Topic: Favorites


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.



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.

Interviewed by Will Sherwood, MA
CEO/Chief Creative Officer
The Sherwood Group, Graphic Design / Web Design

2767 Zenith Way
Myrtle Beach, SC 29577

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