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Secrets of Success from Stan Richards:

  • Ask yourself every day, “What can I do to make my work better? How can I push it? How can I get it to a level which I hope to achieve?
  • We have no active business outreach. We depend on our work to provide the opportunities for us. When we get a call from someone who wants to interview us, or is conducting an agency review, we get really aggressive, and we push hard to win the business, but there is no active business out-reach.
  • Learn early on to put disappointments behind you. Focus on the work at hand, and whatever the disappointment happens to be, put it into short-term memory.

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Early beginnings:

After I graduated from Pratt Institute, since I did not want to raise a family in New York, I decided to head to the West Coast. There was some really nice work being done in Los Angeles and on the way there I stopped in Dallas to interview for jobs, just for practice. I interviewed with several companies but did not get hired. However, at one of the agencies (the 2nd largest in Dallas at the time), I met with a creative director, who looked in my book, and said: “Dallas is not advanced enough for your work. It’s not right for you yet, but if you stick it out, Dallas will be the ultimate place for you.” I thought that was great counsel, and decided to stay in Dallas. Of course no one would hire me, so I started freelancing, and that was my start in the business. And, I am still here in Dallas. It ultimately worked out very well.

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Stan’s thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

I would say the most important thing is consistency. I have never waivered from focusing on the most important thing, and that is the work. I ask myself every day, “What can I do to make my work better? How can I push it? How can we get it to a level which we hope to achieve?” And that has never changed. So, for over 50 years my Point of View has never changed. Clients have come and gone. And, I think if there is a single attribute that has carried us to where we are today, it is that laser focus on that “one thing” that counts.

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On getting good clients:

We don’t have a new business out-reach program. We depend on our work to provide the opportunities for us. When we get a call from someone who wants to interview us, or is conducting an agency review, we get really aggressive, and we push hard to win the business, but there is no active business out-reach, other than maintaining a good relationship with many of the search consultants around the country.

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Stan’s thoughts on an accomplishment that stands out:

There is one thing that stands above anything else. Here at The Richards Group, we are at roughly 700 people. We have the same energy, electricity, and vitality that we had when we were 50 people. That’s a really a hard thing to do. It’s pretty easy with a 50 person organization to have the attitude and the atmosphere of a skunk-works. Everybody is working really hard, everybody is focused on the work, everyone is pushing to make it as good as it can be, but it gets harder as you get to be 150, or 350 or 700 people. But we’ve managed to accomplish that. And of everything that we have accomplished, I would point to that and say it’s the one thing that I am most proud of.

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Would you do anything different if you had to do it all over?

Oh, about a 100 things. (Laughter) Certainly I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, and I’ve made some bad decisions, and I would re-do all of those. But I never focus on that stuff. I learned early on to put disappointments behind me, focus on the work at hand, and whatever the disappointment happens to be, it goes into short-term memory and disappears. If you are interested I can tell you how I learned to do that.

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On putting disappointments behind you:

Back when my kids were playing in kid’s basketball leagues, I was always a coach, because, I played high school and college basketball, so I knew the game fairly well, and always had outstanding teams. One year I had an unbelievable team. We went the entire season and never even came even close losing a game. Very often the team was so good, I would have to impose rules to hold the score down. I would make the kids throw seven passes before they could take a shot. So, they breezed through the regular season, and when we got to the play-offs and the finals for the championship, unbelievably, they lost. And the parents were heart-broken. They were crying and the kids were crying, and the world had come to an end, because this great team that had never experienced a loss before, lost in the most important game of the season.

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So after everybody went home, all these kids lived near my house, so I would see them on a regular basis, about an hour later I was out cutting the grass, and here were the same kids, these heart-broken kids, who were crying their eyes out an hour earlier were all outside with their baseball gloves on. Basketball season was behind them. They had forgotten all about that, and they didn’t need to worry about it any more, and it was time for baseball. I thought, “There is one of the best lessons I could ever learn.” And I learned it from a bunch of 9 and 10 year old kids.

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On working with business coaches and consultants:

Though I’ve never worked with coaches or business consultants, I have to tell you, I have a very, very strong CFO, who obviously is a close friend as well. And since much of the business side of the business is in his care, it allows my focus is be on the output, and not much more than that. The business side of the business never takes me more than 1/2 hour a day. That’s an absolute maximum. And, under normal circumstances our CFO and I run together every morning, and we cover most of the business discussion during the course of that 4-5 mile run.

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On staying in balance:

In addition to running, I am an avid salt-water fisherman. I keep a couple of boats down at my beach place at South Padre Island. I am also an avid skier. I ski fast, and ski hard. I have a place at Deer Valley, and I spend about 2 weekends of every three during the season there. I take clients and associates up there with me. It is a big part of my life.

Right now, just so you’ll understand, I am about 15 weeks beyond a hip replacement. So, my running has been sorely limited. I have not been able to run for about 6 months now, including before and after the surgery. And, I’m just now starting to run again. Yesterday I ran 1/4 mile for the first time. So, it’s probably going to be another month or so before my CFO and I will start our running together. But we’ll get there.

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Stan’s thoughts on holding companies and selling his company:

A lot of folks ask me why haven’t I sold my company to a holding company. Well, I decided a long time ago that I would never do that. We could be a very attractive target, and we’ve gotten many calls. But in all the years that I have been watching acquisitions by holding companies, and I’ve probably seen 100 agencies acquired, I cannot give one single example of an agency that got better. I can give you lots of agencies that got worse. And since we are all about always getting better, that is the farthest thing from my mind, and I would absolutely never do that.

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What happens in those circumstances with those who sell out, is the person or partners who own the firm put a lot of money into their packets, but they disadvantage everybody else in the organization. We have lots of people who have helped us build this agency, and we have the highest retention rate of any agency in America. People come, and stay with us for a very, very long time. And the last thing I would ever want to do is to disadvantage them. So, not only have I not sold it during my working lifetime, but I’ve also seen to it that it can never be sold, even after I am gone. And, It’s the right thing to do for the 700 plus people who work here. It is certainly the right thing to do to for the bunch of people who have committed their careers to this place. There are those who have been here for 10-15-25 years, and it is just part of my obligation to those who helped us build this organization. That is why it was important to make sure that will never happen.

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About Stan Richards

Stan Richards founded The Richards Group as a freelance practice after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York. Over the next 30 years, it became one of the nation’s premier creative resources. In 1976, it became a full-service advertising agency.

His work has received awards in virtually every major competition in the world. In 1976, Stan was chosen by the Dallas Society of Visual Communications as “the single individual who, over his career, has made the most significant contribution to the advancement of creative standards in the Southwestern United States.” In 1981, 1983, and 1984, Stan was named by Adweek as a Southwest Creative All-Star. In 1985, The Richards Group was named The Southwest All-Star Creative Team. That same year, Stan was honored by Pratt Institute as a Distinguished Alumnus. In 1986, he was honored with an Advertising Age cover story. Also in 1986, Adweek named him Executive of the Year, and he was included in The Wall Street Journal’s “Giants of Our Time.” In 1988, the firm was named Agency of the Year by Adweek. Again in 1990 and 1994. And once more in 2002. In 1995, Stan was named an Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine. In 1999, he was elected to the Art Directors Hall of Fame. He serves, or has served, on many boards and in 2004 was elected to the Board of Trustees of his alma mater.

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Success Secrets from Jennifer Morla:

  • A good designer is a great listener.
  • If you pay attention, the client nearly always gives you the solution.
  • Design must surprise and inform.
  • Words are as important as images.
  • Images can be more powerful than words.

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Credits and project descriptions for all projects shown appear at the end of this article.

Early beginnings:

As a child growing up in Manhattan, I was privy, due to my aunt’s employment at Conde Nast, to seeing the creative departments in action: at photo shoots and laying out the magazines. I was also very influenced by my surroundings and exposure to design: Frank Lloyd Wright’s futuristic Guggenheim, the World’s Fair (with the Eames’s IBM exhibit) and the posters and subways boards displaying the work of George Lois  and Push Pin Studios. At a young age, I stumbled upon the Design wing at MoMA, exposing me to the breadth of design and its history.  It was certain that I wanted to be a designer, but starting my schooling by studying conceptual art  at the Hartford Art School (University of Hartford), then moving to Boston and receiving my BFA in Graphic Design from Massachusetts College of Art.

Mid-way through college, during a visit to San Francisco in the early 70’s, I noticed that the Bay area design community embraced a multi-disciplinary approach to design: books, posters, annual reports, identity and environmental design were all being created with verve and wit from a few small design studios.  I was smitten.

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Getting started in design

I moved to San Francisco where my first job was working for the PBS television station. I created both print and on-air identity systems and designed animated openings. What made that especially valuable for me, was that television was really the precursor to the digital design environment. We were working with basic paintbox systems that allowed us to manipulate the movement of type, integrate live action and edit sound.

I left PBS to become the Art Director for Levi Strauss & Co. Levi’s had a strong graphic history of poster design, and I saw the opportunity to create a more contemporary look for an iconic brand. I headed the department (myself and an intern!) and designed the first Levi’s stores, created the fixtures, designed and art directed elaborate catalogs, and of course, and created numerous posters.

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I soon realized that I needed to transition Levi’s from being perceived as a “western” company who made jeans, to a fashion company. We wanted to market jeans on the East coast and the stagecoach imagery wasn’t going to do the trick. I didn’t completely abandon their western look, but did expand their visual vocabulary to include graphic black and white photography and allowed their illustrious history to be told in a more contemporary vein.

On going into business:

After Levi’s, I new that the time was right to open my own studio:  I had the experience of working on both very lean and extravagant budgets, had created numerous posters, logos, stores, and packaging, and had gathered a good database of reliable vendors. Most importantly, I had established a good rapport with a number of executives, my future client base.  In 1984, I opened Morla Design.

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Jennifer’s design influences:

Historically, modernists like Alvin Lustig and Herbert Matter were very influential, and as I said, I loved the more illustrative works of Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser. But Charles and Ray Eames, although I was not aware of who they were at age 12, made a lasting influence on me: film, exhibit design, furniture, graphic design…true pioneers.

Another huge influence on me, as a student, was Jim Miho’s work on the Champion Paper’s “Imagination” Series paper swatch books. The combination of presenting a subject matter in a lush, graphic and multi-layered way, well, they both surprised and educated.

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New business development:

Having worked for PBS and Levi’s, a lot of my work came from the contacts that I had met over the years from both of those companies. I had a good relationship with the presidents and marketing VP’s, some of which migrated over to other major companies such as the Gap and Wells Fargo Bank. In addition, my working relationship with my museum and arts clients stemmed from my involvement and interest in the artists of those organizations.

A new business direction:

For the past 20 or so years, I staffed Morla Design with 8 to 12 people, the perfect size for my office. We typically have 30-40 jobs at any given time both commercial and non-profit. One of my more recent clients was Design Within Reach, where I became close with the founder, Rob Forbes, and had helped him establish the look and feel for the company. About three years ago, he realized that DWR needed a strong design direction internally to re-shape the look of the totality of the company: website, catalogs and stores. He invited me to become the Creative Director and build a vital in-house department. I modified the makeup of Morla Design so that the work we do now is primarily for educational and arts organizations. And my  freelance staff is composed my best designers and project managers.

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The benefits of teaching:

I teach a senior graphic design class at California College of the Arts with Michael Vanderbyl and Leslie Becker.  I’ve been doing that on and off for about 15 years.  The assignment is a thesis project in which the students explore a topic of their choice for an entire semester. I am truly humbled by the talent and the insight of our students. Their work is conceptual in it’s intent but rigorous in its methodology and fabrication. Clearly, it’s not a “let’s do a CD cover,” sort of project. And it definitely does not revolve around consumer practicality or branding! (Laughter)

Jennifer’s thoughts on speaking:

I feel it is extremely important for young designers to have the ability to speak and articulate design concepts, whether in writing, presenting or lecturing. And teaching is a very good opportunity to exercise those abilities. Being able to articulate design beyond the visual image, to an audience who may not be familiar with the work, is an important skill to hone.

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On the importance of listening:

Also, I truly feel that a good designer is a great listener. I would say that 90% of the time the client always gives me the solution. And by identifying their role in the solution, it gives them a sense of ownership in the process.

Jennifer’s thoughts on sketching:

I also believe in sketching out ideas.  Sketching gives an idea substance and reality, and that’s a vital first step.

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On the advantage of computers:

I can’t imagine doing the plethora of books I’ve created without the Mac.  The pre-digital days of book layout must have been tedious. Imagine specing type and pasting up layouts for a 300 page book along  with big financial implications and time lost if you erred.  My book designing coincided perfectly with the release of Quark.

The computer allows us to generate, and actualize, ideas so quickly. Students often ask how I generate so many concepts. It comes with experience. I find that the more design experience you have, combined with more exposure you have to art, literature, music, and world cultures, the more easily the ideas seem to come.

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Would you do anything differently?

I would not do anything differently. I feel extremely lucky to be a designer, a mother, a teacher. I establishing Morla Design early in my career, as well as working in-house for great companies, has served me well.

I would encourage design students to explore employment opportunities beyond traditional design studios. Environmental design companies, textile, web, television, film, product design offices, all have positions for strong graphic designers.

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The importance of maintaining balance:

Having a family keeps you pretty balanced.  Although I can keep long hours, I make a point not to work over the weekends. When I had my 2 girls, they are now 11 and 12, my office was in it’s twelfth year and operating very smoothly. The stability of my studio allowed me the time to devote to the time to parenting that I wouldn’t have been able to easily afford when the studio was still in its infancy. Starting a studio is like having children, I worked 12 hour days nearly every day, designing and nurturing my client base and creating a dynamic office environment.

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Tips for newcomers:

Get a degree in graphic design. Going to a good design school teaches you how to think conceptually.  Your first jobs set the stage for the rest of your career. Choose the job that will make for the best portfolio, the one where you will learn the most, don’t go for the higher salary figure if it compromises your creative potential. Don’t go after the clients who already have gorgeous work, look for the underdogs. Go after the clients who need design the most. It’s easier to get noticed when you make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. (Laughter)

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Additional thoughts:

Pay attention to the details. Having your own office is about 30% design and 70% being thorough and looking after the details: accurate production schedules,  getting signed estimates, timely billing, establishing good office procedures. And, make sure that you have a good accountant. Spend your time designing, not doing cash flow reports or managing payroll.

When I first started my office, I had one of the first versions of FileMaker, and it was, and is still, the backbone of my office. It changed everything in terms of our database and workflow management. Bottom line, spend your valuable time designing, making your work the best it can be.

About Jennifer Morla:

For over 25 years, Jennifer Morla has served as President and Creative Director of Morla Design, San Francisco.  She has been honored internationally for her ability to pair wit and elegance on everything from annual reports to retail environments.  Her clients include Levi’s, Wells Fargo Bank, Stanford University, and Luna Textiles. From 2005-2009, she served as the Chief Creative Officer and Chief Marketing Officer for Design Within Reach, where she re-designed all print, web and advertising. For her accomplishments, DWR was awarded the prestigious AIGA Corporate Leadership Medal for the successful interaction between aesthetics and business pragmatics.

With over 300 awards for excellence in graphic design, her work has been recognized by virtually every organization in the field of visual communication. Ms. Morla’s work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum and the Library of Congress. She has been honored with solo design exhibitions at both SFMoMA and DDD Gallery in Japan.

In addition to teaching Design Thesis at California College of the Arts, Ms. Morla lectures internationally and is an elected member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). Ms. Morla served on the National Board of Directors of AIGA and serves on the Accessions Board for Architecture and Design at SFMoMA. She currently resides in San Francisco with her husband and two teenage girls.

MORLA DESIGN
1008A PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE
SAN FRANCISCO CA 94107
415.577.2023
JENNIFER@MORLADESIGN.COM

Credits:

Client company: Design Within Reach
Creative director: Jennifer Morla
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Tina Yuan
Copywriter: Gwendolyn Horton

Competition title: Design Within Reach – Workspace Book
The Design Within Reach workspace book features office and desktop solutions.
The front cover depicts a new pencil, with the back cover showing a used pencil.

Client company: Design Within Reach
Creative director: Jennifer Morla
Art director: Michael Sainato
Designer: Tina Yuan
Copywriter: Gwendolyn Horton

Competition title: Design Within Reach – Spring Book: What is Green?
The Design Within Reach spring book is dedicated to exploring the topic of “What
is Green?” Being a design company, we’re encouraged by the increasing number of
smart solutions to improve the planet. But we know that not all items fit into
every category of ecological perfection. At DWR, we believe in honestly
presenting our assortment so you can choose what’s best for you. We also believe
that well-designed products last. This 160 page, perfect-bound book presents our
assortment through this filter.

Client company: Design Within Reach
Creative director: Jennifer Morla
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Tina Yuan
Copywriter: Gwendolyn Horton

Competition title: Design Within Reach – Outdoor Book
The Design Within Reach outdoor book features product for patio, pool and
beyond. The front cover photo is of a red-crested cardinal, a bird that can be
seen in Hawaii. Upon the launch of our outdoor book, Design Within Reach could
also be seen in Hawaii, at our new Studio that opened in March.

Client company: Stanford University
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Jennifer Morla, Bryan Bindloss
Copywriter: Stanford University
Photographer: Bryan Bindloss

Competition title: Stanford University: Literature Lecture Series
Morla Design was asked to create a poster series for Stanford University’s
Department of Comparative Literature. The challenge involved creating a series
where the first poster introduced the whole lecture series while subsequent
posters allude to future lectures. Poster imagery depicts six stacked books,
with the trimmed signatures facing outward. As each lecture is announced, the
corresponding poster shows the book with the spine facing front which
illustratively depicts not only the content of the lecture, but references the
previous lectures as well.

Client company: Hemispheres Magazine/Pace Communications
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron
Illustrator: Jennifer Morla

Competition title: United Airlines Hemispheres Magazine: April 2002 Cover
The April 2002 cover of United Airlines magazine, HEMISPHERES, features the
artwork of Morla Design. Neo-Modern in feel, the design is a playful
combination of ellipses and circles. HEMISPHERES is the most award-winning
in-flight magazine in the United States. 500,000 monthly copies are read by 2
million people on United flights all over the globe.

Client company: Levi Strauss & Co.
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Jennifer Morla/Angela Williams
Illustrator: Jennifer Morla
Photographer: Jock McDonald

Competition title: Levi’s Posters
Morla Design created a series of portrait posters for Levi’s. This poster
conveys a narrative by a fifteen year old girl as illustrated in Jennifer’s
caligraphy on top of the graphic black and white portrait.

This poster is included in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art.

Client company: Bacchus Press
Art director: Jennifer Morla
Designer: Jennifer Morla, Craig Bailey
Illustrator: Jennifer Morla
Photographer: Kodak

Competition title: The Mexican Museum 20th Anniversary Poster
Morla Design created the Mexican Museum 20th Anniversary Poster to commemorate
the Museum’s collection of Pre-Colombian, Colonial and Contemporary Mexican art.
The benday portrait of Frida Kahlo and the quintessential image of Our Lady of
Guadalupe combined with lotteria imagery, vivid color and 19th century Mexican
wood block type, celebrate the Museum’s anniversary.

This piece is part the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art.


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