Designer at Design Observer
Jessica
Helfand

Paris and NYC raised, Jessica is a 2013 AIGA medalist and the founding editor of Design Observer. She has studied and taught at Yale for over two decades and has held various fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, Civitella Ranieri, and the Bogliasco Foundation, among others. Her book, Face: A Visual Odyssey, was published in 2019 by MIT Press.

New Haven, United States • February 9, 2021

What led you into design?

It was between acting and art. Neither paid the bills. My parents—products of Depression-era pessimism and rationing—wanted me to go into advertising. I chose architecture, was pathetic with numbers, and fortunately ended up at Yale where Josef Albers had started a program in graphic design a quarter-century earlier. So, I was rescued.

What does a typical day look like?

I am up before dawn because it I can only write in the mornings when the phone isn’t ringing. One strong cup of coffee, a few hours getting my brain in gear and I am in the studio by 9am, latest. I spend a good deal of the day in some kind of messaging with my team at Design Observer (we’re distributed across the US and soon, the UK) and multitasking on a number of other fronts, and I take breaks to stretch and draw and sort through whatever visual project I am working on (at the moment, my book on the face which has a lot of spinoff projects) and almost always stop for a glass of wine at 5pm. When your studio is in your house (as mine has always been) you have to have rituals that divide day from night. The coffee/wine bookends are key: for years, our dogs knew that 5pm was the golden hour. We got a glass of wine, they got a bone. (Our children christened this the “cocktail bone”).

What’s your workstation setup?

I write on a MacBook Pro, draw on an iPad, and split my time between my design studio (below) and my painting studio. Sketchbooks and glue follow me everywhere.

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Where do you go to get inspired?

My garden. My painting studio. My library. (Any garden, or painting studio, or library, for that matter.) Spain—the Costa Brava—and Portugal—especially Porto—maybe because my mother was a Sephardic Jew and when I go there, I feel like people look like me. Who knows? Museums, sometimes. My car. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 27 so it still feels exciting to have wheels. I do infact get my best ideas while driving.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

Just yesterday, Abbott Miller posted an image of Wim Crouwel’s letterform drawings that he’d seen at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. I took a screenshot and now it’s wallpaper on my phone.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I like to say that my two children are the best things I ever designed, but other than that, my books—particularly the last one—Design: The invention of Desire (Yale University Press: 2016) because it was the first time I was able to marry my writing to my painting. (Examples of paintings below.)

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There are also some posters I am proud of, like this “Get out the Vote” poster from 2016.

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More recently I have begun a collaboration with a young designer/filmmaker named Lake Buckley. She shot the book trailer for this:

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Which you can see here— which is part of a project I’m starting to adapt the book for television. I can’t say enough about how exciting it is to collaborate, to humanize and visualize and make this content real and adapt it into something kinetic and time-based. This is a real game changer for me.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

We aren’t a real design firm with clients, but operate more like a small media company. We write and publish, host conferences, produce three award-winning podcasts, and try to do what we’ve always done, which is to find a way to connect design to the rest of the world. It’s hard and it’s humbling but it challenges us to be open and collaborative, to interrogate our assumptions about what design means, and why it matters.

To this end, I’ve teamed with an amazing new co-host for one podcast. Ellen McGirt writes a daily column for Fortune on race, inclusion, and leadership. She’s brilliant, unpretentious, charismatic, honest, gracious, graceful—and fearless! Together, we are talking to a range of people at the intersection of different disciplines, people whose creative agendas are fascinating, unusual, even radical: from Courtney Cogburn, a public health professor who has created a VR simulation of what it “feels” like to be a black homeless man in America, to Sara Hendren, an artist / architect / designer whose understanding of what it means to be differently-abled (and which has led her to write, think, teach, and contribute in imaginative and provocative new ways) … this season, we even interviewed Janelle Monáe (who is all of the above, and more). All to say: there is a lot going on in the world of makers and doers that our readers and listeners need to know about, and I’m proud that Design Observer continues to support these kinds of conversations, helping to bring these stories to light.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Keep a notebook. Keep a lot of them. Never stop doing your own work. Employers come and go, studios fold and companies go bankrupt—you have to stay true to your own observations, remaining witness to your own life. Nothing is more important than this. After more than two decades teaching and traveling and engaging with young people and students across the design disciplines, watching social media wedging us all into same-old same-old compartments, I can say without any hesitation that nothing is more critical.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Lots! here goes:

Design Observer
Design Observer Book
Design Observer Book trailer
My personal site (books + paintings)

My latest book, which was published on November 19, 2019

And the FACE trailer, directed by Lake Buckley and dayday.