Lettering artist Jessica Hische is hilarious yet poignant, eloquent yet fond of the occasional F-bomb, elegant yet not averse to tossing back a bourbon—and moreover, every element of her character feels genuine, and every element of it appears in her work. After spending time at Headcase Design and at Louise Fili’s studio, Hische went rogue and has since picked up a client roster including Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers, Penguin Books, The New York Times and many others—all while speaking at events around the globe, gradually sowing the seeds for the explosive popularity of handlettering that exists today. Here, we take a moment to catch up with her.
What do you feel defines your work these days?
One of the things that distinguishes my work from a lot of other lettering artists is that I wouldn’t call it “simple,” but I wouldn’t call it “ornate.” I like detail but it’s not what gets me off. When I get asked to do something that is super crazy, over-the-top, ornate detailed, it’s actually kind of difficult for me to push it there. Because I feel once I get the work to a certain point, I’m happy with it. I’m like, this is legible, it’s pretty—
It’s not excessive but it’s still elegant.
Exactly. I think that would probably be what would define the kind of work that I’m interested in doing. I’m not interested in doing minimalist work, but I’m not interested in doing hyper-ornate decorative work. …
I’m not a “snap-to-grid” person. I use [a computer] as you would a hand tool, rather than taking advantage of the fact that it can be perfect. I don’t make things on a computer because I want them to be perfect; I make things on a computer because that’s just a medium that works for me in terms of creation.
Tell me about your thoughts on scale, which you discussed not long ago at the AIGA conference.
Staying small has always been what I have wanted, but other people have wanted me to scale. In my position, maybe that’s what they would do. I’ve had a lot of really well-intentioned people in my life and friends that look at me not scaling as me throwing away the golden ticket. Where they’re like, “Clearly you could be starting an empire. Clearly you could be doing this. You have this audience, you have these abilities, you have these connections. How come you’re not making your own Martha Stewart empire thing?”
I think that is really difficult to answer, because whatever success is for you is what it is for you. Once you achieve some sort of success, finding ways to become successful becomes easier because you can see that path it took and see some of the hardships that you went through, and know what mistakes to avoid next time.
The issue is, if it’s easier to find success or do a thing that is successful, you have to really ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Do I want to do this? Do I want to do this just because I want to or just because I know it will be successful? For me, I could absolutely grow my studio, but I don’t know if it’s something that would make me feel better about my work, or if it would make me feel worse about my work. Until I know that, I don’t want to do anything about it.
As it pertains to creative output, there are many people in many fields who get into certain things solely because they will pay out—and when there’s a lack of passion, it can seem fairly obvious in the results.
The thing is, if you know your intentions are clear—I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to have financial gain off of projects that you do; that’s not wrong at all. There are people who think it should be separate; I don’t think that it should be separate. I think you have to make sure that’s not your only driving force. Because the main thing is, if it does resonate with a ton of people, you’re going to be asked about that thing over and over again. People are going to be really disillusioned and really unhappy if they find out that this thing that made a big difference for them was [churned out solely for profit].
The big thing is, as a designer, you have to be able to defend your work and you have to be able to talk about your work. Especially when it’s personal work, you have to be able to talk about it, and you should always be able to talk about something excitably if you created it just because you felt like it.
It’s hard not to do that if you’re doing stuff that you actually care about. If you decide, I feel I should make this thing because this thing doesn’t exist, but I have no actual connection to it … what’s actually motivating you to do it? Whereas if you’re like, oh my God I wish this thing was real, I want this for myself—then, all of a sudden, you definitely want to devote your full self to it.
Enter the most respected competition in graphic design—now open to both pros and students—for a chance to have your work published, win a pass to HOW Design Live, and more. 2017 Judges: Aaron Draplin / Jessica Hische / Pum Lefebure / Ellen Lupton / Eddie Opara / Paula Scher. Student work judges: PRINT editorial & creative director Debbie Millman and PRINT editor-in-chief Zachary Petit.