Morro Bay art designer made a splash with celebrities, studios

Judy Salamacha
Judy Salamacha

John O’Brien was the quiet one at Morro Bay 50th meetings throughout 2014. Few realized the company he kept while building his portfolio as a graphic designer working on album covers, posters or full campaigns in the music and movie industries. 

Three years ago, he moved his company, ARTMINISTRY, to the family’s vacation home in Morro Bay because he wanted his son, Blake, now a sophomore at Morro Bay High School, “… to have a classic upbringing and educational experience.” His daughter, True O’Brien, an actress, plays Paige on “Days of our Lives.”

One of his most memorable moments as a graphic designer came when he designed Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” album, John O’Brien recalled. 

“It was her first project in quite some time. Little did I know the magnitude … countless ads and logo posters. The album became a massive hit” and Turner even visited him on his ninth-floor office at Capitol Records, where he was working at the time.

“I was so surprised. She thanked me with an amazing hug and signed a copy of the package.” 

He appreciated that she understood the scope of his contributions to the project. The album received a gold record and multiple platinum awards.

O’Brien can drop the names of other celebrities he’s worked with, too — Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Alan Niven, Guns N’ Roses, Blondie, Frank Sinatra, Lynyrd Skynyrd, B.B. King — as well as Universal Studios, Disney and Sony. 

He also produced  posters and campaigns for films, including “Edward Scissorhands,” “Stargate,” “Get Shorty” and “Alien 3.”

“Projects are a group effort,” he said. 

He might act as creative director, designer, project manager or illustrator. His fulfillment is solving the problem. 

“The creative team might get a line of the song or a pitch for the project. We’ll develop 100 designs -— logo, positioning lines, story boarding, shoot body doubles and a final shoot of the star. When you have seconds to make an impression to get the job, you have to get it right.”

O’Brien received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in design from CSU Fullerton. He worked double shifts at Freelance Design and Rod Dyer Design before producing art and design projects for five years at Capitol Records. He helped build a multi-

million dollar entertainment company with his partners at Cimarron/Bacon/O’Brien, then, in 2001, he formed ARTMINISTRY. 

He has created several recognizable projects on the Central Coast, including the Morro Bay 50th campaign, Morro Bay Tourism Bureau’s regional campaign “It’s in our Nature,” and two Pismo Tourism Bureau campaigns “More Reasons, More Memories” and “Play Stay Live Love.” O’Brien rebranded several projects for Shanley Farms, including packaging for Citrus Burst Finger Limes and Morro Bay Avocados’ Gator Eggs, found at Whole Foods nationally.  

“Advertising is nothing if no one looks at it,” said the award-winning designer, “Invest in one great ad. You can use it forever.”