Jessica Helfand: Personal Book Project–Case Study
I've written a bunch of books and Michael had and earlier book called "79 Essays on Design", and that is a compilation of his essays from design server, and, like him, my first two books have no images in them. It's interesting now that we have a podcast, we have two podcasts now, which we'll talk about perhaps a little later, but it's interesting when you talk about design if you don't share design, but it can be done. To come back to this question of typography it allows you to actually, really, expressively understand and evoke what it is you're trying to say. My first book was on Paul Redd, it was a series of two essays that I wrote, one for the New Republic in which the editor called me and said, "Now remember, these are smart people" "who have no idea what graphic design is," "so begin at the beginning and explain what it is." So the first paragraph of that essay is about what graphic design is. The second essay appeared in the monograph that Fiden published on Paul Redd. The sec...
ond book is a book of essays I wrote over many years. I had a column called screen in I-Magazine. My third book came out in 2002. It was a book about the history of circular charts that originate in the middle ages, but that in the 19th century and certainly the 20th century, became used for all kinds of things like how farmers could breed their cattle and how people could figure out how to make a chocolate souffle, which I'll show a quick image of in a minute. Then eight years ago, I wrote a book on the history of scrapbooks that was the sort of anti-Martha Stewart story. It was a story of the fact that people unlike all of us, who are not primarily visual, felt compelled for whatever reason, to keep these remarkably visual repositories of their lives. Very interesting social history that surged in times of war, which is interesting because people who felt vulnerable in the wake of destruction, felt that if they could submit something to the page, they were actually giving themselves an anchor that they otherwise lacked. So each of these books inside, which I designed, have evocations that come from the thing itself. The book on wheel chart Caesars cover the examples of what those wheels that were produced in the 20th century look like. The one on the left shows a series of maps. The ones going down the middle are everything from, actually the one second to the bottom, is a nuclear calculator that shows you how much time you have to get out of the building after a nuclear blast. Always the first thing a person would do is go and grab their wheel and check.
Hey wait, was that a nuclear blast? (woman laughing)
The door is over there. What interested me about these things is that they were very pre-computation, so whatever algorithm had to be designed to figure out what you turned or what you saw was actually done in the absence of a computer so these were incredibly heroic, these designers that made these devices. My book on scrapbooks has a very different layout. I used two type phases that came out during the period in which I talk about scrapbooks, which is about 1860 to about 1945. The people who kept scrapbooks, who saved everything from gobs of candle wax to shards of paper from programs and candy wrappers, got pretty less interesting when television entered the living room. So this was sort of an interesting exercise in trying to create something that was all about this very messy assemblage of people's lives, and yet, put it in some kind of coordinated order, where it made sense. My book called "Screen" which was a compilation of essays from I-Magazine is designed so that with each successive essay we created a series of grid patterns that actually change and get larger because in all about the nature of what screen culture was and pixels and pixelization at that time, was its primary visual metaphor. Again, not hugely visual, this book. Then my most recent book, which just came out in the spring, is a very unusual book for design. I was asked by my editors at Yale University Press to write a book about why design matters and I went on a sabbatical to Paris for four months and I thought long and hard about why design matters and I realized that, in fact, what I thought was interesting was how I might write about design as a humanus discipline. So this book is a series of, I think, 12 chapters on things like design and humility and design and patience, and design and authority, and design and consequence, and each essay is illustrated with a painting that I made that's based on a tissue histology, which is to say, a part of the human body that's obviously internal. At the end of the day, we all look the same on the inside. So there's this wonderful Agnes Martin quote that says exactly that and in a time when we are always looking to differentiate and understand the complexity of our culture, I was very taken with the fact that these images present as enormously abstract, but are in fact representative of a kind of basic scientific truth.
Jessica you've written a book, and published it in the past year, that's very different from the one that I did.
I think that, when I did my book, I really, honestly, sort of said in my head, "I'm going to do a standard monograph," "and instead of trying to undermine" "what these things usually are" "I'm going to try to really, almost recapitulate" "the kind of monograph that I found inspirational" "as a student 40 years ago, right." Which is really, I'm not sure it's an admirable position to have, or a useful one, but it was sort of the strategy that let me give myself permission to not reinvent the whole thing, was the only way that I was able to attack the problem at all. You're thing is not a monograph at all. It really is a different kind of book and a different way of thinking about design.
Can you talk about how long you've been thinking about this and how the ideas developed way before they actually turned into a book?
So the original idea was to write a book called "Why Design Matters". Yale University Press, my publisher, had this idea, and it's quite interesting as a conceit because the people who are going to read the book on Hannah Arendt aren't going to read the book on Alice Waters, aren't going to read the book on design. They were looking, in a variety of fields, at a what the sort of seminal ideas were that made that industry, or that writer, or that idea important. When I sat down I jettisoned the first 20 table of content the first was, grids are important, geometry's important, color is important, working hard and observing and looking keenly and ruthlessly is important. But, I realized that we're living in a moment where everybody thinks they're a designer, and certainly, everybody with a cell phone thinks that they possess a kind of visual literacy that in the old days, you've written about graphic design as a spectator sport, I think you would agree that suddenly it's a different kind of world. I sort of drilled down on that for a while and I realized that the thing that interested me was the fact that I think what drew me to design in the first place was that I think it's really a humanus discipline and that its connection to all of these other disciplines and its connection to who we are as individuals is really what interested me. The big move of this book was to figure out a table of contents, as we've talked about. I wanted to write a series of chapters where I looked at particular ideas. The idea of design and authority, the idea of design and humility, design as a set of consequences, of cause and effect of supply and demand.
Memory, solitude, patience, desire, change. These are really not the kinds of headings one finds in a typical design book, right?
No, they're not. And, I kind of went out on a limb with this because I thought I'm seeing, what I think is an unfortunate thing that's happening in design, which is a lot of hubris, a lot of bravado, a lot of people self broadcasting and self publishing, not in the way you can to make a beautiful book, but to kind of boast and I don't think that ... I think some of the best design that we make comes from real, original, thinking and that means looking hard and looking deep and being objective and being honest. I thought that hose were qualities, in concert with design, that might be valuable. It's a very critical book. It's critical of things like hacking and disruption. I've been joking that I want to write a book called "I Blame Quaker School" because service design, which is a thing in the world, to me, comes out of my quaker education. Service was a thing you did. Asking questions, being honest, thinking about a world beyond yourself and not the Facebook enabled, Twitter promoted, self broadcasting.
Right, right. One of the things that interests me is the huge yawning ...
My book is a yawn, yeah.
No, the huge, wide gulf of distance between a "Why design matters" that has to do with grids and colors and typefaces, which are just the basic atomized building blocks.
Of what design is. This book actually talks about the things that people actually have a great deal of trouble articulating, when they're really talking, when they're trying to explain why one design is successful and why one isn't, why a building is successful, why a product is successful, why a printed, decently published artifact is successful.
And there's a natural, ethical bias. If we see a pretty woman, we assume she's nice or successful. If we see a shiny package, we assume it's worth more money. So there's an ethical bias, or lack there of, with using design as a false security or false authority for a belief.
And that became a concern to me. And then the other thing about the book which I should say, is that when it came to actually making it visual, I have this other life as a painter and I've been painting for many years. Really interested in scientific imagery, in particular, stem cells and cellular biological form. What I love about them is that they present as abstract images, but in this case they reference a scientific certainty and I thought ... There's this quote that begins the book by Ms. Martin that says that we all look the same on the inside but it's what we do with it that matters. I thought, what if we were to identify, at a cellular level, these behaviors in the body, so consequences is lymphoma, and something more social is a heart ventricul. So I actually started to work with mythologists and biologists and really spent so much time looking through microscopes and on screens at this imagery, and these are all based on tissue histology inside the body blown up 40,000%. So, it's the value of work that illustrates the ideas and that may not be design per se but ...
No, the idea is very profound if you ask me because what you're doing is, you know, we are human beings and as human beings we have all the, you know. We have lives, rich inner lives, external relationships, we have emotions, we have dreams, we have the reality of the life that we lead, and yet all of it is being carried around in our bodies which are really made out of the stuff you've illustrated. I think that difference between ... Corpuscles, and flesh, and synapses, and nerve endings ...
It's so rich, and it's what we ... So, we spend so much time in design thinking about the differentiating thing.
So it may be counterintuitive to look at what unites us instead of what divides us except how we present as a species biologically is a fascinating visual language that I thought was an interesting place to start.
Do you think that there's answers here or is this meant to show that, just as in design, there are people who are trying to figure out what typeface communicates authority, what typeface communicates accessibility. Authority, accessibility, all those kind of things are actually operating at a more higher complex level and just as you can't actually isolate the emotion of sorrow.
Right, you can't, it's true.
With an electron microscope, nor can you point to a serif and say, "This thing conveys sentimentality." You know what I mean?
I think if you ... Here's my answer to that. I think that all design comes down to a relationship between what is variable and what is constant.
I agree with that.
What is universal and what is unique? What is personal and what is public? My last book, which is about a visual and cultural history of scrapbooks in America, looked at the fact that since the Civil War, the people who kept scrapbooks were not only women who went to the arts and crafts store. They were men, they were people of different economic strata, but the need to document your life was a very universal impulse. Similarly this, in a sense, is an inversion of that because the imagery is abstract, but it's the same story. It's that we're all the same. So we're living in a time, politically, with incredible division, of incredible tension, racial, religious, global and I think that as a visual form maker I am interested in stories that unite us and find different ways to rephrase and reframe a story that is a universal story, that is also a unique story. That's why I wrote the book. We haven't talked about this in terms of the design of the book, I just wanted to say one other big thing, which Is that, when you write a book that you design, you have incredible latitude with how you handle the typography. The columns are justified and there's no hyphenation.
Right, yeah which is ...
What happens as you go through this book, is that it's very calm to read so you actually read it. There's something about hyphenation that is a jarring experience. I know we've talked about this but it's just a silly little thing. It's not in vogue to justify type. I've used a typeface called Copernicus that I love because Copernicus, of course, had a circumspect view of the world. I'm trying to have a circumspect of humanity and there's this quiet, rational feeling, that I think the book has because of these non-hyphenated justified paragraphs.
I totally agree and what's funny is that it's operating at a level that I think many people could read the whole book all the way through, and never notice that there's never been a hyphenated line.
Once I told you ...
Well, with my book, I'm so addicted on reading narrow columns as a visual it has so much hyphenation it sort of is like a ...
But in both cases, I think what ...
Mine field of hyphenation I would say.
I've always wanted to put a spine on a spine. (man laughs loudly) I think what both of these books share, even though your type is big and mine is small, and yours is right and mine is justified, is that we both wrote and designed them. I think that is something that we can talk about more as we continue with this.
Absolutely, I know one thing I want to say is you said something towards the beginning about we are in an age where everyone considers themself a designer, either qualified to comment on it or even qualified to practice on it. I actually think this book doesn't contradict that. I think it sort of affirms that in a way. That everyone has a design impulse within them, that that's actually, like you said, it's a humanus characteristic, it's not a special skill. That's what I found really enthralling about the way, which you've written here in the book.
Let's hope the public agrees.