Sean Adams on Change, Risk and His Collection Obsession

You probably know Sean Adams as co-principal of one of the country’s most influential design agencies, AdamsMorioka in L.A. Visit the firm’s website these days, and you’ll find a placard that reads, “After 22 years of great clients, collaborators and opportunities, we have closed our doors and set off to new challenges.”

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Partner Noreen Morioka has set up a new shop, M+. Adams is now directing the graduate program at ArtCenter, speaking at design events including HOW Design Live, and pursuing interesting design projects. We recently asked him about making such a significant career change.

Hey, Sean: What’s keeping you busy and happy these days?
I’m asked this often, and I’m still trying to find a way to answer it without sounding corny. I’m busy focusing on others more than myself. I’m the Director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, which will enroll its first class this September. This has been a longtime goal of mine and been incredibly exciting to build with great help from everyone at ArtCenter. I was able to pull together an all-star advisory board and faculty and know we’ll help designers get out and run the world.

I also write and shoot one course each quarter. I love doing these. Each course ends up being about 25,000 words with 300+ images. It’s like writing a book on your favorite subject. These courses are a way for me to help designers get access to information and ideas they might not have locally.

I can’t say I’m designing giant brand campaigns. I’m working on projects that pay a little less, but I really love doing. They range from a fake network and television program identity system based on the movie “Network” for the show “Blunt Talk,” to Blake Little’s most recent book of people covered in honey.

Of course, there is always AIGA. My second term as president is over, so I get to focus on making sure my hair looks good for Command X.

You seem to have an insatiable curiosity — your blog, Burning Settlers Cabin, is always full of interesting written anecdotes and vintage ephemera and design history. What sparks that curiosity for you?
I think there is something wrong with me. Louise Sandhaus came by for a visit yesterday to talk about California design history. I showed her my flat files, bins and library of design stuff, and even she had that scared look on her face, like, “Get a life, Sean.”

I see something beautiful and I want to know everything about it. I’m always trying to determine how things connect. What did a Josef Müller Brockmann poster have to do with Hebert Bayer?

There is so much emphasis on design being justifiable today. Was it commercially successful? What is the logic behind every decision? I agree with these, but part of me loves to find things that are just wonderful. Did the Paul Rand UCLA poster increase attendance? Maybe, but it changed the way many designers looked at symbols. Is there anything wrong with loving something because you simply do?

If you had one word to describe the decision to leave AdamsMorioka and pursue something else, what would it be?
The correct answer here is ‘difficult.’ Yes, it was a gut-wrenching and difficult decision to let AdamsMorioka go. But the word that I kept hearing when I was considering this was ‘habit.’ At what point was I continuing purely out of habit?

What led to your transition from running a long-standing practice to teaching young designers? Did that decision unfold over time, or was it an ‘aha’ moment?
I’ve been teaching since I was 29 years old. About eight years ago I took on more classes at ArtCenter and found I looked forward to each one. And, you’re 100% correct: There was an ‘aha’ moment. I spent three months in Berlin with 12 amazing students from ArtCenter. I’d never taken a long time away from the firm. One evening, I was walking from our studio space along Kurfürstenstrasse with a few students and realized I felt something I hadn’t felt in years. It was happiness. I wasn’t worried about a project, or overhead, or something for myself, but was invested in making sure my students were learning and having an enriching experience. It sounds corny, but when I stopped working for my own gain and focused on helping others, I felt productive and excited. And everything fell into place.

How would you advise or coach another designer who’s contemplating a daunting career change like the one you made?
Bryn, these are really good questions. I can only say what others told me. First, ask yourself whether you are doing something because you love it or out of habit. Is it easier to not make a change and accept where you are rather than move forward? I told clients for years when faced with identity changes that abused children will stay in an abusive situation rather than leave. That’s how fearful we are of change.

Second, have you already finished this part of the journey? I realized I had reached most of my professional goals and only had 15–20 years of working life left. Would I be doing something new, or repeating myself?

Third — and this was great advice I received from Michael Vanderbyl — if you think about doing something every day, like being a piano player, you should do it. Every day for a couple of years I thought, “I’d love to stop this, work on small projects and teach.”

And finally: No risk it, no biscuit.

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