AIGA President Sean Adams Signed on for a 2nd Term for One (Very Famous) Reason

For Centennial Voices, part of AIGA's Centennial celebration of the past, present and future of design, we've invited industry leaders to write short essays that spark conversations within the design community and beyond by sharing personal experiences, reflecting on design history, examining the practice today or imagining the role of designers in the years to come.

Why do I devote time to AIGA? Here’s a reason: Saul Bass. I met Saul when I was a student, working at an AIGA Los Angeles event. When I took on the role of AIGA Los Angeles President ten years later, Saul was on my board. He came to every meeting and was always the voice of wisdom. Even as he began to have health issues, he was there. When we opened AdamsMorioka, the first telephone call was from Saul. He asked, “Sean, what can I do for you?” The only thing I wanted was his advice, which was, “Hire a business manager more expensive than you think you can afford.”

The last time I saw Saul and his wife, Elaine, was at the Aspen Design Conference. At this point Saul was quite ill, but he came to our presentation. Even though the speaker before us went over by an hour and we were two twenty-something designers just starting out (and Saul was the most famous designer in America), he stayed to the end to encourage us. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this wasn’t ordinary. By example, Saul showed me how to be a good designer. He did this not by suggesting the right typeface or good idea, but by being generous.

There are two roads to travel as a designer matures: one is to become bitter and resent younger designers and new ideas; the other, the one that Saul followed, is to help the next generation, to be open to new ways of making and thinking, and to work for the entire profession.

Anyone could say to me, “I knew Saul Bass, and you sir, are no Saul Bass.” And I would heartily agree. But I can still try to maintain the same level of Saul’s commitment and grace. I’m now in the middle of my second term as AIGA President. Again, people ask me, “Why would you do that?” The job is rewarding and an incredible honor. Of course, my reputation was better going into the job than it will be when I leave, and I will, no doubt, finish my term with fewer friends. When I consider the alternative, however, sitting back and not serving, becoming that cranky old man on the porch who’s mad at the world, I know this is the only choice.

The things I have learned are these:

1. Generosity and kindness always work.
2. Growing older is not a license to resist change.
3. Being disengaged is unacceptable.

It may seem that designers can’t agree and are slow to change, but once in motion, their momentum is irresistible.

About the Author:

Sean Adams is the Executive Director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession.

Adams is an AIGA and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been widely recognized by every major competition and publication, including a solo exhibition at SFMOMA. Adams has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. From 1994–2004, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka.