For over a decade, Creative Director Rashida Morgan-Brown has been a powerful figure shaping the visual direction behind Essence – and now Ebony Magazine’s biggest cover stories. 

In Early October, Ebony Magazine published a cover story on Rap icon Nas.  The photographs, creative directed by Rashida Morgan-Brown in collaboration with photographer Joshua Kissi and produced by The Luupe’s Tracey Woods illustrate the artist’s legacy as a regal, yet sensitive symbol of Black wealth and creativity.

Under Morgan-Brown’s leadership, cover after cover are fueled by this emotive balance. They visualize important political and cultural figures as powerful, accessible, and human.

We caught up to learn more about her inspiring career, plus advice for aspiring creative directors.

NAS photographed by Joshua Kissi for the October, 2021 issue of Ebony Magazine. Creative direction: Rashida Morgan Brown. Executive producer: Tracey Woods

The Luupe: Your path to creative direction is super interesting- you interned at Time/Life, and then started designing for People, were at Essence for more than a decade….can you talk a bit about your career journey and it evolved?

Rashida Morgan-Brown: My final year in high school I received a promotional card from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). It was beautifully designed and colorful. The card was related to the Design, Printing, and Imaging Systems Management programs. It was about careers online and magazines. Physical magazines were hot then! I knew that I wanted to learn how to create and print magazines. While I was in school at RIT I created a magazine for an on campus club that I was the Editor – N – Chief of. It was titled Kings and Queens and was distributed on campus. If only I knew then that was the start to amazing things that would follow in my career.

Rashida Morgan Brown’s early creative direction as editor in chief of  RIT’s “Kings and Queens” magazine.

The Luupe: You started getting into photography at that time as well, right? 

Morgan-Brown: I loved taking pictures and getting my film developed. In college I learned how to develop photos. While living in the Rochester area, I was aware that Kodak was one of the main leaders in the photography business. I toured the George Eastman Museum which gave me additional insight into photography. George Eastman is the founder of Kodak.

Two 2020 Essence covers creative directed by Rashida Morgan Brown. Left photo credit: Timothy Smith. Right photo credit: Delphine Diallo

The Luupe: Did you have any mentors in those early days or receive any advice that’s stayed with you along your career?

Morgan-Brown: Although I did not have official mentors, I learned from my teachers advisors and every professional I worked for. During my last year in college I interned at the Time and Life Digital and Photo studios. I worked in the digital lab where I helped produce posters, billboards and developed film in the dark room for Time Inc titles including Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Time, People and Money magazines.

I had the good fortune to work for a number of great companies including Hearst Publications, Essence and my current position at Ebony. This journey brought me in contact with a number of talented people including creative directors, journalists, editors, and marketing experts. As a result of being in this environment I developed a keen eye for the elements of quality design and photography.

Rashida Morgan Brown behind the scenes

The Luupe: That relationship between photography and design, especially in the commercial and editorial world, is so important. Thinking about your extensive design practice and beauty line, how do you see this engaging with your work as a creative director? 

Morgan-Brown: Rashidasdesigns.com is my design business and mariedeneen.com is my beauty line. These are under the inrashidasworld.com umbrella. There’s something about the creative process that has always enticed me. You could say that I carry creativity along with me and it has become a part of my DNA, regardless of whether I am working on a personal or business venture. I always wanted to use my creativity to be able to provide customers with a sense of fulfillment when they purchase or view my products and services.

A snapshot of Rashida Morgan-Brown’s website

The Luupe: Shifting gears slightly, the pandemic posed new challenges for creatives (and really everyone) in terms of how we work, precautions, etc. Can you talk about some of your greatest creative challenges during the past couple of years? How has the pandemic changed how you work and think creatively?

Morgan-Brown: We have done more work remotely during the pandemic. It has caused us to minimize face to face interaction. Most of our interactions were by video-conferences. As a creative director I must make an effort to ensure that ideas are mapped out and clearly communicated verbally and on screen.

Many photoshoots were done remotely via Zoom or FaceTime. In 2021 photoshoots went back to being in person however we have to take the necessary precautions to ensure that everyone remains healthy. This requires proper PPE and COVID testing prior to and the day of photo shoots.

The pandemic has definitely increased my appreciation for life and putting love into the projects you are working on.

The Luupe: As work and how we work shifted, did you have a favorite cover shoot (or other photo story) that you worked on this past year? And how about all time favorites? 

Morgan-Brown: It’s hard to pick a favorite cover shoot – there were so many – here are a few that I loved working on. They are all unique and special.

Recent cover stories creative directed by Rashida Morgan Brown for Essence and Ebony. Lizzo photographed by JD Barnes. Tobe Nwigwe photographed by Cary Fagan.

The Luupe: Love those – thanks for sharing! Do you have any career advice for aspiring creative directors? 

Morgan-Brown: My career advice would be to learn as much as you can and improve on your skills. Apply the best of what you know to the right situations. Think about how you could make things better which many times involves thinking outside of the box.

The Luupe: What’s a good first step to get that moving? 

Morgan-Brown: I would say the best thing to do is to get training, talk to other people in the field, network, and intern. Always continue to learn, grow and try new things. Everyone finds inspiration in different places. Some might find it in travel, at museums, or in a book. Find the passion in what you do so that you remain inspired.

Find a way to express your designs and creative work with passion. Ensure that even in a fast paced environment, you stick to the core message of presenting quality work. Remove the constraints.

“Ballerina Misty Copeland Soars” photographed by Itaysha Jordan for Essence Magazine’s September 2011 issue. Creative direction by Rashida Morgan Brown

The Luupe: What’s one thing you wished you knew when you were just starting out?

Morgan-Brown: How important it is to express your great ideas and not hold back if you know it’s an idea worth expressing. Those ideas linger inside. The ones that you leave the meeting and think man I should have said that, that many times become the money makers. Stay true to who you are.

The Luupe: Are there any photographers whose work you’re particularly excited about right now?

Morgan-Brown: There are so many great photographers out there I don’t want to pinpoint just one. I will say that I am happy to see more and more Black photographers and specifically Black women photographers having the mainstream light shined on them.

Jennifer Hudson photo credit: Keith Major

The Luupe: Absolutely. It’s been inspiring to see this shift over the past couple of years. We hope the momentum continues to build! What else is exciting you within photography and creative direction right now? 

Morgan-Brown: I absolutely love photography and the idea of capturing a moment in time, whether it is on film, digital, or motion picture. I’m excited about the use of traditional photography morphing into Artificial Intelligence (AI) motion graphics – the Ebony published cover of Jennifer Hudson is a great example.

I realized that it fascinates me because each person sees something different in a photograph. When you ask someone to bring something to life like a still photographic picture and put it into motion they might actually put a little spin on it that is different than what you thought. It then becomes an interpretation of what they see in the photograph along with the creative direction.

Photography and video are also being combined in a really creative way. I also like how photography is used at events. Where people are going into the booth and recreating covers or images that they have seen.