Jessica Helfand — Design Observer
Paris and NYC raised, Jessica is a 2013 AIGA medalist and the founding editor of Design Observer. She has studied and …
As a kid, spent all my childhood drawing. I started at around 3 years old and never really stopped – I even made a personal project about it.
Eventually drawing turned into crafts, paint, and anything to do with arts. By the time I was 15 my sister told me about one of her friends who was studying Graphic Design at university, and she said “I think that’s what you’d like to do”. Back then, I didn’t even know there were studies for this. I talked to this friend, and she showed me some projects she was doing. I didn’t think it twice – I booked my place for a Graphic Design degree at university even before I finished highschool.
As a freelancer, every day is different. Some are full focus days, where I can design almost uninterrupted. Others are meeting days, where I am talking to clients, replying to emails, getting feedback on projects or setting up new ones. And others (the majority) are a mix of both. The reality of freelancing is that I probably spend a higher percentage of my time doing admin work than designing – talking to clients, preparing budgets, deadlines, talking with print houses, finding new clients, etc. That can be very daunting for a lot of designers, but after many years of doing this, I actually love it.
I think there are two different scenarios for this. When I need “inspiration” for something really specific, like a packaging solution that needs improving or a layout I can’t figure out, I usually go online. I have quite curated folders of inspiration that I collected over the years and that I usually go back to. But when I am in need of “inspiration” for creative work because I feel a bit stuck, I need to do the opposite – setting the project aside for a bit.
Disconnecting and physically removing myself from the project helps me a lot. That means meeting with a friend, reading a book, going for a walk, training, anything. Years ago I would beat myself and sit for hours in front of the computer forcing myself to come up with the ideas and solutions, but I found that is actually very counterproductive. Distancing myself from work allows my brain to relax, get inputs from other things, and come back to work with a fresh mind.
Spending most of my day sitting -and after many sessions at the physiotherapist- made me realize how important it is to have an ergonomic set up that improves my life and prevents me from back pain due to bad posture. After years of sitting in uncomfortable chairs, cafés and different offices I decided to invest in an ergonomic chair that is going to last forever, which for me is a Håg chair (HÅG Capisco 8106). It is not only extremely comfortable and ergonomic, but it also has an aesthetically value that as a designer I look for in objects. My friends and family can confirm that I cannot stop raving about it since I got it. I recommend it to anyone that has to sit a lot for work.
A recent project I did that I’m very proud of is the brand identity of Sand & Soul Skin, a Swedish skincare brand. It was a very wholesome project in which I got the chance to take over all the aspects of the brand, from digital to offline, as well as the photography – which I love. The relationship with the client was also great – she put a lot of trust in my work and allowed for great communication and discussions, which in the end led to greater results. It also meant a lot to me that the project was very aligned with my personal values.
Sustainability is an issue that I take personal interest in and that I try to include in all the projects I do, but sometimes not all projects allow me to do so. So when this project came along, I really felt I was making a positive contribution with my work.
Freelancing can be an unstable position since work fluctuates quite a lot, and that takes a bit of time getting used to and manage it properly. It is also a fact that there’s a big part of admin work that you have to do and that sometimes takes you more time than designing, such as talking to clients, preparing presentations, setting budgets and timelines, etc. It is a way of becoming confident in all this other skills that will serve you in the future, but it is a job in itself.
It’s great to be ambitious, but also to be humble. Pursue your goals while asking for feedback, help and surround yourself with nice people that keep you on your toes but also make you happy. Unfortunately, many of us have been in situations where it feels that ambition equals anxiety, overworking and a bit of tirany from superiors – and it is not worth it at all. On another note – be organized and clean in your workflow. It is going to save you a lot of time.
I have a personal profile called @depayseur where I document my travels. I also use it as a way to create small personal projects that merge design, photography and print, which I sell in limited editions here.