What is your creative philosophy?
jessica: I am interested in creating emotionally engaging, concept-driven work that is embodied in beautiful forms. I always try to approach the process in a playful way, with a sense of humor. I want people who view my work to experience or feel something, whether it makes them think, brings them joy, or offers them inspiration. I always aim to create functional work that achieves our clients’ goals.
Do you avoid trends?
jessica: Trendy design and styles can work if you are designing something temporary, like an illustration in a magazine or a poster with a short life-span. However, most of the time at our studio, we seek to create work that can have a long lifespan and stay relevant for a long while, especially in relation to branding. The identity and visual language we create for our clients should stay fresh and relevant even after a decade.
How important is it to you to also have personal projects? What do they give back to your professional career?
jessica: Self-initiated personal projects are extremely important to me. They allow me more freedom to experiment and try things out. The techniques I discover within this space of play often feed back into my client work. Also, I got my start in design through content creation. One of my greatest passions is using my skills at design as a technique to elevate my own personal concepts, whether in a business I create, a book I’m designing, or a website idea I have.
How would you describe your design style?
jessica: I don’t believe I have a singular style with our client work; I like to work flexibly and choose the style that makes most sense for each client’s brand personality and goals. When a client comes to us, our goal is to help them identify their unique brand personality traits and then visualize those traits through digital design, concepts for environments or experiences, or print collateral. That said, many people have labeled the style of my personal work “bold, emotional, and provocative.”
Why is play so important to your work?
jessica: When you hear the word “play,” you probably think of games. However, play is really just a mindset in which you experience a state of “flow” and reach an optimal balance of challenge and opportunity based on your skill set. So you can “play” within games, but you can also play within your work. Essentially, what this means is that you are allowing yourself the time and space to experiment without the risk of failure. I am interested in this serious form of play and using this mindset to create better work and discover new styles. I believe that the heart of creativity is discovery through experimentation and humor, and a state of mind at play makes it easier to do this.
Brands and branding
What’s exciting about working on branding projects in particular? Do they flex a different muscle?
jessica: Branding is about understanding our client and their culture and creating a visual language that expresses their values and can also speak to their audiences. Most of our clients specialize in different fields and have unique goals and values. It’s exciting that we have such diverse clients, as we get to study different disciplines and cultures. Also, branding can't be trendy. It’s not a magazine cover or illustration which will only be seen for a few days and then thrown out. A brand often has to live for a decade or longer, so we have to create something relevant and interesting that won’t look dated in a few years.
How do you decide when to create a static mark vs. a flexible branding system?
jessica: It depends on the client. We factor in the mediums where the brand will live (ie. if it is often digital, it is more feasible to have a flexible animated logo), the brand’s personality (if a strong personality trait is adaptiveness or flexibility, a flexible logo system can make sense), and many other factors. We do not create flexible branding systems for every client; sometimes a static mark can be smarter. We approach branding holistically, thinking about how a mark can work with a visual language that can be applied across a wide range of mediums.
Where do you find inspiration?
jessica: I believe that creativity is all about making interesting connections between things that already exist. I think inspiration for those connections can come from everything we experience as human beings: our conversations, our travels, our dreams, art, a great psychology book, our love lives, etc. I try not to look within our own field of design for inspiration; that’s when you run the risk of regurgitating styles and techniques people are used to seeing. If you find your inspirations from unexpected places, and vary your inspirations to not be too close to any one source, it’s easier to create unique work. I frequent museums and shows and look at all kinds of creative work, like fashion, furniture design, painting, photography, and sculpture. I listen to music and have conversations with friends. I read books about psychology and science, and blogs about popular culture. The list goes on.
Do you have a favorite book?
jessica: There are so many. I recently read Steve Jobs, the memoir by Walter Isaacson, which I really loved. I was always a huge Apple and Jobs fanatic since I was little. I had read a lot of the earlier books, but this biography paints such a good portrait of Steve, both the good and bad sides of his personality. I was an intern at Apple when they released the iPhone and I remember being there and watching Steve give the keynote presentation—I got chills down my spine. He was such a visionary and I think the work he did changed how we go about our lives and communicate with each other.
You said once you are inspired by dreams. Why?
jessica: I am fascinated by the notion of what’s “real.” As humans, we often define what happens in our day-to-day life in the waking world as what is real. For me, anything that can be conceived of in the mind, conscious or unconscious, can be real. I often find dreams and the musings of the imagination more interesting than waking realities, as they are not bound by the structure and constraints of life. My dreams are quite wild—all kinds of crazy and unexpected things happen. I think this has had an influence in my work in that I like creating things that are surreal, have a sense of humor or twist, or make people think differently. I like showing people things they are used to seeing all the time in an unexpected way.
What sites / apps do you look towards for inspiration?
jessica: Brain Pickings, WaitbutWhy, BuzzFeed, Instagram, Colossal, Daily Beast, Fast Company, Gizmodo, New York Art Beat, New York Times, Pinterest, Twitter, WIRED
Advice for students
Can you give a few tips to young designers?
jessica: Talent is overrated: No one pops out of the womb as an awesome designer! Mastering your craft takes a ton of time, and in order to be successful you have to work your ass off and put in the hours. Pursuing something you love helps because you’ll be more likely to put in the time needed to hone your skills and become great. Don’t worry so much at first about making a huge paycheck at first. One of the most valuable things you can do when you are young is learning from people who are creating the work you want to be making one day. Tailor your portfolio based on the work you want to be making. The work that is in your portfolio is the work you will get hired for. So if you hate web design, remove it from your portfolio. If you love typography, spend extra hours on nights and weekends honing that craft so you have more in your portfolio to show for it. Don’t try to be good at everything. No one is great at everything. Instead, collaborate with people who inspire you, who are smarter than you, who will challenge you to learn and grow and see things from a new perspective. Stay interested.Besides hard work and persistence, the other key to a great designer is experiences and empathy; they help you understand how to communicate with many different people. So diversify your experiences. Challenge yourself to learn new things and meet new people. Stay open-minded and flexible. Don’t be an asshole or an egomaniac. When I am hiring, besides talent and work ethic, I look to hire nice people. Life is too short to work with people who make everything difficult or try to make everything about themselves.
What should a student look for in their first job?
jessica: When you’re young, if you don’t have a family to feed or a mortgage to pay, you’re in a better position to take financial risks and figure out what you’re most passionate about. Find the studios or designers that you admire and try to work with and learn from them, even if it means an internship. Real work experience can often be a better learning experience than what you take away from the classroom. Work hard, do what you love, and stay passionate and persistent. Bring a unique voice to your work and incorporate your personality. Be nice, as no one wants to hire assholes or egomaniacs, no matter how talented you are.
What do you teach at your class at SVA?
jessica: I teach a core design class for juniors at the School of Visual Arts. In the past, I was surprised at how difficult it was for many students to think conceptually and come up with their own ideas. So in addition to style and form, I focus my class around idea generation and content authorship. I want students to realize that design doesn’t just have to be a tool to package other people’s content. We have the tools and talents to quickly and effectively express ourselves and elevate our own business ideas or passion projects.
What are your thoughts on specialization vs. generalization for young designers?
jessica: I think both can work. I see specialists doing really well when working with a very unique craft or when they have a very unique perspective on their craft. When you become an expert at something very few people do, there will likely be a market for it, even for bizarre things. I’ve seen highly successful creatives specializing in things I once thought were obscure, like body painting, light painting, chalkboard typography, bubble artistry, balloon art, and more. It’s more difficult to make yourself marketable when you specialize in something that numerous people are good at, like lettering or photography. There are just too many people who are good at those crafts, which is why I think the “generalization” route can also work. It is also very desirable if you can wear many hats and prove capable beyond your core talent. I’m always looking to hire designers who have multiple skills such as illustration, 3D, animation, or designers who are strong conceptually or can manage client relationships.
You’ve done lecture and workshops on creative constraints for many years now—why?
jessica: Early in my career when I switched from an editorial job to a design studio, I found myself stuck in creative block more frequently. I realized that when I was working in editorial, there was an editorial director who decided each issue's theme. That theme, combined with the budget and time constraints of a bi-monthly magazine, provided specific constraints to work within. At a design studio, we had clients coming to us with wide open creative briefs looking for us to tell them what they needed to do or how to allocate their budgets. The possibilities were wide open, and I ended up drowning in all the possible solutions. I’d waste days thinking “what if this?!” or “what if that!?”. When there are no limitations on what you can do, it is much more difficult to come up with creative solutions. So I came up with a technique. Whenever clients came to us with wide open briefs, I started imposing my own rules and limitations on the project, which helped guide me to a solution. For years now I’ve done talks and workshops on this topic of creative constraints. I truly believe it’s one of the best solutions to come up with unique ideas and visual styles. So my advice is to not be bummed out by limitations or constraints you might face in life or work. If you have challenges such as budget, time, or color pallets, figure out how to use them to your advantage. And if you find yourself in the opposite situation, where you have a wide open brief and aren’t sure what to do: just make your own rules that can help guide you to a solution.
What piece of advice should every graphic designer remember?
jessica: Do work you love and are passionate about, look outside of the world of graphic design for inspiration.
What qualities help in a career?
jessica: Passion, work ethic, persistence, kindness, and flexibility.
How do you suggest young designers reach out to people they want to work with?
jessica: I suggest e-mailing those you admire with a nice, personalized note. It should not feel like a template or mass message. It should offer a direct link to your portfolio work for easy viewing—no PDFs nor printed mailers. Show only your top few pieces, quality over quantity. Beyond that, my best advice is to stay persistent. Keep e-mailing when you have updates in your work or are available for freelancing.
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Type and Typography
In your opinion can the design of typography influence the way in which the reader decodes the message?
jessica: Oh yes, very much! It can completely turn it around.
Running the Studio
How do clients react to only one design option when the industry is accustomed to multiple options?
jessica: We assure our clients that if they don’t like what we do, we’ll redo it. However our clients are usually happy with what we create. I believe a large part of this is due to the enormous time we spend on research and process. We strategize with our clients to determine brand personality attributes, which our work will then reflect. We research their target audience and do competitive analysis. We force ourselves to think of the best possible solution for a client that is also respectful of their budgets and restrictions. It is much harder to come up with one great idea than it is to come up with numerous iterations and make the client decide. This does not make things easier for us. However, we have found that it yields better results.
Whose idea was the naked promotional photo?
jessica: Stefan had the idea to do a postcard that was a nod to the original announcement he made when he opened the studio 19 years ago. His idea was that I'd be dressed in conservative clothing, and he'd be naked. I had an immediate gut reaction that it'd be better if we were both nude, and that's what we did.
Are awards and press important?
jessica: Awards and press have brought me no lasting joy or satisfaction. They have never been a motivator; creating great work is what motivates me. That said, I do recognize their value. Awards and press bring awareness to our work, which in turn helps us get more jobs. When we have more job opportunities, we can be choosier with the clients we take on, and take on jobs we are more passionate about, yielding better work. So yes, they can be important.
This is a male-dominated field. How have you experienced challenges being a woman?
jessica: Yes, I’ve experienced sexism before in my career, even from other women. Instead of dwelling on all that’s wrong, I believe in doing what I can to try to change things. I believe mentorship opportunities for young women can go a long way in helping to break the patterns of the past and provide inspiration for women to go after leadership positions. I started a conversation series called “Ladies, Wine, Design” http://ladieswinedesign.com where creative women can connect in positive ways through dialogues, positive conversations, and sharing inspiration. They’ve spread to cities all over the world.
40 Days of Dating
What is 40 Days of Dating?
jessica: 40 Days of Dating is a project that I did with a good friend of mine, Timothy Goodman. We were friends for years and we always made fun of each other for our opposite relationship problems and styles. We wanted to explore our habits and fears in order to learn more about the nature of relationships and love. We decided to date each other for forty days and keep diary entries about each date. We recorded our daily experiences, created videos, and made illustrations. We launched a blog where you can read our daily records appearing side by side. Since the launch, over twenty five million unique people have visited the blog and we have received thousands of e-mails from people around the world. Some people hated the project, but mostly people were touched and felt they related to our experiences. We wrote a book published by Abrams, and the film rights were optioned to Warner Bros, who are working on making a movie based on our experience.
Did you know 40 Days of Dating would be such a viral success?
jessica: We had no idea our project would go viral—we are not trend forecasters. That said, we did think people would be interested in it. I’ve always loved this quote by James Joyce: “What lies in the particular lies in the universal.” I figured if was real and honest and specific in my writing, many people would relate and see themselves in it. And I had a hunch that if we authored a project we ourselves would really enjoy keeping up with, others might enjoy it too.
How is 40 Days of Dating: The Book, different from the blog?
jessica: The book contains everything that happened after the experiment ended. I think what happened after the experimented ended is more interesting: the media frenzy, navigating all the interest from Hollywood, and trying to rebuild our friendship after a failed attempt at dating. We continued to record diary entries for a year after the blog ended. Those entries are paired together in the book, like the blog. The book also contains so much more than our story. Since the topic of love and dating is universal, we asked lots of other people to tell us about their journeys—how they met the love of their life, their worst dates, and essays on love. There’s also a dating timeline, a dating map, tons of new artwork, and other good stuff we thought people might enjoy.
What did you learn about relationships from 40 Days of Dating?
jessica: The most important lesson was to just be myself, and not worry so much about dating or finding the right person. They say you can’t chase love and perhaps that is true. During the experiment, I was stressed out about finding the right guy; I was working too much, not taking care of myself, and not enjoying any of it. The experiment helped me realize that I just needed to chill out, be myself, and not worry so much about anyone else. I was in the best state of mind after the experiment ended. Coincidence or not, when I stopped looking for the right person, I ended up finding the love of my life. We recently got married.
What does it feel like to see the project adapted for film? Are you and Timothy going to be part of the process?
jessica: We’ve been reading the script written by Lorene Scafaria, its been through several rounds of revisions. It’s really crazy to read a movie written about your life! The next step is casting. If the movie goes through to production we’d likely do a lot of the artwork for the title cards and art murals that are a part of the film.
12 Kinds of Kindness
What is 12 Kinds of Kindness?
jessica: This project was born out of the realization that we live self-centered lives. We spend most of our time focused on our careers or in small circles of like-minded friends. We started asking ourselves: why don’t we give back more? Why don’t we use our skills as designers for the greater good? Why don’t we take the time to connect with strangers? So we devised a 12-step experiment designed to cure our apathy and overcome our selfishness. We took popular idioms such as “walk a mile in their shoes” and “kill your enemies with kindness” and put them to practice. We documented the experiments on the blog 12kindsofkindness.com
How does empathy relate to design?
jessica: The better we can relate and empathize with others humans, the better position we are in to create work that speaks, touches, and moves people. So I do believe that increasing our empathy can make us better as creatives.
You built a wall around Trump Tower, why?
jessica: The last step of the “12 Kinds of Kindness” experiment was about diving deep into everything we learned from the experiment and attempting to do something larger than ourselves. We believe that excluding people breeds discrimination, hate, and sometimes terrorism. History tells us that building walls, both physically (like Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border) and metaphorically (like banning all Muslims from the U.S.), will only cause more problems. We simply cannot shut out people based on religion, ethnicity, race, gender, or sex. Instead of building walls and creating fear, we need to build more kindness, love and acceptance in our country. We wanted to do something that stood up to Trump’s intolerance, so we built a wall of kindness around Trump Tower with our message. You can read more about it here .
Kindness is certainly something that we need more of. But what triggered the desire to make it a goal for a web event?
jessica: The reason for making our journey public was to share our feelings and inadequacies that we believe are largely universal, and to start dialogues with others about topics which we find important. We feel that there is too much apathy all around, and the world needs kindness and empathy now more than ever with all of the fear and racism spreading during the 2016 election. It was amazing on a personal level to go through this experiment, and we hope it inspires others to try some of these steps as well.
Should all acts of kindness be publicized?
jessica: Of course not. However, there are many studies that show that acts of kindness are contagious, and we are hoping that by making it public people will be inspired by our journey and do some of the experiments themselves and post their results on social media so they can inspire others, and so on.
What is your dream project?
jessica: In the United States, we interact with poor design on a regular basis, such as airport signage, currency, government websites, and forms. It’d be a dream to work on large-scale projects like this that can have a positive impact on the masses. I would especially love to redesign the US currency; it is very uninspiring and we all interact with it daily.
Who are your role models?
jessica: I truly believe that you can learn something from almost anyone. I know that no one person is perfect, and often when a person excels greatly in one aspect of life, another aspect suffers. I’ve never been a “fan” or “starstruck” of anyone because of this. Instead I look up to and admire certain qualities from all different kinds of people. If I have to list a few off the top of my head right now: my mom, Alain de Botton, my cleaning lady, Salvador Dalí, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, my sister, Charles Bukowski. In the design industry, I am inspired by those who are not just strong formally but also author their own projects and have a unique voice: Christoph Niemann, Maira Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister, Paul Sahre, Brian Rae, Tibor Kalman, and Timothy Goodman, among many others.
What is success? Is it financial? Is success important to you?
jessica: Success is of course relative to every person’s expectations and goals. As humans, we’re driven by nature to seek security, acceptance, and love. Some of us find this in money, others in a career, others in love or marriage or children, and some others in friends and family. You could seemingly “have it all” to the outside world, yet constantly feel unsatisfied, always wanting more. You can be poor but feel you “have it all” because you have a loving family, a good job, and great friends. It doesn’t really matter how much or little you have, it’s a state of mind. Personally, for me, success means options. It means getting to a place in my career where I can turn down work when a client doesn’t have the proper budget or timeline. It means I can choose how and where to spend my time. It means I can take a month to explore a personal project if I want to, without financial worries.
How did you start in design?
jessica: When I was 12, I taught myself how to code and design websites. A year later I created a HTML help site that taught other kids how to make websites. Google advertising had just launched, and I tried one of their banners on my website and started making a lot of money from it. I never thought I could make money from a creative hobby, I always thought I would pursue a regular job in business or finance. This was part of what gave me the confidence to go to school for design and pursue it as my career.
How do you feel about new challenges?
jessica: I get bored rather easily, so I love new challenges. I am uncomfortable being too comfortable. I prefer taking on a project in which something is new, whether a client from a different country and culture or a new medium we’ve never designed for. When there is something new I get a bit of anxiety, and that pushes me to do my best and makes the work better.
Many people think that having to make money from your artwork undermines your ability to really be free with it. Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on how money impacts your work?
jessica: I never understood the glorification of the “starving artist.” I know people who prefer this lifestyle and would never do commercial work, even if it means they cannot pay their rent. That’s all fine if it works for them; I do not claim that my outlook or way of life is in any way better. However for me personally, money is freedom. Having enough money to not have to worry about food or rent allows me peace of mind so that I can focus on my work. It allows me to fund my personal work and ideas. It allows me to say “no” to uninspiring jobs with crazy deadlines. It allows me to travel and meet new people and experience different cultures, which makes me a better designer. I am not driven by monetary goals, I am driven to create good, meaningful work. Being comfortable financially just plays a role in that for me.
What does an average day entail for you?
jessica: What I love most about my job is that every day is very different. One day I can be focused on new client proposals, the next I can be art directing a photo shoot, the next I can be developing strategy, and the following day can be focused on writing. The diversity keeps me on my toes and helps me learn new things.
What do you think about the democratization of design?
jessica: Affordable, easy access to software and tutorials has allowed many more people the opportunity to become designers and/or express their creativity, which is fantastic! There are many good tools and apps that allow you to create a website or to make your photos look better, and almost anyone can shoot a film these days with their iPhone! Some professionals have negative views on the democratization of design, and hate tools like Squarespace out of fear that they will take away jobs from professional designers. I don’t see it that way; I think these tools are great for individuals and small businesses that could not afford design and ended up trying to make their logo in Microsoft Word. These tools make work that previously looked really shitty look a bit nicer. There will always be a market for customized creative work that requires smart problem solving. Computers can’t compete with our ability to problem solve smart visual solutions (yet!). Additionally, I think democratization has made our work as professionals better. Expedited learning curves and production processes allow us to push the quality and styles of work we create. I think it’s exciting and can’t wait to embrace how the industry continues to evolve as creative tools and technology continue to innovate.
What does a typical day look like for you?
jessica: What I love about working at a small studio is that every day is different, so I don't have a typical day. One day I can be art directing commercial photo shoots, illustrating a poster the next day, or building a typographic installation for a film shoot the next. Another week I could be working on our social media or press, presenting our work to a client oversees, or meeting with our team at the studio to strategize on a branding project. I usually am in the studio by 9 and leave the studio by 7:30 or 8. I never work late into the night, I think that's a bad habit in the creative industry that generally does not add to productivity, at least for me. I need to have a few hours to wind down and get proper sleep so I can get my work done efficiently the next day.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
jessica: Yes, definitely. It's invaluable to be surrounded by people and friends who inspire you and who you can talk about your work and process. And who understand what it means when you whine about illustrator crashing or a pantone color not being matched correctly by a printer. I also love working in a studio versus on my own. When your stuck on a project it's invaluable to be able to turn to someone who's taste you trust to get their opinion.
If you couldn't have been a designer, or do anything creative, what do you think you would have been
jessica: I'm fascinated by people and psychology and how differently we all approach life, so probably a psychiatrist. A taxi driver would be amusing because you get these little windows into other people's lives.
Describe your path to becoming a designer and art director.
jessica: I was a big computer nerd when I was younger. At 11 years old, I taught myself how to code and create graphics for websites. I became really involved in the blogging world and people started asking me to create websites for them. About a year into that, I created an HTML & CSS tutorial site that also offered free website templates for many of the blogging platforms that were popular at the time. The website became really popular and I was getting about 15,000 unique visitors a day. This was right around the time that Google Ads first launched; I put one of the ads on my site out of curiosity and started making a lot of money off of it. I basically couldn’t believe that I was being paid to do what I considered a hobby. That’s kind of what I’ve aimed to do with my life ever since. When I was graduating high school, I was a little unsure if I wanted to go more into the coding or the design side of making websites. I was deciding among NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I’ve always been a gut instinct person and my gut told me to go to RISD, so that’s where I ended up. RISD puts a lot of focus on working with your hands, which was a shock for me coming from a digital background where I was glued to my computer 24/7. I think this merging of craft with a digital background plays a big role in my work today.
Speaking of that other side of life, do you have any hobbies?
jessica: Stefan has a really good line, "Hobbies are for people that don't like what they're doing." I would say that's the case for me. My work is my hobby. I absolutely love doing it.
Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
jessica: For the most part yes. I love the studio and the work we do and am so grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way. But I'm always hungry for new projects and challenges and I often think the work I'm doing can be pushed or be better. I think most creatives are always a bit discontent with what we're doing, it's what drives us to keep doing better work. If I was completely satisfied, I'd probably just end up recycling the same work or ideas.
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