Letterer, Illustrator, and Author Jessica Hische Talks Mindfulness, Setting Boundaries, and Releasing Her New Gratitude Journal

Posted inDesigner Interviews

One of the design world’s lettering pioneers, Jessica Hische, has cultivated a dauntingly impressive career over the last decade-plus. She’s designed typefaces for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, collaborated with top brands like Tiffany, McSweeney’s, Target, and countless others, and, most recently, authored and illustrated her own children’s books. 

As a mother of three, on top of managing her prolific career, it stands to reason that Hische has developed strategies for creating pockets of alone time and re-centering for herself. Chief among those tactics is gratitude journaling, which Hische has done every morning to start her day for the last four years. She has now taken this practice as a springboard to create her very own, releasing BRAVE, KIND, AND GRATEFUL: A Daily Gratitude Journal on the heels of her first two children’s books—Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave and Tomorrow I’ll Be Kind.

Hische’s wide-ranging talents are on full display throughout the gratitude journal, which comes filled with thoughtful prompts and exercises, original illustrations, and intimate personal essays. The paperback logbook is a tender invitation for one to acknowledge their daily acts of bravery, creativity, and kindness and explore the various meanings of gratitude.

I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Hische recently about the gratitude journal, her career, parenthood, and what’s next for an artist who can do it all.

What is your personal relationship to journaling? 

My relationship to journaling is pretty spotty. I’m an all-or-nothing journaler, and I always felt like journaling was me writing an autobiography or something, so I would get so hung up on having to document every detail of my day and provide thoughtful commentary. I wasn’t a big Sex And The City person, but the image of Carrie Bradshaw’s thoughtful articles about her life was what my perception of journaling always was. It has to be this insightful document of not only what you’ve gone through but your thoughts and feelings about all of it. 

That ended up meaning I would dive into journaling for about four to five days and then immediately drop off because I couldn’t find the 40 minutes it takes to have that level of journalism. 

Then, these new journaling forms started becoming more mainstream, which were much more short-form and about documenting an individual thing. I had a subscription to Qeepsake for a while, a journal for your children that asks you a question every day, and you text back the answer to that question. So it’s meant to be one of these easy prompts and takes five minutes. I love those sorts of formats, where it’s not meant to be this holistic version of whatever your day was. Honestly, Google Calendar is good for that anyway. That’s enough of a journal for the nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff. So I really like these formats that get more specific, that ask you to think about a much more meaningful thing instead of deriving all of the meaning from your day.

Why have you gravitated to gratitude journaling specifically? 

A friend of mine introduced gratitude journaling to me, and it’s that exactly. It’s not this huge document of everything, it’s just supposed to take five minutes. I just really, really fell in love with the format, and it’s been the only kind of journaling I’ve been able to keep up. Having kids and living through a pandemic, there are so many logistics and nightmarish freakouts going on that actually just taking a minute to reset is so important; taking a minute to be grateful for a little moment. I feel like those sorts of prompts to reset yourself can really alter the course of your day. 

So, the idea of starting your day off with an attitude reset, not “Ugh, I guess I’m going to have to do all of this stuff today” or “Oh my god, my schedule’s packed.” Instead, you start it from a place of, “Wow, I can’t believe I get to live this life, I get to do these things.” You coast into work or kid drop-off in such a different way.

The gratitude journal continues the themes you addressed in your two previous children’s books, Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave and Tomorrow I’ll Be Kind. Are these meant to function as a series? Can you speak about the way they feed into one another?

“Be Brave” and “Be Kind” jumped into the journal because they are written in a way that meant to create this structure in your day, setting intentions for the next day, reviewing what you’ve done and what you’re excited about from your current day. So those two things go together really well, but journaling tends to touch into a slightly older age group. Of course, a lot of the people that buy “Be Brave” and “Be Kind” get them as gifts at their baby showers and things like that, so they’re reading them to very little kids, kids who are not reading and writing yet. But at the same time, the parents love that intention-setting moment. I wanted a way to bridge that gap between the kids moving on to starting to write and document their lives. Creating that sweet moment and carrying it forward, and making something that is an all-ages experience. Something you can introduce really young, but something that is just as applicable to a grown-up. 

What is it like working in the children’s book space? Was becoming a parent yourself the catalyst for making your own books, or was this something you wanted to get into anyway? 

Picture books are so interesting because we love them when we’re small. Then we’re kind of too cool for school for them for a long time, but when we get older, if we’re lucky and allow ourselves to, they can resonate again so much. Even for people who aren’t parents. They’re amazing works of art, and there are always such great inspirational messages. 

I don’t really permit myself to work in spaces that I don’t feel like I fully understand, just professionally. That’s a thing that I struggle with a little bit. I feel like I hold back from taking a deep dive into a new space until I have a good understanding of it. I know plenty of people who don’t have kids that work on children’s books, and they’re amazing. But I was like, I don’t know. I don’t understand children. I don’t understand what they want. But when I started having kids myself, I thought, Oh, okay. I know what I’m supposed to do here. It was like getting a master’s degree in what works for children’s books by reading thousands of them as a part of my daily routine. 

Anybody can do that just by researching to understand story and narrative structure and learning how to write. But you can also pick it up much more intuitively just by being a parent. Once they become parents, a lot of artists get interested in working on things for children because they feel like they understand that world more. 

Most people know you as a visual artist for your incredible lettering work, but there’s so much of your writing in “Be Kind,” “Be Brave,” and especially in the gratitude journal. What has it been like coming into your own as a writer in addition to being a visual artist? 

I’ve never really thought of myself as a writer, mostly because I find the process of writing to be so incredibly painful. For me, there’s nothing intuitive about it. I feel like I’m slogging through mud all the way through until I finally get to something where I feel proud. I have momentum, and there’s a crazy explosion of productivity and creativity. Whenever I complain about this, writers will say, “I’ve never heard my process described so completely!” So maybe it’s just like this for everybody! 

I would love to get into writing without necessarily doing the art side of it as well. I have a literary agent, and I see people only do children’s book writing. If you’re not putting like 600 hours into the artwork side of it, on top of doing the writing, you can get so many more ideas out into the world. I also think that there are some ideas that I’ve had or that I’m sitting on that maybe my art isn’t the best solution for expressing that idea or telling that story. 

I’m way more open now to exploring writing as something I do that is not just adjacent to my visual artwork or part of educational writing on design. I’ve gotten most of my writing out into the world by doing design-related things because it’s a topic I know. I like to write about things that I know. I write about my own personal experience and recontextualize things that I’ve learned to make it more palatable for other people. It’s hard to feel confident as a writer without any real background or training. 

I actually took a children’s book writing continuing education class at UC Berkley when I was about to release Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave, and everyone in the class was like, “If you have a book that’s about to be published, you already know how to write a children’s book.” But I just wanted to know how it’s done!

Commission for Snacks Quarterly

I’m noticing how prepared you like to be as an artist. You didn’t feel like you could write children’s books until you had the experience of having your children, and you needed to take a writing class to be a writer even though you already had a book getting published. 

Part of that impulse is that I’m terrified of criticism. Once you put something out into the world, you don’t know how it will get received. If it’s received poorly, I want to know that I did everything I could to make it as good as possible. I want to have a defense mechanism in my research, thought process, and intention. 

I do feel like this is something women struggle with professionally. Women often hold themselves back from doing high-level achieving stuff because they want to get it right and feel confident before they say, “Yes, make me the CCO!” or whatever. Whereas there’s always a bunch of dudes going in guns blazing like, “I got this! I’ll figure it out as I go!” I don’t know if it’s a male and female thing; I don’t want it to be. It’s definitely a “me” thing, but I feel like I’ve seen that play out with other people, and it makes me question whether what I’m doing is the right way to approach things. At the same time, your creative process is your creative process, and you have to do what you do to put things out into the world. 

Logo refresh for MailChimp

As a mother of three young kids, how do you balance your prolific career with parenthood? 

One thing that helped was moving from New York to California a few years before I had my kids. I moved from this period of my life where I was working 16-hour days, at least one weekend day, and I loved it. It’s not like I was struggling. I was just jazzed about design and couldn’t say no to projects and wanted to go with the momentum. And then, when I moved out to California, it became impossible to live that life because I didn’t know anyone else that did it. I’m a social creature. I need to spend time with friends. A lot of my friends had tech jobs and were off work at 6 pm that were like, “Let’s get dinner! Let’s go away this weekend!” So all of a sudden, I had this social life that wasn’t just me going to the studio and hanging out with my studio mates. I was hanging out with people who weren’t full-time freelancers that didn’t keep those hours on purpose. I’m grateful for that period because if I were to have gone from New York crazy to parenting, I would have crashed and burned so hard. 

It built a strict schedule onto my calendar about what a workday is. So work was from 9 to 6, and as a parent, you have to have that schedule. As a freelancer, it’s difficult to maintain that schedule because companies are constantly trying to push you out of that. But I think I just got trained for several years before I became a parent. That is what a workday is. I don’t have to say yes to stuff that’s after that—that can be for other people in different timezones and different periods of their lives.

The other helpful thing was understanding that other people’s perception of what busy means is different from mine. For example, I never update Instagram. I’m so bad at it. I have such a horrible backlog of work to post to the internet. I update my website maybe once every four years. But when I do, everyone’s like, “Wow! How do you do it all?” I’ll put like five pieces up in three years, and they’re like, “You’re so productive!” So maybe people’s perception of productivity is being involved in the conversation. Clearly, people know that I’m working on things. I don’t need to put out a new piece of art every four days. I can make ten things a year that are great or that I’m proud of, and that’s super productive. 

When you start framing things in that way—like you don’t need to be constantly outputting—you don’t need to treat your relationship to social media like an influencer does. It starts to change how you feel about how much work you have to do to feel like you are a productive designer. 

I work around 35 hours a week, generally. Most of the time, my work life is very chill. I constantly have stuff in the mix. Sometimes my workload can be pretty heavy, and I can get a little stressed out. But usually, it’s like two weeks of feeling stressed out, and then four weeks of, “This is great! I love my life! Let’s go out for lunch!” I go through these cycles. I don’t work on the weekends at all. I very rarely work in the evening. I have to be really excited about a project to work on it in the evening rather than feeling pressure to work on it. I’m more likely to email a client and ask for more time than to work on it for five hours that night. That’s very different from what I would have done when I was 24. 

Label and box design for Q.Bel

As a freelancer myself, this is a good lesson for me to learn. It’s okay to say no and set boundaries. 

It’s tough to give that advice, though, because it’s something that comes from a lot of work privilege. I’ve amassed enough power as an individual to be able to reach out to a client and go, “Hey, I know we said Thursday for this meeting, but can we push it to Tuesday because I need extra time because my kids are home from school.” Because people generally trust me and are excited to work with me, they’ll be more flexible. But not everybody gets that treatment—I’m aware of that. It depends on how your clients view you. But you can build trust in that early part of that working process that allows that flexibility later. You just need to establish that connection upfront; you can reap the benefits later. 

You have your hands in so many different things at this point, from your lettering and logo and branding work to your children’s books and the gratitude journal. Is there anything else you want to take a crack at as an artist?

I feel like now the “she does it all” reputation is starting to tip over into “it’s too much.” I need to be more curated and precise about what I do professionally. Part of that is the lettering space has gotten so competitive. So I do want to be very intentional and specific about how I move my commercial design practice forward. Being a person who looks like a jack of all trades can work against you at a certain point where people don’t really know what to come to you for. So I have been narrowing myself professionally. I know that I want to do the kids’ books, I know that I want to focus on doing logos and branding because I really like that. It’s also a time-tested, bullet-proof, always-going-to-be-there thing. I’m very conscious of that.

One of the things you have to be aware of as a freelancer is that there are seasons to everything. There’s going to be a trend of a thing, but then that trend will go away, and you need to know what you’re going to be onto next so that you can actually pay your bills. So certain things have a shorter life span, and others have a longer life span. You want to make sure that even if you’re really jazzed about the short-life-span stuff, that you have stuff that’s a bit more time-tested and more resilient to changes in the market. For me, logos and branding are something that will always be a part of design. 

Commercial lettering has shifted a lot into being influencer work, honestly. That’s just the nature of advertising. I feel like advertising has almost turned into influencer culture. A lot of campaigns that come my way are so much less straightforward. Previously it’d be like, “Make these ten pieces.” But now, there are all these clauses. You need to post on these days and use these hashtags. They’re trying to use artists’ social presences as part of the campaigns. That’s something I’ve really struggled with. So if that’s a huge part of being a commercial letterer, then maybe I don’t need commercial lettering in my life. I need to create lettering and work with type that feels good to me and that I still enjoy, that doesn’t involve leveraging my audience to do stuff. I don’t want to use myself to sell stuff. I have no judgment for people that do—you get yours! You do you! But it just doesn’t feel natural to me. I’d much rather have the internet be this fun play space. A place I can share things I’m excited about and the things I’m grateful for.

BRAVE, KIND, AND GRATEFUL: A Daily Gratitude Journal is available for preorder now, with an official release date of December 7th.