Erik Adams wears a shy smile and a crew cut and, despite his stylish urban outfit, he was raised a farm boy in Ephrata, Washington (pop. 6,895). There, in addition to cultivating rootstocks for fruit trees, his father nurtured in him a strong sense of spiritual passion.
“I’m a very religious person,” Adams says. “For me, religion isn’t just something you do on Sunday. It’s part of my life.” Like his father, the 29-year-old designer is a Mormon, and as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, completed his two-year mission in Brazil. Before working in San Francisco—first for Michael Osborne and, since 2005, at Cahan & Associates—he got his Master’s in graphic design from Academy of Art University, where he now teaches. His thesis, “Divine Identity,” emerged from a yearlong research project in which he collected stories and photographs from 100 Mormon missionaries and shaped them into one long, mythological story.
All this might imply that Adams is some kind of holy roller who buttonholes people and presses the Book of Mormon on them; nothing could be further from the truth. Meeting him, one notices first his gentle intensity, his impeccable manners, and his eagle eye for excellent design.
Consider the recruitment poster he did for SWA, the conservative landscape architecture firm: “I’d just finished school and knew what job postings in the landscape architecture department looked like,” Adams recalls. “A thousand photos of perfectly groomed grass—boring!” Instead, he floated big head shots of glassy-eyed grads on a sea of questions—Will I feel intimidated? Will I know anybody?—to convey their state of mind. Honest and fresh, the posters helped SWA attract candidates, as well 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 imagery work together.” His boss, Bill Cahan, saw this immediately in his portfolio. “Erik fit perfectly into the DNA of the office,” he says. “Plus, he has self-confidence without arrogance, and he’s one of the nicest people we’ve ever worked with. As a missionary, he’d had experience helping others, and he inspires all of us to be more generous.”
Adams understands that beautiful things, like religious artifacts, should be part of some larger ideology. He’s teaching his AAU students that design is more than just logos and brochures. Issue 4 of See, the Herman Miller magazine he designed with Todd Richards, features a cover photograph of bare rootstocks-—his dad’s, from the family farm—whose tangled threads convey the issue’s theme of “connection.” Objects, he understands, can be metaphors.
“I want design to become a more intelligent and emotional process, a vehicle to communicate other things,” Adams says. “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.