How Sean Adams Transforms His Childhood Insecurities into Brilliant Graphic Design

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If you’ve seen Sean Adams at design functions, you’ll recall a bright and friendly guy who makes grinning 1960s-era stewardesses seem positively dour by comparison. In fact, in a behind-the-scenes story about my Imprint coverage of an event last year I noted, “Throughout AIGA National’s Pivot conference, none of the on-stage staff smiled anywhere near as much, or as radiantly,” as Sean. And indeed, as the “Command-X” roving reporter, he brought a refreshing lightness and joy to a largely dry affair. But what about the real Sean Adams?

As you might expect, the cofounder of the famed

AdamsMorioka, whose clients range from Disney to the Metropolitan Opera, is hardly two-dimensional. As a longtime friend and fellow Art Center instructor, I’ve found him to be gravely serious about many issues. Students can find his no-nonsense crits unnerving… though ultimately enlightening. Plus, his Masters of Design books and at his Burning Settlers Cabin blog amply demonstrate his voluminous, studious knowledge of the field. And his business partner has yet another take on him, which he’ll tell us about in the following interview.

Sean’s good friends are also aware of his warm and generous spirit. So I was hardly surprised to learn that the three collections of high-end, limited edition business cards he’s just designed for U.K.’s are having 100 percent of their net proceeds go to Art Center’s Scholarship Fund for deserving students. One set, with its Eames-like explosions of colors and patterns, is typical of AdamsMorioka’s midcentury modern aesthetic. Likewise, his nautically themed cartoon illustration set also reflects the agency’s sweet, “It’s a Small World”-ish sensibility. But the third, a series of downbeat Americana images reminiscent of Ed Ruscha’s desolate artist book photography, is somewhat unexpected. Plus, it seems counterintuitive for practical business-card use.

This seemed like a good occasion to explore beyond that positive public persona, and hear a bit about Adams’s family background.

. . .

About the “Pattern and Colour” cards you designed: Why is the early 1960s your go-to place for visual pleasure?

My parents were involved in the counterculture in the late 1960s. We lived on Panhandle Park in Haight-Ashbury. I was bad at being anti-establishment. I didn’t like their friends; they seemed lazy and had no ambition. I wasn’t crazy about the music; it was too loud. I refused to wear the standard hippie wear; I had a nautical captain’s hat and cowboy hat. I can look at that time now and consider myself fortunate to have lived through it. There aren’t too many people who lived below Janis Joplin’s band and ran around at happenings in Golden Gate Park.

But that free-spirited attitude didn’t play out too well as I grew older. We moved too often, changed schools constantly, and had no roots beside my grandparents’ house. The cultural revolution of the 1960s led to chaos and confusion in the 1970s. So I looked at the time before the whole thing unravelled. The early ’60s were still about optimism and the great future waiting for us. It was good to be patriotic, work hard, give back, and strive for a better way of life. My alternative childhood had some good, lasting qualities.

I question authority and am willing to challenge the status quo, but I will always relate far more to the values of that optimistic time of America at the beginning of the Kennedy years.

Tell me about your grandmother, and how her dish towels helped inspire your “Ships Ahoy!”

Both my grandparents’ houses and the ranch were the only stable places my brother, sister, and I had as children. My maternal grandmother was an amazing woman. She came from a long line of Virginia aristocracy and reminded us of this every day. She homesteaded in Aspen in 1915 and shot a bear when she was 17. She was a refined southern lady, but tough as nails. My paternal grandmother was a die-hard Nevadan. She grew up in a tiny town, Caliente, Nevada, but had an incredible sense of design. She could make a masterpiece out of a coffee tin.

Right now, we’re in the process of cleaning out the house in Reno. My grandparents died five years ago, but we’ve been unable to alter anything. Each item in the house has so much sentimental value, from the grandfather clock to the dish towels. But it makes no sense to stop time and seal the doors. There isn’t an exact dish towel that matches the business card illustrations; I borrowed the attitude of several of them. Of course, I have a big plastic bin with too many of them.

I can see how this is the slow decline into hoarding.

Okay, those “Sad Places” cards: How did the perpetually radiant Sean Adams get in touch with his inner bleakness?

Thanks for the compliment, Michael. But ask Noreen [Morioka] if I’m perpetually radiant; she’d say, “Are you nuts? He’s a mean terrier.”

This is a complicated issue because it is personal. I don’t want to drop into a Vanity Fair tell-all of misery here, but as you can see from my 1960s answer, stability was job two when I was growing up. I take pictures of these places because I know them. I recall that feeling of being trapped, with little hope and no solutions. Fortunately, I never surrendered and allowed myself to slip in a lethargic state of self-pity.

Now, you ask, why would anyone want a business card of sad places where all hope is lost? I wanted them because I love the contradiction. Handing someone a business card is an act of optimism. It says, “Hi, this is me. I want to know you.” I love the idea of pairing
this optimism and hope with the complete opposite. I love that I can hand this to someone and they will look at it and smile, say “thanks,” then turn it over and look at me puzzled. That’s making an impact, which is a business card’s job.

Any other public projects in the works?

We’re working on a couple of remarkable projects for the Natural History Museum now. I can’t say anything specific yet; look for openings mid-2013. We’re incredibly proud of the work done to date, and it’s frustrating to keep it secret, but it’s worth the wait.

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