The Designers: Mother Design’s Morgan Smith on finding design through Tumblr and moving to New York
Our interview series The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the twenty-ninth entry into our series, we caught up with Mother Design’s Morgan Smith about the evolution of her role as a designer and creative ethos since joining the studio, along with her favourite New York pastimes.
PT Hi Morgan! How are you?
MS Hello! I’m doing alright – really loving this fall weather right now. How are you doing?
PT Good thank you, loving the fall weather too! Can you tell us how you first became interested in design?
MS I became interested in design through Tumblr, lol. I kind of tell this story a lot… but I used to run a Glee blog. It’s cringy but it was also my introduction to design/design programmes. I made edits, video gifs, displayed captions, and created manips (manipulated photos). I saw everyone else doing it and wanted to be a part of it too. It also helped me understand what fans are looking for visually – so I was in a rabbit hole of figuring out what type of colourings worked for videos, and what fonts were trending when writing captions. That made me explore design tutorials, so I downloaded Photoshop and just went crazy with blending modes and PSDs. I tried to use GIMP and editing sites like Picnik (RIP) but realised I needed to use the good stuff at the time.
PT During your time at Maryland Institute College of Art, who or what inspired you the most, creatively?
MS At MICA, my biggest inspirations were colour and minimalism. I’m a visual thinker, as I’m sure most designers are, so what calls to me is just very clear visuals. I love how minimalism can explore these floods of colour, which really impacted my work in college. I was also inspired by typography. I loved big, bold typefaces, as well as really delicate ones. This left a spot in my work where I loved typesetting when given the opportunity. It was such a fun task organising type and fixing rags – trying to perfect these words surrounded by space. These are really simple inspirations, but they helped craft my design style in college.
I’ve learned a lot in the past three years, and love what I do now.
PT How did you land your job at Mother? What was it about them that stood out to you?
MS I got my job out of luck, I think? I just ended my internship at Anomaly, and I was out of school, so my goal was to get a full-time job. I was reaching out to a lot of recruiters on LinkedIn, Mother included, and thankfully someone got back to me. A week passed, and then I was offered the job and moved to New York. What attracted me to Mother, specifically Mother Design, was the amount of range they had. That showed me that there was a lot of opportunity there, and I could potentially go outside of my design comfort zone. I was also really captivated by the energy of their work, as well as being really excited by the clients they had (Target, Nasty Gal, Wrangler x Lil Nas X, etc). It made me excited to know that they’re people who land noticeable clients, which is something I strived for in college (but that’s no longer important to me anymore).
PT Can you summarise the kind of work you do now, compared to when you first started out with Mother?
MS In the beginning, I was doing a lot of presentation design for client meetings. In a way, presentation design to me is like making brand guidelines almost every day? So for about the first six months, I did a lot of master page styling, rearranging, typesetting, etc – but I also had my chance at a great client project, which I got to fully assist and design on. A little after a year, I was no longer doing presentation design, and became fully part of the design team during the summer of 2021. As a designer, I am now conceptualising design directions, making brand guidelines, creating case studies, presenting to clients, mentoring interns, etc. I’ve learned a lot in the past three years, and love what I do now.
PT Having grown up in Chicago, and studied in Baltimore, what was it like making the move to New York?
MS Honestly, moving to New York just felt like something I needed to do. At MICA, a lot of designers end up moving here for work and I can understand why. There are a lot of design opportunities here, and it has a notable design scene. So, I knew it was something I wanted to do after graduation. Interning in New York made the move a little easier than I expected, and I was able to learn a lot during my first year here. New York can be very shocking, anyone can tell you that. But, I really like living here and it’s a memorable part of my Intro to Adulthood™.
PT Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time in New York?
MS I love a movie. I love the movie theatre, I love the expensive concessions, I love it all. So most of the time I am either at the movies or watching a movie at home (looking forward to Halloween Ends). If I’m not at the movies, I’m usually trying new restaurants/cafes with my friends.
My photo vs my friend's very nice photo from her food Instagram.
PT What does your workspace look like?
MS My office workspace 🖤 I love my desk fan and blankets. Did I tidy my desk for these photos? Yes.
Refinement can help set you up for success.
PT How would you describe your creative process? Has it changed a lot over time?
MS My original creative process, even in high school, was that the best idea is the first idea. Unfortunately, I still tend to think like that! But now, I would say that if I am leaning on that first idea, I have to refine it first. I have to start thinking about what are the most relevant things to showcase this idea. I can be very eager to show everything I’m thinking, but some of those things can be a distraction to what you are truly trying to express. Refinement can help set you up for success. Randomly I think of that Chanel quote, “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” That but with Google Slides presentations and Illustrator artboards.
PT Out of all the projects you’ve ever worked on, which one is the most meaningful to you?
MS The most meaningful project to me will always be Threads. That project will probably stick with me until I retire. It was my very first client project at Mother Design (where I actually got to interact with clients), and I was able to learn so much. It taught me a lot about branding fundamentals, and a lot of things that I didn’t know then but I absolutely know now. I got to learn from my amazing peers and bring my design ideas to the real world. That was something I craved so much in college/internships, because sometimes you don’t get to have those opportunities or you end up creating fake ones, which can only go so far. It was also such a fun project, and I’m happy that it was my first.
PT What would be a dream project for you?
MS A dream project would be to work with a company focused on content, or one in the movie business. I’d love to do something with A24 or HBO in the future. I would also love to have a go at editorial/publication design – something like Netflix’s Tudum or like Bon Appetit spreads. I can tell there’s a lot of fun in those opportunities, and on occasion, you get to break the rigidity of design, which I’d love to try.
When designing, you want to create something that everyone can understand.
PT What’s been the most memorable lesson that you’ve learnt over the years?
MS Something I’m realising is that simplification works for a reason. Things don’t always need to be overworked, or extremely intricate. This doesn’t mean you can’t create grand ideas or go outside of the box – but sometimes, it doesn’t work and that’s okay! When designing, you want to create something that everyone can understand. Sometimes it can be fun to create all these layers but in reality, you really only need one or two.
PT As we’re reaching the final months of 2022, are there any goals or plans you have in mind for 2023?
MS Such a good question… I always want to improve my design skills. But, as for specific goals, I want to gain more client experience and start focusing on strategy in my design process. Strategy is an important part of building brand identities, and it’s something that I want to introduce to my design thinking.