The Daily Heller: Designing the ‘I’ in ‘Self-Reliance’

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Every day with turbine resolve, Jessica Helfand generates high-octane, grade-A brainpower—acute wit and wisdom—that flows through her formal speeches and casual conversations, and is manifest in her various podcasts and academic curricula, as well as in her enviable output of critical, historical and personal writings. Only a handful of design thinkers have impressed me in the same way. I've known Helfand for over three decades, and it's a privilege, and now joy, to receive her recent book from Thames and Hudson.

Book cover courtesy of Thames & Hudson. Interior spreads © 2021 Jessica Helfand (designed by Jessica Helfand + Jarrett Fuller)

This is my way of introducing her latest gem, Self-Reliance, a handsomely designed, slim volume that packs an insightful wallop (or, if you prefer, a generous dollop of insight) on every page. Comprised of the original 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the father of transcendentalism in New England, the book features 12 concise original, transcendent essays by Helfand. Self-Reliance is inspired by issues, themes and emotions relevant to the recent pandemic and enforced isolation, yet is universal in scope. This book is a pleasure to behold for its modest design and object-ness as well as its evocation of the resilience of the human species (aka, us).

Helfand is prone to veering away from design as the focus of her writing, while using it as a means of framing her points of view. To give away too much detail of Emerson’s enduring writing and Helfand’s transformational essays would be to spoil the joy of paging through and reading it yourself for the first time in this form. So, I will end on this fact: Helfand was stranded alone in Los Angeles for an extended portion of the shutdown (walking around her flat in circles every day for five miles), learning to be alone. Some of us in equivalent COVID-imposed situations found books, films, TV series and other diversions. While trying to cope, Helfand rediscovered Emerson, whose “writing lacks pretense, yet abounds in spirit.”

Absorbing Emerson's ideas into her every pore, Helfand engaged in what results in a precious conversation with him about herself—and including us in the bargain. It is worth your time (and it won’t take too long) during this period of promised renewal, to spend some meaningful (and a pinch of transcendental) time with Self-Reliance. I recommend it, especially now, today; subito.