Jessica Helfand

Monday, February 20, 2006

INTERVIEW by Cary Murnion

A Take from the Top: Interview by Luanne Brown.
Posted on site November 5, 1996.
When nationally-known graphic designer Jessica Helfand takes to the Web, she seldom gets excited by what she sees. But let's not dwell on the bad stuff; let's figure out how to make it better. Here's her take on what graphic designers can do to improve the quality of design on the Web
Winner of multiple awards, Jessica Helfand ( has been working on the Web since 1994 and has designed many high-profile sites, including The New York Times site ( and the Discovery Channel site ( A graduate of Yale university, Jessica is also a contributing editor for I.D. and Eye magazines and her book, Six Essays on Design and New Media, was published this year by William Drenttel New York.
First, the bad news
When Jessica goes to the Web to search for well-designed sites, she often comes up blank. She attributes the proliferation of uninspired Web sites to what she calls, "the great democratization of the Web." While almost anyone, humble or high, can have a Web page, there's no law saying it has to be well designed.
Since finding good design on the Web is a bit like looking for a pixel in the park, Jessica recommends going off-line to look for inspiration. Look to the past, look at the present, look to the future, look at art, film, and dance. Find uses of space, color, and movement that inspire you to take a chance and break a few rules.
Past, present, future
Jessica urges graphic designers to look to the Russian Constructivists movement for inspiration. You remember them: fellows like Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Naum Gabo (1890-1977), and Antione Pevsner (1886-1962) who used their admiration of engineering technology to shape modern materials like plastic, steel, and glass into a new type of abstract art.

The Constructivists used tools from a traditional discipline to shape new materials. In the process, they put forth an original creative vision for others to follow, one that continues to have an enormous impact on the world of art. "They distilled things into their purist form and emerged with something of enormous substance and value," says Jessica, adding that she hopes designers will do for the Web what the Constructivists did for art.

To stimulate this process, Jessica suggests looking to film and dance as well as art. These media will give designers the opportunity to "observe the importance of sequencing information in a dynamic medium" and should give them a feeling for what they could do with their work on the Web. She especially recommends old B-grade movies (they're so bad they're good), title sequences by Saul Bass (of 007 fame), and choreographers such as Robert Wilson and Trisha Brown.

If you absolutely need to look at something designed specifically for the Web, gravitate to the bleeding edge and check out the Web work being done at various educational institutions.Jessica's personal list of favorites includes:
The Columbia School of Architecture, Digital Design Lab
The Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab ( Royal College of Art in London
"There's a very exciting 'weirdo' aspect that comes from combining education and technology," says Jessica. Something akin, perhaps, to the excitement those Russian Constructivists created when they threw engineering and art together?

Jessica insists that there's really no need to throw out the tenets of good design, but suggests that you use them as a point of departure for your thinking. Twist them around in your mind and see what you can come up with. That's what good design is all about, Jessica tells us, adding that success on the Web is all about "constantly reinventing ourselves as designers."
It's the message that matters
Jessica has strong opinions about the value of designers in this new medium. According to her, a designer's worth isn't necessarily determined by the deliverables. In fact, existing technology already allows the publisher to bypass the designer completely and go straight to the consumer. Witness the customizable Web page, where the end-user acts as designer, choosing things like color and print type.
Jessica feels that the nature of design really isn't pushing pixels around on the page -- it's having larger communication goals. That's why she doesn't think that every designer needs to learn Java. It's more important for designers to care about the message they're delivering. "What designers really bring to this party is their ability to conceptualize, identify, and market objective strategies for very strong visual identities," says Jessica.
Keep the big picture in mind
So, in the midst of all the "got to have it yesterday" mind-set so prevalent in Webland, Jessica hopes that designers will pause and think--not just about the bits and bytes, but about the social, business, and cultural implications of the work they're doing. This is what consulting is all about. "It's the great hope of our profession, to do what we can to continuously raise the level of discussion." And as the level of discussion deepens and improves, surely the quality of design work on the Web will follow.
Check out these sites
Out of the million or so sites out there, what are those few sites Jessica finds interesting, provocative, and actually useful? "I like Slate ( because they publish articles that I actually want to read. But I also love Stale (, which is a brilliant and insightful parody of Slate, and a welcome addition to a medium that is too young to take itself so seriously." Jessica also likes Joseph Squier's site (, although she knows it's an oft-cited favorite. She says, "It's beautiful, it's haunting, it's compelling and well done."

Her students pointed her to Adaweb, created by the Museum of Modern Art, "for an example of communication and behavior (which is) both subversive and artistic." Jessica comments that the site's technology discussions are particularly well handled: ( and

For intelligent thoughts on Web content, Jessica likes Jonathan Hoefler's Type Foundry ( "Jonathan is a gifted and knowledgeable type designer and historian whose work for such clients as Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone have earned him a well-deserved reputation."

For sheer functionality, there are service-oriented sites that Jessica "depends on enormously," such as BigBook (, which is a compilation of all the Yellow Pages in the country. (See for a list of hot service-oriented sites.) She also suggests checking out the Federal Express site ( "for an example of the power of civilian surveillance on the Web."
BibliographyEncyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed., 1986. Vols. 3:576:2a,5:66:3a 9:349:1a,11:577:2a. Gabo: Constructions, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Engravings, with introductory essays by Herbert Read and Leslie Martin. London: Lund Humphries, 1957. Luanne Brown writes both fiction and non-fiction for multiple media. © 1996 Microsoft Corporation


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