Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Anything About Madness
April 5, 2011

Graphic designer, educator, and writer Jessica Helfand agreed to share with Designers & Books how she selected the titles for her book list and speaks about books as constant companions in her life. An avid reader (“three or four things at once”), she gravitates toward the “unusual” and the “unorthodox,” admits to a level of absurdity “that is absolutely at the core of my personality,”and readily acknowledges the theatricality in the way she approaches books (“I started out as an actress!”). It’s no surprise that in her reading she prefers to avoid “preach-to-the-converted design books.”

Designers & Books: We understand why reading journals by and about artists would be at the top of your reading list. But why are you also interested in reading “anything about madness,” as you say in your book list introduction?

Jessica Helfand: I suspect it is because I am drawn to the line between fact and fiction, and there’s something just heroically liberating in reading accounts of/looking at work by people who for whatever reason deviate from the kind of disciplined (and in a sense, restricted) path that characterizes so many designers. Also, the work I did on Scrapbooks pretty much cemented my interest in other people’s lives, which is to say not just what they do but, more important, who they are and what makes them tick. There’s something deeply humbling about thinking about someone else’s life, and if you can extrapolate from that an understanding of an audience, I think it has everything in the world to do with design. I’ve always resented focus groups and marketing pow-wows, reducing people to metrics and demographics and statistics. People are people: human, flawed, multifaceted, mercurial. The work I make now and the things that compel me forward have everything to do with understanding the human psyche—and design is very much a part of that, but not because I read books on design. I’d rather spend the day looking at Henry Darger, or reading Oliver Sacks than reading preach-to-the-converted design books.

D&B: It seems like you have about five full-time jobs. When do you have time to read?

JH: I’m always reading three or four things at once, and I read quickly, but I only finish about half of what I start. I read The New Yorker pretty religiously, and even though I don’t live in New York I love reading New York Magazine because the writing’s so incredibly good. Generally I have a lot of reading to do for whatever book I’m working on, or for the seminar I teach at Yale, so that pretty much only leaves time to go slowly through about one other book, which generally sits on my bedside table for six months or more, collecting dust.

D&B: You have two degrees from Yale and you’ve taught there for ten years. Do you see any differences between the books you were interested in when you were a student—and the books your students are interested in now?

JH: Surprisingly little has changed for me. What I love about my students at Yale is their insatiable curiosity about the world, which leads them to gravitate to more unusual—indeed, often unorthodox—sources, just as I always did, and have continued to do. When they come back to design thinking and practice, there’s typically a more engaged perspective because they’ve veered from the source and pushed outside its limitations, as well as their own. Think about it: if physical distance yields emotional distance (and it didn’t, then why would we travel?) then why don’t we encourage our students to embrace other ideas and resources in order to reconsider their own work—and the world they inhabit—with greater objectivity?

I have to say, though, that sometimes there’s an odd, if charming disparity between what my students know and what they don’t know: this year, for instance, I found that most of my freshmen had an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything Jonathan Safran Foer ever wrote—but they had no idea who artist Joseph Cornell was!

D&B: We have looked long and hard—and we don’t see a single traditional “design” book on your list of books that have been formative for you. Are you a designer who hasn’t been inspired by books on design?

JH: In general, my inspiration comes from other places. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I created a special divisional major entitled Graphic Design and Architectural Theory, because I was hungry for theory and at that time, there really wasn’t much of a body of literature of any kind in design. Over the years there has been some evolution in design theory, but I can’t really say that design books per se have inspired me or, for that matter, really impacted my work. I’m much more interested in how people feel and react and respond to things—including design—than in texts that deconstruct it. I’m drawn to books about process (this explains artist journals) but not so much about the design process, in itself. Finally, and I don’t think I’ve ever revealed this before, the more I think about it, the more I think there’s a theatrical component in the way I approach books (writing and designing them as well as reading them), which is to say I want to be immersed and in a sense carried away by a story, a book, or an idea—and this probably has everything to do with the fact that I started out as an actress, which is a subject perhaps better left for another interview.

D&B: What are the books you have cared most about sharing with your two children?

JH: When they were very small, our favorite book (besides all of Maira Kalman’s books) was the Roz Chast book I Will Never Leave the Dinner Table. There was a level of absurdity to this book that is absolutely at the core of my personality: to this end, my husband and I had a particular affinity for any children’s book we could find that was translated, say, from its original Latvian. (Anything by Olof Landström or Barbro Lindgren falls firmly into this category, though they are not Latvian but Finnish and Swedish, respectively.) You can’t begin to imagine what was lost in translation, and it was this goofy verbal dislocation that kept us howling, (in other words awake) when one of our children asked us to read it aloud a 45th time.

A bit later, I read our children all the Harry Potter stories and recited the dialogue doing all the accents—male, female, lower-class British, upper-class British, you name it. (See “actress,” in the previous answer.) I remember our son coming home from school where he apparently exhibited his own verbal interpretations, only to be told by his teacher that it wasn’t funny to make fun of other peoples’ accents. So much for immersion in a story! Now that they’re older and reading more complex things, I think they understand the difference. At least I hope they do.

D&B: What book is now at the top of your “to read” pile?

JH: Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting.

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