Jessica Helfand
and Bill Drenttel

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

 

Almost 14 years ago, at the first AIGA business conference, I did my first speaking engagement. To say the lecture was awful and potentially career-destroying is generous. As a 20-something designer, I panicked. In the midst of the deluge of criticism, Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand reached out and gave encouragement, even inviting me to breakfast. Frankly, this was the thing that kept me going. Their seemingly innocuous act of hospitality goes to the heart of what Bill and Jessica are. Their careers have been motivated by work for the public good and the encouragement of a liberal, educated and critically informed design world. Their remarkable talent and intelligence could easily have led to lucrative careers at Halliburton, but they chose another route: leaving new york 10 years ago and setting up a studio in rural Falls Village, Conn. There, they design, write, engage and continue to encourage. Their energy and commitment to the design world and the greater culture inspire every designer to personally be far more than he or she believes possible.

SA: Bill and Jessica, let’s back up a few years. Bill, you were at Drenttel Doyle Partners and Saatchi & Saatchi. Jessica, you worked with traditional print media and seemed to be on a direct course to corporate identity and publications work. Then something changed. You packed up, headed north and focused on other ideas: new media, writing, advocacy and cultural institutions. Was there a specific epiphany or event that initiated the transformation?

WD: If there was a transformative period, it was the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, a couple of years before we moved to the country. Jessica had already forsaken print design almost and was working on The New York Times’ first website. I came home one night and realized I was a lot more interested in her “new-media” work … than in doing another national packaging or identity program. Despite having great partners and a successful firm, I quit my job soon after this to work with Jessica. She was the trailblazer. Only months later we were hired to redesign Netscape and a suite of websites for the Times of London. We spent our first year together in business with me commuting to California and Jessica to London.

JH: If there was any epiphany, it also happened smack in the blur of new-parenthood. When our son was 1 year old, we bought a country house and ironically found we were hugely productive when we got out of the city. Two years later, Bill was briefly enter­taining the thought of becoming a college dean when, shortly following the birth of our daughter, we just threw caution to the wind and moved up to the country full time. I suspect, looking back, we had some general premonition that fresh air and milk from the farm would be good for the children, though it is likely we were just as selfish about finding space for all our books. It turns out, though, we were right about the productive part: I always feel I have to apologize to our urban friends about the distance from Starbucks—about 18 miles—but we do spend a great deal less time stuck in traffic and a great deal more time making work.

SA: I could manage without a Starbucks, but good Chinese food? That would be a problem. Now you’re living in a rural setting a couple of hours north of New York City and are relatively isolated. You must have one of the largest design libraries in the region, and your studio space is extraordinary. Clearly this would never be possible in midtown Manhattan. Your library is remarkable. I need to visit and distract you while someone packs a suitcase of books. Does living and working in Falls Village make a better environment for inspiration or experimentation?

JH: Both.

WD: We’re obviously less distracted by the joys of city life, and by the constant barrage of events, meetings and lunches that characterize a more urban practice. We also travel extensively, both in the U.S. and abroad, so our frame of reference isn’t only Falls Village. Mostly, though, we stay home: If we’re productive, it’s because of this simple fact. If there is completely, more experimentation, part of it is probably explained by those long winter nights.

SA: You have a tight and efficient crew. I picture an Ethan Frome setting in the winter: daily sledding with evenings trapped in a warm room. Did I get that right? How does the studio work?

JH: We have one designer and one office manager, plus the two of us, and occasionally an intern. We’ve found over the years that it’s not so easy to get a designer who appreciates the complexity of our practice, yet at the same time enjoys the simplicity of a fundamentally rural lifestyle. But when we do, it’s utter perfection, and we’ve been blessed by an amazing series of talented people coming through our studio. It’s true that the winters are long, and you have to drive a lot, and you have to be utterly fearless when it comes to things like snow tires. It helps that teaching and publishing—and, in particular, things like Below the Fold: and Design Observer—help to keep us in touch with the world on an ongoing basis and in a fairly international way.

WD: Our practice is more personal than professional, and Jessica and I don’t always care about the same things. However, the best design work we’ve done generally has both our hands on it. We try to give our staff the same freedom and respect. I’m not sure we are so efficient: We simply work long hours. It’s a tight team, but hardly a tight work environment.

SA: I’ve found a common thread with all of the subjects of my STEP Q+As: You all share an unbelievable amount of energy and succeed not just at one thing, but at many things. From the studio’s design work to Design Observer to writing books and serving on boards, both of you must not sleep. This needs to stop because you’re making everyone else look lazy. This might seem like a question that would be asked on The View, but how are you accomplishing all of this?

JH: Bill will be the first to tell you that I don’t willingly stay up past 10 p.m. What he casually omits is that I get up at 5. Bill, on the other hand, is the ultimate night owl, so together we make one really whole person. The longer answer is that we operate on a kind of divide-and-conquer system; this is the only way to write, publish, make things, run a practice and—oh yes!—raise a family. I suppose if I were asked the question on The View I might reverse the order. The one thing we do together is lecture—it’s a good excuse for us to take stock of where we are and assess where we’re going, plus we famously disagree about pretty much everything, a detail that can make the podium a relatively interesting public arena.

WD: The question of productivity is ultimately a question of pas­sion. We love what we do and are continually amazed at the ways design—as a methodology, as an end-result and as a community—leads to powerful results. As individuals, we love making things, but we also want design to be something larger than our own efforts. Building large initiatives and programs with social impact puts us in a world beyond our village, beyond our small staff, beyond our own experience.

SA: Talk to me about Design Observer, which is the largest online design publication in the world, with over a million site visits a month. How did this come about? It’s a format that relinquishes editorial control and allows for multiple voices and points of view. Does this drive you nuts?

JH: Almost 5 years ago, Bill approached Michael Bierut and me—and Rick Poynor, the other founding editor—and suggested we start a blog. We arrived at two main criteria quite early: one, that we cast a wider net and write about design for a more general and ideally more global audience; and two, that if we agreed to write thoughtfully, we might actually encourage more thoughtful com­ments. And while we were initially criticized for being too elite—too much in the style of, say, the academic lecture hall—this is largely what we’ve become. One thing I am especially proud of is the degree to which students participate in Design Observer. Every time I am a guest critic at a school, this is the first question I am asked [about]. And for students, the opportunity to read and participate in a conversation with us, and with our other contributors, is really quite a remarkable thing.

WD: The fact that we are a blog with numerous contributing writers and guest observers does not mean there is no editorial control. In fact, what distinguishes Design Observer from most blogs is our focus on the writing. Ultimately, we are not blogging in the con­temporary sense of the word. Rather, we are publishing 150 essays a year within the context of something that looks like a blog. The fact that a few of our readers also make comments also makes it a blog, but … only a tiny fraction of readers comment. Michael, Jes­sica and I do not necessarily agree with the views presented in all of these essays—or necessarily with each other’s writings, for that matter—but we do take responsibility for everything that’s pub­lished on the site. In this light, Design Observer is a more controlled and considered editorial product than it might otherwise seem.

SA: Bill, you were national AIGA president, and Jessica, you’ve driven multiple initiatives that contribute to the greater commu­nity. You both founded the Winterhouse Institute, which incorporates a range of programs including the Polling Place Photo Project, a collaboration with The New York Times; Below the Fold:; the Contents book; the Wolfsonian project and AIGA Winterhouse Writing Awards. Don’t you know how much good television exists?

WD: Beyond believing that designers have many ways to participate in social and political culture, it’s not so interesting to generalize here. Every project has its own motivations, a specific history and, in many cases, additional collaborators and even part­ners. Our own paradigm shift was simply to ask ourselves why we needed clients in order to produce work that we care about? Why can’t we initiate our own initiatives? These days, we still have clients, but now half our work is of our own making.

SA: That leads me to a basic question: Why is writing and critical thinking important in the design world?

WD: Neither Jessica nor I went to art school, but we did our undergraduate work in large universities—I went to Princeton and Jessica to Yale—so it’s more than likely our orientation is informed by … this background. We both share a deep respect for the liberal arts; an abiding curiosity in the humanities; a love affair with history, with science. Across all of these disciplines, language in general—and critical thinking in particular—remain fundamental components. So, yes, writing is a significant aspect of our practice—of how we define ourselves as designers—and we would probably go so far as to say that without a sense of how words can be orchestrated, design stands a pretty good chance of going nowhere.

JH: I’d answer simply that it is because writing and critical thinking are important in life, period. I often hear people argue that these activities are impediments to creating things, to making work. But I’d argue they’re complementary activities. For me, I have always found that I work some things out by writing, and other things by resolving formal issues in the studio. The third component for me is teaching. I’m better when I do all three; take one of them away, and I feel less connected to what I’m doing and less productive as a result.

SA: A common question I hear when I’m speaking at an AIGA chapter is, “How did you convince a client to let you do that?” Typically, the projects they are referring to are self–generated and authored. It gives us a chance to explore ideas we typically wouldn’t encounter. You’ve taken this one step further and have become a publishing house. I think you’ve made the idea of self-authorship concrete to many designers. Why did you decide this was a good direction for a design firm? Was it difficult to make happen?

WD: Acting as publishers has created endless opportunities for us as designers—to design literary works and nonfiction that we care about, and to reach audiences we wouldn’t otherwise. While we’ve published many books at Winterhouse, we also have partnered with a number of university presses to publish design works, social history and German literature. The reasons to pursue such avenues are ultimately simple: to exert more control over projects, in their selection, their content, their form and their distribution. There’s another way to think of this: publishing, along with writing, as integrated aspects of a design practice.

SA: There is an inherent European influence in your work. I love that it combines a clear and honest American pragmatism with European traditions, formal and conceptual. How often do you travel? And does that have any influence on your work?

WD: In the past year we’ve been to Europe a half dozen times, plus probably visited 10 U.S. cities. Now that our children are older, we are hoping to again make longer trips to India and Asia. But while we travel a lot, the game plan is not to be on the road constantly, so we schedule travel in well-organized bursts. For us, it’s a dose of speed once a month. I don’t think either of us would say our work is particularly “European,” except perhaps in a pluralistic, literary sense. Europeans are less threatened by things with historical implications—and by ideas that might be called “intellectual.” We’re increasingly comfortable with the notion that we have a practice that seeks to engage ideas on these levels.

SA: Jessica, I wrote a letter a few months ago describing your scrapbooking project. I hadn’t considered its impact until I was forced to articulate the project. Your work looks at scrapbooking through a historical and sociological lens, while tracking visual evolution as it mirrored societal and design movements. You’ve uncovered remarkable personal stories and complex narratives buried in scrapbooks from the 19th century to today. This is a ground-level sense of history told, with images, text and ephemera providing an emotional connection typically lost in traditional historical research. What are you doing with this information?

JH: This book [Scrapbooks, published by Yale University Press] is the fulfillment of more than 20 years of thinking about two things: one, how to make history in general—and design history in particular—meaningful and memorable to a general audience; and two, how to inject something human and palpable, and I would even go so far as to say dramatic, into a discussion of graphic design. I spent nearly three years looking at hundreds of scrapbooks, photographing them, reconstructing their internal stories, and finally writing and designing this book. Now we’re doing a website, and there’s been some interest in a documentary film. But on the other end, I’ve been working in my studio with real ephemera and this newer, “reproduction ephemera”—yes, that’s an oxymoron, but these facsimiles are stunningly convincing and will last a lot longer than their authentic counterparts—experimenting with them and making things that push the boundary of new and old paper. It’s sort of like being a director, in which you use the manipulation of paper to stage something. Put another way, I know a lot of designers, myself included, balk at the idea of contemporary scrapbooking having anything even remotely to do with what we think of as graphic design. But if you just isolate some of the materials and begin to think about them as you would any other visual set of forms, there’s a kind of interesting transformation that starts to happen.

SA: So what’s next for you in your lives and careers? In 10 years when you’re empty nesters, where do you see yourselves? Will you stay in Connecticut?

WD: In some ways I think we’ve finally figured out what we do well, and the projects and opportunities just keep getting more interesting. Unless the next life-changing epiphany emerges, I suspect we still stay focused on a few amazing clients, grow the impact of Winterhouse Institute projects, and publish selected titles that catch our fancy. Yale University has become sort of second home for us, as Jessica has returned to the School of Art after a year’s hiatus, and I’m now teaching at the School of Management.

JH: Our children are 10 and 12 now, and we do occasionally wonder if this is the best place for us. I have this fantasy that we take Winterhouse—the institute, the studio, the imprint—and we get absorbed in some university community where we can continue to do what we do, on a slightly more public scale, and within a community of like-minded people. Because I really do see the practice as not so much growing [larger] as morphing into something more collaborative and maybe more culturally diverse. We’re thinking about an extended tour of duty overseas sometime in the next few years—a mini world tour for the children, some teaching for us and a change of perspective for everyone. I can’t quite process the children out of the house, nor do I want to. But I personally see myself making increasingly more experimental work, having fewer clients, reaching into different areas where we haven’t yet extended our reach.

SA: Rumor has it you’re planning on fixing American politics, solving world poverty, putting a poem in every person’s hand [see winning web work from Winterhouse in STEP’s Best of Web] and in general changing the world. You definitely follow Harry Truman’s description of Americans as people who “see the world not as it is, but as it ought to be.” What’s with the small goals?

WD: Designers have always wanted to change the world—it’s hard-wired in our DNA. Maybe it’s time to collectively organize our efforts to really begin to make those contributions. In the meantime, our little enterprise will continue just for the joy of the effort.