Among the BS of design Twitter spats, client frustrations, inequality, and the rest of the less-than-glamorous side of being a designer, it’s easy to forget the joy of the creative process. In this regard, Jennifer Morla, an industry veteran who’s far from jaded, is an utter breath of fresh air.
“Being a designer is one of the most wonderful professions in the whole world,” she tells me. “We occupy that middle space between left brain and right brain thinkers, and bring about a conceptual solution that has a pragmatic application. It’s a real joy to be able to be a part of the profession.” If she can remain positive after a career spanning four decades, then surely, so can we all.
Morla’s career has taken in projects across print, branding, packaging, web, and retail store design, as well as her own self-initiated art projects. Her style is somehow both utterly distinctive and entirely mutable. While she’s often associated with San Francisco, where she’s lived since the 1970s (Stephen Heller once wrote in Print that Morla embodies “the California sense of chaotic frenzy and personal iconoclasm”), her work ranges from quiet-but-powerful-minimalism, to bold and colorful, and always, always there’s her superb use of type. As Paula Scher puts it, Morla is one of those rare designers who “transcend time but remain of the moment.”
“Being a designer is one of the most wonderful professions in the whole world”
When she was just 28-years-old, Morla established her own agency, Morla Design, and has since won the AIGA Medal and a Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Award. Her work has also been acquired by MoMA, LACMA, and SFMOMA.
Now, a new book simply titled Morla: Design by Jennifer Morla, draws together 150 projects from across her 40 years as a designer, including commissions for brands and institutions including Levi’s, SFMOMA, and furniture brand Design Within Reach. As expected, her book is no throwaway tome: it’s printed with fluorescent and metallic inks throughout, interweaved with vellum pages printed in white ink, wrapped in supple vegan leather, and finished with neon bookmark ribbons and page edging. The book fittingly closes with 26 features on the expressive possibilities of Morla’s favorite typefaces.
It’s also not just another monograph. As with all Morla’s work, the book is rooted in wider messages, and examines the importance of designers looking outside of their bubble into arts, science, and people more generally, as well as incorporating their own set of personal experiences. By looking into the ways she’s consistently featured women in her work, Morla also subtly examines a kind of hidden feminism. Here, we discuss her design philosophies, what design students need to learn (hint: it ain’t just the Adobe Suite), and why, even as her work is maximal, her life is not.
Why was this the right time to put the book out?
It wasn’t just about showing my work, I also wanted to discuss my influences and things like why I use women in my work as often as I do, or why I believe that beauty and craft are as much an integral part of the design process as conceptual intent. The writing was the springboard for putting together this amalgam of work I’ve produced over the course of over 40 years.
Beauty and craft mean different things to different people. How would you sum up your thinking on these two concepts when it comes to design?
I could be considered either a minimalist or maximalist—I use them both. An example I use in the book is whether the craft it took to produce a Rococo room in the 18th century is perhaps even overshadowed by the craft it takes [21st century architect] John Pawson to produce a minimalist doorframe without any evidence of framework underneath. Beauty and craft at both extremes is what I look for, and what I strive for in my work.
In my personal life, I’m a minimalist, absolutely—couldn’t be more so.
Do you lean more toward either minimalism or maximalism?
My work’s never been married to one path, it’s about appropriateness [to the project], and about the beauty and integrity and craft in both of those solutions. But in my personal life, I’m a minimalist, absolutely—couldn’t be more so.
Any design should be appropriate to the clients while also being a solution that’s appropriate to the intent of what is trying to be communicated. Sometimes with the audience that you’re communicating to, that [maximal] density of either information or design elements is imperative to getting that message across. Sometimes exactly the opposite is important. With some design you can do very little. On the other hand, I can be very, very conceptual and let the audience take that leap.
How do you see your work in relationship to place? Is the idea of a “California” style an outdated way of looking at things?
I moved out to San Francisco in ’78, and there was certainly a proliferation of a certain design aesthetic—the pastel colors and the postmodern sort of look that defined the Northern California style. My work didn’t look to buck that trend, and there were some places where I felt like that style was totally appropriate.
I’m not married to one stylistic way of approaching a problem. That said, I think that’s what really attracted me to the wonderful design community here. It was a completely supportive, great place to be a designer with clients who allowed for thinking about what design can really mean. It seemed like there was an attitude that let you really think about what a brand could be as a beginning-to-end experience.
Another thing that was very interesting about San Francisco is that many of the designers here had a very strong illustration skillset. Designers of my generation often came into design because we could draw when we were kid. That’s always indicative of design talent, of course, but it is a tool that was used by many people, myself included. A large part of the design community here used their illustrative skills to express their design solutions.
You’ve worked across design, fine art, and illustration—where do you see the line between those disciplines?
Design is a service for solving a problems. It really is. I have absolutely no issue with design as a self-instigated endeavor, but I don’t call that graphic design, I call that art. It’s art using design tools like typography. When I do my own work, it’s a separate space, as the only guide with personal pieces is the process that actually determines the end product. You’re beholden to your own idea [in art], but in design, when you’re talking to a client in your first meeting, you’re already guiding them on a path: How can we make something different, yet appropriate, that really communicates what it needs to? With design, it’s always about two or more people, never just one.
You’ve worked with a ton of high profile clients, and over long periods of time. What makes a great client?
There’s many things that make a good client, and trust is obviously a big part of it. A good client defines the communication goals, but doesn’t define the solution. A great client doesn’t succumb to the visual stereotypes of their business—they’re willing to go on that ride with you and explore outside of what a project should be, and consider what it could be.
When you first set up your studio, it was a time when very few women were doing so. What were your experiences like?
I didn’t feel any challenges from being a woman. Much more of an obstacle was being 28 years old and opening a studio, or even being five foot two! I just didn’t see the world as a place of big hurdles—I did the work and got the clients and made them believe in it. But saying that, when I was going through my work to put the book together, it was interesting that there are so many cases where I use women as a center point. That’s never been conscious on my part.
For example, when San Francisco was bidding to be the 2012 Olympic city, a number of designers were asked to create posters that would be on bus shelters around the city. I chose to design a poster where I use photographs of Asian American female swimmers. You are who you are, and I’m a woman. You can’t separate who you are from your work.
As a 28-year-old, did you face any challenges, or think you were treated any differently for being so young?
I felt that more when I was in-house. But when I opened up my office, I found that things are different when money exchanges hands. You’re a professional at that point; it wouldn’t have been in my clients’ best interests to talk down to me since they were hiring me.
I always feel that if you take people along on your creative ride with you and involve them in that journey, they become a part of that process, and they feel it’s theirs as much as yours. That means you can show people, for instance, why something they thought would be a good solution isn’t.
You’ve been a professor at California College of the Arts since 1992. What do you think are the most important things students should learn at design school?
I think the best students understand that it’s great to be conceptual in your thoughts but pragmatic in your approach. Something has to work, and it’s your job as a designer to make the personal universal. Personal experience is an important well of creativity to tap into, but you need to make universal in the way you communicate it.
The computer is wonderful and integral to our work in every single way, but it never gives you ideas.
How do you go about teaching that sort of approach?
Often by iterating and formulating a lot of different ideas. I like to break teaching down into credit and research, looking at the meaning of gathering information with the purpose of finding your end result to inform solving the problem. Use the research to do analysis, and then create many, many, many ideas. You can decide on the form it might take later. That’s the way I work. Then, you strategize by identifying the best medium in order to express what you need to. Its in the fabrication of that where the craft comes through.
I find it really important to sketch out ideas really quickly—never just get on the computer. The computer is wonderful and integral to our work in every single way, but it never gives you ideas. And ideas are what you need to generate. The older you get, the more ideas you have, because you have more to draw on from your life. That’s why it’s important to expose yourself beyond design influences and go into the worlds of art or theater or dance or science to widen your vocabulary.