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graphic design


Jessica Hische’s Words Earn An ‘A’

You hear about people roadtripping to catch a concert or a sporting event. But a lecture by a graphic designer? Never!

Jessica Hische demands the exception. A rock star in the design world, she belts out brand work for big-time clients including Starbucks, MailChimp and director Wes Anderson.

So when I saw that she’d be speaking to AIGA in Omaha, I bought a ticket and gleefully made the three-hour trek, never mind the forecasted three to seven inches of snow.

Hische’s name topped the marquee of Omaha’s Waiting Room Lounge, fittingly, a music venue. Seven months pregnant, she explained that the sold-out show would be her last speaking engagement for a while.

Hische is a letterer, not to be confused with a calligrapher who uses a pen or brush to create typographic flourishes. A letterer draws letters. Her breakout hit was Daily Drop Cap, a blog she started in 2009 featuring all 26 letters in the alphabet, drawn one by one over a dozen rounds.

As fascinated as I am by these elaborately illustrated letters — especially the scrolling snake of an “S” — it is Hische’s informative and passionate explanations about design that delight me. Her “Should I work for free?” flow chart (surprisingly, sometimes the answer is yes) is required reading.

Hische’s talk in Omaha, “Remember the Analog,” centered on her creative process for clients. Like most of us, she’s tethered to the digital world through social media and email. But doing one’s finest work requires unplugging. “The best time is no-computer time,” she said.

Her design work is characterized by impeccable style backed with substance. To achieve that she does a lot of research. A LOT of research! When she collaborated with Penguin Books on a series of 26 drop-cap book covers, she spent a year and a half reading the books. Through that discovery process, characters in the classic books informed the letters.  

Brainstorming also is an important step. Hische opened up her sketchbooks to show lists of word associations that inspired her drawings.

“The creative process takes time,” she said. “So it’s best to love the journey.”

Penguin Drop Caps  with Jessica Hische

Penguin Drop Caps with Jessica Hische

When it’s time to present concepts to a client, Hische advises to always play your A game — easier said than done in this expect-it-yesterday world. After one client complained that she sent jpegs of sketches, she began taking the time to send PDFs with explanations of her thought process captioning her designs.

“It’s like showing up to a party in black tie when you don’t know the dress code,” she said. “At least you know you’ll be the best dressed one there.”

Hische’s hour-and-a-half talk felt like 5 minutes. I wanted the crowd to clap for an encore to bring her back for more. They didn’t, but no matter. Hische had already given us plenty to think about for the long drive home. 



Inside the Mind of This MAD Designer

Early in my career, I worked for an architect. Roger possessed a brilliant mind, always curious, always pushing, always learning. His clients were mostly residential, a few commercial. The office was small and he ran it like an atelier in the fashion of Le Corbusier or Mackintosh. Like them, he designed in toto and sweated every detail. Like them, he too was a painter.

Roger lived in a Midtown six-plex his entire adult life. When I asked why he never designed a place of his own, he talked about the struggle of designing for oneself. He could confidently talk to a client, listen to his story, assess the situation, devise a solution and shepherd it to completion. But for himself? There were too many ideas to explore, too many variations that he wanted to try, too many options that presented themselves and demanded realization. It made more sense — for him —to take a humble approach, design a sofa or table or chair as the need arose, have it crafted by like-minded artisans, live modestly and meaningfully. I was young then and heard what he was saying, but I can’t claim that I understood it.

Today I am no longer a young man. But happily, I understand.

When we at MAD started discussing a poster design, my brain bubbled with ideas. But once I was staring down a white sheet of paper, those initial ideas evaporated and I suddenly understood everything that Roger had told me. Designers fresh out of school often complain about being hamstrung by client demands, and feel that their creativity is being squeezed out of their work. In time, most learn that the restrictions imposed by clients — budget, time constraints, audience needs, philosophical differences, whatever — can be a blessing, quickly focusing one’s mind and illuminating the path forward. Lifting any and all design restrictions can actually create its own unique kind of paralysis. It’s a common question among designers: When you can do anything you want to do, what do you want to do? That can be tough to answer, and finding that answer was a huge struggle for me as I imagined MAD’s first poster.

You can see where I landed. How did I get there? By imposing some restrictions on myself. We’re still a young company and we wanted to create something that could be printed economically and priced so that virtually anyone who liked it could afford it. Conversations with local printers led us to the modest but respectable dimensions of 14-by-21 inches. The color palette and typography are taken from our existing graphic identity. MAD is a partnership and wouldn’t exist if it weren’t, so thematically the idea of teamwork made sense. (Teamwork will likely be the theme of our next poster as well.)

Giving a twist to a well-worn cliché — and illustrating that with our brains driven by the rational and inspirational in equal measure — nicely distilled our vision of creative alchemy. I’ve always loved pattern-making and the decorative arts, which led to creating a background pattern of laboratory beakers. A game of solitaire inspired the symmetry of a flipped image à la a deck of playing cards.

Last, but not least: Who isn’t amused by the image of a brain in a jar?

Check out the poster in the MAD Shop.