-z moment? I’m still trying to decide if it’s my entire professional life. I was supposed to go to Harvard like everyone in my family since 1636, and be a lawyer, or politician. My parents kept an apartment in Cambridge. I applied and was accepted, but went to CalArts. The jury is still out on that one.

UCLA poster by AdamsMorioka

UCLA poster by AdamsMorioka

Nickelodeon system by AdamsMorioka

What do most people cite as your best/most well known piece of work? People over thirty refer to our UCLA posters. People under thirty tell me they love the Nickelodeon system. They credit me with forming their childhood experience. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the visual program. It was more likely SpongeBob SquarePants.

Mexico Restaurante postcard by AdamsMorioka

Mexico Restaurante exterior by AdamsMorioka

What do you think is your best piece of work? Why? I am fond of the program we did for Mexico Restaurant. It wasn’t a large corporate client or high visibility project. It is so wrong on so many levels and in the worst possible taste. We purposefully made it as garish and low-rent as possible. Quality was job two. When I found myself saying, “That’s still not ugly enough,” I knew I liked it.

What font would you choose for your gravestone? Maybe Tiffany Ultra Bold Italic.

What wins, ideas or style? In design, it’s ideas. At parties, it’s style. I hate people with good ideas that lecture you and are dull.

People have different ways to stay enthused, excited and interested in what they do for a living? What’s yours? Not thinking about receivables and overhead all day.

When and where do you have your best ideas? Usually in bed at 3:30 in the morning. But then I can’t remember them. The second best ideas happen when I drive to work (in my British made car).

Seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, tasting. You have to give up two. Which ones? Smelling and tasting. I have remarkably plebeian culinary taste.

If you could travel back in time, just once, and give yourself a few words of advice, what would they be (and when would you say them)? Worry less. Things work out.

Do you still draw or has the computer taken over? I try to draw in my notebook. But I usually sit in meetings and sketch things like riverboats when I should be taking notes. My drawing skills are so poor that my students can’t understand my stick figure sketches on the board. I can’t understand them either, so I write notes next to them.

What’s the worst design crime you’ve seen? This is an easy answer, but meaningless to anyone outside of Southern California. The new Tomorrowland at Disneyland completed in the late 1990s replaced the 1967 version. The 1967 Tomorrowland was the height of modern civilization. It was a masterpiece of forward thinking optimism portraying a future of plastic houses, human shrinking technology, flights to Mars, and 360-degree theaters. Something went horribly awry when this was discarded in favor of a mish mash of styles and the tragic loss of the Peoplemover.

Still from 2001: A space odyssey

Cover of John Adams by David McCullough

Cover of the album ‘The New World’ by James Horner

You can only watch one film, read one book, listen to one album and eat one type of biscuit. What would they be? Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey Book: John Adams by David McCullough
Album: The New World by James Horner
Biscuit: I don’t like sweets

Let’s say it all goes pear-shaped. What’s your back-up plan? I make these hippy-dippy mobiles out of driftwood, shells, and coral. I spend two weeks a year on the Big Island in Hawaii collecting the material. I could make these every day, live in a trailer at the beach, and sell them on esty.

Sean's handmade mobiles

Many thanks to Sean for taking part in Second Thoughts.

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