Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer. A former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Eye and Communications Arts magazine, she is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director’s Hall of Fame. Jessica received both her BA and MFA from Yale University where she has taught since 1994. In 2013, she won the AIGA medal.


Design Observer is, now as ever, a champion for distinctive voices, engaging storytellers, and brave critics. In our view, to be a critic, you have to have an opinion that is founded in something solid and real, but it also means you have to be bold, willing to stake your ground and hold to it. Good criticism should be exciting to read, not snarky; enlightened, not superior; and analytical rather than dismissive.

My own practice has always included writing and criticism: I seem to write a book about every five years. (My next effort, which will be published by Yale University Press, is tentatively entitled “Why Design Matters”.) When I am not writing I teach visual narrative at Yale (and elsewhere) and I make things in my studio. Sometimes, those things fall under the general rubric of graphic design. But very often they grow out of my obsessions — collecting and collage, biography and portraiture, identity and photography, biology and ephemera — and become visually manifest in a variety of forms. The core of my work seems to exist at the nexus of scholarship and practice, which is to say that I like making things that are tethered to some kind of unusual, unearthed primary source.

At Yale, I teach a seminar on visual biography and another one on the color blue. I'm deeply committed to a kind of teaching that combines research and making things; where there are often more questions than answers; where the students come in with no knowledge of visual thinking and leave not only with a heightened perspective on formal issues, but a passion to reinvent both themselves and the world around them. Often, this kind of teaching benefits from happening outside the confines of the classroom: I'm proud to be part of a very small group of educators teaching in this summer editorial course in Portugal, and this coming year I will be teaching in Paris where I lived as a child, and where I am eager to return. In Paris I'll be drawing, taking photographs for a new book project and making some very short films which I hope to post here on Design Observer.

Finally, this fall I’ll be leading the European effort on Design Observer where, as you can tell from our masthead, we have welcomed three new correspondents. I hope you will join me in welcoming them, too.

Jessica Helfand
Thanksgiving Day

Jessica Helfand
Brute Force

Behind the Bataclan, pigeon pathologists, Design Thinking at IBM, the Coke bottle at 100, Michael Gross

Jessica Helfand
Our Bataclan, Our Selves

Visualizing safety

Jessica Helfand

Climate change, Drake’s take on James Turrell, an IKEA horror catalog

Jessica Helfand
The Opposite of Ugly

Jessica Helfand
Remembering Ruth Sackner

An inveterate collector

Jessica Helfand
Basic Human Needs

Jessica Helfand
Moving Pictures

Aylan Kurdi, photojournalism, airline posters, early television

Jessica Helfand
September Issues

Jessica Helfand
Over the Rainbow

Rainbows, selfie sticks, and the flag of New Zealand

Jessica Helfand
New Horizons

Pluto is at the outer limits of the solar system. Porto is at the end of Europe.

Jessica Helfand
Places and Faces

Jessica Helfand
M Is for a Million Things

Jessica Helfand
Remembering James Salter

Writer, father

Jessica Helfand

Are boxing and photography hipster pleasures? Are they past their prime, or do they have a bright future?

Jessica Helfand
150 Years, 7 Minutes, 6 Seconds

Visualizing business data, a logo to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, and more.

Jessica Helfand
East Meets West

Jessica Helfand
Inside the Lines

Michael and Jessica discuss the The Grid, which uses artificial intelligence to design websites, the history of grids, and the unlikely success of coloring books for adults.

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: The Inevitable

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Land, Rand, Mad Men

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Such Watch

On this episode of The Observatory, Michael and Jessica talk about Jonathan Ive, the rollout of the Apple Watch, and Michael Graves

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: FYI We Are Graphic Designers

Jessica Helfand
License to Risk: The Square Revisited

Jessica Helfand shares her MFA thesis

Jessica Helfand
Making Change 05: Why Design Matters

Change the world, or change ourselves?

Jessica Helfand
Making Change 04: Why Vigilance Matters

George Clooney’s non-profit, the Satellite Sentinel Project, is a serious initiative. They’re not designers. But their platform is stunningly visual, and worth a look.

Jessica Helfand
Making Change 03: Why Pictures Matter

Moving pictures—literally and emotionally

Jessica Helfand
Making Change 02: Why Warning Matters

The larger social impact of our visual and verbal choices

Jessica Helfand
Making Change 01: Why Character Matters

In Cape Town this week, the question of designers making change is being thoughtfully examined. Who are we to make changes and what kinds of changes might we consider making, if indeed we can make them at all?

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Words, Pictures, Sounds

A few things on our minds

Jessica Helfand
Fantasy: Do Not Attempt

Advertisers and the consumer brain.

Jessica Helfand
Ordinary People

France begins to correct its wartime reputation

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Our Favorite Things

On this episode, Jessica Helfand talks about her Paris 140 series, and Michael Bierut describes his 100 Day Project + some of the cultural highlights of the year.

Jessica Helfand
Fifty Shades of Cynicism

When did we become so cynical—about ephemera?

Jessica Helfand
What’s Wrong With This Picture?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a painting worth? Judging from these images, it’s hard to say.

Jessica Helfand
Visual Diagnosis

The mesmerizing galleries of Figure1 — a massive library of crowdsourced clinical images — raises serious questions about how we all use photographs

Jessica Helfand
The Language of Torture

A few words on the magnitude of the primary source

Jessica Helfand
Questionable Inheritances

Today, a search for Paul Rand will bring you, in seconds, to Rand Paul. But it was not always so, and for this we can thank Leon Wieseltier, whose departure from a 30-year reign at The New Republic was just announced

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Dollars and Change

On this episode of The Observatory, Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand discuss the midterm election and currency design.

Jessica Helfand
The Observatory: Epidemics and Theater

Jessica Helfand
Deathiquette: A Design Problem

What does it mean to mourn in the modern world?

Jessica Helfand
Howard Paine: 1929–2014

Remembering Howard Paine, National Geographic art director and stamp designer extraordinaire

Jessica Helfand
La Grafica

Typography is, of course, her lingua franca:  and who better than to write this book than Louise Fili?

Jessica Helfand
To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Photographing oneself has become a singular pastime, an instantly rewarding yet indisputably time-sucking activity poised somewhere between narcotic and sport.

Jessica Helfand

For Paul Rand, a modern mark was a simple mark, and the secret to making things last lay in keeping them simple.

Jessica Helfand
A Day for Fathers

As a child, I was always perplexed by Father's Day and Mother’s Day. Why, I wondered, wasn’t there a Children’s Day?

Jessica Helfand
Fast Thinking

Jessica Helfand
Jessica Helfand on Brevity

Jessica Helfand
Our Shopping Lists, Our Selves

Jessica Helfand on lists: from the mundane to the historical, the shopping list to the Bill of Rights.

Jessica Helfand
When Less Was More

Jessica Helfand reminisces about her first graphic design job.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Twelve

In the end, Ezra Winter was a man whose devotion to the classical world virtually underscored his every move: it explained his ineffable pursuit of youth, his enduring worship of women, his unyielding obsessions with fantasy and grandeur, lyricism and scale, theatricality and costume, fable and myth.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Eleven

The 1930s would prove to be an enormously fertile period in Ezra Winter’s life: following the success of the Radio City murals, the artist embarked on major commissions for the United States Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve Building and the Library of Congress, and in 1939, he debuted his mural for the New York World's Fair.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Ten

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Nine

The Fountain of Youth would be Ezra Winter's greatest achievement, an enduring cultural icon in the city he loved — and on every possible level, a simply insurpassable feat: it is an extraordinary painting precisely because it is so unbearably autobiographical.

Jessica Helfand
Bill Moggridge 1943-2012

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Eight

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Seven

As the gulf widens between the aspirational and the real — between the projected self and the authentic self — Ezra Winter immerses himself in all that is beautiful and lyrical and dream-like, including and especially the women with whom he surrounds himself.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Six

In the Spring of 1926, publisher George Palmer Putnam organized an 8,500 mile expedition to Greenland in quest of specimens for the then-new Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History: the ship’s roster included an eclectic mix of specialists, including an ichthyologist, a taxidermist and an artist by the name of Ezra Winter.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Five

In 1920, Warren Harding was elected President on a “Return to Normalcy” platform. But for Ezra Winter, nothing was normal.

Jessica Helfand
Why Write About Graphic Design?

Today, graphic design is no longer a function of pictures and words on paper, because graphic design is no longer only about being graphic. It operates on multiple cultural, linguistic and formal platforms, and its boundaries are porous and flexible, cultural and dynamic — visual and yes, verbal. 

Jessica Helfand
Page One: Great Expectations

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Four

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Three

In his first post-Academy professional pursuit, Ezra Winter is hired to design camouflage for the United States Shipping Board, using a reductive visual vocabulary of bold stripes and patches of solid color that is far closer to the language of Klee and Kandinsky than of the Renaissance masters he loves.

Jessica Helfand
Audrey Real Helfand: Designer Manquée

Fifty years ago, my mother Audrey was a prolific visual maker: today, she’d be running her own studio.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter Two

Chapter Two, Pilgrim : In 1911, Ezra Winter marries, wins the Rome Prize, and heads to Europe for three years of study and travel.

Jessica Helfand
Yoshiko Sato 1960-2012

Jessica Helfand's personal remembrance of the Japanese architect and designer Yoshiko Sato, who lost her battle with cancer earlier this month.

Jessica Helfand
Ezra Winter Project: Chapter One

Jessica Helfand
Late Summer Reading

In the late summer, we share a reading list first published in Frieze magazine, April 2011.

Jessica Helfand
On the Shoulders of Midgets: A Conversation About Reality TV

A conversation about reality TV with Marvin Heiferman and Jessica Helfand.

Jessica Helfand
The Look of Freedom

It was the American novelist William Faulkner who once observed that we must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it. So who am I to take issue with more contemporary interpretations of commemorative form?

Jessica Helfand
The Public Face of Disgrace

The funny thing about lying is that it's about as far as you can go from the expectation of trustworthiness with which we characterize public leadership. 

Jessica Helfand
Meet Our Intern: Paul Rand!

Our surprise upon receiving the Facebook mailer shown here, addressed to Paul Rand.

Jessica Helfand
Mothers Day Special: Baby, It’s You!

Today, in honor of Mother's Day, we've gathered some baby photos from some of our favorite designers.

Jessica Helfand
The Royal Tweet

Long criticized for not being relevant in contemporary culture, the British royal family announces the engagement of the future King of England via Twitter.

Jessica Helfand
New Lives for Old Paper

Jessica Helfand
Penny Dreadfuls

Nothing says "I Love You" like a mass-produced sentiment written by somebody else: Herewith, our very own collection of Penny Dreadfuls.

Jessica Helfand
The Little Savages

A century ago, art and design juries often favored the same participants, year after year, a corruption of power that was anything but fair. Especially when jurors favored applicants made in their own image.

Jessica Helfand
When Do We Call it Art?

Back in the pre-Banksy days of big cars and even bigger hair, there came a cultural moment noted for its prevalence of large-scaled words and symbols, a comparatively brazen visual trope that flirted with modernity by celebrating overscaled visuals in the interest of commerce.

Jessica Helfand
Certificate of Approval

Jessica Helfand writes about her favorite piece of design.

Jessica Helfand
Does It Have To Be A Lightbulb?

You know that joke about how many graphic designers it takes to screw in a lightbulb? To which the answer is: does it have to be a lightbulb?

Jessica Helfand
Bring In Da Ponk!

There is a reason that most Americans don't think of roasted millet as a dietary staple, and it may have something to do with the fact that extracting it requires actually thrashing the wheat stalk from which it hails.

Jessica Helfand
You Never Go Down The Candy Aisle

I used to believe that the true secret of extraordinary success in the kitchen lay in skillful grocery shopping. I was doomed, it seemed, the minute I hit the market, where I was hardwired to revisit the same aisles, to buy the same ingredients, to make the same dishes, over and over and over again.

Jessica Helfand
Sweet Spot: Cake as Craft?

Within the broad genre known as reality television — in between the astonishing displays of amateur talent and the atrocious tales of teenage pregnancy — are nearly half a dozen programs devoted to extreme displays of, well, frosting.

Jessica Helfand
Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones but Print Can Never Hurt Me: A Letter to Fiona on First Reading "The End of Print"

In 2000, Jessica Helfand wrote a letter to her daughter Fiona, giving her a primer on graphic design.

Jessica Helfand
Be Careful What You Wish For

Jessica Helfand
Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman!

The Canada Post announced last month that it is enlisting the public's help in designing a new stamp to raise awareness for mental health issues.

Jessica Helfand
Oh, To Be An English, Um, Person!

Within the space of one hour yesterday, these two images flashed upon my screen — both of them curiously billed as "Englishmen."

Jessica Helfand
Pretty Pictures, Bad Judgment

Jessica Helfand
The Bantjes Covers

Marian Bantjes exposes the long process that led to the cover of her new monograph, I Wonder.

Jessica Helfand
An Introduction to Graphic Design

Graphic Design 101 by William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand.

Jessica Helfand
AIGA Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing: 2010 Recipients

AIGA and Winterhouse Institute announce the two writers selected to receive the 2010 AIGA Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism — including a $10,000 prize and a $1,000 student award.

Jessica Helfand
The Kindness of Strangers

Vignelli Celebration: If charity begins at home, how can we proclaim new and progressive agendas of social change without examining ourselves, our students, our profession?

Jessica Helfand
Fat Chance

There's a long grounding for the appreciation of zaftig beauty in painting and sculpture — from the baroque beauties of Peter Paul Rubens to the geometrically rotund figures of Fernando Botero. So why is it so difficult to talk about people who are really fat?

Jessica Helfand
The Real Skinny on the Real Skinny

The is the first of two essays on the visual nature of body image.

Jessica Helfand
In the Palm of Your Hand: Dexterity Puzzles

A selection of rare dexterity puzzles from the personal collection of Jessica Helfand.

Jessica Helfand
Viva The Villain: A Review of Despicable Me

In an age in which last week’s Bernie Madoff is next week’s BP oil spill, villains are no longer the stuff of fiction. So when a really juicy fictional villain comes along — let alone two — it’s time to go to the movies.

Jessica Helfand
Happy Birthday, Steven Heller

A tribute to Steven Heller on his Birthday!

Jessica Helfand
The Next Great Graphic Designer

Tonight on Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" the winning Penguin book cover design will be unveiled, which begs a few questions. We hope our readers will weigh in with their opinions.

Jessica Helfand
Rome’s MAXXI: Force Field as Field Space

The MAXXI center in Rome opens with a glorious, international exhibition and showcases a building that is likely to be as controversial — and as celebrated — as its designer.

Jessica Helfand
Every Poem an Epitaph: The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

One does not have to be a poet to write heartbreaking words on a piece of eternal stone. Or perhaps the opposite is true, that all such memorials are lyrical remembrances — that every poem, as TS Eliot once observed, is an epitaph.

Jessica Helfand
Prisoners of Logic

For five or six years now, I have led a double life as a painter. Until recently, I viewed this other identity as a kind of dirty secret.

Jessica Helfand
Better Living Through Artistry

SEWA, a cooperative textile manufacturing company in Ahmedebad, India, is a network of self-employed women.

Jessica Helfand
All Things Matter

Jessica Helfand
A Stitch in Time: A Review of 9

The comically repetitive date of 090909 iss thought to be a lucky day, a day of optimism and interconnectedness. It was also the release date for the new animated film, 9.

Jessica Helfand
Significant Objects: Elvis Chocolate Tin

Significant Objects is a much-discussed experiment conducted by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker. The fifth of five stories is by Jessica Helfand...

Jessica Helfand
Can Graphic Design Make You Cry?

How can you create anything visually compelling if you don't engage at some fundamentally human level — a place where memory and feeling are as valued as form and execution?

Jessica Helfand
Open Letter to Design Students Everywhere

Jessica Helfand
Land in Crisis: The Antelope Valley Story

Can the County of Los Angeles claim adverse possession, and rescind residents' rights to their own water? One plaintiff is fighting for the rights of landowners who are currently not pumping from the aquifer, and has mounted a class action suit in order to do so. She also believes that design can help solve the problem. Can it? What is at stake is the degree to which designers can lend their ingenuity to find a way to cut through this mess. And, in so doing, to help restore water to its rightful recipients.

Jessica Helfand
What's The Story?

And what becomes of all those dead tweets, anyway — all those long-expired, evaporated updates?

Jessica Helfand
My Facebook, My Self

But as projections of ourselves, one's Facebook identity, made visible through one's photo albums, inhabits a public trajectory that goes way beyond who and what we are.

Jessica Helfand
Cats and Their Designers

Behold: our collection of feline wonders, and the designers who named them.

Jessica Helfand
Ten Things That Need to be Redesigned

Lottery tickets, the hearse, monopoly money, IRS forms, airport design, children's ski jackets, political lawn signs, TV remotes, blister packaging and the state of New Jersey are examined for their design flaws.

Jessica Helfand
Graphic Design Spam

Have you received any graphic design spam in your mailbox lately?

Jessica Helfand
The Posters of Padua

In the sixteenth century the University of Padua initiated a custom that has prevailed to the present day — a custom which boasts, as it turns out, a very prominent design component.

Jessica Helfand
Second in a Series: Completions

The series, when shown on a single surface, carries with it a kind of implicit satisfaction that a series disseminated over time does not.

Jessica Helfand

What do you call book jacket design that manipulates the book jacket itself in an effort to illustrate the content of the book? Answer: biblionomatopoeia.

Jessica Helfand
First In A Series: Cartophily

Mostly unified by their one-to-two format, cigarette cards revealed countless variation in topic and scope, style and personality, seriousness of purpose and goofball whimsy. If the ardent collector defines the amalgamation of disparate items by retaining a fundamental organizing principle, then what is it, exactly, that guides the maker? And enthralls the viewer?

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Ephemera, Part III: Aging 2.0

Paper has a finite life span. It yellows and oxidizes and eventually disintegrates. But today, there are a host of specialty materials that protect and preserve paper so that, unlikely as it may seem, ephemeral materials may have found their very own fountain of youth.

Jessica Helfand
Reflections on the Ephemeral World, Part Two: Food

Ever since the 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Archimboldo made portraits from the detritus of his dinner, the relationship between the visual and the edible has been something of a puzzle. Welcome to the world of foodistry: design with food.

Jessica Helfand
Reflections on The Ephemeral World, Part One: Ink

An elegy to the makeready — those sheets of paper, re-fed into a press to get the ink balances up to speed, leaving a series of often random, palimpsest-like, multiple impressions on a single surface — in the digital age.

Jessica Helfand
Iron Man: The Screen Behind the Screen

Iron Man is the fulfillment of all the computer-integrated movies were ever meant to be, and by computer-integrated, I mean just that: beyond the technical wizardry of special effects, this is a film in which the computer is incorporated, like a cast member, into the development of the plot itself.

Jessica Helfand
National Scrapbooking Day

"Scrapbooks (like these) remind us that creating an album from saved matter does not necessarily provide an accurate self-portrait..." An essay by Jessica Helfand from her new book on the occasion of National Scrapbooking Day.

Jessica Helfand
Viewer Discretion Advised

One of the great ironies of contemporary culture is the degree to which pro-forma warnings read as largely invisible. “Viewer Discretion Advised” tells us we’ve been warned...

Jessica Helfand
Animal Magnetism

Magazines are the sole industry in which you cannot help but judge a book by its cover.

Jessica Helfand
Woody Allen's Typography

Jessica Helfand
Gone, Baby, Gone (Things, Part II)

From July 19, 1977 to February 28, 1981, the security staff at New York's Roosevelt Raceway kept a fastidious record of lost property. The result — 152 pages of wayward mittens, misplaced wallets and hundreds of personal items — is as much a record of the social history of a generation as anything I've come across in a long time.

Jessica Helfand
Remembering Paul Rand

This essay, a rememberance of Paul Rand, is taken from Michael Kroeger's book, Paul Rand: Conversations with Students, which will be published on January 3 by Princeton Architectural Press.

Jessica Helfand
Things, Part I

In an age characterized by elevated environmental awareness — reducing our carbon footprint, enhancing our sustainable output — we remain obsessed with our attachment to the material world.

Jessica Helfand
Type Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

Designers make choices about the appropriateness of type based on any number of criteria, and "liking it" is indeed one of them. But is that enough?

Jessica Helfand
Science and Design: The Next Wave

Scientists probe and manipulate and channel and divide; they split and fuse and spike and engineer; but most of all, they look. As a designer, to spend any time with scientists is to become at once profoundly aware of our similarities and devastated by that which divides us.

Jessica Helfand
Stan Brakhage: Caught on Tape

For Stan Brakhage, that concentration resulted in extraordinary explorations of many things, including the life cycle of a moth, caught on adhesive strips of tape, and subsequently captured on film where it regained — however briefly — the magnificent illusion of mobility. For designers, faced by budgets and clients and deadlines, the luxury of so much isolation seems a distant, if not an altogether perverse paradigm. But are these intentions really so mutually exclusive?

Jessica Helfand
Back To School

Yet once Graphic Design is introduced in the classroom, how do educational offerings differ? Herewith — and in the spirit of "la rentrée" — is an extremely random sampling.

Jessica Helfand

Jessica Helfand
Another Myth Brilliantly Debunked

The Folding Paper Box Association of America would influence more than just packaging regulations: a half century before the Poynter Institute would claim authorship for its revolutionary Eye-Trac research, the FPBAA was already tracking viewers' visual responses to packaging...

Jessica Helfand
Harry Potter and The Enchanted Letterforms

The most recent theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix includes a paradigm shift that warrants particular recognition, for the simple reason that this may be the first film in which mere letterforms, once the purview of the production designer, break free and actually join the cast.

Jessica Helfand

Where food is concerned, the relationship between what things look like and how we respond exists at its most primal level: what is a gut reaction, after all, if not something that attacks your gut?

Jessica Helfand
Why Is This Font Different From All Other Fonts?

Earlier this spring, our local art-supply store closed its doors. The promise of discount art supplies looms large, so off I went. There was a paltry selection of picked-over goods, until a chipboard assortment of "birthday letters" caught my eye. Birthday letters? I think not. This is Faux Hebrew.

Jessica Helfand
My Dirty Little Secret

Gardening is its own infuriating design challenge. You fret and you rethink and you second-guess yourself constantly, and then for one delirious, thrilling moment something blooms and you feel utterly triumphant. And then it dies and you are back where you started.

Jessica Helfand
Ad Reinhardt, Graphic Designer

Ad Reinhardt fretted about the meaning of life. He agonized about the purpose of painting. He questioned everyone, critiqued everything, and worked incessantly. In other words, he was a graphic designer.

Jessica Helfand
The New Manifest Destiny

When does a picture solidify a news story, and when does it merely sensationalize it? Decisions about words and pictures are made by editors and publishers, designers and photographers — but they are consumed by a public fully capable of an entire range of emotional responses. After this week's events at Virginia Tech, words and pictures do a poor job of communicating outrage and pain. And no amount of compositional ingenuity can reverse what happened.

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Ephemera: Town & Country Cookbook

Book cover designers are visual choreographers who frame miniature narratives in order to tease prospective readers into wanting more. Which often means showing less. Or not.

Jessica Helfand
Art Director Ken

Art Director Ken is is a charmed, if mildly cautionary tale, for it brings to mind the potentially superficial nature in which we judge a person, an identity — indeed, an entire profession.

Jessica Helfand
Lost, O Lost

Jessica Helfand
The Illusion of Certainty

Artist Allan McCollum aspires to an unprecedented scale with this "Shapes" project: his goal is to make enough shapes, assuming a population of approximately 9.1 billion by the year 2050, so that everyone on the planet can have one. Shapes aside, what's truly fascinating is the idea of the system: what is it about them that we hate to love and love to hate?

Jessica Helfand
I'm Not Ready to Make Nice

Jessica Helfand
The Karaoke Effect

The lure of American Idol, in these early weeks, lies in precisely this shaky space: that illusory bubble populated by thousands of fame-seekers who fervently believe in their own righteous, if highly fictional talent. It's cultural fallout. Just as the karaoke singer imagines him or herself live and in concert before the screaming fans, so, too, does the illusion persist once the microphone is turned off.

Jessica Helfand
The Not-So-Golden Age of Zero Tolerance

When I was a student, the assignments and their expected outcomes were intentionally conceived as chore-like, specific and frankly, narrow. This was the age of zero tolerance: deviation from a designated format was neither an approved approach nor an acceptable method. Today, the opposite is more likely to be true: a student who does not expand his or her approach to a project is strongly encouraged to do so.

Jessica Helfand
How Hollywood Nailed The Half-Pipe

and Animal Logic have mastered a particularly persuasive (and as it turns out, rather literal) form of spin that makes Road Runner look like dryer lint.

Jessica Helfand
Into the Pink

Co-opting a color and making it your own.

Jessica Helfand
What Makes A Good Poster?

From Nineteenth Century broadsides to Paula Scher's posters for The Public Theatre, the history of the poster is the history of modern civilization. So why are academics so hell-bent on poster board and bad typography? Why don't they ask us for help?

Jessica Helfand
My Cup Holder Runneth Over

When we're not hiding behind our nail-technician-primed hands, drinking our barrista-blended beverages, IMing, text-messaging, and push-button withdrawing more money from the ATM to pay for all of these things, who are we?

Jessica Helfand
Death 'N' Stuff

Smoking Kills: The label days it all. Or does it? Once the allegedly chilling skull and crossbones is marketed as a decorative pattern
on a silk bowtie, its credibility as an mark of peril seems, well, somewhat questionable, begging the question: have we become so bored by life that we've inadvertently become inured to death?

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Small Town Life: The Logo Stops Here

Working with Florence Knol, Lucille McGinnis convinced her husband, Patrick B. McGinnis, that the New Haven Railroad needed a new logo. Enter Herbert Matter, Swiss-born designer, photographer and Yale professor whose own education was framed by apprenticeships with Cassandre, Leger and Le Corbusier.

Jessica Helfand
The Ovalization of The American Mind

Ovals — emancipated from circular restriction, freed of rectangular rigidity — are a perfect metaphor for the way we live now. They're out of shape and flabby, non-committal and generic — like sensible shoes, practical and monotonous and dull.

Jessica Helfand
A Good Pan Is Hard To Find

On baking a cheesecake and becoming a better designer: it's one big balancing act of artistry and skill.

Jessica Helfand
The Global Curse of Comic Sans

In this coastal region slung just below the Pyrenees, one might expect to see evidence of the enduring cultural tensions between Spain and Catalonia — different kinds of signs or symbols, for instance â€" but on the surface at least, no such rift is exposed. Instead, Catalonia clings to a visual language that celebrates the goofy: this is a country awash in Comic Sans.

Jessica Helfand
The Right Stuff

Prada is yet another in a long line of stories in which posessions loom large, at once shining beacons of material success and wagging fingers of moral turpitude. When will we have enough stuff?

Jessica Helfand
Absolut Signage

I'm deeply in touch with my inner schoolmarm, particularly when it involves typos set in stone — or in this case, emblazoned in metal. I call it: Absolut Boo-Boo.

Jessica Helfand
Crafting All The Way To The Bank

Craft is a tricky word. When we feel ourselves pulled in by the unforgiving vortex of digitized everything, we plead for craft, throwing it out like a life preserver — a desperate appeal to the forgotten soul. In those moments, it becomes a metaphor for a kind of imperiled humanity. But what about craft, we ask?

Jessica Helfand
"Oui, Oui, Oui" All The Way Home

On a sweltering day last August, my daughter and I embarked with a friend on a 6-day tour of Paris: Kid Paris, the Paris of candy stores and carousels and more than a few weird new ice cream flavors.

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Academia: The New Exoticism

Jessica Helfand
Disaster Relief 101: No Door Hanger Left Behind

Door hangers seem the perfect metaphor for FEMA's failure: they're one-dimensional, unnecessarily complicated, and basically useless.

Jessica Helfand
The Art of Thinking Through Making

Jessica Helfand
The Propensity for Density

It's like design's been on a diet and finally gets to eat that giant cheesecake: shifting notches on the belt buckle, we're so happy for the sugar high that we don't realize we're slipping. And slipping we are.

Jessica Helfand
A Sequence in Time

01:02:03 04/05/06 This number sequence in time will not occur again until 2106.

Jessica Helfand
Give Me Privacy or Give Me an ID Card

The proposed National ID Card further blurs the line between the privacy and full disclosure of personal data in the public domain. It's the Card's design that appears the final string that may either secure our rights as individuals or rip them apart.

Jessica Helfand
What We Talk About When We Talk About Design History

At the end of the day, being a design historian means being observant and fearless, stubborn and driven, principled, passionate and anything but lazy. It means going where you have to go to get what you need.

Jessica Helfand
Separated at Birth: Method? Or Madness?

Karim Rashid's method© cleaner is strikingly similar to that of a discount depot: coincidental congruousness?

Jessica Helfand
Freedom of Speech or Filching of Style? The New Law of Eminent Lo-Mein

DIY design invading typography terrain: culture-jamming in the domains of freedom of speech, pharmaceutics, and pop-culture.

Jessica Helfand
The D Word

HGTV's sunny splendor of twenty-seven minute remodels and inexhaustible inspiration: fodder for the DIY devotee.

Jessica Helfand
Civilian Typography: The Power and The Fury

Without a cell phone, or in a flood, or barred from public transportation, the thing that separates human beings from the animal kingdom is our ability to communicate verbally. If we can't do that, we do it graphically. When all else fails, the pen isn't just mightier than the sword: it is the sword.

Jessica Helfand
Calling All Angels

In the spirit of angels: an exploration of their various iterations and their presence today

Jessica Helfand
Face Value

Facial transplants mapping our future: how much is the world of design responsible?

Jessica Helfand
Cease and Design

Where graphic design education is concerned, more doing and less asking is necessary.

Jessica Helfand
On Considering the Source

As primary sources of inspiration in art become a rarified reality, one is forced to wonder where are the original, the unmediated and the pure, sans cliche?

Jessica Helfand
The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia

Placing Nostalgia: where in the design landscape does it fit? And should it be included in the first place?

Jessica Helfand
On Citizenship and Humanity: An Appeal for Design Reform

Ruminations on the Citizen Designer: A human first, a designer second, but most importantly, one who responds to collective cultural needs.

Jessica Helfand
John Stossel on Graphic Design

This film was made in 2005 for 20/20, a beloved AIGA National Conference segment in which twenty designers are asked to talk about something for one minute each. This particular year, the conference itself had no theme, leaving Jessica Helfand no choice but to write a script for John Stossel, co-host, with Elizabeth Vargas, of the ABC-TV program, 20/20.

Jessica Helfand
Eye of the Storm

A re-entrance into the world: Following Hurricane Katrina, how should design continue?

Jessica Helfand
Why Bugs Don't Belong on TV

On today's TV screens, the station-identification logo sits tethered to the surface, like an annoying rash that won't quite disappear. You think you've kicked it when — WHAMMMO — there it is again, blemishing the patina of an otherwise perfectly good viewing experience.

Jessica Helfand
New Models for Design Efficiency: Introducing Otto

Jessica Helfand
The Cut: When Life Imitates Art (I Mean Design)

CBS Television debuted its new series,
The Cut, (modeled after other reality shows such as NBC's The Apprentice)about "16 aspiring designers."

Jessica Helfand
Method Designing: The Paradox of Modern Design Education

When did we begin to allow, let alone forgive, let alone encourage work that is so rhetorical, so impervious to public engagement? The persistent evidence of impenetrable personal work in design schools across America is a serious epidemic, resulting in a kind of method designing that erroneously treats sentiment as substance.

Jessica Helfand
Greer Allen: In Memoriam

Designer, critic, pundit and historian, Greer Allen was Senior Critic in Graphic Design at Yale School of Art. He designed publications for The Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a number of other distinguished cultural institutions around the country. Greer Allen died last week after a short illness. He was 83.

Jessica Helfand
Extremely Young and Incredibly Everywhere: The Public Art of Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer's emergent body of work includes film and video, public art installations, theatrical collaboration, expressive typography, and a fairly prolific jumpstart as a writer. Cumulatively, all of his projects — which range from collecting empty pages of famous writers, to constructing parabolas in a public park, to collecting anonymous self-portraits — seem to look for ways to formally address time and space and the human condition.

Jessica Helfand
The Design Police

As unlikely as it sounds:  
Graphic Junkies is a photo blog by  "an active law enforcement officer in the state of Georgia." The photographs are remarkable; the context compelling.

Jessica Helfand
Scrapbooking: The New Paste-Up

"Craft-born embellishments," note one supplier of scrapbooking products, "are penetrating an unexpected market: graphic design."

Jessica Helfand
Our Bodies, Our Fonts

Body markings — piercings, tattoos and so forth — have recently evolved into a kind of marginalized form of graphic expression, yet one that sheds an unusual light on some of the more mainstream ways in which design often reveals itself.

Jessica Helfand
My Friend Flickr

Flickr is a digital photo sharing website and web services suite that was developed by Ludicorp, a Vancouver, Canada company founded in 2002. It's a utopian oddity — a culture enabled by a technology that in turn enables a culture — and it's a brilliant example of socially networked software because it's free, its easy, and it makes sense.

Jessica Helfand
The New Paper Chase: Cyberspace on The Auction Block

On February 23,
Christies in New York will auction more than 1,000 items dating as far back as the early 17th century, all of it tracing the history of cyberspace.

Jessica Helfand
All Rise!

On the scale of true confessions, this one lies somewhere between admitting I once wrote for a soap opera and divulging my complete incapacity to recall keyboard commands in Adobe Illustrator. But there it is: when I'm hopelessly stuck, a quick round of Destructomatch is just the ticket.

Jessica Helfand
Paris Dispatch: A Long Way Down

It is difficult, perhaps impossible not to contemplate death on the occasion of a funeral, but to do so in an environment of such remarkable beauty — and such ineffable sadness — amplifies our sense of here and now, of where and why and, of course, of what.

Jessica Helfand
A Blog Poem, Part II

Some call it "Graphics"; Others: "Art." (Occasionally, "Schlock.") Still we persist and we impart Good taste — on coated stock. ("How boring."— Clement Mok.)

Jessica Helfand
Code (PMS) Blue

Hospital rooms are architectural oddities: they're all function with no form. To the extent that, in matters of critical care, timing is everything, why should it matter? Then again, why shouldn't it?

Jessica Helfand
Time, Space and The Microsoft Colonialists

If Microsoft displayed its marketing genius by introducing "Spaces" three weeks before Christmas, its failure as a compelling editorial product — as evidenced by its restrictive format, its templated narrowcasting, its uninspired design parameters — illuminates its ultimate weakness: these spaces have nothing to do with space, in all its rich, fascinating and deeply human complexity.

Jessica Helfand
Donald Trump, Art Director: Not The Real Thing

Not until now has Pepsi opened itself up to a public makeover on national television, a redesign in the hands of a smattering of aspiring capitalists, a group whose combined knowledge of design principles might be characterized as, dare I say it — negligible.

Jessica Helfand
The Designibles

What's incredible about The Incredibles is the art of design capture. Because when it comes to nailing design, the "Is" have it.

Jessica Helfand
Am I Blue

Bumper stickers and lawn posters aside, Americans showed their concern on election day 2004 by standing in epic lines at polling centers around the nation, but also in certain subtle, discreetly visual ways. From dressing in all blue (or red) to wearing "I voted today" buttons, there has been a kind of silent visual communication effort steadily in play for the last 36 hours.

Jessica Helfand
The Rodneydangerfieldization of Graphic Design: Part I

We need to listen to people besides designers. We need to get in those boardrooms, those war rooms, those bastions of decision-making where no designer has ever been before. We need new legacies, better policies, richer histories for the next generation of graphic designers.

Jessica Helfand
Gentlemen Prefer Blogs

Watching Annie Duke beat out a half-dozen male competitors in the
World Poker Tournament this week, I experienced an odd case of déjà vu. It wasn't because of some Proustian memory of my own poker prowess — far from it, infact. Rather, what I felt was an odd sort of parallel universe with something I've been ruminating about for some time: namely, my presence here on Design Observer as the sole female contributor, and the scarcity of women who regularly participate in discussions here on this site.

Jessica Helfand
Magazine Without a Name, Brand Without a Promise

Jessica Helfand
Under The Microscope

Jessica Helfand
Ladislav Sutnar: Mechanical Beauty

Jessica Helfand
An Instrument of Sufficiently Lucid Cogitation

The legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died on Tuesday at his home in the South of France, always carried a sketchbook with him. Today's obituary in The New York Times alleges that he described drawing as meditative, while photography was intuitive: though certainly both activities might have been informed by a relentless need to observe and in a sense, preserve the world around him.

Jessica Helfand
Graphic Design: The Movie

Some time ago, I pondered about the future of graphic design as a reality show, but recently I've become convinced that its real future lies in its actual integrated presence onscreen: design as part prop, part protagonist.

Jessica Helfand
Design Gone Mad

Jessica Helfand
Ask Not What Your Typeface Can Do For You: Ask What You Can Do For Your Typeface

"Manhattan-based architect Frederic Schwarz's memorial 'Empty Sky' WILL USE Times New Roman..."

Jessica Helfand
Take Two Logos and Call Me in the Morning

Jessica Helfand
Designer by Day, Catwoman by Night

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Academia, Part I: What I Didn't Learn In Graduate School

Jessica Helfand
Time Waits for No Fan

Jessica Helfand
One Person, One Vote, One MRI?

Jessica Helfand
Graphic Flanerie

Graphic Design's real power comes from its ability to reach us through any of a number of means, both real and virtual, now and later. This ability to transcend the everyday and resonate in the heart, the soul, the mind and the memory—this is graphic design's reality, its legacy, and it is, decidedly, a reality that is more than a sum of its parts.

Jessica Helfand
The Lying Game

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Typographic Oddity No. 2: Spaceship Gothic

Jessica Helfand
Blanket Statements

Jessica Helfand
The DNA of AND: Ampersand as Myth and Metaphor

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Typographic Oddity: Mourning Becomes Helvetica

Jessica Helfand
Regarding the Photography of Others

Jessica Helfand
The Crisis of Intent

Jessica Helfand
You're Going to Hollywood, Baby

Jessica Helfand
The Span of Casual Vision

Jessica Helfand
Mind the Light, Light the Mind

As I began to describe Quaker Meeting for Worship — where one sits in silence for some period of time, in a large room with any number of other congregants, and where one stands to speak, on virtually any topic, when moved to do so — I realized that this presented a compelling metaphor for blogging.

Jessica Helfand
A Blog Poem, Part I

Jessica Helfand
Sign Language: Endangered Species or Utopian Uprising?

At turns provocative and peculiar, photographs of a new building in Birmingham, England, hint at a utopian uprising: No angles. No signs. In other words: no branding?

Jessica Helfand
On Visual Empathy

In a world besieged by unpredictable atrocities, don't we all feel a little emotionally raw? Two recent articles in suggest that visual empathy may more critical to a productive imagination than we thought.

Jessica Helfand
Implausible Fictions

At what point does the designer's interpretation threaten to skew, or misrepresent or somehow implausibly amplify information in a manner that might be considered irresponsible?

Jessica Helfand
Color Me Kurt

Having seen Schwarzenegger as a black man before he was elected Governor, one can only imagine what's next for Colors under Kurt Andersen.

Jessica Helfand
Fatal Grandeur

Maybe design isn't going to kill you if it falls on your head. But if YOU fall, design is not exactly going to save you, either.

Jessica Helfand
Culture Is Not Always Popular

Jessica Helfand
Edward Tufte: The Dispassionate Statistician I

Jessica Helfand
The Art of Elegant Abstraction

Bill Morrison's surprising 66-minute film is now playing on the Sundance Channel. For listings, see:

Jessica Helfand
The Real Declaration



John Heartfield
Ladislav Sutnar
Christian Boltanski
Jules Chéret
The Stenberg Brothers

Books by Jessica Helfand

book cover

book cover


Interviews with Jessica Helfand

Interview & Critique, October 2010
Interview with David Womack for Adobe, August 2009
Vintage Image Craft, July 2009
NPR, March 2009
STEP, Fall 2008
Ephemera, May 2007
Daidala, 2002


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