Success Ideas and Tips from Master Designer, Noreen Morioka

Noreen Morioka

Success Secrets from Noreen Morioka:

  • It’s really important to start your career working for those individuals that really are going to help you grow.
  • It’s not just about concentrating on getting paid.
  • It’s about building a portfolio of work.

Early beginnings:

I never really thought of myself as a very articulate person, growing up. I have two older sisters that definitely were more articulate than I could ever be. They were into speech and debate. So I found myself as more of a person who could draw and create messages that way. It occurred to me when my sister told me that graphic design might be up my alley, so I looked into it, and she was absolutely right. I went to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), got my degree, and the rest is history.

CalArts students were smart. I wouldn’t say that the work was beautiful, but it was smart. I think the work has changed a lot. And, I’m happy to say though, that the alma mater is doing pretty well.

Early working career:

I freelanced for a little bit in San Francisco. I was lucky to work at the architectural firms Gensler and Associates, and Skidmore Owings and Merrill that needed some help. Actually John Bricker was my first employer out of Gensler and Associates.

He was my first employer right out of school. John gave me some great opportunities. But at the time there was a recession. It was the ‘80s. So I spoke to Lou Danziger who said, “You know, your best bet is to get out of the country. Because design relates financially to what’s happening in the world of business. And if we’re in a recession right now, designers are going to suffer.”

Experiences with Landor in Japan:

He was right. There weren’t a lot of great paying jobs out there. There wasn’t a lot of work for anyone in the design profession, but in Japan at the time, they were booming. I mean, they were basically buying New York, at that time (Laughter). So Lou introduced me to two of his friends and associates in Japan and I went on a series of interviews. Actually, I went on over a hundred.

I remember calling Lou at number 50 saying, “Lou, I’m on my 50th interview and I’m getting nervous that I’m not going to get a job.” And he said, “Well, if you get to a hundred and you still don’t have a job, come back and I’ll help you find a job in the states.”

On a one hundred and five or so, I walked in the doors of Landor and Associates, showed my portfolio. And Fumi Sasada was the Creative Director at the time, and he was an Art Center graduate (Art Center College of Design). I had sort of memorized a script, and I gave my presentation in Japanese.

at all at the time. So I had a script that I had my uncle helped me put together. And I just verbatim memorized the script. And after finishing, Fumi looked at me and said, “Do you want to speak English now?” And I started laughing. “Thank f***ing God!” I said. “Yes, I’d like to speak English.”

He offered me a job and said, “No matter what you do here, you’ll never, ever have an identity accepted by a client. They won’t understand what you’re doing. You’ll clash with everybody in the office, but I think you’ll be a good inspiration for a totally different culture in Japan.” And that’s exactly what happened. I clashed with everybody in the office. Everyone had issues with the type of design work that I was doing. But I think they saw a different slice of life that they would never have seen, unless they’d come to the states. So it worked out just great.

Starting Adams Morioka:

I came back to the states and Sean Adams (now my partner) and I had gone to CalArts together, so we knew each other, we had worked together on jobs. And we’d always thought that eventually we’d open up a design firm and that’s what we ended up doing. This was in 1994.

I’m really lucky because when we first started out with AdamsMorioka, Sean had the common sense to say, “There’s so many design firms out there, the most important thing to do is to solidify what we stand for.” And that’s when he came up with those three words, “Clarity, Purity and Resonance.”

When Steven Heller heard that he started laughing and said, “Why don’t you call the company ‘Design CPR?’”

And I thought “WOW, that’s even better than yet.” So Sean was smart to do that. We realized we didn’t like what was happening in the world. Design was mysterious. The process was mysterious. Contracts were long. They weren’t clear. The work was not memorable. I think we started attacking that clarity, purity and resonance issue. And that’s that.

People in design that influenced Noreen:

There are so many. Saul Bass is one. Before Saul died, he pulled Sean and I aside and gave us some really great advice. He said, “Get a really good business person.” And he was right. Every designer, unless you have really great business sense, needs a great business person around.

Though we have yet to make a business person a partner here, quite frankly, I think Sean and I have gotten our bumps and bruises in the business world. And we’re pretty savvy as to what’s profitable and what isn’t nowadays.

We have a great bookkeeper now and a great tax guy, and we have a great investment person. So I think that was probably the best piece of advice that anyone could have given us. And of course Saul, in his work and the way that he handled things, was just amazing.

For me personally, it was Alvin Lustig. All through my life, I’ve thought his work was outstanding. And I think the difference with a lot of Cal Arts students is that we’re trained to be really big thinkers. For me, I think I loved Alvin Lustig’s work, because it wasn’t about great thinking. Someone might take me down for saying that, but his work was so well crafted. And you can see his influence throughout design today, in his repetition of color and pattern.

Acquiring new business at the beginning:

We were really lucky. Barton Myers knew Sean and me previously. He’d just moved into a new building. Barton had some extra space in his office and said, “Hey guys, if you want, I’ll rent you a portion of my office.” Which was great because Barton had an amazing library and a great presentation room.

When people walked into the offices, they couldn’t really tell where Barton started or we started or whatever, they felt secure that we weren’t working out of our kitchen. It was one of the first step-ups we were given. And on top of that, he gave us one of our first jobs, which was working on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Sean also had like a long line of clients that totally loved him. SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) was one of them.

Sean had been a designer at The New York Public Library, so he had quite a few publication pieces in his portfolio. There were books that came from Aaron Betsky that we designed. And then one lucky day, The Gap called us for our signage program that they saw from Barton’s projects. We started working on a program with The Gap that snowballed into Old Navy. And it just kept growing from there.

I think the most important thing that people have to learn about design is really, it’s not about just the payday in the end. You have the business person that says, “You need to make a profit. You need to pay your bills.” But it has to be about building your business. Another thing Sean came across were the three characteristics for taking a job: fun, fame, or fortune. If the job has three of the three characteristics, it’s a winner. If a job has two of these characteristics, that’s probably good. If it has one of these characteristics, we don’t take the job.

Thoughts on what makes a great project:

It’s really important to start your career working for those individuals that really are going to you grow.

The characteristics of a great project are:

  • Is it’s going to be a financial home run?
  • Is it going to bring us a great deal of recognition and fame?
  • Does it give us personal satisfaction?
  • Fun, fame, and fortune: if a project has three of these characteristics, it’s a winner. If it has two of them, we consider maybe taking it or not taking it. If it only has one of them, then, it’s not worth our time.

No one ever wants to hire somebody who is desperate. Right? I think that’s the one thing that we learned. If you come to the table with your needs as well, it makes it more of a collaboration than a one way street.


How AdamsMorioka currently acquires business:

We’re very fortunate. I have yet to make a cold call, ever. It’s all been word of mouth. And I think again, when I tell you about building relationships, we’re very fortunate that our clients that really love us. They tell two friends and so on. Like a bad shampoo commercial. (Laughter)

And I’d have to say, we do a very good job for our clients. We go above and beyond what’s expected sometimes. That’s really important. Sometimes we have to give a little to get a lot.

Gratifying accomplishments:

There are several things, but I don’t think we’re done yet. You know what I mean? I know that sounds very Japanese of me, but the minute you feel you’ve accomplished something like this you stop trying

We have so much more to do. I think of the nice milestones that have happened, like having a retrospective of AdamsMorioka at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That was fantastic! Right?

It was really wonderful, but even now hearing it was a retrospective made me feel a little uncomfortable that we were done.

And every year that January rolls around, I’m very grateful that we’re still here. I’m very pleased to say that I am so happy with everybody in our office. We have really great designers that we work with here. They’re all very smart and they make the work so good. So it’s those types of things that are great accomplishments for me. As far as like the big things, we have so much more that we have to get done.

Noreen’s thoughts on what makes a great designer:

It’s listening. I think that’s the one thing that most people forget. They’ve already come up with solutions before they’ve listened to the whole story.

That’s probably the biggest issue that I see. And it’s one of our greatest strengths. We try to go the whole entire mile before we start running faster.

Would you do anything differently?

Actually, I think MoriokaAdams sounds much better. (Laughter) Sean made the argument that AdamsMorioka would put us toward the top of the mailing list, and I agree.

To be really honest with you, though, and I know this sounds somewhat arrogant, but with all the mistakes we’ve made and with all the great things that have happened, we’ve learned so much.

I wish I could say I was a little bit smarter about certain things, but quite frankly, I’m grateful for the experiences. Sean will probably have different thoughts, but from my point of view, it’s all in a day’s work.

Noreen’s thoughts on business consultants and coaches:

We’ve worked with several coaches and consultants over the years, and I would recommend that people get the best advice they can to help their business grow. We have to be voracious about eating as much information as possible. That’s what Sean and I did. Not so much Sean. But for me, I came from a cultural background that’s not confrontational. Japanese people are trained to be quiet.

That doesn’t fly in the design business. You really have to be articulate at the right times and not get emotional. That was very important to me, so I got some help in those areas.

I think one of the best programs out there is the AIGA Harvard Business School Program. That program changed my life, I have to say. It was expensive. But it was worth the money and the week of my time I spent there, understanding how different individuals look at business.

I would definitely recommend it, if anyone has a chance to do that, there’s a winner right there.

Thoughts on the importance of balance:

Traveling is very important, to get out and go to different countries, international countries and look at the cultures. I take any chance I get to go out of the country.

I like to see how people are looking at things and communicating, and what technologies are out there. On the home front, basically, I’m trying to get in shape. Because I’m realizing the immortality mentality that I had in my earlier years is not going to stay with me for long.

The only way that I’m going to keep up is to stay healthy. So I try very hard to keep myself motivated in these areas.

All these things are really important: to experience new things, to read new things, to do new things, especially for me, since I have a tendency of being a typical Cancer. You know? I just want to stay home and nest. It doesn’t work. I have to really force myself to get out and do things.

I am a sucker for ironing, by the way. I love ironing. It’s a kind of a meditation for me. When I have a shitty day at AdamsMorioka I go home and iron everything! (Laughter)

Tips for people just starting out:

Here’s a big mistake that many people make. They forget, or they don’t realize, that design success is based on pedigree.

For example, if you ask me about my pedigree, I went to CalArts; I worked at Landor & Associates; I worked at Gensler; I worked at Skidmore; Then I started my firm, and I’m part of the AIGA.

If you ask Sean, he worked at The New York Public Library. He worked for April Greiman, Lorraine Wild, Sheila deBretteville, and so on.

It’s very important that when people start in design that they find studios that are well recognized, that they have a lot of respect for, and work underneath these people to learn their way of thinking, their way of doing business, their way of handling creative solutions. Then to move on from there.

Noreen’s thoughts on the biggest mistake a new designer can make:

One of the biggest mistakes made by my classmates at Cal Arts came about because of a rock and roll magazine. I think it was called Hips or something like that. They offered a shit load of money to all these young graphic design students to take on design jobs within their magazine.

The unfortunate thing is when they started working there, yeah, they made a lot of money, but they didn’t build their portfolio, and they didn’t build on their pedigree. So needless to say, a lot of the designers ended up taking production jobs later on, because they just didn’t have enough to show.

It’s really important to learn and find those individuals that really are going to help the new designer. It’s not just about concentrating on getting paid. It’s about building a portfolio of work.

I gave a lecture at Cal State Los Angeles a while ago for AIGA and I asked the audience, “How many of you are seniors?” Half of them raised their hands. I said, “How many of you planning on starting your own company?” Again, like 30 of them raised their hands. I said, “Don’t f**king do it! What’s wrong with you people? You know nothing about business. You know nothing about clients. You know nothing about this and you think you’re going to start your own company? No. You’re doing a disservice to the profession. Go and learn from somebody about the profession before you take that leap.”

About Noreen Morioka:

Noreen is a partner at AdamsMorioka, leading the team in client interface, and business development. Her creative input has led to the success of multiple communications programs. Noreen believes that personal involvement with a client helps her crack the brand’s spirit. This allows her to interpret her clients’ sometimes vaguely articulated goals into actionable plans.

In 2006, Noreen was named as a Fellow of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Noreen is a past president of Los Angeles Chapter of AIGA, chair of the AIGA National President’s Council, Fellow of the International Design Conference at Aspen, and a board member of the James Beard Foundation. In 2000, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibited AdamsMorioka in a solo retrospective.

Noreen has been named to the ID40, citing her as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally. She is a frequent competition judge and lecturer.

This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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