This article first appeared in issue 212 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
For an illustrator, typographer and designer who predominantly focuses on print, Brooklyn-based Jessica Hische is unusually respected in the web design community. Her work is all over the internet, she’s collaborated with designer extraordinaire Jason Santa Maria and she recently gave a talk at the Build conference. Hische clearly loves the internet, yet she refuses to do any web design.
“A lot of people assume that if you’re a designer, you can do web design,” Hische, who regularly gets requests by clients for PSD templates, explains. “But web design is a speciality and it takes not only a lot of training but you have to have the right network set up to make it happen.
“When print designers try to do web design, they will often give a ballpark quote for development but really have no idea what the ballpark is and they’re totally screwing themselves over. Also, if you’re going to be a web designer, you should have a pretty good knowledge of CSS and some basic HTML.”
Last year, Hische wrote a lengthy blog post on why you shouldn’t hire her to design your website. “If you designed a tattoo for yourself, spent months thinking about it and drawing it, would you take it to your cousin’s friend who bought a tattoo gun on eBay because he calls himself a tattoo artist now?” she asked. Although Hische has some knowledge of web design and built the early versions of her portfolio site herself, she recommends clients hire a specialist, someone who knows the ins and outs of the web, and then get her to make the site sing.
That’s what happened when MetaLab’s founder and CEO, Andrew Wilkinson, approached Hische. He asked her to design the logo for bespoke kitten boutique HJ Mews, as well as the logo and illustrations for culinaryculture.com, a social network for those who love to cook.
“Andrew really respects my work and opinions, so the whole process was very smooth,” she says. “That’s what I find lately: when I’m working for other designers, they ask me what I think. The process is much more collaborative than working directly with the clients, who need to see finalised art immediately.”
The social network
Hische has a remarkable knack for hanging out with the right people. Around a year ago she
designed the logo for Mighty, the new design studio of Jason Santa Maria, with whom she then shared a workspace. “He had worked with another designer and hadn’t been entirely happy with the results that they were coming up with,” Hische reveals.
“What he wanted was quite hard because it’s really difficult to do a masculine script and get it right. Scripts generally end up looking feminine and there’s such casualness that you need to make it look masculine – the boldness and the thick to thin ratio needs to be so specific.
“It took trial and error before he came to me. There were a lot of revisions with that logo but I was happy to make them because when he got what he wanted, it was perfect.”
Another studio mate, Cameron Koczon, and his company Fictive Kin, co-creators of web conference Brooklyn Beta, helped Hische create her current portfolio site. It’s a combination of a custom Ruby on Rails CMS, WordPress and shopping cart Big Cartel for her store.
Hische likes being able to edit her site herself and says the more she surrounds herself with people who work in related disciplines, the more she loves learning about them. Although typography and hand-lettering in particular dominate (Hische has just drawn type for a Special K advert, for example), she likes to keep a good mix of work and says she’d lose her mind if she had to do only one thing for the rest of her life. “A lot of print designers get so hung up on learning only about their field and not about the other realms of design. It’s not beneficial.”
Of course, Hische is in the lucky position that lettering goes anywhere, whether it’s print or web design. But she also says that, due to the design and coding aspect involved in creating fonts, it’s actually quite similar to web design.
No matter the discipline, Hische believes in working with specialists. Getting the right people together means you don’t just churn out mediocre work but produce outstanding sites instead. Collaboration is the way forward. “The reason art direction on the web has been neglected is that everyone thought they could do everything themselves until really recently. Everyone got PHP crazy, made custom back-ends and updated everything themselves all the time.
“But you can’t do everything yourself now, you’d be a superperson. Since everybody expects you to collaborate, the designer ends up being more of an art director because he coordinates who’s doing the front end, who’s doing the back end and so on. It’s impossible to put together a really, really great site for an individual. There are maybe four people in the whole world who can do it.”
The power of side projects
Jessica Hische only graduated in 2006, and a year later was hired by Louise Fili’s acclaimed graphic design firm. She continued to freelance extensively, started selling letterpressed posters, created her first commercial font, Buttermilk (opens in new tab), and finally went full-time freelance in September 2009. The very same month she set up the Daily Drop Cap, the project that’s really put her on the map. It sees her illustrate a hand-crafted decorative letter (almost) every day. At its peak, the site attracted about 110,000 visitors a month.
“Daily Drop Cap has made a huge impact on attracting new clients,” she exclaims. “I really believe that when you do self-promotion, it needs to be in a two-tiered way. You can’t just send out a print promo to a bunch of companies because they get so much stuff.
“The Daily Drop Cap made me a person on the internet who’s worth paying attention to. People would find my work through other venues and then realise I was behind the Daily Drop Cap. A side benefit is that it’s almost like a looking glass for the styles that I can do. A lot of art directors have come to me, shown me a letter that they liked and asked for something similar. So it’s definitely turned into a secondary portfolio.”
Now the project is nearing its end, Hische is planning to turn the Daily Drop Cap into a book, and she’s just also rebuilt the website in WordPress. The aim was to build an easily searchable database that will enable visitors to sort by letter, alphabet and style.
Never one to be short of ideas for new projects, Hische is also teaming up with friend and former studio mate Jessi Arrington, co-founder and designer of WORKSHOP, to set up a website of videos explaining the different design industries. “There are a lot of designers who are getting into illustration now but they have no idea how the industry works. They don’t understand licensing, usage or rights management. I’ve seen a few designers that have decided to sell licences of their illustration for $20 a pop! I really want to benefit students because design schools focus so much on the portfolios that a lot of them don’t have business practice built in.”
The videos will focus on lettering vs type, different kinds of type, illustration and web design,
the importance of collaboration, even “how to not be creepy when networking”. The site will launch soon and be hosted at artiscomplicated.com.
And there you have it. It’s not just hard work that counts. Some clever self-promotion mixed with discipline-straddling enthusiasm and a talent for collaborating with the right people can get you far in this industry.