Welcome to the fourth installment of The Assistant, a paean to the usually unsung designers working behind the scenes. In this episode, Lucy Andersen, currently a freelance designer, discusses her over three years of experience working alongside Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half.
Over the next few months we will feature others who are currently or formerly assisting contemporary designers, and some who did so in the past. If we are lucky, as we are now, the two will be on the same call.
Lucy, it's your turn.
How did you get the job with Bonnie at her studio, 8.5? And how long did you stay there?
Andersen: Well, I've known Bonnie since I was a kid because she and my folks are friends. That obviously got my foot in the door when I was able to nab a summer internship with Number 17 (Bonnie's first design studio, co-founded with Emily Oberman) while in college. So originally there was some nepotism going on, but I'd like to think that Bonnie and I forged our own good personal and professional relationship that summer. And a few years later, Bonnie started Eight and a Half and opened up her Brooklyn studio at the exact time I was graduating. She asked if I'd be interested in working as her assistant/studio manager and I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. I then worked with her for three-and-a-half years or so, up until just after she relocated to Westport, CT.
Lucy had no previous design training. Why did you hire her?Siegler: Design training was less important than design wrangling, negotiations with design personalities and the ability to see the big picture without the distraction of design issues. Having known her parents for years, I had the opportunity to watch her own sensibility bloom and mature and knew that she’d be a great fit. One very early event particularly endeared her to me when, while leaving their home after a visit, she and her sister asked us to drive over all their Barbie dolls and crush them into the gravel on our way out, as a defiant farewell to popular delusions of femininity. Also she’s genuinely curious and really smart. And, on top of all that, she appreciated the importance of good snacks.
You were not a trained designer. Was being Bonnie's assistant your design school?
Andersen: 100%. I'm constantly telling people that I got my masters at 8.5. And unlike most design schools, Eight and a Half University also gave me all the practical knowledge of running a small business, which, as a freelance designer now, I probably put equal stock in. I honed my design eye and learned an insane amount of design history, but I also learned how to put together proposals and contracts, get quotes from vendors, meet deadlines, send out invoices and all the other logistical bits-and-bobs that go into making a company run smoothly. Even after five-plus years freelancing, my contracts are still largely based on what I learned working at 8.5. I also know that because Bonnie used Brandon Grotesque for her contracts, I used it for my first contracts too. Being Bonnie's assistant was the best of both worlds: deeply creatively inspiring and very practically informative.
What was your skill level upon assuming your role?
Andersen: Pretty minimal. I had had a few administrative/assistant-type internships during college and had done some extracurricular design stuff over the years, but working at Eight and a Half was my first full-time, real-world job. Although, since I had interned for her prior, I guess I wasn't completely starting from square one: I had met a few of the designers, knew how Bonnie liked her coffee and was familiar with the general “vibe” of the office. But Bonnie definitely put a lot of trust in bright-eyed little me.
Often assistants take to design like fish to water. What did Lucy learn right off the bat?Siegler: It was new for her, but she caught on quickly. We often have office crits where all the work is pinned up on the wall and we all discuss it. She went from an observer to a confident participant over the course of her employ. And she started wondering what she would do if she were the designer. In that way, it really was like school: a culmination of four years of learning and work.
Did you know that you wanted to take the design trajectory before taking on the job?
Andersen: I knew I wanted to work in a creative field, but didn't necessarily have my heart set on graphic design for the long haul. I studied art history in college, so I thought I might try to get into the museum/fine art world, but I was also pretty sure I didn't want to go to grad school. I was really just ready to start working somewhere where people were creating interesting, fun things. And that's exactly what I got at 8.5. All that being said, when I was a kid and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd quickly say "a designer of everything!" So I suppose I had some inkling that this was the world for me.
What were your responsibilities when you began, and how did they evolve?
Andersen: I'm trying to think back to the first few months of working with Bonnie—nearly nine years ago!—and from the get-go there was always a nice amount of variety in my job. I did the standard assistant things (answer phones, schedule meetings, run errands), but I also got to write pitches, work on the strategy and research phases of projects, put together mockups, help organize and curate shows and conferences, and lots more. And, while Bonnie always encouraged me to do logo sketches for brand identity projects, I was generally too shy to ever really do that. I think I was pretty conscious of not wanting to come off as some kinda precocious, overeager assistant who was like, "Hey, formally trained designers, how bout this crappy logo idea?"
But as the years went on, I started to sit in on more client meetings and presentations and generally played a more active role in putting together those presentations. I also got to work on book layouts and on other larger print and digital projects once the overall look and feel had been established. So, over time I got better-versed in the ol' Creative Suite and was able to do some more rudimentary, hands-on design work.
Lucy worked with you for four years. You were like design school. How did the teaching proceed?Siegle
r: I knew that Lucy had majored in art history but wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do. I thought she would work with us until she figured it out, and since we worked with so many different kinds of clients, I thought it would be a good introduction to a bunch of different worlds. I don’t know exactly when she decided on design, but when I found out, it felt like I would feel if my own child became a designer. Proud. And happy I could, unintentionally, show her what great fun we have and how lucky we are to work in this field.
Are you a quick study? How long did it take to get up to speed?
Andersen: I'd like to think so. At least when it comes to the basics of 'how to be a decent assistant,' I picked up all the administrative aspects of the job fairly quickly, maybe in a few months or so. As far as learning about the history and practice of graphic design itself? That was a bit of a slower process because I was so caught up in staying on top of all the organizational and operational work of the office. Either way, my aesthetic sensibilities did vastly improve while working for Bonnie.
At what point did she become an essential part of 8.5?Siegler: Right away. I quickly realized I could completely rely on her. Trust is a very precious commodity. Intelligence supercharges it.
What were your favorite jobs?
Andersen: Ooof, that's tough. Every client is beautiful in their own way. But some of my personal faves were the rebrand of the Brooklyn Public Library (as a native Brooklynite, I considered that a real *celebrity* client), our regular Criterion Collection "Three Reasons" trailers, the identity for "Late Night with Seth Meyers" was obviously incredibly fun, and I also loved working on the website for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. I even got to go out to Taliesin West with Bonnie for a board meeting for that one, which was pretty dreamy. We also did a new identity for BRIC (the arts and media company that organizes the long-running Celebrate Brooklyn! summer concert series), which was a total delight. The entire team for that was a joy to work with and the project also had the notable perk of free VIP tickets to all the Celebrate Brooklyn! shows that summer. So that was pretty cool.
What was Lucy's strong suit?Siegler: When I was working on my book Signs of Resistance, I needed someone who could help me organize hundreds of images and get permission and copyright information from everyone. I hired Lucy (two years after she had left) because she was the only person I knew who would be as excited by the material as I was and do everything with the utmost attention to detail.
I'd think if you were with 8.5 for as long as you were that you had really good experiences. Tell me about some.
Andersen: Beyond what I've mentioned … let's see. Learning hands-on from Bonnie and the other designers was amazing. The work hang was always super fun. I also loved being able to get to know such a varied group of clients over the years, and found all those interactions extremely educational. I gained as much knowledge dealing with the difficult asshole clients as I did from talking to the easy, excited collaborators—and how Bonnie and the other designers handled those relationships was very informative.
In 2013 Bonnie was the chair of the AIGA national design conference, which was a huge undertaking. In collaboration with the AIGA team, I helped her research and select the speakers, plan breakout sessions, book musicians and performers, cull through applicants to her Command X design game show, and all the other little details. It was a stressful, but really rewarding experience. As a designer, there's always the unique joy of seeing a printed, tangible piece realized at the end of a project—and seeing the entire conference come together after all that planning was a similar treat.
Also, I can't lie: I was obsessed with the studio itself. The shelves of Bonnie's office are packed with design books, vintage toys, weird scraps of ephemera and all the tchotchkes. Even after years of working there, I'd always find new, strange little odds 'n' ends I somehow hadn't seen before. Bonnie really helped foster my love of kiddie kitsch, and made me realize that the things you loved as a child can still be the things you love as an adult, and can continue to inspire and inform the work that you do.
What was the most enjoyable work that you did together?Siegler: It was the whole enchilada. Knowing someone else had the big picture in their head as well as the details was incredibly helpful and gave me room to focus where I needed to. For example, when I chaired the AIGA conference, it was a big project on top of all my other projects, so having a trusted, organized, smart person who understood exactly what was needed was a huge help. And it was incredibly fun to literally “put on a show” together.
Are there any projects where you were unleashed to do what you wanted?
Andersen: Not exactly. I was never the lead on any projects, but was always given plenty of latitude to pitch ideas and suggest things if I wanted to. Although that AIGA conference chair work I mentioned earlier was definitely something that I felt especially invested in. Essentially, I just got to research and write cool designers and learn about the cool things they were doing and then help Bonnie put it all together. Also, while I worked at 8.5, Bonnie started a column for Design Observer called "Dear Bonnie," where she answered reader questions (design-related and otherwise). She let me brainstorm a lot of those answers with her and edit the column, which was always a lot of fun.
Bonnie's work is naturally witty. How's your sense of humor (and the absurd)?
Andersen: Haha, ummm, I think I've got a pretty good sense of humor. And am for sure a big fan of the absurd. So I do feel like part of what made Bonnie and my relationship work so well was that shared sense of humor. We laughed a lot working together. And yeah, Bonnie's work does have such a great natural wit. It's smart and refined, but always has a bit of a wink to it. Which pretty much sums up working for Bonnie herself. Today, I always strive to create similarly easy, effervescent designs.
Where do you think you'd be if you had passed on this opportunity?
Andersen: Who can say? I think I'd probably still be working in some creative-ish field and living in New York City, but I'm not sure I necessarily would've ended up in graphic desi
gn. And I certainly wouldn't have gained the knowledge and confidence to try my hand at freelancing so quickly after.
What are you doing now?
Andersen: After I stopped working for Bonnie, I wasn't quite ready to jump into another full-time job, so took a month or two off to redirect. During that time, I somewhat nervously took on my first freelance design gig creating marketing materials for some co-working spaces in New York. Slowly but surely, I got a few more jobs through referrals and by applying to project listings I found online, and did a lot of my own work to build up my portfolio. After I left 8.5, I also collaborated with Bonnie on a few projects as a contractor (archival research work for her visual history of protest called Signs of Resistance; layouts for a New Yorker comic encyclopedia), which was super nice.
So now I'm a full-time freelance graphic designer. I've got a few ongoing retainer clients and a handful of other one-off projects going on at any given time—brand identities, web design, books, all kinds of print and digital collateral. I also started a zine with a few friends last year called The Pandemic Post, which features art, poetry, recipes, essays and interviews, and we donate 100% of our profits to various social justice organizations. Our fifth issue is currently in production and we're excited to keep thinking through how we might evolve in the months and years to come. It's definitely the most ambitious personal project I've ever worked on and it's helped keep me sane this past year, all while fostering a great new community of artists and writers. So, yeah! That's where I'm at. Despite the heaviness of the current moment, I've been lucky enough to be able to stay busy and carve out some space for meaningful creative work.