Design Observer

The Yarn House
The West Coast Craft and Style movement turned toward nature as a response to the industrial mechanization of production and proliferation of new synthetic materials.

Sean Adams found the best examples of the next generation of designers and artists in the field of large scale environmental graphics.

Bad Color
Advice on creating color palettes from the author of The Designer’s Dictionary of Color.

The Strange Case of the Designer
What makes a graphic designer strange? Is it the obsessive attention to kerning on street signs, arguing whether PMS 172 is orange or red, or collecting odd scraps of paper on every European vacation?

The Design of Comfort
What I found in the typography of Disneyland was an incredibly dense design solution beyond typography with intentional choices to create a specific experience.

Blinded by The Light
I found the world of black light posters in late 1978, when I was in middle school. At the time, the fluorescent posters represented rebellion and a bad-ass attitude.

Smiley Smile
“The image we have would be impossible for Mickey Mouse to maintain. We’re just normal people.”

When the World Was Young
When I started in the profession, I was the youngest such and such for a long time. Somewhere along the line as the generation before me retired or moved on to greener pastures, I became the old guard. This happens to all of us, which is better than being hit by a bus.

Fake News: Blow Up
We are conditioned to understand that a photograph is an honest record of an object, time, and place.

Hope is The Thing with Feathers
A closer look at NBC’s peacock.

The Meticulous Bruce Rogers
Classical structure and typography, paired with a modern aesthetic, typified Bruce Rogers work.

Gateway Drug of Dessau
The typography and graphic design at the Bauhaus represent the most religious allegiance to Modernism. But, it is the photography at the Bauhaus that serves as a gateway drug.

Admiration for the Bland Subject (and Beautiful Design)
When presented with dull content, Sean Adams recommends designers “reframe, augment, or interpret the content and redesign.”

Remembering Clive Piercy
Without Clive the world will be a little less colorful.


Mixing Metaphors
This conceptual approach of the “fused metaphor” combines symbol “A” with symbol “B” to produce a new result.

Margo Chase
The design profession and all of us lost a treasure last weekend when Margo Chase died.

Sean Adams extolls the virtues of a narrative told with minimal means and a strong ideas.

Joe Orton: Dangerous Collage
Is it graphic design?

Manifesto of Surrealism: 3 Tragedies
We pass through our days creating fictions to make sense of the world.

John Astrop and Eric Hill, Booze, 1967
Historic design work, linked to the cultural standards of its time, is often unacceptable now. Does that make it bad? Should the creator be vilified? Should the offending design work be eliminated from a classroom or book?

Subjective + Emotional
Color is subjective and emotional.

Mary Blair: The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural
Mary Blair’s Grand Canyon Concourse mural in the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World is a super-graphic that transforms the architecture.

Phyllis Tanner
“It is a cut-throat business. Be good at negotiating. It is not just about ART.”

Pan Am: History, Design, & Identity
Matthias Huhne tells the story of the world’s largest airline for much of the 20th century with images, printed artifacts, and the Pan Am identity.

Jennifer Morla: El Museo Mexicano, 1995
As a designer, does the work we create subjugate and presume superiority over another culture, or does it attempt to authentically represent it?

Marget Larsen
Marget Larsen’s design work bridged post-war American modernism and 1960s hedonist psychedelia.

Will Burtin
Will Burtin was a graphic designer with no sense or boundaries in media.

Harris Lewine
In the age of the art director Harris Lewine was without equal.

Sean Adams on Typography


Command X: New Orleans

Each year Command X, AIGA’s reality show-style, live design competition pits seven young designers against one another in daily elimination challenges, and is one of the most anticipated events at the AIGA Design Conference, conceived and produced by Bonnie Siegler of Eight and a Half.   More

Things I Know

Being a design student is hard. There is a huge amount of technical information, craft, concept, and form to learn. In addition, students today need to learn how to work in a range of media from print to motion. It’s frustrating to teach and realize that I can’t prepare my students for every situation. I recently asked some of my students what questions they might have if they could ask me anything. They only had one question, “What would you have done differently?” More

How to Grow as a Designer

“My goal was to clean up the world. I had very specific ideas about what design should do, and that was the engine that drove us for a long time,” says Adams about their start in 1994. Then one day, he looked around and found out that the portion of the world he had control over had been cleaned up. It was time to set some new goals. More

Publikum Serbia

NR: WNR: What is the first thing you do in the morning after you wash your face?
SA: You’re supposed to wash your face? I thought that the dirt made me look more tan. Actually, I have a dull routine of Kashi cereal, blueberries, and soy milk. I know it’s very LA, but what can I do?

NR: When you were little, what did you want to be when you “grew up”?
SA: I found a book of questions that I filled in when I was 4. Some of the answers were odd, to say the least, “How many steps is it from your house to your car? I answered, “Foot steps”. More

NR: What is the first thing you do in the morning after you wash your face?
SA: You’re supposed to wash your face? I thought that the dirt made me look more tan. Actually, I have a dull routine of Kashi cereal, blueberries, and soy milk. I know it’s very LA, but what can I do?

NR: When you were little, what did you want to be when you “grew up”?
SA: I found a book of questions that I filled in when I was 4. Some of the answers were odd, to say the least, “How many steps is it from your house to your car? I answered, “Foot steps”. More


Design By Surprise

A couple thousand years ago, legend has it, a Chinese cook was fooling around with a mix of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter—common kitchen items at the time—when they ignited. Initially alarmed, the cook became interested, packing some into a bamboo tube, which shot out and—BOOM! Fireworks were born. Something beautiful borne by accident. How does this apply to design? Constantly. From fast food to fine art, graphics to googling, unintentional design—that is, design by surprise—has long proven to be a tactic for success. More


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 myImprint 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? More

The Denver Egotist

Q: On your corporate website, the last line of the “How” section reads, “The unique factors at AdamsMorioka are many, but most importantly, they don’t just talk; they make the message real.” Can you explain what you mean by “making the message real?”

A: “Branding” and “Strategy” have become buzzwords that are easily thrown around. Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” I’ve found that much of what passes for strategy is actually regurgitation. It is simply a re-presentation of the facts a client knows with no new ideas, conclusions, or actions. More

Typographic Education

“Place yourself in the background,” Wrote William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  The directive to the writer was to focus on content rather than style. By extension if we think of typography as pictures of words, then by designers of text should not decorate words, but use them plainly and directly, too. In a pre computer typographic environment, this directive was fairly easy to enforce. The typographic education of designers followed clear and methodical practices. More


Fifteen years ago I was so clear in my direction and goal to clean up the world, and finding inspiration was so easy. Maybe it’s because I’m older, or busier, or jaded, but finding inspiration is more difficult for me now. Finding a wonderful booklet at a used bookstore, or discovering a graphic novel in a Japanese department store was endlessly exciting. Today the process is less about seeing and more about learning. Reading about history, specifically sociological history is inspiring to me now. More

Michael Vanderbyl

Beauty is a bad word in design. It is dismissed as shallow and irrelevant. It is about veneer and artifice. Beauty talks about the way a thing looks rather than what it means. A serious designer will reject elegance, harmony, and beauty in favor of dystopia and acceptance of the repellent. This was the philosophy I was taught as a young designer. I attempted to embrace this and incorporated hideous shades of green, distressed typography, and unattractive imagery into my work. More

Michael Bierut

At the AIGA 2006 Design Legends Gala, Paula Scher introduced Michael Bierut, recipient of the AIGA medal. Scher discussed Bierut’s many accomplishments and then said, “mention a designer and Michael knows the most recent project they’ve com­pleted and their first project, how they’ve changed, how they haven’t, who influenced them, who they influence, and he sometimes will make a little sketch or diagram of their work.” More

Bart Crosby

Bart Crosby is one of the nation’s most influential designers. His work is meticulous and intelligent, defining the height of craft and concept in the profession. Bart was awarded the AIGA medal in 2005 at the design legends gala in Boston. I sat down with Bart soon after he took the medal home to discuss his career and his civilian pursuits—like race car driving and home life. More

Brand New School

I spend a large part of my life in the entertain­ment world… mostly watching television. All kid­ding aside, working in Los Angeles is like working in a salt-mining town; eventually, you’re going to end up working in the salt mines. In 2000 Jonathan Notaro founded Brand New School in L.A. And was soon joined by Jens Gehlhaar and a team willing to work until dawn. They quickly became a major force in the screen-based design world and opened another office in New York. More

Michael Carabetta

Almost every designer has had the experience of walking into a bookstore and picking up a book because it looks extraordinary. Let’s admit it, we’re visual beings, and although we care about the content, we’re slaves to our own aesthetic temptations. As the creative director at Chronicle Books, Michael Carabetta marries remarkable visuals with unexpected and compelling content. More

Bill Drenttel and
Jessica Helfand

Almost 14 years ago, at the first AIGA business conference, I did my first speaking engagement. To say the lecture was awful and potentially career-destroying is generous. As a 20-something designer, I panicked. In the midst of the deluge of criticism, Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand reached out and gave encouragement, even inviting me to breakfast. More

Carin Goldberg

A few years ago I was a judge for the New York Art Directors Club. Judging can involve conflict. There’s always someone who disagrees with you on everything. Fortunately for me, they’re always wrong. Then there are the judges who agree with me—the smart ones. That afternoon, there was a strong voice that seemed to echo my thoughts consistently. More

Cheryl Heller

Lou Danziger once said, “A career is based on a series of solid successes, not one big splash.” Cheryl Heller exemplifies this idea explicitly. Clearly, the easy path for Cheryl would be to continue do stellar work that is exceptionally crafted and skilled, mixed with extraordinary and challenging thinking. But that is not enough for her. More

Chip Kidd

A few months ago, I was in New York and invited by Debbie Millman to see Chip Kidd’s new band. We headed downtown and found our way into a dark club. Chip wasn’t performing yet, but it was clear he was the headliner. There was standing room only, an audience populated by the young and hip and, judging by hair and eyeglasses, design-minded. Chip’s fans, all. More

Jamie Koval

I’m not prone to envy. Dig deep enough and you’ll find we all share similar issues and daily problems. After leaving the offices of VSA partners in Chicago, however, I felt that green monster on my back. Badly. In the past month, three different well-known designers told me that VSA was the country’s leading design firm. Jamie Koval is one of the partners driving this creative engine. Jamie’s work is deceptively simple. More

Jeremy Mende

Last year, I was asked by Adobe to produce a series of podcasts on the subject of design. What I learned was that lighter shirts make you look fat on camera. I also gained access to talented designers I’d never met before, including Jeremy Mende. It’s an easy temptation for designers to begin to sink under the weight of their own self-perceived importance; the conceptual thinking behind a project can become so dense that audience access is precluded.  More

Jennifer Morla

For the last 20+ years, Jennifer Morla has been one of the profession’s most visible designers. Her merging of form and concept with an explosion of color and energy changed the landscape of design, inspiring designers internationally. She is a doyenne of design in San Francisco amidst a sea of “Michaels.” she has created visual landmark icons that have significantly changed our definitions of right and wrong, good, and bad.  More

Kali Nikitas

There are some people with an innate quality that can command attention when they enter a room. Recently, when Kali Nikitas was in Los Angeles, I invited her to lunch at Swingers, the hip diner-du-jour. Kali’s entrance brought a room filled with “young Hollywood” to a stop. As we ate salads next to Don Cheadle and a group of actors from Grey’s Anatomy, we talked about god, love, money, and design. More

Pat and Greg Samata

Many years ago, Pat Samata called me with an invitation to join the Appleton Paper Design Council. I was sure she’d mistaken me for someone else. On the tiny plane to the meeting in Telluride, Colo., I began to feel sick. Now this could have been caused by the extreme turbulence. But it was probably due to my nervousness at meeting two of the design profession’s most honored and respected design­ers. I’d seen photos of Pat and Greg. They looked confident, beautifully styled, composed and elegant. I admired their work.  More

Laura Shore

One comment I hear from designers is, “there should be a television show about the design world.” If there were, everyone would grow to love the lead character of design client and that character would be based on Laura Shore.

As senior vice president of Creative at Mohawk Fine Papers, Laura embodies all of the traits that all of us dream of finding in a client. She’s smart and creative, has great ideas and doesn’t mind if you steal them. She’s patient and trusting, fair and measured.  More

James Victore

“Never go on stage with children or dogs” is a common rule in the theater world. The design world equivalent is, “never follow james victore as a guest speaker.” I made this mistake once, and i felt like mister rogers next to che guevara. James transcends the easy classification of designer. He is an unrepentant communicator and activist. His work is strong, humorous, and unforgiving. This courage is rare in a time when alternative points of view are positioned as “unpatriotic.”  More