Morcos Key’s community-based approach to design

The Brooklyn studio examines ideas around community and identity through its design practice. We talk to founders Wael Morcos and Jon Key about finding their way in New York, the role of identity in their work and the Arabic type renaissance

“In Alabama, that’s where I, like many artists, did arts and crafts on the kitchen table with their parents. I have a twin named Jarrett, so we would do that,” remembers Jon Key, one half of design studio Morcos Key. Arts and crafts evolved into picking up instruments, singing and theatre. It was during his childhood in Seale, Alabama that he learned his love for music and art, and discovered that there could be myriad ways to express himself.

When Key was around ten years old, he was given a book about HTML and was transfixed by the idea of taking language and transforming it into another visual form. He ended up studying at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which was “not diverse and very stifling in terms of conversations that were happening,” he says. “While I was at RISD, I was really questioning, what does it mean to be a graphic designer? What does it mean to be a designer from Alabama? What does it mean to be a designer from the south? What does it mean to be a designer who is Black?”

It was at RISD that he would cross paths with Wael Morcos, the studio’s co-founder. Growing up on the other side of the world in Lebanon, Morcos’ favourite toys were, like Key’s, based in arts and crafts. When he began to think about pursuing a creative career, he was drawn to graphic design as it seemed to neatly encompass an amalgamation of disciplines.

He gained a degree in graphic design at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, followed by four years working in the branding and design department of Saatchi Beirut where he began working on multilingual identities, sparking his interest in Arabic typography. After several years, he decided to study a master’s at RISD. “[Jon] was an undergrad, I was on the grad programme, but he was eventually hanging out in the graduate students’ studios more than he was in his,” Morcos remembers. “We started working together on a lot of things since then and eventually both moved to New York.”

Top: Black Futures, OneWorld, Penguin Random House, 2021. Above: The Tenth Magazine