Photo of Graphic Design alumna and Imaginary Forces creative director Michelle Dougherty by Mitchell Fraser
Photo of Graphic Design alumna and Imaginary Forces creative director Michelle Dougherty, by Mitchell Fraser

profile / alumni / graphic-design
March 14, 2018
Writer: Solvej Schou
Images: Courtesy of Imaginary Forces

Graphic Design Alumna Michelle Dougherty’s Path from ArtCenter to ‘Stranger Things’

Blocks away from West Los Angeles’s Sawtelle Boulevard, dubbed “ramen row” for its yummy throng of Japanese noodle cafes, Graphic Design alumna Michelle Dougherty (BFA 1995) stands, pre-lunch, in her high-ceilinged office on the second floor of Imaginary Forces, the creative studio behind the title sequences for hit television shows Stranger Things, Mad Men and more.

For Dougherty—creative director, designer and live-action director at the company—the space is her artistic home, dotted with mementos from her 20-year-long Imaginary Forces career spanning advertising, film, TV, branding and motion graphics. On one shelf there’s a bottle of champagne from Netflix, whose Stranger Things boasts a retro 1980s-style main title sequence that won Dougherty and her team a 2017 Creative Arts Emmy. Leaning near a teal avocado-shaped Acapulco chair is a framed poster for Sonic Sea, a 2016 documentary on the threat of ocean noise to marine mammals. Co-directed by Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld, the film snagged her two Emmys.

“As you evolve in your career, you try to find things that speak to you. For me, creating impact and positive change is one of those things,” says Dougherty, pausing for reflection. “You start to look in your heart and see what you feel like you need to do on this earth.”

At ArtCenter, I finally felt that I was doing what I love, and that there was this sense of community and camaraderie.

Michelle Dougherty

Dougherty’s journey from ArtCenter student to Emmy winner is one with deep artistic roots. Born in Mexico, Dougherty grew up in Orange County with her Mexican mother and American father, with the beach her after-school playground. Her mom introduced her to artists such as Diego Rivera, took her to museums and enrolled her in art classes. She did calligraphy and watched films by Alfred Hitchcock. Her uncle in Mexico—an inventor nicknamed “Tio Muerto,” since his birthday landed on the Day of the Dead—was also an inspiration. (Dougherty is in the process of creating a tequila named in his honor).

In high school, Dougherty started learning more about design, and taking an ArtCenter at Night class clarified her direction. After going to junior college and UCLA, she decided, “I have to get back to ArtCenter.” Among her favorite Graphic Design instructors were Simon Johnston, whose “love of typography was infectious,” she says. Dougherty’s projects included type posters and a piece on low riders. She sought out interactive courses, and also animation courses taught by founder Lynda Weinman. She enjoyed the storytelling aspect of animation.

Photo of filming for the Imaginary Forces-created main title of HBO show "Boardwalk Empire"
Photo of filming for the main title sequence—created by Michelle Dougherty and her team—of Boardwalk Empire  
Poster of 2016 documentary "Sonic Sea" co-directed by Michelle Dougherty 
Sonic Sea co-directed by Michelle Dougherty

“At ArtCenter, I finally felt that I was doing what I love, and that there was this sense of community and camaraderie,” says Dougherty, whose younger brother Sean Dougherty (BFA 00 Graphic Design) also went to the College. Inches from her desk, an orange ArtCenter alumni pin is attached to a green ribbon on a bookcase.

After graduating, Dougherty—influenced by designers Saul Bass and Paul Rand—worked for a movie poster company, then helped fellow Graphic Design alum Chris Do (BFA 95) launch his brand strategy design consultancy Blind. In 1998, she started fulltime at Imaginary Forces, directing commercials, working with movie marketing and creating title sequences. Dozens of Polaroids of co-workers stretch up a wall in her office. Other ArtCenter alumni at Imaginary Forces include Tosh Kodama (BFA 94 Advertising), Katherine Liang (BFA 14 Illustration), Rachel Cohn (MS 14 Environmental Design) and Graphic Design alum Grant Lau.

Dougherty’s credits also include title sequences for Boardwalk Empire, Band of Brothers, Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Starz show Black Sails. But the title sequence for Stranger Things, reflecting the series’ blend of horror and coming-of-age nostalgia, is by far Dougherty’s most celebrated project to date. Over a dramatic ‘80s-esque synthesizer tune, red gleaming letters move and click into place. Show creators the Duffer Brothers told her they were fans of the ‘80s, Stephen King and title designer Richard Greenberg, who did the tension-building main title design for 1979’s Alien. Trying out typefaces influenced by ‘80s King book cover fonts, Dougherty and her team did various motion tests. The font ITC Benguiat—created by Ed Benguiat in 1978—was eventually chosen.

Still from the main title sequence of Netflix show "Jessica Jones"
Still from the main title sequence—created by Michelle Dougherty and her team—of Netflix show Jessica Jones 

“Early in my career I tried to sell this idea of moving type, and no one bought it, so I was excited when the Duffer Brothers said they wanted to use typography,” says Dougherty. “We altered the font to make the ‘S’ and ‘R’ bigger, made the font red and outlined it. The world adopted the show and title design, which was the biggest compliment you could give, more than any award. It's like, WOW.”

With the hour-long Sonic Sea, co-produced by Imaginary Forces and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dougherty ventured into directing her first feature-length film. The documentary, which focuses on whales, felt passionately personal for Dougherty, given her ocean-centric upbringing. And a lot has shifted, she notes, since she first started directing commercials and working in design.

“People used to come up to me on set and thought I was craft service or wardrobe—admirable professions in their own right—but they never pictured me, a woman, as the director,” she says. “Now young female designers often come up to me and say, ‘It's so great seeing someone like you in your position.’ Thinking back, I didn't have anybody like that when I was younger. Every industry is changing for the better.”