"It should feel visceral, and emotional, and theatrical," Jessica said. She waived her hands in the air as she critiqued my poster.
An hour earlier earlier we met in the dark Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. We decided to go outside since I would be filming. We walked through the long nave of the gothic-revival building as thousands of stained-glass panes flashed on us.
"So how many times will you redesign this?" Jessica asked. "And do I get to see all of them?"
I was nervous. Jessica Helfand is a powerful voice in graphic design. She is a founder of Design Observer, a partner at Winterhouse Studio with her husband William Drentell, and a professor and alumni at Yale.
We sat on a bench in a courtyard. "This is really a great project," Jessica said. It was a warm September afternoon.
I pulled out my new iteration, a poster I had designed based on Alice Twemlow's feedback. This iteration also incorporated an illustration I created based on Paul Sahre's feedback. Alice had suggested exploring language, and posing the language as a question instead of an instruction. Paul had encouraged a poster with two levels—near and far—for the viewer to experience. So the poster I was showing Jessica had a full-bleed illustration depicting a germ culture. Seen from a distance, the bacteria culture resembled a cow-hide pattern, but peering closer, the viewer could see small hands, not cow-hide spots, in the pattern of the culture. Large, magenta type layered on top of the image of the germ read, "What's on your hands?"
"I'm of the old-school, Paul Rand view of the poster," Jessica said. She looked at me over the rims of her eyeglasses. "It's the rare time we have the chance to make impact with pure graphic form."
Jessica proposed an action-oriented poster visceral enough to make someone wash. "You want someone to think, 'Oh shit, I have to wash my hands.'"
Jessica proposed I do the same and improvise with behaving like bacteria and exploring new materials. "It's an easy thing for you, procedurally, to explore," she said. "You could put your hands in stuff." She described many ways of making form, while actively performing gestures onto the poster. She talked quickly, sometimes stumbling over her words. "I would encourage you to investigate it two ways. One, open up the investigation formally and just see what could that thing be. You know, it repeats. Is it a spore? Is it a cell? Is it a bug? Is it many bugs? You know, it repeats. Is it a spore? Is it a cell? Is it a bug? Is it many bugs? "You know, it repeats. Is it a spore? Is it a cell? Is it a bug? Is it many bugs?"
Jessica paused. She scanned the poster once more and then looked up to me, her glasses slipping down her nose. "I would really blow this thing out. What do you have to lose?"
Jessica's spirit was contagious. Her energy and optimism inspired me to want to go back to the studio and start redesigning immediately. On the train ride home, I watched the video I shot of our meeting and wrote about the experience. I felt completely reinvigorated about my entire project.
Back at my apartment, I pulled out every tool and material I had—paper, charcoal, acrylic, and watercolor paints—and started to explore. I printed out photographs of bacteria and drew by looking and then moved on to creating imaginary forms. I felt free to make things that didn't have to work within a poster. I spent two days playing with materials with no end result in mind. I photographed my hands, smeared my hands over charcoal, dipped my hands in paint, and drew little bugs with ink.
The strategy for the redesign was to explore form through improvisation. I started by making drawings and not thinking too much. Then I examined what I had made and developed only the parts I liked. After a couple of days, when I merged the elements together digitally, the poster felt so much more disgusting and gritty. Jessica left a strong impression on me to consider formal exploration before ever touching the computer.
Jessica proposed a concrete direction about process, about what I should literally do next: to improvise, to put my hands in stuff, and to explore the bacterial form. At the same time, her guidance was open-ended enough to allow me to inhabit the designer's creative role and, ultimately, to express my own personality within the poster redesign.