Jessica Svendsen: How to Avoid Getting Typecast as a Designer
Mike O'Donnell / Editor
Tracing the lineage of our members' creative approaches often adds a new dimension of intrigue to their work. Take WNW Member #5204 Jessica Svendsen. While the spontaneity and freshness of her designs are readily apparent, even her most seemingly straightforward projects come across as well-informed and considered. This may stem from her background studying Literature at Yale before diving into an MFA in Design: "I appreciated the Modernists because they started to play with textual composition, using everything from typography, composition, and book design to defamiliarize the reading experience. When I began to study Modernism more closely, I started to pay attention to the relationship between the textual and the visual. I suppose that's the moment when I started studying design."
In our interview below, Jessica discusses not only her fascination with the (de)composition of form but also why she doesn't hope to have a consistent creative style: "If design is a visual interpretation of the content, then it should be impossible to do script typography on every book cover of canonical literature, or repeat the same visual aesthetic for a different client."
And in the same way that her approach to design arose from a different discipline, Jessica sees her graphic design practice offering similar opportunities: "When I consider a lifelong career, I find that design—unlike other mediums—offers the possibility of a varied practice. Design can cover a broad spectrum of work, especially as it functions in tandem with technology. Like the Eames, a designer can also be a filmmaker, a screen printer, an architect, a strategist, and a curator. My ideal is to morph into a more multidisciplinary studio, where I have opportunities to create furniture, interiors, clothing, murals, and films. When design becomes a more malleable job description, it can encompass everything I would rather be doing."
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Jessica Svendsen and how did she get here?
I am a designer, currently based in San Francisco, California. Most recently, I was a designer at Apple working on their global communications team. But before moving to San Francisco, I was a designer at Pentagram in New York for partner Michael Bierut.
You received a BA in English Literature from Yale. Are you typically captivated by elements like plot and character, or more so the language and craft? Who are a couple of your literary heroes?
I definitely gravitate toward language and craft. When I was an English major at Yale, I focused on twentieth century modernists—authors like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Eliot—precisely because they experimented with language and vernacular. But I also appreciated the Modernists because they started to play with textual composition, using everything from typography, composition, and book design to defamiliarize the reading experience. When I began to study Modernism more closely, I started to pay attention to the relationship between the textual and the visual. I suppose that's the moment when I started studying design.
You then received an MFA in Graphic Design at Yale. What lead to this transition into design?
While I considered a few schools for graduate school, I knew that I wanted to go to Yale. They encourage students from other disciplines to attend, so at times, it felt like I was surrounded by fellow outsiders. But the MFA program, particularly under the tenure of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, focuses on the conceptual framework underpinning any design project. Ultimately, students start to develop an approach that spans projects and formats. At Yale, most try to resist the traditional definition of graphic design; instead, students are encouraged to work in a range of different media, with projects that aren't necessarily tied to the restrictions of the commercial world. They pull faculty from leading firms and studios in New York and the Netherlands, so it becomes an exceptional time to be able to work with them.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I have a point of view about style, but I hope I don't have a consistent style. I approach each project on its own, because my process is guided by the content or material. If design is a visual interpretation of the content, then it should be impossible to do script typography on every book cover of canonical literature, or repeat the same visual aesthetic for a different client. I would also hope that with each new project, I'm pushing my work forward in some way, challenging myself in new ways instead of repeating what I already can do.
Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences?
Designer David Reinfurt noted in an interview with Ludlow 38 that the boundaries of contemporary design practice span a broad spectrum of work—a designer is also a curator, architect, educator, programmer, and filmmaker. But Reinfurt argues that a multidisciplinary design practice is not exactly new. In fact, Charles and Ray Eames designed everything from furniture and homes, to films and exhibitions. Part of their work was self-initiated, part was commissioned, but “what links them is not a specific activity, but rather an approach.” I keep returning to the Eames when I consider how I want my own studio practice to evolve. It's easy to become pigeon-holed by the work you present online, but I deeply appreciate how the Eames were able to span a wide range of disciplines and projects. They're identified as designers, with graphic design as only one part of their expertise.
Last year, I worked with Michael Bierut to design a monograph for Selldorf Architects, and we would occasionally meet with Annabelle Selldorf and her team to review progress. She is a strong, sole figure in power, leading a large team. She speaks with quiet, deliberate precision, but always with a certain forcefulness. I came to respect her, not only for the exquisite buildings and spaces that she creates with her team, but as an architect who insists that her practice is always intellectually rigorous and rational.
It's also hard not to be influenced by Iris Apfel and her persistent, visible rejection of conformity. More importantly, she expresses a point of view. In the recent documentary Iris, she describes how she was told: “You’re not pretty. You’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter. You have something much better. You have style.”
What were some challenges in launching your career as a designer?
My first challenge was transitioning into design. Most studios only hire designers with a BFA and are rarely open-minded enough to even consider someone with an English degree. Given that I was a late bloomer, it was hard to simultaneously learn technical, formal, and conceptual approaches to design. But most of the challenges I've encountered over the past three years were due to being a designer within a larger organization. I've worked at design studios, where I've seen sexual harassment go unchecked, too many inflated egos, and underpaid talent. I've also worked in-house, where I've seen inefficiency, unnecessary hierarchy, and unused talent. I used to evaluate jobs based on the work alone, because that's what would keep me coming back each day. But I've learned that it's the people you work with that is far more important. The team you're on, the people that surround you each day, that's what makes or breaks a studio experience.
While your work comes across as fresh and spontaneous, a lot of your projects also demonstrate an underlying decisiveness and confidence. What kind of research and preliminary explorations typically inform these decisions throughout your process?
I typically mull over ideas away from the computer, so perhaps that results in a certain decisiveness. As far as preliminary explorations, my work is comparatively lo-fi and rough. I prefer working with more analog tools like a camera, scanner, or laser cutter. Perhaps because I was self-taught in software, I usually cobble together methods.
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
In graduate school, I designed weekly posters to announce visiting critic lectures in the MFA Photography Department. Each poster references the work of the visiting artist, but I also used certain formal devices to unify the entire series. To announce visiting photographers Joel Sternfeld and Richard Misrach, I used vinyl letters on a sheet of plexiglass. I then photographed how the sun casts angled and distorted shadows behind the letterforms. To find the appropriate backgrounds, I spent several afternoons exploring various spaces and materials around New Haven. The process was deeply rewarding because it synthesized a number of interests—architecture, photography, light—and made me realize how I prefer working with objects in physical space.
Biggest career failure?
Accepting a job at Apple. That is my only life decision I regret. To use the words of artist Tucker Nichols, “As soon as I got there, I knew I had taken the wrong step.”
If you weren’t a designer, what do you think you’d be doing instead? Given your love of literature, have you ever tried your hand at creative writing?
There is a separate track in the English major at Yale for students interested in creative writing. With some foresight, I judiciously refrained because I have absolutely no talent for creative writing. I simply analyzed literature, which arguably, was the best training for being a designer. Studying literature and practicing design are both about analysis and interpretation of content. But in design, you're also required to make that interpretation visual.
Some of the strongest designers I know were trained in another discipline or field. They discovered design in college, or in their first job, and transitioned into design. But I find that those who explore design through a different lens—whether being trained in another discipline, or studying another field in their studio practice—bring a new point of view to design, contributing to more diverse, more nuanced work. Perhaps because I studied another subject in college, it's easy for me to imagine doing something besides design later in my career. But when I consider a lifelong career, I find that design—unlike other mediums—offers the possibility of a varied practice. Design can cover a broad spectrum of work, especially as it functions in tandem with technology. Like the Eames, a designer can also be a filmmaker, a screen printer, an architect, a strategist, and a curator. My ideal is to morph into a more multidisciplinary studio, where I have opportunities to create furniture, interiors, clothing, murals, and films. When design becomes a more malleable job description, it can encompass everything I would rather be doing.
But, I do fantasize about being a full-time ski bum one winter, so there's always that possibility.
What do you do when Not Working?
Relatively early on, I realized that I have a cap on the number of hours I can spend on creative output each day. So I have always prioritized balancing work and life. For some designers, there's no distinction between the two, but I need time away from the studio. However, my non-studio hours are rather average and mundane: traveling as much as possible, cooking dinner, bike riding, practicing yoga, watching films, and so on.
What cultural and creative venues do you frequent in SF (arthouse theaters, galleries, museums, bookstores, record stores etc)?
The renovated SFMOMA recently opened, with an extensive new space designed by Snøhetta. While the museum is sometimes a labyrinth to navigate, and the curation can feel disjointed across exhibitions, it is a vast collection that now feels like the weightiest on the west coast. And the ever-narrowing, Scandinavian maple stairwells are a must see.
For those interested in architecture and urbanism, I'd also recommend visiting as many tech campuses as one can. The critic Alexandra Lange has a fantastic volume dissecting Silicon Valley urbanism, but when you visit in person, you start to see the evolution of office parks, to campuses, to retrofitted buildings downtown that have all the perks of a tech bubble.
Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
I deeply appreciate being part of the academic design community, which I experienced as a graduate student at Yale, and as faculty at Parsons and Pratt. When I was still at Yale, I had a conversation with the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who is the department chair of the MFA Photography program. He argued that a critique was the last place where you could have an open and honest conversation about a photograph. I feel the same applies to design.
In New York and San Francisco, there are thriving, diverse, creative communities, where on any given night, there could be a lecture, opening, or event hosted by a different design organization. But the conversations that take place there either remain at a very superficial level, or represent a very narrow definition of design practice. Instead, I try to attend critiques or academic lectures because they encourage you to engage, to ask questions with criticality, and to situate design within both a historical and contemporary context.