*PS. Below you will find an auto-generated transcript of this episode.
Arek Dvornechuck: What's up branding expert? Arek here at Ebaqdesignand welcome to On Branding Podcast. And today my guest is Sean Adams and Sean is the Chair of Undergraduate and Graduate Graphic Design at Art Center College of Design. And Sean is also on on-screen instructor for LinkedIn Learning. And he's the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA's hundred-year history. So in addition to that, in 2014, Sean was awarded the AIGA medal. It is the highest honor in the profession. And previously Sean was a founding partner of AdamsMarioka and worked with clients with big brands like Adobe, GAP, Target, Disney among other big brands. So Sean is also the author of multiple best-selling books, including this one, How Design Makes Us Think. And this is the book we are going to talk about today. Hello, Sean, thanks for taking time to join us on our podcast.
Sean Adams: Oh, it's my pleasure. And like I said, this podcast is so amazing. You have such great guests and the content is truly what it's, it's one of my favorites.
Arek Dvornechuck: Yeah. And, um, thank you so much for taking the time you are a great guest actually. So I'm happy that you were able to join us. So I wanted to talk to you about the content of this book. It's a really great book. You'll give us a lot of examples to illustrate all of these chapters in the book. So basically the premise of the book is that as designers, we must be more purposeful and aware of the formal choices that we make. Right. Also think like,
Sean Adams: I think that aim and on the opposite side for people that are civilians to read it and actually understand that the designers are making purposeful choices, that they're not just arbitrarily saying, oh, I'll make it red, because I feel funny that day, you know, as designers, we're logical, you know, smart people. And it's important for, I think our clients to understand this, we're not just wacky doodle artists that are toiling away at it in an attic and France.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. And you talk about that in the book is some of it is intuition, but for the most part, there are some reasons for why we make those choices, right. So, you know, can you dive into those reasons, sociological, psychological historical reasons and asking yourself the question, what visual and conceptual cues resonate with us and why? So, as you said, you know, it could be for creative school, do it more intuitively, and now try to understand perhaps the science behind it, or to be able to articulate better their designs to, to their clients. For example, all just, you know, regular people, as you said to have them understand why we make those choices as designers, right? So basically you divide your book into 13 chapters, right? So what I wanted to do, you know, if time allows, I wanted to spend a couple of minutes just giving out lists and that's an overview of each. Uh, so starting with the first ones, the action, right? So how do you seduce the viewer? How we can use design to, you know, invite people to become more intimate with our message.
Sean Adams: I mean, you know, seduction is it's, it seemed to me that, that I started with that chapter because it was the entry point to almost anything that, you know, our job as designers is the first thing they have to do is actually get someone's attention and make them want to get engaged. And there's ways to do that. And clearly, you know, a lot of those are basic biological reasons that we're going to respond to brighter colors because they typically meant good things. That's a good barrier to eat. That's like a fresh fruit as opposed to, okay, that's a murky color, perhaps that rotting needs not so tasty. So I think those basic sort of biological reasons that people are attracted things, plus, you know, the reasons intellectually, like why someone might see something and want to want to engage is really critical that, you know, you're asking the viewer to ask questions, to look at something and say, gee, I don't under, I need to know more. And that's sort of what we're always trying to do as designers. And I have this argument, every one saw with someone and they'll say, well, I don't think work has to be attractive. I don't think it has to be attractive either. But I do think he had asked to reduce the viewer. I think something has to engage the viewer in a way that makes them want to dig deeper.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right so you talked about color, as you said, primary colors and associate them with some positive feelings, right? Like you said, fruits, flowers. And we talk also about forum in this chapter, that there are shapes that, you know, with naturally find attractive and here you talk a lot about, you know, go the proportions golden rectangle and Bonacci sequence and so on. And you'll give us actually a lot of examples here. So just for our listeners to, you know, we just want it to show us what's the content of the book too. So there is a lot of examples illustrations.
Sean Adams: Yeah. I mean, I love that just by her blue ball on, the arrows magazine, which is, um, that was an erotic magazine, right? Like that's the, you know, and, and it's amazing that new balance took it and redefined it from sort of the girlymag that was typically out there at the time and used, you know, for the cover of that one bright yellow and a big amount of negative space and, and all of these things that would first get your attention, but then very quickly tell the reader or the viewer, this is not your typical erotic magazine. This is for someone who appreciates good design or understands the negative space. All of those kinds of little cues get thrown in there. So that the, so that if I'm just looking for some like really revolting pornography, that's not the place to go. You know, that I'm going to know, oh no, I'm going to go there. And there's going to be probably smart content, something interesting. And LouDelan was a genius to that. This sort of tapping into the, the things that we value in terms of emotional resonance and utilizing those, um, in, in such a great way. I mean, I think it's fine with arrows too, that we look at it. You can look at it now and it's so tame. I mean, it's so like just polite intellectual sort of discussions, but the commentary that they would get back then, like you were going to hell for doing this magazine. It's just, it's amazing how times change. Right.
Arek Dvornechuck: The next one efficiency. So in the next chapter we talk about efficiency. So my question is, so w why efficiency is so important when it comes to design and how we can use it as designers to tower.
Sean Adams: I mean, I think the first thing with efficiency to consider that I had not actually considered until I started working on the book was the fact that efficiency is a modern concept that obviously we're going to like something that works better than something that doesn't, I'm going to like a round wheel because of the actually functions as opposed to the square wheel, right. That's just sort of, you know, a given, but this idea of valuing efficiency as an attribute that we, we should really adhere to, I think is a very 20th century sort of Bauhaus concept that, you know, making something with the least resources to actually succeed is what makes it efficient. But if I have to, you know, if I have to work a lot on this cup to make it be able to drink out of it, I'm not gonna like it. But, you know, we've been taught, this is efficient. It has a handle. It doesn't get too hot. It does all the things that should do, as opposed to say someone in France in the 18th century, they weren't that concerned about efficiency. They were more concerned about beauty. You know, they're like, you know, they want that teapot to be like fancy, you know, like a lot of gold stuff all over it. And it's probably a nightmare claim, but that was that society's values. And I think it's interesting that we, you know, in the 20th and 21st centuries really say the least resources necessary to actually achieve the result is what we, we want. Um, it doesn't mean it's the right thing. It just means it's the thing that's happening right now.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. So, so in this chapter, we talk about Bauhaus, right? As you said, you know, a day rejected ornamentation and all kinds of unnecessary decoration, right? Focusing on the Fox function and form, and a carrier to also talk about modalities principles like simplicity, geometric perfection form follows function less is more and so on. So I think this is pretty interesting now all of the design that should be familiar with those concepts.
Sean Adams: Yeah, no, I agree. A hundred percent. I think it's interesting too, you know, that those principles came out of the wreckage of world war II. You know, that group of artists and designers really looked at world war one and said that what is called caused by the aristocracy. I mean, that was not about, you know, the working man. We just got our hands dirty because there was banking issue sand let's reject anything that has to do with, you know, this sort of aristocracy or what is seen as corruption and focused purely on these universal forms that in theory, everyone could relate to and deal with discard envy. And it would discard any kind of sense of, of, um, social hierarchy. Obviously that doesn't work. You know, we're individuals, I recall like going to the Bauhauson a tour and, and the dorms there are identical, right? Like every room was this exactly the same, every button of the same bed, the same little nightstand, the same desk. And then you see pictures of what the students did to it. And everyone was totally unique, which must've driven, the professors mad, like you're supposed to keep it all the same. It's not supposed to be individual, but I really liked that idea that they tried, they tried to use design to make a better world. It was one of the first instances of we can create a utopian society if we follow these values. Right.
Arek Dvornechuck: So that would be about efficiency. So in the next chapter, maybe we can talk about the concept of love here you talk about some brands, aspire to inject love in their message. Right. And an example would be McDonald's McDonald's tagline. I'm loving It. The logo, I love New York, right. Which was designed to promote the New York city. So can you talk to us about what are some of the ways to communicate the concept of love in a piece of design?
Sean Adams: I it's such a great question. Do you have good questions. Um, the issue of Luvois such a complicated chapter to work on. And I actually, at one point thought about discarding it because it was like a whole other book. I was like, this is really getting me in deep trouble because there were different kinds of love.Right? There's a Roddick love. They're essential love. There's fraternal love. There's all these different facets of love as a concept. And what I found really exciting, and it really wasn't like a light bulb went off in my head was the fact that as designers, we are somehow able to convey the complexity of that emotion, the contradictions that exist within that state are difficult. Right. Like, okay, I love, you know, I love my mother, but she dragging me. How do you know there's a, there's all these issues, you know, involved with something like that. One of my favorite examples I think, was Marian banshee's, um, Valentine's cards that are so amazing at their ability to pull in all of these different aspects of travel and romance and PR expectations. And, and, but at the same time as the overlay of the contradictions and the complexities of love, that was extremely exciting. And, and then the fact that, you know, historically we, we looked at erotic love in such constrained ways that really point to, I think some instance, some things we need to think about a society today that, you know, like typically erotic love was defined for the other. Like, it was fine if it was like Aphrodite, right. It was fine if it was some natives in Tahiti, but it wasn't okay if it was like your next door neighbor, you know? And, and the fact that we would describe these difficult feelings society to the other is something that's really interesting. And, and, and once I, once I saw that, I really started seeing in contemporary times how that happens, how those, how those really complex difficult issues can somehow be sort of pushed off onto, well, it's not us, so, but it's okay with them. But that happened a lot to do with 11. I like Milton's I love New York. It's, it's so simple. So beautiful. Um, you know, so to the point, but like the idea of love it embodied so much complexity, right? I love New York, but good. God, the garbage is awful. I love New York, but the weather is terrible. It's so hard to live here, you know, all that kind of stuff. Um, it's inherent in that identity or, you know, McDonald's, I'm loving it, which is actually kind of a subliminal way of saying don't feel guilty about going to McDonald's at not cooking for your family. It's okay. Cause you love it. Like there's these sort of messages that I found that, you know, designers, we just started to embed in there without even thinking,
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I'm loving it this long on yeah. It's brilliant. And I love this expression as well. Okay.
Sean Adams: Isn't it gorgeous that Alexander Gerard. Yeah. It's just, I find that
Arek Dvornechuck: Highlighted here kochanie it's in Polish actually.
Sean Adams: Yeah, Exactly. That's what I mean, someone like, you know, when you've worked with amazing designers, you know, and someone like Gerard who who's like, you know, thinking globally and integrating like all of these different aspects and then creating something so elegant and beautiful it's, it's something designers are so, so good at right.
Arek Dvornechuck: There are lots of examples, but I wanted to talk since we have 13 chapters to talk about.
Sean Adams: Yeah. So sorry about that to start with. So I did cut them down. Okay.
Arek Dvornechuck: Let's talk about humor. Now we talked about love a little bit. Why humor is an extraordinary tool for designers? Why do you think so?
Sean Adams: Humor is such a great Trojan force. It is such a great way to get through the door without someone recognizing that you're actually bearing gifts. They may not want, um, I love the fact that I can talk about a difficult issue. That's a controversial issue by embedding it in something that's sort of funny, you know, because by funny you accept it as like, oh, that's that's okay. And yeah, like the Neo, Neo, um, posters in there, you know, um, for a festival in Geneva and, you know, they look sweet and funny and soft and humorous, but in fact, they're talking about voyeurism and selfies and do DIY graph Evans, all these other issues and get it in there or, or on God scenes. Um, I love graphic design poster, which has really corny, you know, like cats with laser eyes and, and, um, it's, it's, I love that. I love that thing. I have it on my wall. It's so great. You know, and the corny gradation sand comic Sans, it does all these evil things you're not supposed to do. So it's an in joke for designers like, oh, isn't that funny? I'm doing all these bad things, but in reality, it's talking about a new language of means. And in fact that means is actually a language that's sort of in constant crazy evolution. If I did a poster about that, I'd like to have be boring as hell. Right. But by doing, dragging in the humor, I'm in there already, it's just such a great way to disarm someone. And then, then they're like, oh my God, I didn't even think about that. Now I'm stuck, you know?
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. So, uh, some of my key takeaways from this chapter, I, as a design that we can get away with more, if the message or experience is humorous, right, as you said, this is going to make it more approachable, especially when we talk about some boring industry or boring messages or something like that, we can make it more appealing to the audience. So, you know, uh, when it comes to coladas, as you say, in this section, bright colors and hoppy symbols that use you are, is going to evoke, you know, uh, positive feelings and some humor in our designs. Right?
Sean Adams: Yeah. And I mean, I think that the idea of adding the bright colors and, you know, that was another, that's another sort of interesting aspect of humor that there's a naughty factor to humor. Um, you know, that's sort of the typical basis of a joke is that it's somehow has to lead to the unexpected. Um, I use the example of the Henny young, the joke, which is, um, while playing golf today, I stepped on, I hit two good balls. I stepped on a rake. Right. So you're forced to imagine someone playing golf, then you're forced to imagine him or her hitting two good balls and then the rake. And then it's like, oh my God, that's not what I expected. And it's naughty. And I feel sort of like, oh, I got it now. Right. So there's that sort of release in their attention. Um, and that's the thing where humor works. Well, it always has that little edge of I'm a little bad. Like there's a little, you know, um, in here and it's, it starts off all nice and sweet, but there's always something that gets thrown in there. And the end that you don't expect. I like the fact, like I love the example I actually, that I actually referred to in there with star wars, which is that humor is relegated to the PIRO. Can never be funny. Like the hero has to be serious. The hero Luke Skywalker is serious. Like he's like serious hero dude. Han solo is a little naughty. He can be funny, you know? So that little levity sort of opens that door to, like, you can say things are a little off color or a little like, oh, I didn't expect that. It's, it's a great tool for designers, you know, sort of work around, um, with some difficult issues.
Arek Dvornechuck: Great example in packaging, for example, this one, which you guys can see, they use vegetables to describe the size of a condom, right. As you can see here, it looks like
Sean Adams: It just looks like such a what a lovely packaging for something. And then, oh my God, it's condom packaging and what am I holding? And I liked it. I love the fact that the experience of that, which is critically, you know, the issue that designer found on that was that girth is more problematic than length because of, you know, functional issues. And so getting the right girth is really critical for autonome to work. So in order to figure that out, you're going to actually have to like, hold something and be like, yeah, that's about right. I mean, I really think that, you know, what a great experience for someone to have to be like, oh my God, now I realize what I'm holding, you know? Yeah.
Arek Dvornechuck: I'm not sure if you guys realize, so yeah. They reference vegetables. Right. So you can guys see, so,
Sean Adams: Um, yeah.
Arek Dvornechuck: Okay. So maybe let's talk about one or two more. Um, we have a few minutes, so the next chapter is about intelligence. So how do designers convey intelligence in, in their design, how to communicate, uh, you know, intellectual aptitude.
Sean Adams: I mean, when you turn that back on, you'd be like, which example in there would you respond to the most that in the intelligence chapter?
Arek Dvornechuck: Either the first one.
Sean Adams: Yeah. I mean, I love that one. That's okay. It's, it's such a great one. This, idea that, so obviously many of our clients, like, I don't think we, any of us have clients either whether we work in-house or we work, you know, um, you know, as at an agency, no, client's going to come to me and say, can I appear stupid? Like, everybody's basically like list of attributes intelligent, right? How do I convey intelligence? Well, of course in today's world, we're going to describe intelligence with really simple things like basic geometry, simple forms, technical looking stuff, you know, things that have to do more with the scientific and the rational, as opposed to the emotional and that, you know, the, the ability to take very simple forms and very sort of minimal tool sand allow them, the viewer to have to do some of that work is what says I'm intelligent. That's the thing, you know, like my iPhone, like I could be like, yeah, this is an intelligent object, right? It's it looks intelligent if I have, you know, some big fancy to doodle thing, then it's probably not right. You know? And so I'm like, well, this is clearly, this tells me I'm intelligent. Well, who knows, maybe the thing barely works, you know, but I'm still going to scribe to it. Oh, that's intelligent. Or your microphone. It's like, it's gorgeously designed. It's black. It's telling me I am a serious object. I am serious here. And I work well and I'm intelligent, right? Like this is for someone who knows what they're doing. Um, as opposed to, if you went and bought the Barbie microphone, which probably would be thinking sort of big and bold to see. Right. Yeah.
Arek Dvornechuck: Yeah. We can definitely, we can imagine that. So you have some other examples here, as you were talking about scientific kind of look and feel like
Sean Adams: More so gorgeous. I mean, you know, and I mean, I won't go into, that's a deep story, but it's such a complex story about the musician that the work is about and the ability to replicate it in this form. But the audience was the kind of where the kind of people that responded to intelligent work that they're like, I'm going to, I want to listen to that as opposed to Justin Bieber, you know, that's very clearly aligned with that, that I, that tells me all by that record, that that's for me.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. So we've talked about intelligence and in this chapter, you talk about the elegance, you know, and how we can use foreman and aesthetics in general, you know, when it comes to, for example, using [inaudible] typeface, right. Classical type faces or a certain call orders that would convey that, you know, prestige that value. Uh, so how do you design something that will be perceived as elegant?
Sean Adams: The core of Elegance in the end that, that, that it really boiled down to was proportion. I just found that, that, you know, there's different, different areas, different cultures have different values in terms of like, I, I think this is beautiful and wonderful, but everything that you would say that's an elegant design is based on really beautiful proportions. And whether that proportion is the golden rectangle that people are utilizing or adding, using an example of a George Nelson, um, um, chaise lounge in there, which is a series of golden rectangles. It's, it's built on a beautiful grid. Well, the normal, consumer's never going to notice that, but it's going to feel ready. Right. You know, and it's sort of like, it goes to the heart and when somebody tells me, oh, I hate grits. I'm like, are you out of your mind? You hate grids. That's the basis of like good proportion. That's what makes things elegant is, is the ability to work with consistent values that build something, you know, the human mind, we live to put things together, right? Like we just sort of are working hard, wired to try to make sense of the world. So if I look at a box of disparate objects, I'm immediately going to start to figure out, well, I'll move all the orange ones here. I'll move all the blue ones. You know, that's what we do by organizing something with beautiful graded structures. It just feels right. There's not so much discord. Like it's already come together in away that I, as a, as a human being be like, oh, that feels right. You don't like my book case. It's like, you know, basically like squares, I don't have to work that hard at it. It's like, oh, I got it. Right. It's all where it should be. I can accept this now. So it's that, it's that, it's just that core idea of like work with beautiful proportions and maintain those proportions. And you'll end up with something that is elegant, um, which I really found, like you can go back to like, you know, Roman statuary and move your way up and anything that we consider. Well, that's why you're incredibly beautiful and elegant. There's some remarkable proportions built in there.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right, so some of examples here.
Sean Adams: Oh yeah. Like the Ava's ice soul, um, pottery, just, I mean, beautiful. Right. I mean, so it is exactly the same shapes over and over again. You're there, you know, wonderfully
Arek Dvornechuck: Those scores. Yeah. They are beautiful. And the photography itself, you know, of those objects and also like a page layout right here where we yeah. The grids and the proportions. Right.
Sean Adams: And some of that I really realized, like when I would talk to some of my clients and they'd say, oh, can you move this here? And be like, no, it's not on the grid. And they're like, what are you talking about? And so I really feltlike maybe I need to put in something, there is a grid, like for, if you're a civilian and you're working with a designer, you say, oh, I see why they're doing what they're doing now. This isn't just, they're just putting things like randomly,
Arek Dvornechuck: I definitely can relate. And I think most of the designers can relate to that, that, you know, we, as designers, we know, we know that all, we instinctively align things to grades, to certain elements, like on a page, for example, some layout of a page, right. That is like invisible lines. And, uh, clients don't realize, you know, they have some requests that would break that the grade because they don't because they don't like, they, they, they don't understand that. Right. But once you show them kind of an option, you know, version B, they, when they look at it and compare, uh, how, okay.
Sean Adams: And now I understand that it doesn't key. All right. Something's wrong. Yeah.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. Um, okay. awesome, Sean, so as we are approaching the end of our interview, I just wanted to ask you, you know, how we can find more about you, whether, you know, I'm not sure if you still work with clients, but creatives who want to learn more from you. What's your website, social media.
Sean Adams: Um, you can reach me at, um, my website, which is, um, seanadams.design. Um, there's also, um, an online publication that I've been doing for 10 years now, which is, um, burningsettlerscabin.com And I think my Twitter feed is SeanAAdams. So, um, you can track me down there and, um, yeah, there's always new books rolling around. I think I'm working on writing one right now for the Smithsonian. So there's always something kind of fun around the corner when I'm not actually forced to just be dealing with administrative issues.
Arek Dvornechuck: Right. Yeah. So I'm going to include those links in the description box. So you guys can check it out. And of course, I'm going to link to the book in the description as well. So you guys can, you know, learn more about all those principles, all those concepts that Sean is talking about, we just gave you an overview of some of them, but there is much more information and interesting things in the book. So yeah.
Sean Adams: I think I'll have them like the second version. Revenge Of How Design Makes Us Think, because I honestly, I had to adjust in 12 chapters cause they were just, it was like, yeah, you've got 224 pages. You cannot have 35 chapters, but yeah.
Arek Dvornechuck: We should expect the second edition. So
Sean Adams: Revenge of that'll be the next one
Arek Dvornechuck: Okay. Awesome. Thank you for your time, I really appreciate that.
Sean Adams: My pleasure, thank you for such great questions.
Arek Dvornechuck: Thank you.
Sean Adams: Thanks for the hard work you do. All right. Talk to you later.
Arek Dvornechuck: Bye.
Arek Dvornechuck is a strategist and designer who helps brands grow by crafting distinctive brand identities, backed by strategy. Need help with your project?—Get in touch
Best Deals for Creatives
This post may contain affiliate links, meaning when you click the links and make a purchase, we receive a commission.
Build a brand your customers will love.
Here’s a quick look at our work.
Welcome to our design portfolio. If you like what you see, just get in touch.