Interview: Jessica Helfand

Jessica Helfand is a partner of Winterhouse Studios, a teacher at Yale, and a founding writer for Design Observer.

Can you explain a bit about what you do with your own studio, Winterhouse and as a teacher at Yale?

We work on projects with educational and cultural institutions — and do really whatever they need. The emphasis for us has always been on the relationship with the client, not with the projects only, which makes for great, long-term relationship-building and more in-depth investigation, formally and analytically where the work is concerned, as we’re growing it over time. At Yale, my work is very different: for over a decade I have worked intensely with graduate students on the thesis, but this year I began teaching a freshman seminar — the first freshman seminar, in fact, ever in the School of Art. Not sure if I can continue to do both, but I’d like to try.

The work from Yale is unlike any other school in the US, what do you attribute that to?

Not sure that’s a good thing! Actually, I’m quite proud of the work we do at Yale, and incredibly proud of our students. It’s boot camp — make no mistake — but they do it all themselves. We guide and shepherd them, but really, their research and methodologies are their own, and what happens is that 3, 4, 5 years out, that self-actualized hard work, the boot camp part, has become fully a part of their process. This explains why so many of our students go out on their own, and frankly, why most of them succeed.

The bigger difference of course is that we are a University, with all that this entails: 42 libraries, experts in a variety of fields, a huge cultural spectrum ranging from Nobel-prize winning scientists on one hand to things like the Yale Repertory Theatre, half a block away, on the other. So while our students are intensely planted in the studio for what seems an eternity, we also urge them to seek out these spectacular resources, just outside the door, which can only benefit them and their work.

Where were you trained as a designer?

Yale undergraduate BA in architectural theory and graphic design, and Yale MFA in graphic design. So the answer is yes.

Many students’ process starts directly on the computer, do you think this is a negative or simply using the advancement in technology?

Negative, negative, negative. Computers rock, but the pencil is your friend.

What are your thoughts on pushing a students imagination vs. restraining a project to fit real-world scenarios?

Imagination trumps real-world thinking unless you are receiving a paycheck, IMHO. That said, you still have to behave responsibly.

What is the most important thing you have learned as a professional (Design or otherwise)?

As an educator, I live by a simple philosophy: hold all your students to the same standard, but treat them each as individuals.

As a practicing designer, the most important thing I have learned is not to be afraid to use your mind. SO many designers and artists think they have to play the artist card, that they can’t sound too smart or their creative status will be in jeopardy. So NOT TRUE and especially now, when all the rules are changing. (Good segue to your next question, as it turns out!)

How has the role of a designer changed in the past 10 years?

It unquestionably has. Boundaries continue to blur with breathtaking speed. The world needs designers now more then ever, but it needs them to possess more than just a creative gift. It needs people who listen, and hear. People who see the big picture, and are willing to collaborate within it. People who speak more than one language. People who are educated. People who are patient. People who are kind.

Your studio is located in a rural area (Falls Village, CT), how does this influence your design, and your process of designing?

I sit in traffic less, spend less time in meetings, less money on cabs. The downside is we are 18 miles from the nearest Starbucks. But we have more space for books and children and dogs, which, in my opinion, are a lot more rewarding to spend time with than cabs and meetings.

What sort of things outside of the design bubble inspires you?

My refuge is my tiny painting studio in the basement, where I was exiled a few years back for making too much of a mess in the main studio. I expect the balance between making design and painting to shift over the next few years, as my children get older and more independent.  Oh — and crossword puzzles. But don’t tell anyone. (Actutally, you’d be surprised how many visual people are Scrabble and crossword fiends. Maybe it has something to do with the grid.)

What is your favorite possession?

Don’t have one. Don’t want one!

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