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Recognized for her ability to surprise and inform through her
poignant communication designs for global brands and arts institutions,
and for instilling that skill in others through her teaching.
When it comes to the challenges and complexities of design, Jennifer
Morla is a champion of its ability to refocus the way we see the
familiar. “How as designers,” Morla wonders, “can we reach out to an
audience and make them experience a brand in a more meaningful way? To
invite them to re-examine their perception of a company and say, ‘This
is Clorox?!’’” She could easily have substituted any number of companies
(having worked extensively with Levi’s, Apple Computer, Design Within
Reach, Wells Fargo, Herman Miller, among many others) for the well-known
cleaning brand. Regardless of client, Morla consistently uses design to
“You always have to give them the combo platter: surprise and
educate,” she says, punctuated by an engaging laugh. Peruse her
portfolio—which contains examples from Morla Design, the studio she
founded in San Francisco in 1984—and a focus emerges, centering on
elevated standards and a multidisciplinary arsenal of approaches to
branding, print, web, packaging, and retail store design. Highlights
include poster designs such as a 2009 piece on Iranian dissent featuring
lips seemingly sewn shut; packaging, such as a bag for the Discovery
Store that creates a shimmering moiré pattern when in use; and books,
such as a gorgeous coffee-table tome on the history of Levi’s.
“The wonderful and humbling part about design is, it’s a big
responsibility, as things don’t go away,” she says, referring to the
life cycle of design artifacts. “You have a responsibility to make them
as good as they can be.”
With an interest in creating works of a lasting nature, she has
frequently aligned herself with arts organizations such as New Langton
Arts and Capp Street Project in San Francisco and SculptureCenter in New
York. Morla explains that “art is always in the background” of what she
does, and she maintains a parallel practice of painting large encaustic
pieces and creating site-specific installations. Morla’s early
experience with motion graphics also factors heavily in her
interdisciplinary stance on art: her first job when landing in San
Francisco in 1978 was at PBS station KQED, where, as senior designer for
on-air and print graphics, she honed her skills by creating concise,
moving typography for its broadcasts.
Conceptual art has certainly influenced Morla Design, whose signature
style is hard to pin down, with diverse approaches ranging from Swiss
austerity for a Michael Mina restaurant menu to Tropicalia in a splashy
poster for San Francisco’s Mexican Museum. “I’m not sure there’s a
specific stylistic approach,” she admits. “I look for the soul of the
brand and let that determine the look and feel.”
Still, Morla welcomes and pursues thoughtful challenges in her
meetings with clients: “There’s no project that I’ve taken on that I
didn’t think would be the best project I’ve ever done, and it’s exciting
to know that the client will go on the ride with me,” she says.
Morla has captured the essence of numerous clients, but she had the
most extensive opportunity with furniture retailer Design Within Reach,
for whom she served as chief creative and marketing officer from 2006
until 2008 (she started as creative director in 2005). The position
allowed her to more fully express the brand’s spirit and identity, which
she accomplished through revamping the format and intention of the
regularly published catalogs, making them as much resource as art piece.
She filled page spreads with incisive juxtapositions—the classic 1947
Noguchi Table seen next to Eva Zeisel’s coffee table from 1993 is a
particularly salient example of Morla’s eye and approach—illustrating a
dialogue about design in a mercantile context. As stated in a 2008
interview in I.D. Magazine, she wanted to “redefine the concept
of catalog from ‘disposable retail mail’ to a vehicle infused with
authorship and history.” Her work for the company contributed to its
receiving the AIGA Corporate Leadership Award.
When Morla began working with Design Within Reach, its business had
somewhat plateaued. “I needed someone well grounded in art, design and
craft, with retail chops, who would challenge me to take things up a
notch,” says Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, and he received
just that. “She has very high standards on everything. Nothing passes
her eye that is not considered. Having overall quality and brand control
in hand is very stress reducing.” Forbes adds that “Jennifer’s driven
more by intellect than style, and she latches onto good ideas and
improves them.” With Morla, he says appreciatively, “you don't waste
time getting to the heart of the design issues. She is appropriately
feisty and opinionated—she's not a ‘yes' person.”
Morla’s multiplicity works well pedagogically, too, as she has been a
respected professor at California College of the Arts (formerly
California College of Arts and Crafts) since 1992. “I’m pretty pragmatic
with students,” she says. “I stress the importance of gathering
research and analyzing information—I ask them to bring in fifty
solutions to a single problem, and tell them they can’t shortchange any
Her career in academics, it seems, has all the staying power and
panache of her design calling. “She’s a great colleague, and very tough
on the students—in a good way,” says Michael Vanderbyl, a designer,
friend and colleague in the CCA undergraduate design program. “She helps
students forge their ideas, to make sure things are conceptually sound.
It’s all about getting to the core root of the investigation.”
Vanderbyl points to Morla’s tenacity as perhaps her strongest asset:
“Jennifer’s a tough cookie, and I mean that with love,” he says. “She
has great conviction, she stands behind what she is interested in.
That’s what’s allowed her to survive in this business.” Her ability to
thrive, to excel, may also rest in her graceful rise to challenges, such
as being commissioned to design a 1998 New York Times Magazine
cover. “The creative director called me up,” she says, “and asked if I
would like to design the cover—of course I would! Though she also told
me, ‘We don’t really pay, we have two weeks, we’re also going to ask
five other designers to submit covers.’” Those “other designers”
included esteemed peers Tibor Kalman, Margaret Youngblood and Stefan
Sagmeister—all of whom had work published in that issue’s interior
pages. The cover line read: “The Shock of the Familiar.”
What could have easily been a competitive design-star melee became,
for Morla, a means of rethinking. “Everything is designed,” she says,
“we just don’t know it.” Sagmeister recalls working on the project and
how Morla’s penchant for the simple and sublime won out: “I worked for a
couple weeks on my cover, which involved a complex photo shoot with
animals and illustration and type all over. And then Jennifer came along
and solved it all by turning the New York Times-logo upside
down. She manages to make simplicity entertaining.”
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, design educators, students
Jennifer Morla was awarded the AIGA Medal in April 2011 at “Bright Lights: The AIGA Awards” in New York City.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview, awards
Design Within Reach, recipient of a 2008 Corporate Leadership Award, is recognized for its commitment to making high-quality modern
furnishings accessible and advancing the design conversation to new
Section: Inspiration -
product design, awards
To support crowd-funding efforts in our community of more than 25,000
members across the United States and beyond, AIGA has partnered with
Kickstarter to highlight AIGA- and
design-related projects projects created by AIGA members and chapters.
Section: Tools and Resources -
In 1964, Saul Bass hired me as a strategic logo design planner, account
manager, and director of new business contacts. I was young, just a few
of UCLA, and I was attracted to Saul's rational approach to great
logo design in the ‘60s. Saul was captivating as he described his
reasoning why his great
designs worked: thoughtful planning first, design next. Then it all
came together which I call credibility-based logo design. This new
resulting process happened one night in Saul's office.
If I met the younger version of myself, we’d take a walk—the same walk I
take every day—so I could explain to young me that routine and
paramount. You have to choose a category header, but it’s only as
permanent as you need it to be. You have to choose a theme song and stay
with it. Decide.
If only for an hour or a day or a week.
Section: Inspiration -
personal essay, advice
From how to get inspiration from designing "lost dog" posters to when to learn to appreciate a balance sheet—the good doctor has your prescription.
Section: Inspiration -
Matériel, Issue One
IZZE You’ll Love What’s Inside Campaign
Penguin launches Little Black Classics series
Posted by Eliza Williams
3 days ago from
From swagger to self-deprecation: The end of the ego-designer era?
Posted by Rob Alderson
It's Nice That
Book artists from around the world exhibit outstanding examples of design, printing and binding. A truly unique show. Richmond, CA
Shared in Tools & Resources by
Lida Baday Spring 2010 Brochure
Concrete Design Communications, Inc.
Video: 2009 AIGA Fellows
Substance of Things Not Seen
frog design, inc.
RT @ArtisanTalent: There's nothing like a good biz card! MT #AIGAdesign members get 20% off their 1st @MOO order http://t.co/dFtYlPEZnh htt…
1 hours ago