Storyboard: Sean Adams

Design as Public Service

Unlike many of my contemporaries, being creative was never part of my plan.

Both sets of my grandparents came from a long line of politicians. They used to say, “A life without service is not a life.” It was expected by both of my parents that I would eventually follow in those footsteps.

I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco during a time of immense social change. My parent’s friends were an assortment of unusual countercultural types with long hair and little to no inhibitions. While you’d think that someone who would go on to work in a creative field might be enamored with this kind of lifestyle, the truth was that I wanted nothing to do with my parent’s friends. They seemed to enjoy hanging out a little too much. I liked hard work and clean clothes.

In high school, I discovered that I had a talent for designing posters. I was drawn to the typography and the meticulous, detailed-oriented nature of the work itself. Still, I never thought of this pastime as anything that might lead to a career. As far as my family was concerned, the plan was still for me to follow my grandparents' plan and pledge my life to public service.

Instead, my life took a turn towards service of a very different kind.

I started teaching at ArtCenter College of Design when I was 28 years old, and I was drawn back to its campus as an educator or advisor over the course of my career. Several years ago, I made the difficult and ultimately life-changing decision to leave my own design firm and focus on education and a different type of practice. It was because I felt a compulsion: to impart the knowledge I had accrued throughout my own career to the next generation of designers.

Today, ArtCenter is not a place that teaches designers only to make a "nice" logo. It is a place that takes good designers and turns them into great ones. A good designer may be commissioned to create a logo for a client, and they will be capable of delivering on this promise. A great designer, when confronted with the same task, will ask: why does this company even need a logo? Is there something else – something beyond the assignment given – that could take the project to the next level and truly solve the problem? Our graduate program adds to this with an emphasis on leadership, strategy and new technologies.

I think one of the most important – and often underrated qualities a designer can possess is an unquenchable sense of curiosity. To design work that benefits the world we all share, one must actively set out to learn about it. In my own work, I have taken inspiration from literature, music, architecture, conversations with friends, and more. I don’t let the boundaries that separate individual disciplines or interests restrict my process. If I see something and it speaks to me, it is bound to inform the work that I create.

Designers have a responsibility as communicators. We are in charge, to a not-inconsiderable degree, of the messages the public consumes every day. I stress the importance of understanding the multiple cultural meanings of our work to my students. Sexist, racist and culturally insensitive communication is not only damaging, but it displays a fundamental lack of creativity. As designers, the least we can do for our audience is give them something intelligent and unexpected…something that makes life better.

I know that ArtCenter provides the best possible education in design. For me, it’s important to “send the elevator back down” and be of service to the designers who will help to shape tomorrow.

Sean Adams
Executive Director, Graduate Graphic Design

As designers, the least we can do for our audience is give them something intelligent and unexpected... something that makes life better.

Support ArtCenter

Create possibilities for students at ArtCenter and amplify their impact on the world.