2014 AIGA Medalist: Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka

2014 AIGA Medalist: Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka

2014 AIGA Medal
1964, Reno, Nevada (Sean Adams)
1965, Sunnyvale, California (Noreen Morioka)


By Emily Potts
September 8, 2014

Recognized for bringing wit, charm and a distinctly California sensibility to design and for their commitment to leading the design profession through an era of change.

Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka are doers, not talkers. They are knowledgeable about their profession, past and present, and have clear ideas about what the future of design should look like.

What’s amazing is that neither one of them considered careers in design when they were young. Adams assumed he’d be following in the footsteps of various Adamses before him, going east to Harvard University. But in high school he started dabbling in design, creating posters for school events. He even designed his Oregon town’s seal. He liked designing and he was good at it, so when he started receiving design school catalogs and realized he could make a living doing it, he made the decision to go to CalArts.

Morioka, who describes herself as the “inarticulate, geeky third child,” wasn’t even sure she wanted to go to college. Her sister, an interior design major, encouraged her to pursue graphic design. She eventually landed at CalArts in 1985, where she met Adams on her first day. Compared to their broody, goth-cloaked peers, the pair looked like they had just stepped out of an Esprit ad, and, believe it or not, that’s what sealed their fate. Who knew being preppy could help form lifelong bonds?

UCLA Extension, Summer Sessions poster
UCLA Extension, Summer Sessions poster, 1998 Client: University of California, Los Angeles; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.
Mohawk Via promotion booklets
Mohawk Via promotion booklets, 2009Client: Mohawk Fine Papers; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.
Censorship and Silencing poster
Censorship and Silencing poster, 1995Client: The Getty Center for History and the Humanities; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.

Adams and Morioka became fast friends and confidants, but after college they pursued separate endeavors. Morioka went to Japan in search of a design job. After 105 interviews and no offers, she finally landed a position at Landor Tokyo. In Japan she learned the importance of teamwork and of building a network. As she now says, “Pay it forward and it all comes back.”

Adams headed to New York after graduation, working as a designer at the New York Public Library. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1989, he worked with some of the best designers on the West Coast—Lorraine Wild, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and April Greiman. When Morioka eventually came back to Los Angeles in 1990, the two reconnected.

So much of what was happening in design during the early 1990s was oblique, illegible and too cool for comprehension. Adams and Morioka wanted to change the face of design and make it resonate with a broader audience. In 1994, AdamsMorioka was born. Their early work was compelling and bold. Their clean, modernist approach went against the grain of everything else at the time, and they began gaining respect and recognition. As friend and mentor Michael Vanderbyl says, “Their exquisite works embody the exuberance and spirit of mid-century Los Angeles.”

They immediately took on distinct roles at the firm, with Morioka acting as the client lead and Adams directing the design. They also established a project barometer called the three Fs—Fun, Fame and Fortune. At the onset of a project, if two of the three indicators were not met, they wouldn’t take it on. Adams and Morioka don’t take themselves too seriously. Humor and play are evident in their design.

Academy of Motion Picture
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences logo, 2008 Client: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.
Mexico Restaurante y Barra menus, 2006 Client: Larry Nicola; Design firm: AdamsMorioka
Mexico Restaurante y Barra menus, 2006 Client: Larry Nicola; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.
Nickelodeon visual system, 2000 Client: Nickelodeon; Design firm: AdamsMorioka
Nickelodeon visual system, 2000 Client: Nickelodeon; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.
Annenberg Community Beach House signage
Annenberg Community Beach House signage, 2007 Client: Annenberg Foundation, City of Santa Monica; Design firm: AdamsMorioka.

Working with a who’s-who client list including Adobe, Sundance, Nickelodeon and Disney, they distill and refine a cacophony of complex information into deceptively simple design solutions. This is the essence and brilliance of AdamsMorioka.

Design writer Alissa Walker observed in Fast Company, “Sean and his business partner, Noreen Morioka, have mastered a blend of eye-popping graphics and tongue-in-cheek wit that has made their firm AdamsMorioka into a real-life playground for their pop-culture passions. Stepping into their office is like entering a highly saturated Technicolor world where work for an eclectic group of clients…lives together in perfect harmony. And the Disney obsession is more than just a passing fancy: Sean and Noreen actually decided to open their firm while riding the PeopleMover at Disneyland in 1994.” In 2000, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibited their work in a solo retrospective.

But Adams and Morioka don’t just serve their clients. Both are active in AIGA at the local and national level. Morioka took on the presidency of AIGA Los Angeles in 1999, after realizing that if she wanted things to change in the design community, she needed to lead instead of standing on the sidelines complaining. In 2012, she jumped back in the ring to help steer the chapter. Her quick wit and sharp instincts have earned her the respect and admiration of fellow designers.

Adams was president of AIGA from 2007 to 2009 and is currently serving as co-president with Drew Davies. He was also president of the Los Angeles chapter in the mid-1990s. A natural leader whose enthusiasm and generosity are contagious, Adams teaches at Art Center College of Design, helping prepare the next generation of designers.

In a field where so many covet their own work and are secretive about their path to success, Adams and Morioka enthusiastically share their knowledge and experience, because they know if more designers succeed, it benefits the entire profession.