Jennifer Morla, interviewed by Sean Adams: Continuum/Fellows Interview Series (2019)

For the last 35 years, Jennifer Morla has been one of the profession’s most visible designers. Her merging of form and concept with an explosion of color and energy changed the landscape of design, inspiring designers internationally. She has created visual landmark icons that have significantly changed our definitions of right and wrong, good and bad. Her work for clients ranging from Levi’s, to the Mexican Museum to Design Within Reach incorporates our cultural preconceptions and rearranges them. She has taught Senior Graphic Design at California College of the Arts for over 20 years and served both on the national board of AIGA and as president of the San Francisco Chapter.

SA: So, back to the beginning. How did you end up in design? Not a dentist or a flight attendant?

JM: Although being a secret agent held the promise of excitement for an 11-year-old girl in the mid ’60s, one of the many advantages to growing up in Manhattan was my early exposure to the design and architecture wing at the Museum of Modern Art. It was there that I became familiar with graphic, product, and architectural design. More importantly, I became aware of the history and origin of design—the sensual beauty of a Bang and Olufsen turntable, the shocking geometry and color of the Rietveld chair, the typographic and photographic collages of the Russian constructivist posters. I also loved to draw and did so since I was a young child. Drawing was easy and natural for me and has served me well in being able to communicate ideas quickly to both my staff and clients. It also allowed me to quickly consider any number of solutions based on conceptual intent without the hindrance of stylistic tools that I find distracting when working on the computer at the beginning stages of the design process.

I must say that the political climate of the late ’60s, the Johnson/ Nixon administrations, the Vietnam War, and the cultural institutions that reflected this new radicalism were all extremely influential in my decision to become a designer. Design could communicate dissent, provide a discourse, and attract the public to new ideas through the beauty of type and imagery. The posters of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, as well as random posters plastered on construction barricades, were all extremely influential in determining my career path.

SA: You’re very identified with San Francisco; people would probably be surprised to know you’re from Manhattan. You moved to San Francisco in 1978. What drew you there?

JM: I was attracted to San Francisco for many reasons, primarily the multidisciplinary approach to design that was embraced by San Francisco design studios and fostered by entrepreneurial clients. I was attracted to the nonconformity of Bay Area design. San Francisco seemed to embrace, on both a cultural and visual level, a unique point of view.

New technology was also booming in San Francisco and I wanted to be a part of this. Prior to being the art director at Levi’s, I was senior designer at the San Francisco PBS station, where in 1980, the Quantel Paintbox system was being developed for television —a platform that allowed the designer to move type, create graphics, and integrate live action. It opened up a new world of design possibilities beyond a 000 Rapidograph! And finally, Chez Panisse. Before moving to San Francisco, I met with a handful of Bay Area designers that had studios at that time—John Casado, Marget Larsen, and David Lance Goines, who illustrated and printed exquisite posters. He was a friend of Alice Waters’ and designed the look for her new restaurant, Chez Panisse. I ordered a baby leaf salad and, suffice it to say, East Coast iceberg lettuce was a thing of my past.

SA: When you first came to San Francisco, the market was very male dominated. I remember stories about Marget Larsen in the 1970s, and how hard it was for her as the only woman art director at the time. Was that an obstacle, or a nonissue?

JM: There were very few women art directors in the 60’s and 70’s, clearly a sign of discrimination. I met Marget when I was considering moving to San Francisco and she had her small design studio. I was taken by her bold environmental signage at Fisherman’s Wharf and her joyful packaging for department store J. Magnin. Marget was a true multi-disciplinary designer and an inspiration. A bigger obstacle for me than being a woman designer was being 28 years old when I opened my studio in 1984. I took on a couple of extremely large jobs with great clients who believed in me and the quality of my work. But the optics of such a young professional creating in-depth, multi-channel identity campaigns did present the occasional bias.

But being a woman in any male dominated field does have its challenges. Some advice: Put your work and yourself out into the design community. Enter competitions that showcase your work. Get published, write about design. Say yes to all speaking invitations and make time to teach. I did these things, not because I felt I had to, I did them because I wanted to. But the byproduct of those endeavors certainly helped me both professionally and personally.

SA: Anyone starting out in this business could always use a little help. It’s unusual to start with as big of a bang as you did. How did you get some of those early clients?

JM: At Levi Strauss & Co., I had worked with all of the division presidents. They were familiar with my design approach and knew that I took an unorthodox approach to marketing their product. While at Levi’s in 1981, I proposed having famous artists depict the 501 classic, which, up until then, had been shown only in a western imagery context. I contacted David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. Warhol started the series, and I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with him while he worked on the final canvas.

Early clients and jobs were a result of these professional relationships. And working on fashion is wonderful in that it provided an opportunity for me to explore all areas of design: high-end trade brochures, photo art direction, branding and creating brand extensions, store design, furniture and fixture design, book design, and multimedia.

SA: Whenever we speak, it seems like you’ve just returned from a trip somewhere exciting. You have a rare ability to handle cultures like paint on a palette. Does that come from travel? How does it impact your work?

JM: Being interested is the foundation of inspiration.

SA: How do you stay inspired and keep from burning out?

JM: I look at and experience architecture, go to performances and visit galleries, museums and art installations whenever possible. Director Peter Brook, architect Zaha Hadid, artists Kara Walker and Sol Lewitt have all inspired me, and therefore my work.

SA: What place was the most inspirational for you?

JM: So many places: visiting Thailand’s temples covered in broken porcelain and massive Buddhas made me rethink scale and the repurposing of materials; discovering Barcelona designer Javier Mariscal’s exhuberent illustrations in 1982; exploring Tokyo’s retail inventiveness; promenading Oscar Niemeyer’s curving terrazzo in Rio; seeing Siena’s Palio banners on every building; visiting London’s punk fashion mecca of Vivienne Westwood; absorbing the color palette of Monet’s Giverny; and falling in love with Tanzania’s black and white zebras.

SA: One of my favorite pieces of yours is the Mexican Museum poster. The color is remarkable. There’s fearlessness with color—a willingness to let color be unexpected like a Fillmore poster or a Picasso during the blue period. Where does that sensibility come from? Where are you looking to create these amazing palettes?

JM: I choose color based on appropriateness to subject matter. I can say that growing up in the ’60s exposed me to how color could be used as a primary design element. Yet surprisingly, I always investigate if the solution could be clearly communicated in black and white. The Mexican Museum poster needed color both as a point of cultural reference and to reflect the nature of their more progressive programming.

SA: Your work navigates a variety of cultural concepts, producing solutions that are clearly appropriate for the client’s specific culture. None of the work ever feels like it is a veneer. It all seems to grow organically from within the project’s origin and criteria. Is that one of your priorities for significant design?

JM: It is the priority. I always strive to find the appropriate narrative so that the solution doesn’t turn into a stylistic conceit.

SA: What’s been your proudest achievement professionally?

JM: I am especially proud of the work of my CCA students. I taught at CCA for over 20 years and was constantly humbled by the creativity and honesty of the students. It is hard being a good designer; to be able to construct a strong conceptual premise and execute it with a level of pragmatism, elegance and craft. I hope I gave the student’s that guidance. And being an AIGA Medalist, an AIGA Fellow and receiving the Copper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Award have been exhilarating benchmarks professionally.

SA: Community has always been one of your special interests. We first met when I asked you to come to Los Angeles to do an AIGA lecture in ‘93. You’ve been one of the best supporters of AIGA for years. Why does community matter to you? Does it really help anyone professionally?

JM: Community is our collective voice. It provides a forum for the discourse of ideas and the avenues to share those ideas outside of our community. My involvement with AIGA has been one of the most enriching aspects of my professional life. Being an early board member of our AIGA Chapter was enriching and exciting. Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Cronan and myself established the Design Lecture Series in ‘91 and brought amazing speakers to San Francisco: Gianni Versace, Phillipe Starck, Javier Mariscal and Andree Putman (to name just a few). We advertised the series to both the design community and to the general public, making design accessible to those outside our profession.

SA: Have you been involved with any other organizations?

JM: I have chaired the Architecture and Design Forum at SFMoMA. Currently, I am a executive advisor and judge for the Webby Awards and am on the Board of Letterform Archive. Unlike a museum, LFA offers hands-on access to a vast curated collection related to lettering, typography and graphic design. By being involved in these design institutions, it is my hope that today’s 11 year olds will have the opportunity to experience their own design epiphany.

About Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the Undergraduate and Graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter. He also serves as Executive Director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program. Adams continues his design practice with The Office of Sean Adams. He is the author of multiple books, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning. 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. He currently is on the editorial board and writes for Design Observer. 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. Previously, Adams was a founding partner of AdamsMorioka.