(As told by Nancy North, co-founder and previous owner.)
Morning Glory Design was established in January 1992 as a graphic design business. Kris Higginbotham and I had a hunch that our talents would mesh and that we would draw out the best in each other. That was the case, because within the first two years the work took on a life of its own.
Kris had lived in the area and worked as a designer for some time, and she had a lot of contacts. We built on those, doing small brochures at the light table, running back and forth to Nelson Printing to get type that was printed out per our direction and later pasted on the layouts.
We did a lot of paper, pen, and exacto knife work in those years before computers were in widespread use as a graphic design tool. Kris' signature handwriting style was in demand.
We used the photocopier to manipulate type, letters, and images. Our first office was one-half of an upstairs studio in the Arts & Heritage Building, an 1870 school that stood on the corner of Grace and Fifth Streets until it was damaged by the tornado and later razed. We shared the room with Joel Moline, a committed printmaker who taught art for years at South Elementary. He worked in the studio at night; we worked during the day. Both Kris and I had young children then (Peter was in kindergarten, Signa was 10) so we worked from 6 a.m. to noon the first two summers, then stretched and changed our hours as kids grew and needs changed.
The Arts and Heritage Center was entirely empty during most days we worked — a little spooky at times, very cold in the hallways in the winter and hot in the summers. Our upstairs room had tall, elegant windows that overlooked Gorman Park, which was tree-filled at the time. Light streamed in and we loved working in the bright corner near the oil stove, where we heated our lunch during the cold months.
It was good to work together and we shared a great sense of possibility and growth. While print was our primary focus, we took on just about everything we were asked to tackle in those first years. Among those requests were banners — large ones for lobbies and conferences and events.
Kris had worked for several influential years with Cherry Creek Theatre, a progressive professional troupe based in St. Peter during the eighties (located where they're now building the restaurant on Third Street). That experience gave her comfort with the scale of banners. I had a lot of sewing experience and had taken on odd projects since childhood, so wasn't afraid of variety either. We believed we could figure out just about anything!
So, when Al Behrends asked us to make a large sewn banner for Bjorling Hall at Gustavus, we just did it, spreading out fabric on a huge oak table that Joel had rescued from the old St. Peter fire station (the building next to the Post Office). Other banner jobs followed, some painted and some sewn. The huge ones that were to be painted were hung on the gym wall in the old Central School Community Center (next to Arts & Heritage) so we could trace the design onto the fabric using an overhead projector, often dangling from the Center's huge ladder to get the job done.
In our first year, Marty Davis' request for a 50th anniversary brochure for Davisco was a turning point for the business. We walked in to the first proof meeting with a practical, affordable tri-fold brochure as a first proof. He took one look and said, "This is too small! I want to TELL THE STORY." He asked us to dig it out, write it up, give it visual form. Back in the studio I looked at Kris and said, "I can do the content. I love research and writing stories. Let's take it on." So we did. I spent the better part of a summer interviewing people, searching the archives of old newspapers, requesting photos, spreading reams of notes across large tables in the room across the hall from our office, giving the information order. We hired a photographer to take a few new photos. Kris designed a beautiful layout, "pasted up" the design, and we worked with Corporate Graphics to print it in time for the October celebration. The project moved us to a new level of service, making us interpreters for the first time, ready to put content and design together to help others tell their business, college or product stories. In addition to the brochure, we created two hand-painted, framed timeline pieces that now hang in Davisco's board room.
Our first purchase was a photocopier. We used Kris' light table and later bought another when Corporate Graphics started phasing them out for computers. It wasn't long before we bought our first Mac, as well. It was slow and we were too; we learned by experimenting! Being able to set and manipulate type ourselves was empowering; Kris' recognized skill with letterforms translated well. We laughed a lot, learning. We pushed to use the computer more and more, combining light table and computer work, sending layouts to the printer "pasted up" and ready to be "shot" for film which was used to make the plates.
By the second year we needed more room, so we rented a whole room in the lower level of the Arts & Heritage Center. It was a basement, but only a partial one and it had big windows where we grew geraniums. We made the space our own with paint and fabric and a pleasant arrangement of odds and ends furniture. We were still the only ones in the building most of the time, but it was a good place to do our work and didn't cost much. Sue came to work for us in this space — our first employee.
In 1995, it became clear that we had a great opportunity, and that we'd need to move to a more public place if we wanted to get serious about business. We found a beautiful space in the old Nicollet Hotel, with entry from Park Row. A savvy female carpenter built walls and a front counter of our design, then we moved our collection of odds and ends furniture in and set up shop. The new space raised our profile and signaled commitment to growth. We enrolled in business classes at South Central College and worked incredibly hard.
Our clientele grew and our projects became more significant. We worked hard, doing the creative work, learning about business, developing systems, and serving as reliably and professionally as we could. We hired another designer, then another. We took on interns.
The work kept coming and we kept delivering. I often rose to write at 4:30 a.m., away from the phone and project management. Computers improved constantly but were outrageously slow and undependable by today's standards. They crashed when a document had a lot of photos, when we moved too fast, or when more than one program was open. They took a long time to process information and large proofs took a long time to print. Software programs were relatively undeveloped. We continued to upgrade and invest. It was hard to find knowledgeable technicians, which created delays when things weren't working properly. Project management took scads of time to do well then, because most files and proofs had to be delivered in person. Many records weren’t computerized. Without e-mail, the phone rang constantly and people came and went a lot.
Shortly after we moved into the Park Row office we completed our first book layout. It was an economics textbook with a friendly, personal tone. The layout called for handwritten subheads and mathematical formulas, all which Kris wrote, scanned and placed.
It was a beautiful book, but the slow labor of working with the big file and all the placed art files was a timing nightmare. Odd hours were not uncommon!
From the beginning and particularly as we became established downtown, we committed ourselves to community outreach. That included pro bono work, speaking at career events, and serving on school committees related to art. Our focus was education, for the most part. We donated a press for original prints to the high school art program, provided specialized instruction to younger interns, and organized and hosted a youth art show dubbed "Artists as Neighbors" until the tornado struck in 1998.
On March 29, 1998, several tornadoes cut a swath more than a mile wide through Saint Peter. Envision's office was in its path, and after the roof of the Nicollet Hotel building was destroyed, several days of rain and snow caused flooding in our first-floor office. The water destroyed a lot of things and made the computers inoperable. After this happened Kris, Sue, Michelle, Sharon and others moved what was salvageable out and into a room in the walkout basement of Sharon and Jackie's just-purchased home. We worked there for nine months in close quarters, meeting with clients at a table near the furnace, helping each other get the job done with humor, optimism and genuine good will. During this time, we did not lose one client.
While at Sharon and Jackie's we searched for a new office, ending up renting in a small brick building next to the Nicollet Hotel and of about the same vintage. Working with its St. Paul owner, we designed the floorplan of our first-floor office; Michelle designed (and helped construct) the walls that define Envision's current work spaces. The building had charm, but the landlord was slow to finish promised work and unresponsive to our calls. The result was a cold, drafty office with leaks and undependable locks and a situation that was intolerable.
We moved into the current office at 322 South Minnesota in early January 2000. Rehabbed after the tornado and then used by Mackenzie Gustafson Law Firm, it was in great shape but needed interior design. Michelle and Dale disassembled the desks and walls and our friends at SignPro hoisted them into the upstairs space through the back windows. Once again, the office was networked and work spaces set up.
The large work table and front counter were constructed and installed, walls were painted, drapes made, and additional iron work was completed to transform the former "light bulb" sign into a gate.
This space was conducive to good work and incredibly peaceful after two years of post-tornado chaos and recovery. We focused well, continued to work effectively as a team, and collaborated for better results than ever. Michelle worked hard to improve computer documentation and record-keeping systems. We received awards.
In 2002, I bought Kris' shares and committed to building the business into an organization that would succeed and serve at a higher level, outlasting all current employees. We did the work and Envision thrived. It continues to impact the region's economic success and cultural growth.