In 2008, Donovan Beery and I sat down with AIGA President Sean Adams in Omaha, Nebraska, where Sean was attending the AIGA Leadership Retreat. During our visit with Sean, he was incredibly gracious and cordial, and often disarming with his humor. We met Sean in a large but decidedly un-decadent hotel room and discussed the formation of Adams Morioka, what makes designers take the plunge into self-employment, and the perks of sharing an office building with Larry Flint. (The full interview can be heard on The Reflex Blue Show, available for download here.)

Originally conducted for The Reflex Blue Show by Nate Voss with Donovan Beery
June, 2008

36 Point:  How are you today?

Sean Adams:  I’m very happy to be here.

36: As I was doing my research, I found you studied at Cal Arts — you did not go to Harvard?

SA: I did not. I was one of the few in my family who didn’t.

36: Why not?

SA: Because they didn’t have a design program. Of course my parents and my grandparents were shocked beyond belief and terrified. You can imagine, you say “I’m not going to Harvard, I’m going to art school.” I did go through the process — I did my interview, I got accepted, I did everything I was supposed to do– but when it boiled down to it, it was Harvard Art Center or Cal Arts. And I thought, “hm, I’ll go to Cal Arts.” Giant mistake! I admit it now. Huge mistake. My parents should have shoved me into Harvard! [Laughs]

36: It kind of worked out for you, though.

SA: But just imagine — if I’d gone to Harvard I could be a Senator by now!

36: Yes, but who wants to do that? And you met Noreen through tennis?

SA: Yes, we met through tennis. We met at Cal Arts at registration. She was the only person there who wasn’t totally insane-looking — wearing strange clothes and clown outfits and you know, tattoos — and she was wearing pink pedal-pushers, so I said “Well, I can talk to her,” so I walked over to her. And we were the only two people at Cal Arts to ever use the tennis courts for anything other that pot-smoking.

36: Did you ever get into scuffles about that? ‘Hey man, we’re trying to smoke our weed over here?’

SA: You know the great thing about people who are stoners is that they’re kind of laid back. So we’d say “Hey we’re going to play tennis” and they’d say “oh man, fine, we’ll go sit over here instead.” You know, they were fine with it. So we played tennis together for a couple of years.

36: How did that transition? You guys were friends at school, then you went to New York and she went to Japan. When you found yourselves coming back to LA, how did you meet up and say “This is the way we’re going to do it — let’s start our own thing?”

SA: I came back and right off the bat I started working with Lorraine Wild on some books. So she and I did a couple of books together. And I got this kind of triumvirate of famous women designers with me. I worked with Lorraine for a while and then Sheila de Bretteville asked me to help her with a magazine that was being started, so I worked on that for a while. Then April Greiman called me and asked if I could come on board as a design director, so I went to work for April. When I was at April’s, after a couple of years we needed a senior designer and I knew Noreen was getting a little tired of Japan, so I called her and said “Hey, is there any chance we can drag you back here to come work with us?” She accepted, so she and I worked at April’s together for a few years.

And then,  I think I was at that point in everyone’s life, I was 28, 29, you’re reaching almost 30, and you realize “Okay, it’s now or never.”

36: I know what that’s like!

SA: You know? Because there’s this line you cross, I think, where at a certain age you just have to resign yourself. “Well, this is my career. I will always now work for someone else, and yeah I’ll do a great job, and be in a position of responsibility,” — or you say “I’m going to be an entrepreneur, I’m going to strike out and do my own thing and follow my path.” And both are valid.

I remember someone once telling me, “Look, working for yourself or working for someone else, it’s all the same thing. You’re either an entrepreneur or you’re not.” That’s all there is to it. If you are: yes, you’re going to go work for yourself. It’s a hellish job, it’s relentless, you’re always having to find work and keep it rolling. Or you’re going to work for someone else, and that’s great: they’re taking care of getting the work, paying the paycheck, but at the same time you can get fired at any minute. So there’s ups and downs of both sides, and it’s just your nature.

36: So you’re saying it chose you, not the other way around?

SA: I don’t think we had a choice. And also I think Noreen and I had really specific ideas about design and what design should be. And it seemed for us to be able to do that, we just had to go out and do our own thing.

36: And those ideas would be Clarity, Purity, and Resonance?

SA: Exactly. Yeah, it almost seemed baroque to me. It was like there was layer upon layer upon layer upon layer and filter on filter on filter and varnish and varnish and varnish! We always used this analogy, we’d say “you know there’s starving children in the world? This is obscene. Can we do this simply, and plainly, and speak in clear language that everyone can understand? And do it efficiently? Let’s use less resources, let’s do it the smart way.” And we were pretty sure the only clients we would get would be a couple of banks — some financial institutions that wanted boring, conservative work.

36: That’s a good, positive spin!

SA: I know, we had high hopes! [laughs] But as it turned out, strangely enough, I think the world was kind for ready for a shift, and we started getting interesting design clients. I remember the head of creative at A&M Records back then, which was still alive, called us and said “I heard about you guys. You’re doing that new kind of cool ‘clean’ stuff.”

36: Nice.

SA: Which was amazing to us! Because it’s not new, but if you want to think it is, okay, fine by me. But I don’t think we had a choice. It’s the way we think. We try — believe me there have been times where we’ve said “Let’s try to do this, let’s be a little more on edge,” we’ll try something a little denser, and then we put it together and it all comes out. “There’s too much stuff on that page. Get rid of it, get rid of it!”

36: Following that initial period of a couple of years, there was an attempted merger which backfired very badly.

SA: Very badly, yeah.

36: The merger lasted only for about six months. We can understand if you don’t want to reveal it, but we could never find out who it was with?

SA:  We have never revealed it. [Laughs] There were some terms that were set after it, yeah.

36: Was that when you were in the Larry Flint [of Hustler Magazine] building? Was it possibly with the…

SA: With the Flint people? No no, unfortunately.

36: Do you have any good Flint stories?

SA: We do see Larry every once in a while. He has a gold wheelchair.

36: He seems like the type that would.

SA: It’s amazing. I’ve never been up to his office, but Terry, who works with us, had taken her class up to their offices once. She said it’s like Vegas. It’s like big, fancy-framed paintings and velvet draperies. It’s this incredible, opulent space.

36: Exactly the same as we would assume your office would be?

SA: Exactly the same, yes.

36: Back to the merger, one thing that was very forward-thinking of you was that you kept the lease on your old space, and you still had the phone number.

SA: Yes, clearly we were not jumping into this all the way.

36: You had a bit of backup plan, but you still — at that time — felt like you were starting over from scratch. At the end of the day, it’s worked out. Now you get a tremendous amount of media coverage, interviews, you pop up in magazines and you obviously do a lot of speaking engagements…

SA: Not self-motivated, by any means. People always think that’s we’re out there
, spinning like crazy, but honestly, we’re just responding.

36: It all seems like from Day One it’s been nothing but sunshine and roses, but that’s not necessarily the case; you guys have been through some pretty harrowing times. When you look at the period before the merger, and compare it to the kind of business you’ve had after that, what changed? How much maturity did you gain from it?

SA: The great part about understanding what went wrong with our aborted merger is that we came out understanding who we wanted to work with: people we liked, and people we respected. And we walked away saying, “if we end up being the most expensive drawing studio in the world, that’s what it is, because I’m not going to work with people I don’t like. I’m not going to work with people who treat me badly, I deserve respect. And if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I don’t want my last few minutes on Earth to be doing a job I hate.”

So that was a big lesson to learn. And we also learned that we don’t want to have 25 people working for us. We don’t want to be dragging in every job we can just to pay the bills.

36: How big is the studio now?

SA: It’s like eight. We keep it small, so that we actually can choose to not take jobs if we don’t want them. So that was a great lesson to learn, and just… You know, spend time doing things life you like doing. Don’t waste time doing things you don’t like to do. And that was really important.

Right afterwards, it was definitely hard. We’d lost all of our clients, they’d all pretty much walked away, and we had to start all over again. It worked fine, within a couple of months we were back up and running, but you know, I was still having to go out there and do speaking engagements. And you’re out there talking about how great things are, and “wow it’s a great profession.” You don’t want to go to a speaking engagement and come out feeling horrible — “why in god’s name am I doing this?” — hopefully you’re going to inspire someone in the audience and they’re going to feel like, “okay, I like my job. I want to try harder.” Maybe they get a little inspired. I sort of felt like a fraud because I thought my own life was so hard. But you can’t go out and complain about your own life, no one wants to hear that. You’re not doing them a service at that point.

36: You certainly wouldn’t get invited back! One of my favorite quotes of yours, describing working at Adams Morioka, is ‘People come to work for us and they think it’s going to be like and episode of the Monkees. Lots of dancing, jokes, and 60’s surf music playing.’ I’m disappointed to find that’s not the case, because that perfectly encapsulates exactly the way I picture your office. For a new designer on staff, what is that first week like?

SA: We always joke and say it’s not Beach Boys and dancing on the tables, it’s more like Satan’s workshop, but in reality it probably isn’t. When I talk to the designers who are just starting out, they do say “this is a radically different place than I have ever worked before.” And we do keep it light — work is supposed to be fun, right? We’re not accountants, it’s supposed to be fun. So it’s kept light, we spend a lot of effort making sure the designers are protected from any issues that may be happening with clients, so that they feel inspired to do their very best work, and I think they have a good time. No-one works overtime. Now my staff will probably call in and say that’s a complete lie…

36: Sweet. We’ll take those comments at!

SA: Yeah! Unless they seriously have to, unless something’s really going on, it’s very rare that someone has to stay late or ever work on a weekend. They work 9:30 – 6:30. We take an hour religiously for lunch.

36: Same time [each day]? Do you guys go out together for lunch?

SA: Pretty much. We try to [go out as a group] whenever possible. So I think it is a fun place to work, and I think it is a fun place because our clients are actually pretty good. Since we’re pretty choosy about the clients we take — and not because we’re fabulously wealthy, but because we’re committed to working only with the people we really want to work with –they get to work on fun things. There’s really no jobs in the office that are horrible, drudgery jobs. No one’s designing the same packaging 50,000 times for someone.

But the part that I don’t think people expect, and the biggest problem people have when they come to work for us, is they think it’s all going to be fun and games. And it is fun, and we try to keep it light, but it is serious, and it is work, and they need to be efficient.

36: And it’s high profile work. Not to downplay my community, but if you’re doing something for the local grocer or the flower shop on the corner in Omaha, Nebraska, and something goes haywire on the job — okay. It might hurt that relationship but ultimately won’t cause too many large-scale problems. But let’s say there was a typo on the VH-1 logo the first time it was broadcast. There would be some pretty serious problems there.

SA: Right, yeah. We work with Mohawk [Paper], and we handle the Via line. When the first asked us, we were looking at the numbers, and it was accounting for a big bulk of Mohawk’s business. And at one point I realized if I screw this up, I will have really hurt a company. Badly. This isn’t like I goofed up a little product here. And fortunately we didn’t mess it up, we increased it dramatically. So that worked out well, but you think, ‘oh, I can’t mess this up.’

And I think sometimes it’s hard for people to understand that you need to work. We do keep it to a small staff, but they have to be efficient. And people are nice who tell us ‘we can’t believe the amount of work you guys churn out of this office with only eight or nine people.’ They’re good. They’re efficient. And we take care of them. That’s how it works.

36: When most people start up their own design companies, they’re thinking about work, autonomy, and being entrepreneurial. They’re not, at that point, thinking about how to make a great environment for the other six people that are eventually going to be their employees.

SA: Well what’s the point in having an office unless you can make a space where other people can come and do great creative work?