Visual Thinking: Jessica Helfand on Invention, the Studio as Sanctuary, and Being a Collector

Visual Thinking: Jessica Helfand on Invention, the Studio as Sanctuary, and Being a Collector

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By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Maggie Peters

Jessica Helfand is an artist, designer, and writer. She is a co-founder of Design Observer, and the co-host of two podcasts: The Observatory, and The Design of Business | The Business of Design. She has been visiting professor at The Cooper Union, Wesleyan University and Paris College of Art, and is a founding tutor in the summer editorial design course in Porto, Portugal. She grew up in Paris and New York City and received both her BA and MFA from Yale University, where she has taught since 1996. She is also the 2013 recipient of the AIGA Medal.

Helfand is the author of numerous books on design and visual culture, including Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture, Reinventing the Wheel, and Design: The Invention of Desire. Her next book, Face—a visual and cultural history of the human likeness—will be published by MIT Press this November. Named the first Henry Wolf Resident in design at the American Academy in Rome in 2010, she will be a fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation in the fall of 2019, and the Artist in Residence at CalTech in the winter of 2020.  In her interview, Jessica talks about cultivating oneself as a visual thinker, observer, and thus a designer, advising young designers and young architects to maintain their own practice and invent their own work.

JG: How did your interest in all things design first develop?

JH: I grew up with parents who were collectors. My father, in particular, was a serious collector of ephemera and posters - enormous, turn-of-the-century French and Italian posters - which were filled with incredible typography. They had a great theatricality to them—which is interesting because I later had to decide between theatre and design. Those posters, in a way, were both. 

When I went to graduate school in the 80’s, design was framed by a discipline that grew of the Bauhaus and the Kunstegerbeschule—the design school in Basel, Switzerland—that was all about minimalism and economy of means. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life trying to balance the excess of those turn-of-the-century posters with the modernist restraint that characterized my education. Both were about visual communication, as binary and boundless as you might imagine.

I love how you talk about this in terms of visual communication, because architects do so much of that, whether they think about their work in those terms or not. 

My undergraduate degree is actually in graphic design and architectural theory—back in those days it was called a “Special Divisional Major”. I took every class I could get my hands on that had ‘architect’ in the title, but I did all my studio work in graphic design. 

I didn’t have to work three-dimensionally, I didn’t have to build models, I didn’t go to studio with the architects, but I took the classes architecture majors had to take on city planning, urbanism, and theory. I was actually in a million classes with Maya Lin, who was a year ahead of me in undergrad. So I learned a little bit about architecture [laughs].

Myelin  by Jessica Helfand

Myelin by Jessica Helfand

What did you learn about yourself by studying graphic design?

I learned that I always wanted to be in a studio‚ not in an office. I’ve always had a studio in my house. I raised both of my children in my studio. I see my studio as a daily practice the way some people see yoga: it’s a sanctuary. I want to grow old in my studio.

I love that you refer to it as a ‘practice’ in the same way that yoga is. 

There was a man named David Pease, who was the Dean at the Yale School of Art for many years, and who was a very important mentor to me. Until the very end of his life, he went to his studio every single day. There were days when he did nothing but sharpen his pencils, but he marked time by going there and bearing witness, just looking. David had a huge impact on me and my practice, and my life. 

You eventually got an MFA - tell me about the years leading up to your masters. 

Embarrassing to admit this but I began as a soap opera writer. I got hired by Procter and Gamble, who produced three series: Search for Tomorrow, The Edge of Night, and Guiding Light, and they put me on a development contract at NBC where I worked as a sub anytime a writer went on vacation. I learned how to write under pressure, how to work with an editor, and how to collaborate. Writing became a part of my practice after that. 

Some time later, I went to work for a friend of my father’s in a small design firm until I got a portfolio together. Five years after getting my BA at Yale, I went back for my MFA. As an undergrad, there were only three graphic design classes you could take - beginning, intro, and advanced - and I did those all in the first year. Back then, I took all these grad classes but really didn’t know what I was doing. I went back because I wanted to do things the right way.  

“I’ve always had a studio in my house. I raised both of my children in my studio. I see my studio as a daily practice the way some people see yoga: it’s a sanctuary.”

What did you learn in grad school?

There’s something about design education that has always astounded me, that I see more and more since becoming an educator myself - we tend to privilege the formal attributes of skill over things like original thinking and intellectual engagement. I wanted to study design with other disciplines: I was always interested in combining design and architecture, or public health, or history and collecting, for example. 

Today, you can teach yourself anything from a YouTube video, so why would you spend time in class focusing on instruction? You can look. The incubation chamber of looking and being in the studio is important, but at Yale, where we have forty-two libraries, we should really be availing ourselves of other ideas and disciplines and collections. There's a real opportunity to teach young designers how to do research and develop ideas about their own work.

What did you do after Yale?

I went to work for a magazine designer named Roger Black. He’d been the Art Director at Rolling Stone for many years, and he’d just started his own agency. He had three of us in this tiny little room - it was graphic design boot camp. As I recall, I redesigned fifteen magazines in about ten months. That was my first big job in editorial design and I loved it. It’s still my favorite thing to do, to design magazines and books. 

Some time later I was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine as Design Director. I was in Philadelphia for three years, and then I started my own studio. 

A poster for an exhibit at the Wolfsonian in Miami, by Jessica Helfand

A poster for an exhibit at the Wolfsonian in Miami, by Jessica Helfand

Tell me about starting your own studio. 

I left the Inquirer at the end of 1993, and started working alone. By 1995, my husband William Drenttel and I had our first child, and shortly after, in 1996, he left Drenttel Doyle Partners and we started a firm which later became Winterhouse. After our daughter was born in 1998, we moved to the Berkshires, into a studio built by—and for—the man who painted the Radio City murals.  

In 2011, we moved to New Haven, because by then I had to be there more than once a week. And then Bill got sick - he died at the end of 2013. I shut down the studio.

I’m so sorry. Is that when you started Design Observer?

I started Design Observer in 2003, with Bill, Michael Bierut, and Rick Poynor, who was then the editor of Eye Magazine. We just celebrated our fifteenth year, and published a book with MIT Press called “Culture is Not Always Popular”—named for the lecture we gave in Vancouver when we launched the site. Our feeling was that popular culture should not be design’s only, or even primary vehicle. The talk itself was a bit controversial - half the audience teared up and gave us a standing ovation, and the other half booed us. 

With Design Observer, we wanted to find a way to cast a wider net around design as a way to engage different disciplines and people and ideas. We did this before “design thinking” became part of the mainstream lingo, before design became a hot topic. We just wanted to write about design as a humanist discipline, as something perhaps greater than the sum of its many parts.

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture , by Jessica Helfand

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture, by Jessica Helfand

Where are you in your career today?

There are some people who love design through and through—but I’m not one of those people. I’ve been quite critical—and vocal—about what’s happened to the ways we practice. I’m not a branding person, I’m not a marketing person, I’m not a focus group person, and I find the digital means by which design happens to be a rather limited, truncated lens. It doesn’t allow for certain kinds of solutions that, to my mind, are really exciting, daring, even.

What concerns me the most is the fact that design so easily confers legitimacy. I’m more interested in invention than innovation. I’m more interested in people than in machines, in bravery and honesty over jargon and hype. I like hybrids and mashups, shifting the coordinates of what we look at and respond to, and reasserting our ability to see and hear and look and listen. From that kind of bravery comes a new way to express ideas, a new visual language. 

“We did this before “design thinking” became part of the mainstream lingo, before design became a hot topic. We just wanted to write about design as a humanist discipline, as something perhaps greater than the sum of its many parts.”

How does one cultivate themselves to become a “good designer”?

Being a good designer can probably be interpreted many different ways, but to me, I think that you have to be willing to confront what you believe even if it’s not popular. That, I think, is the hardest thing to do. You do good by being good. 

Lately, I’ve been increasingly called upon to comment on ethics in design. Most recently, I’ve been approached by Facebook, and we all know what’s going on with Facebook. Why did they come to me? Because I’m a professor? Because I’m outspoken? Because my last book was on design and humanism? The problem is that ethics is not an institutional concern: it’s a individual concern. And individual issues begin with one person, at one time, doing one thing. That requires faith, understanding, compassion, and the one thing that challenges everyone: patience. Ethics isn’t derived by market research, or determined by an algorithm—and that’s tricky, particularly if you’re one of these large, behemoth companies that puts profit ahead of people.  

Looking back, what have been some of your biggest challenges in your career?  

This is a personal one. One is a challenge that I overcame that existed at the time and I wouldn’t do it again: to figure out how to have a family, I had to go into business with my husband. I don’t think I would do that again. It made sense at the time - I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to work, I wanted to have a studio. So I did them all together, but it wasn’t the simplest arrangement.

The other challenge has been that, from the very beginning, I was always very intellectually driven as a maker. That got in my way. “I can’t make that thing because I’m reading too much, or I’m talking too much,” - you know. I had to force myself to start drawing again in a sketchbook, and teaching, and getting time in the studio to paint. I had to groom myself to be a different kind of maker. It’s an isolating thing, that’s the downside of it. But the rewards pay other kinds of dividends.

Amygdala  by Jessica Helfand

Amygdala by Jessica Helfand

What would you say your general approach to your career has been? What’s your personal philosophy?

There’s a wonderful guy who worked for me for many years, named Teddy Blanks, who is now a very successful designer on his own. We had worked on a project together, and he looked up one morning and said “I finally figured out how your mind works!” I said, “Oh Teddy, do tell!” He said, “You’re an abstract expressionist.” He was referring, I think, to the cryptic, yet ultimately cogent logic of my many-layered Photoshop files. I think in layers, in components, in juxtaposed sequences—kind of like an abstract expressionist. I am not methodical. I do not have a disciplined mind. They say you should always hire people smarter than you are - people who have skills that I lack. The detail-conscious, methodical, meticulous, checking t’s and dotting i’s person? Not me!

What advice do you have for anyone in a visual field? 

I think the most important thing is that you do your own work, always. Let’s say you’re a young designer and you’re applying to graduate school, and you’re working in a firm and all you have to show is the work you’re doing for that firm. You have to take six months and take two nights off a week, or every weekend, and invent your own projects. When I applied to grad school, I invented mine because I didn’t think the projects in my office were that interesting. They were paying the bills, but they didn’t represent my mind or my abilities or my ambitions. 

If all you do is answer what’s being asked of you, regardless of the economic necessity, you still have to do your own work. That could be everything from keeping a sketchbook to how you assemble visual ideas on Instagram, to how you start to collect, and archive, and build an arsenal of your own visual thinking. That has many benefits. One is that people can see how you think. But secondly, It’s like stretching before you run. It’s an exercise in seeing what interests you. And that’s essential—this practice of interrogating your assumption— and something that is central to any visual practice.

“I’m more interested in invention than innovation. I’m more interested in people than in machines, in bravery and honesty over jargon and hype...From that kind of bravery comes a new way to express ideas, a new visual language.”

Finally, what advice do you have specifically for architects?

It’s hard in architecture, because how can you feel that you are engaging in the world of the spatially meaningful, when you’re working for a team doing window details for sixteen months and the building will take twenty years, and it’s a bank? I think it’s hard for designers, particularly with how much we do this on teams - how do you reconcile your role, when you’re part of a bigger team, when the collective effort overshadows your own, arguably sporadic contributions? I think that’s true of all designers, but it may be especially true for young architects.

I tell my students to carry a sketchbook everywhere they go, and to bring tape or glue with them, too. There’s something about finding something on the street and taping it in your sketchbook and looking at it later - something about being a collector of experiences that has a visible, palpable form. For architects, that’s a nice thing, because there’s a tactility to the notebook - it’s not just you and a pen and paper, it’s a moving canvas, an ongoing investigation. 

We also benefit, all of us, from feeding ourselves in other ways. I’ve long believed that everyone should read The New Yorker: it might be the best writing on the planet. You read to build your vocabulary, you look to hone your observational skills. Maybe these things are self-evident, but to me, it bears repeating: it’s critical in an age of templates and algorithms and best practices. What it is we’re losing is the ability to honor our own visual sense of adventure. 

I stepped down from Yale this year to concentrate on other projects, and the thing that I’ll miss about teaching is the variety of voices and perspectives that you can’t help but find invigorating. You have to make time to let go between things, to look and see and read and dream. That’s when the real opportunity lies.

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