Tracing the contours of a life in design

[Tom Biederbeck] Tom Morin’s Threads of Influence: The Visual History of a Life in Graphic Design is unique among books about design … maybe among all books by visual artists. Morin — a highly regarded designer of identities, annual reports, books and more — has created a record of his life and work that is equal parts memoir, monograph, family chronicle, essay collection and a history of design in the last decades of the 20th century. I spoke with the author about his creative journey and the threads of influence that brought him to today.

Morin’s identity for Brink’s has been in use for four decades — for a corporate logo, ageless.

You say in the preface you were inspired to do this book while moving family things from your father’s home. How does this fit with making a book about your career in design?
The book is a history of those who influenced me to become a designer. In the section about my grandparents, I tell how my grandfather started as a cartoonist and illustrator, then segued into the papermaking industry [John Haskell co-invented the Hydrapulper, still used in papermaking today]. As a kid, I knew those two things went together — visual creativity and paper.

Morin’s family history includes a papermaking pedigree. John Haskell, upper left.

Later when I was studying design at Yale, we took a trip to Mohawk Paper, still a yearly outing for students there. Mohawk Superfine has been embedded in my mind more than 40 years!

The book is visual, it’s family, it’s history … and it’s about graphics. Friends have told me there’s no other book by someone with a recognized career as a visual artist who’s gone back and acknowledged everyone who’s influenced him to get to that point … and did it while he was alive. I’ve been asked, “Isn’t it two books?” I say no: This is really one story.

Catalog cover and exhibition design for Xerox Corporation

What kind of experience do you want the reader to have?
I think there’s merit in seeing how people got to where they got. People are writing about this in business circles all the time. To me, this is a business book as much as it’s a design book — we’re business people as well as creative people.

When I speak to young people — high school and college students — I tell them, look, you may already have had some influences that have set your life in a particular direction. You may not realize it now … but this book will put it in perspective for you.

Cover design for a capability brochure for a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Says Morin, “I was always working in letterforms. My solutions were type-driven. That epitomizes my design approach.”

This is just one life — mine. What’s unusual is that I had all of this material and documented it. Other people have had interesting lives, maybe more interesting than mine. I’d like to see other people do books like this. There should be a library of books of this kind.

From an early age, every year on his birthday, Morin’s father had him complete the other half of a stick figure. He got better!

[Morin’s story is also now documented in an exhibition at Yale University’s Family Arts Library in New Haven, Conn. Materials in the exhibition — and much more from Morin’s personal holdings — are being donated to the university to create an archive, the Tom Morin Papers.]

Morin at the exhibition of his work at Yale University. Photo by Sharon Yin.

We all wonder what our legacy will be. Donating the materials in your exhibition to Yale is a nice “down payment” on a legacy. What else would you like your legacy to include?
I’ll always design, until I can’t do it any more. I’m continuing to design [via his current firm Context Design]. But I’ve decided I’m going to move forward in earnest with teaching. I see that as being the next chapter in my life.

The “threads” on the book’s endpapers are as metaphorical as they are illustrative: Every item used in the book, copied in color, was shredded to create this texture.

All stocks in Threads of Influence are from Mohawk: The dust jacket is 6-pt. Kromekote C2S White text, the end papers are 100-lb. Superfine Eggshell/White text, and the interior pages are on 100-lb. Loop Silk text.

The title was inspired by a quote from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone … and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.” The exhibition of the same title will be on display at Yale’s Haas Library through April 13, 2011.

Tom Morin is a designer and educator living in Santa Fe, N.M. He has taught design and typography at Rochester Institute of Technology, Boston University and Santa Fe Community College. Since 2007 he has volunteered as a writing coach for College Summit’s summer student mentoring programs.

Threads of Influence, published by The Galisteo Press, can be purchased at

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