History of Design: The Impact of Graphic Designer Jennifer Morla. FIDM Student Sharon Salem Reports

 Editor’s Note: Every quarter at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, students of various majors are challenged to focus on a famous design or designer to assess its historical impact on culture and the design community in History of Design class taught by Alex Gardos. In the report below, FIDM Graphic Design Student Sharon Salem reports on career of graphic designer Jennifer Morla, weighing in with her own interpretation on the effectiveness of Morla’s work.

Jennifer Morla, born 1955 in Manhattan, New York, is a graphic designer based in San Francisco, California. She started her studies with conceptual art at Hartford Art School, University of Hartford and received her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Massachusetts. She created Morla Design in San Francisco at the age of 29 and is still President and Creative Director of this thriving business. She has been involved in all types of design, including branding, print, packaging, motion graphics, environmental design, and typography (Meggs, 562). Prior to opening Morla Design, she was the Art Director at Levi Strauss & Co. and Senior Designer at PBS Television, San Francisco.

With more than 300 awards of excellence, she has been recognized by practically every organization in the field of visual communication. She is the 2010 recipient of graphic design’s most honored award, the AIGA Medal, and has been published extensively, most notably in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and the Library of Congress. Jennifer Morla served on the National Board of Directors for the AIGA 1997-1999, was past president of AIGA San Francisco Chapter (1992), is an AIGA Fellow (2008), and is on the Accessions Board for Architecture and Design at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (1995–present) (AIGA).

Morla has accomplished so much since her experience with art began, making it difficult to discuss what her signature style really is. Her studies in conceptual art were certainly an influence to her, with so many diverse poster designs.

Morla states, “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” (AIGA).

Her career in academics shows the true confidence 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” (AIGA). Today, Morla is still teaching and designing, welcoming thoughtful challenges in her artistic lifestyle. In this report, we will be taking a closer look at some of Morla’s work and capturing the essence of what it takes to be a solid, successful designer.

United Airlines Hemisphere Magazine cover, 2002. Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

United Airlines Hemisphere Magazine cover, 2002. Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine cover, 2002.

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

Morla designed a cover for the United Airlines magazine, Hemispheres, an inflight magazine that features the latest business and travel trends, topical stories and in-depth articles. It is read by 2 million people on United flights globally (MorlaDesign).

Her use of shapes and choice of color gives the cover a playful feel. She chose primary colors blue, red, and yellow, which are often used as a color combination. This was a good way of keeping the cover universal. The ellipsis is a direct but abstract way of representing the image of an actual “hemisphere.” Morla used different shapes and angles, with some filled solid and others just an outline, which fills the page with lots of variety and surprise. The negative space is white, which gives the colored elements a lot of needed breathing room. Black could have also worked, but choosing white was a design choice in which was smarter because it makes the piece more appealing to the eye. Black is only used in the title of the magazine, placed on the top. The focal point is hard for me to distinguish; it is a battle between the black, all capital masthead, and the red circle below it. If I must choose, the circle is a perfect, solid-filled circle using the only red on the page, making it the real focal point. The black Hemispheres masthead comes in close second. The san-serif typeface uses a radial gradient; best explained as having bolder letters in the middle, which fade into thinner letters as it reaches the exterior letters. When observing other covers of Hemispheres magazine, they each have their own unique, artistic look. The art direction that Hemisphere magazine keeps it new and interesting.

 

Levi’s Poster, 1998

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams

Levi’s Poster, 1998 Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams

Levi’s Poster, 1998
Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams

This 1998 Levi’s Poster is extremely fun to look at. Even when looking at the ulterior photo underneath the sassy typography, you can see a beautiful gray-scale portrait, scaled large and cropped interestingly. The photo by Jack McDonald shows half of a woman’s face, and pictures most of her curly hair. Jennifer Morla and Angela Williams worked together on this poster, targeting young and adventurous women with handwritten typography and flowery doodles. There is a variety of different handwriting, yet it stays consistent in a casual manner. They keep all of the words (with the exception of one) written above the woman’s hair, complementing her curly hair with curvilinear fonts. The woman is looking up with a smirk, reminiscing and reading the words above her with content. The type is a golden yellow, which reads well on the darker parts of the image. I love the way it pops against the black and white. The only other color on the poster is the Levi’s logo at the bottom left, which is where the eye ends in its movement across the poster. When comparing this poster to some more recent ones from Levi’s “Go Forth” Campaign in 2009, we can see that the company’s creative direction has held on to a few strong elements. In the more recent ad, created by an ad agency  Wieden + Kennedy, we notice that they still implemented the use of hand-rendered typography. The photo in the back is overexposed and creates a somewhat euphoric image of a woman frolicking along a grassy countryside. Both Levi’s ads have interaction with the audience; the handwritten look of the font allows the viewers to feel as if they are reading a personalized letter, while also sharing an optimistic outlook about America (jeans made in America lead to proud American company). Another thing to note is that the Levi’s logo has changed since Morla’s poster design. It has taken the shape of the pocket into consideration, ditching the rectangular frame but keeping the iconic red color.

The Mexican Museum 20th Anniversary Poster, 1995

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Craig Bailey

The-Mexican-Museum-20th-Anniversary-Poster,-1995--Designers--Jennifer-Morla,-Craig-BaileyThis poster was created to “commemorate the Museum’s collection of Pre-Columbian, Colonial and Contemporary Mexican art” and is now a part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MorlaDesign). The color half-tone portrait of Frida Kahlo and the “quintessential image of Our Lady of Guadalupe” combined with scrapbook imagery, vivid color and 19th century Mexican wood block type, celebrate the Museum’s anniversary (MorlaDesign). When Sean Adams, past national board member of AIGA, interviewed Jennifer Morla for Step Magazine, he asked her about this poster: “Where does that sensibility come from? Where are you looking to create these amazing palettes?”

Morla answered, “I can say that growing up in the ’60s exposed me to how color could be used as a primary design element.” (AdamsMorioka)

On that note, I can start by saying how eye-catching this poster is with its remarkable color choices. Bold and contrasting colors work well together in this fun and quirky, collage-like poster. It takes a moment to realize that the halftone pattern used on the top portion of the poster is echoed with the dot patterns throughout the backdrop of the piece. The dots get bigger and the space between them expands as your eyes follow from top to bottom. Morla also experimented with positioning the woodblock letters so that they do not perfectly align, and alternating colors while using overlapping letters to create a sense of depth and illusion.  The palm tree illustration is put on a horizontal axis, creating an even more dynamic effect. The scaled-up image of Frida Kahlo is very engaging as well, some may recognize her immediately as others may not. I absolutely love this piece for its use of colors, woodblock type, and pattern use.

 

San Francisco 2012: U.S. Olympic Bid City Poster

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

San Francisco 2012: U.S. Olympic Bid City Poster Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

San Francisco 2012: U.S. Olympic Bid City Poster
Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

Morla Design was chosen to create a poster to publicize San Francisco as the U.S. bid city for the 2012 Olympics with a bold, iconic portrait of an Asian American swimmer. The design references poster art from San Francisco in the ’60s, incorporating a collage of sports, and “visually alludes to the cultural diversity of the Bay Area” (MorlaDesign). There are many similar design elements in this poster as in the Mexican Museum Poster. For one, Morla uses overlapping letters in the typography again, creating the illusion of foreground and background on a two-dimensional piece. She also uses multiple colors. Morla chose to use a less-saturated, but colorful color pallet in the burst-like star in the background. This burst gives the piece a focal point right in the center, where the swimmer is pictured. Her image is manipulated to have very light contrast, showing up as mostly white. The images of the various sports are incorporated in between the lines of some of the bursts, playing as a secondary element to the portrait in the foreground. The solid white circles used sparingly in the background help bring unity to the piece by sharing the same color tone as the very white portrait. They help to break up the very busy and colorful lines behind her. The only black color featured on this poster is the drop shadow, if you will, behind the type. This drop shadow is in a bolder san-serif typeface then the condensed, skinny type used on top. The leading between the two lines are very tight; they do not overlap, but they do touch. Morla tracked the lines to make it extend to the edge of the poster. There is a nice connection between the simple san-serif type and the rest of the very detailed poster. Morla is not scared to experiment with different shapes and color pallet.

 

AIGA: Landor Associates Poster, 2003

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Brian Singer

AIGA: Landor Associates Poster, 2003 Designers: Jennifer Morla, Brian Singer

AIGA: Landor Associates Poster, 2003
Designers: Jennifer Morla, Brian Singer

Landor Associates asked Morla Design to create an announcement for their upcoming lecture for AIGA. The oversized poster illustrates many of the numerous trademarks and corporate identities that Landor has produced. The audience for this AIGA lecture was made up of mainly students and young design professionals. Their challenge was “to make Landor’s ubiquitous identities exciting and relevant to this younger audience” (MorlaDesign). This poster has a lot to look at. One must really focus and “read between the lines” to see what it has to offer. There is no real focal point in a piece like this, but rather a few. If anything, the large red letter x which is cropped almost in half is placed right near the center and is going against the parallel horizontal lines can be seen as a focal point. Morla again uses many colors here, with a shared emphasis on red, yellow, and green. Using many colors helped camouflage the very familiar and recognizable logos placed between the lines. She did not want one sticking out more then another because it would then look more like an advertisement instead of an informational and artistic poster. The movement is strong throughout the entire piece, having our eyes jump from one line segment to another, one image to the next, and so on. The variation in line widths allows the poster to have a sense of “pop” motion. There is also a heavy illusion of depth with all the overlapping elements, some appearing farther and “deeper” back. I am sure that this poster was able to keep the young audience occupied and entertained throughout the lecture.

New Langton Arts Catalog, 1998

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams

New Langton Arts Catalog, 1998 Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams
New Langton Arts Catalog, 1998
Designers: Jennifer Morla, Angela Williams

New Langton Arts is an experimental art gallery focusing on emerging Bay Area visual and performing artists. Morla Design created a “retrospective catalog representing the gallery’s conceptual intent through graphic and typographic manipulation” (MorlaDesign). This piece is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The first thing I notice is that this piece has a resemblance to Morla’s Levi’s poster ad; in both posters, she uses a photo of a person scaled large to only fit half or less of their face on the poster. This technique really engages the viewer and lets the audience fill in the rest of the image themselves. She also uses a knock-out circle to add a design element to the poster. The white shape also helps make the title more legible. She experimented with the little type on the poster. Morla tracked out the thick serif type to give more space between each letter. She then copied the type and made smaller lines in half of the point size, overlapping in different colors and creating a texture on the somewhat unclear photo. The only spot of color is in the small type. The color choice she made is similar to her U.S. San Francisco Olympic Poster, with blues, yellows, and pinks. The eye first goes to the lighest part of the page, where the white circle is, and reads the title “new langton art”, which then follows down to the type below it “nineteen ninety one to nineteen ninety seven.” She chose to write out the numbers as a way of making a line to reflect the title.   It is a simple yet thought-out design.

Moon Zappa Book Cover, 1999

Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron

Random House Dell contracted Morla Design to create the cover design for a semi-autobiographical novel by Moon Zappa “concentrating on one woman’s passionate and overwhelming identity crisis” (shown below, left). Morla explains that the “disparate lettering, a tumbling heart and cropped off images reflect the scattered nature of the heroine’s mind and soul” (MorlaDesign). Knowing book’s subject, it is easier to interpret the design. The typography treatment on the book cover is unique, with its different point sizes, uneven kerning, and randomized red letters. The upside-down crown illustration and cropped images of the flower and heart creates an uncomfortable, confusing ambience for the disjointed type.
The negative space around the letters helps the eye read the words correctly even with the big gaps. Meanwhile, the eye follows a zig-zag motion as it enters the design at the top right where the crown is set, down to read the title, over to the cropped flower, and then ends at the bottom right where it views the rest of the elements. This piece shows how diverse Morla can be when designing, as it is a lot more mellow then the previous examples.

(Left) Moon Zappa Book Cover, 1999. Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron. (Right) Morla Typographic Poster Alpha-Numeric Series New York Times Magazine Cover, 1998. Designers: Jennifer Morla, John Underwood

(Left) Moon Zappa Book Cover, 1999. Designers: Jennifer Morla, Hizam Haron. (Right) Morla Typographic Poster Alpha-Numeric Series New York Times Magazine Cover, 1998. Designers: Jennifer Morla, John Underwood

 

Morla Typographic Poster Alpha-Numeric Series

New York Times Magazine Cover, 1998

Designers: Jennifer Morla, John Underwood

Jennifer Morla was commissioned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc. to design a typographic poster series for their sister company Mark and Graham. This alpha-numeric set incorporates a variety of letterforms and glyphs, making the design of each poster unique (MorlaDesign). Morla used a variety of decorative fonts to collect different looks for each letter (shown above in the lower right). She also chose 2-3 glyphs for each poster and fit them in between the letters like a puzzle. In each separate poster, Morla integrated a splash of a single color. I love the way that even with the many different typefaces, there is a sense of unity because it is just the variation of one recognizable letter. It is also put together in a clean manner, serving the x and y axis rather then throwing diagonals in for a more dynamic appeal. There is no doubt that Morla has a great sense of typography.
In her New York Times Magazine cover from 1998, she uses the word biggest word on the page, “familiar,” as a guideline for her other words. The words, “the shock of the” fit in the pocket to the right of the letter F terminal. The body paragraph is flush left, aligning to the letter L above it. She adds a modern touch by placing the masthead on the bottom of the page, upside down, playing the idea of the title, “the shock of the familiar.” She assumes that the audience will recognize the magazine even if the masthead is flipped upside down. This element of surprise is strong design technique, which amuses the audience.

Conclusion

Jennifer Morla has become a major influence to me. I have come to realize that she is not scared of taking risks, which is important as a successful designer. Her AIGA biography states, “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” (AIGA). She has a beautiful sense of color and makes me want to push my usual pallet outside my comfort zone. Her unique layouts and use of elements really engage viewers. Morla’s work is distinctive, although her artistic style is really hard to “pin down.” At her current age of 59, she has pursued and accomplished so much and motivates me to expand in different art mediums. Jennifer Morla really captures the essence of graphic design in every way.

Works Cited

About Sharon Salem

FIDM Graphic Design Student Sharon Salem

FIDM Graphic Design Student Sharon Salem

Originally from Woodland Hills, California, Sharon Salem is a Graphic Design/Branding Student at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Read our Q&A with Sharon below:

High School: El Camino Real High

What brought you to FIDM? “I’ve always considered art as a hobby, something fun to do in between tedious daily tasks. My mom motivated me in the direction of art as a career, and after comparing several schools, I knew FIDM was the perfect fit for me. The campus is beautiful, the teachers are phenomenal, and the career center offered the best of the best. There was no question I had made the right choice.”

Dream job: “I love food and I love publications, so I sometimes envision myself amongst the creative designers at Bon Appetite magazine. Being a new graphic designer, I am eager to explore the job force and I have a few other ideas of a ‘dream job,’ but most importantly, I need to love the team I work with.”

What have you enjoyed most about FIDM thus far: “Gaining my FIDM family. The Graphic Design program is relatively small and intimate; everyone knows one another. I look forward to going to class, learning something creative beside so many others who share so much in common.”

What did you find most interesting about Jennifer Morla? “Jennifer Morla is fearless. She has an extensive color pallet and no two pieces are alike. Each project is memorable because she uses the element of surprise; whether it’s an unpredicted shape, a unique color, or the use of typography. She’s brilliant.”

What are your favorite trends in graphic design at the moment: “I love hand-rendered typography. I’m seeing a lot of it done in logos, menu layouts, and even as décor in restaurants and bars all over Los Angeles.”

Favorite blogs? Do you have a blog? “Although I don’t have a blog, I do appreciate many. Creative Bloq is the one I follow most. It has a ton of tips, tricks, and inspiration that has helped me throughout my studies at FIDM. I love how many daily features they offer, from ‘font of the day’ to the several print, web, and illustration tutorials.”

Is there anything else you would like to add? “There were times it was tough being a FIDM student, because the homework load and critiques can be rough. It takes a certain kind of motivation and eagerness to keep up, and I found myself often thinking ‘somehow, some way.’ I believed in that and it kept me going strong, through the late nights and hard moments of feeling discouraged. My point: no matter what, you can do it (seriously)!”

 

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Author: Mani O'Brien

Mani O’Brien is the Online Editor for the FIDMDigitalArts Blog and the Social Media Marketing Manager for FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in print journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Arizona State University in 2006, and Associate of Arts degree in Graphic Design (Professional Designation) at FIDM in 2010. When she’s not brainstorming social media marketing ideas or writing about the graphic design and digital media, she enjoys practicing yoga, reading magazines, and hanging out with friends and family in Los Angeles.

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