Douglas Morris has built a legacy of refined design, meticulous standards, and perpetual investment in the next generation of designers.
As a fresh graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Douglas Morris’ first project was creating environmental graphics for the Emir’s palace in Kuwait. Perhaps that formed a permanent impression, because in the ensuing 30 years, the 2014 SEGD Fellow has become known for bringing a refined, elegant, and formal approach to his client’s environments. In a body of work intentionally eschewing a signature aesthetic, Morris and his partner Richard Poulin have focused on context and client needs rather than personal style.
“Since I first met Doug, I have admired the beauty and refinement of his work,” says Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD, Cloud Gehshan Associates. “It is simply gorgeous in its typography, use of materials, and sensitivity to context. His skills have greatly enhanced the body of work at Poulin + Morris, both in breadth and quality. He is the type of designer who works for perfection and seems to achieve it every time.”
Morris has brought the same rigor and discipline to running the business he co-founded and leads with Poulin and to mentoring in his field. Both in his office and as a past SEGD president, conference and awards program chair, and regional representative, Morris is known as much for his kindness and passion for design as for his exacting standards.
“Doug has always demonstrated, and in turn inspired, kindness,” says Debra Nichols, FSEGD, Debra Nichols Design. “It’s a kindness that fosters true camaraderie, a quality not always found in leadership styles. And it has perpetuated and strengthened the collegial, in fact familial, quality of mutual support and true affection among the SEGD community.”
Morris spoke recently with eg magazine about his work, his role models, and why he’d like to redesign social media.
How did your design career get started?
I grew up in New York. I studied graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design and after graduating, moved to Boston. I worked at a few small design firms there, but my career really started when I joined The Architects Collaborative, the Cambridge firm established by [Bauhaus founder] Walter Gropius.
After TAC, New York was pulling me back. I started looking for a job here in New York City and it was about that time that I met Sue Gould [Lebowitz Gould Design], Tracy Turner [Tracy Turner Design], and Chris Calori and David Vanden-Eynden [Calori & Vanden-Eynden Design Consultants]. It was Chris and Dave who gave me my first job in New York City.
How did Poulin + Morris come about?
Richard [Poulin] and I met at one of the last SEGD conferences held at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Robert Probst [University of Cincinnati] introduced us at a cocktail party. That was in 1989, and we haven’t been apart since. A short while thereafter we went into business together. In 2013, we were married.
What is it like to be in a business partnership with your life partner?
You know you’re in the right relationship, whether it’s professional or personal, when you just don’t get tired of each other and inspire each other all the time. When we first thought of starting Poulin + Morris, some of our friends told us they could never work with their husband or wife. For us, it just works.
Who have been your biggest role models/influences?
I have three major role models: my two parents and Richard. My parents were very much a product of the 1950s, with very traditional beliefs about roles for men and women. So when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in the visual arts, they didn’t know what that meant. To find out, they did their research, asking other business professionals about what it was and what it entailed. They trusted me to make the right decisions. They made my education happen. RISD is very expensive but they figured out a way to pay for it. My mother actually went back into the workforce to help put me through college. They’ve been supportive all along.
Richard is my third role model. From the moment we met there was a connection. It was like we had known each other our entire lives. From Richard, I learned that design comes from all around us. And I learned there are no limitations on creativity. There are no limits on new ideas. And there are no limits on inspiration.
Now the four of us are best friends. We travel the world together. We talk on the phone every few days. We text all the time. We’re always laughing.
How did you get involved in SEGD?
As a young designer, SEGD was an amazing knowledge resource for me. When I first moved to Boston, I got involved in regional SEGD events. Later I was the first regional rep for the New York chapter.
At some point I was asked to join an SEGD retreat in Chicago. At the time we were talking about changing the name from Society of Environmental Graphic Designers to Society for Environmental Graphic Design. It was then that I felt I was brought into the fold of the organization. Later I was asked to chair the design competition, and for the first time, we had international jurists. I invited Erik Spiekermann, Garry Emery, and Paola Antonelli. Then Patrick Gallagher asked me to join the SEGD Board of Directors. I chaired the conference in Miami Beach and from there, became SEGD vice president and then president.
What was the first thing you ever designed? When did you know that you wanted to be a designer?
At The Architects Collaborative, my first project was for the Palace and Government Center in Kuwait. This was the home of the Emir. TAC designed the architecture and I was responsible for the environmental graphics. For me, it was the first time I did many of the things that I do every day now. It was the first time I worked in the metric system. It was the first time I had to create my own documentation. It was the first time I gave client presentations.
Truth be told, though, that wasn’t my first design project.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I designed a book. My sister and I used to draw pictures on long car trips with our family. At some point I decided I needed to put them together in a book. So I designed a cover, chapter pages, the whole thing. I remember how much fun it was, and the experience of putting it together. Without being able to put a name to it, I realized for the first time that I was going to be a designer. I’m surprised the book hasn’t shown up as blackmail material.
What do you see as the most important or landmark projects that have impacted the trajectory of your career?
The Kuwait palace would be one. 1585 Broadway, the Morgan Stanley world headquarters, was also important to me, because it was one of the first projects that Richard and I worked on together. Time Warner, the CNN headquarters, and the Newseum were also significant milestones for me.
What do you consider your greatest professional achievement? What legacy would you like to leave?
I’m most proud of our office, of the breadth of the work that we’ve created over almost 25 years. That works into the second part of the question, about legacy. One of the things we believe in most strongly here is that the office is a place to nurture young talent. It’s an educational environment. Everything we do is based on that and we believe our job is to train and inspire the young designers who work here and then go on to start their own firms or work elsewhere. At the end of the day, that is as important as the actual projects we complete.
What would you want people to say about your body of work?
I think there are design firms that are known for a style. You can often recognize their work because of a certain aesthetic. When I look back on my work, I want to see nothing that has a “style” to it. I want it all to be a reflection of the client, not of us.
What would you be doing right now if you weren’t working as a designer?
I think I would be a designer in a different way. One of the things I always wanted to do since I was very young is set design. As an adult, one of the things I’d like to do is work for the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a place where music, dance, and theater all come together. That would be a great assignment, to design sets and backgrounds for the Met.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I love new experiences. Whether that’s going to a show, a concert, a movie, visiting with friends and talking about new things, or having dinner at a new restaurant—new is exciting to me.
Fill in the blank. If I could just get my hands on _______________, I would totally redesign it. How and why?
Social media. You hear people complaining about it every day: what’s up with these algorithms, it switched my screen off, it cut off my text. The social media venues I know aren’t taking advantage of some basic visual connections that are very intuitive to users. I don’t think they function the way people want to use them. How do they all work together and interact? Not well.
I suppose this is basically a wayfinding problem. Even though it’s a completely different set of problems than what we think of as wayfinding, that’s what it is: redesigning orientations and making the experience intuitive.
--eg magazine No. 10, 2014