Erik Adams

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2005 annual report for Maxygen, a biotech company, designed to reflect the theme of metamorphosis. Design Firm: Cahan & Associates; Art Directors: Bill Cahan, Erik Adams.

Erik Adams wears a shysmile and a crew cut and, despite his stylish urban outfit, he wasraised a farm boy in Ephrata, Washington (pop. 6,895). There, inaddition to cultivating rootstocks for fruit trees, his father nurturedin him a strong sense of spiritual passion.

“I’m a very religious person,” Adams says. “For me, religion isn’tjust something you do on Sunday. It’s part of my life.” Likehis father, the 29-year-old designer is a Mormon, and as anundergraduate at Brigham Young University, completed his two-yearmission in Brazil. Before working in San Francisco—first forMichael Osborne and, since 2005, at Cahan & Associates—he got hisMaster’s in graphic design from Academy of Art University, wherehe now teaches. His thesis, “Divine Identity,” emerged froma yearlong research project in which he collected stories andphotographs from 100 Mormon missionaries and shaped them into one long,mythological story.

All this might imply that Adams is some kind ofholy roller who buttonholes people and presses the Book of Mormon onthem; nothing could be further from the truth. Meeting him, one noticesfirst his gentle intensity, his impeccable manners, and his eagle eyefor excellent design.

Consider the recruitment poster he did for SWA,the conservative landscape architecture firm: “I’d justfinished school and knew what job postings in the landscape architecturedepartment looked like,” Adams recalls. “A thousand photosof perfectly groomed grass—boring!” Instead, he floated bighead shots of glassy-eyed grads on a sea of questions—Will Ifeel intimidated? Will I know anybody?—to convey their stateof mind. Honest and fresh, the posters helped SWA attract candidates, aswell as lighten its stodgy image.

“I want to use storytelling to make design more meaningful,”

Adams explains of his work overall.“For me, writing is important—the way writing and imagerywork together.” His boss, Bill Cahan, saw this immediately in hisportfolio. “Erik fit perfectly into the DNA of the office,”he says. “Plus, he has self-confidence without arrogance, andhe’s one of the nicest people we’ve ever worked with. As amissionary, he’d had experience helping others, and he inspiresall of us to be more generous.”

Adams understands thatbeautiful things, like religious artifacts, should be part of somelarger ideology. He’s teaching his AAU students that design ismore than just logos and brochures. Issue 4 of See, the HermanMiller magazine he designed with Todd Richards, features a coverphotograph of bare rootstocks-—his dad’s, from the familyfarm—whose tangled threads convey the issue’s theme of“connection.” Objects, he understands, can bemetaphors.

“I want design to become a more intelligent andemotional process, a vehicle to communicate other things,” Adamssays. “My three main goals are to make my work instructive,edifying, and uplifting.” In design, as in spiritual matters,it’s clear that Adams is a man with a calling.

More Information

from Ephrata, WA

lives in San Francisco, CA

age 29


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About the Author

Colin Berry is a Print contributing editor. He lives in Guerneville, California, where he writes for I.D., Artweek, and KQED Public Radio. He can be found at