Jessica Helfand | Essays

Prisoners of Logic

Recent pen and ink studies from my sketchbook

Respect for the value of consistency, it seems to me, is basic tenet for designers. We are after all groomed, from an early age, to view consistency not as the hobgoblin of little minds, but as the ideal to which we aspire, and against which we measure the success of our efforts. Consistency means having a story with a beginning, middle and end. It means that there’s some logic in place to guide the viewer, shepherd the audience, govern the brand. And graphic design is, after all, a logical medium.

This being the case, I am obliged to conclude that I am not a logical person — or at least my sketchbooks tell me. Let me explain.

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: I was a dilettante, a wannabe or even worse — a Sunday painter. (Mind you, some Sunday painters are pretty serious: former WGBH Boston Design Director Chris Pullman works weekly with a model in the studio and has become, in his retirement, a rather prolific artist.) Living this double life had its complexities: I felt guilty when I was painting, more guilty when I wasn’t. Worst of all, I was making such a mess in our design studio that I was exiled to a former tiny playroom in our basement, where the paintings I made were, not surprisingly, also tiny.

Monoprints and oil studies

Not being able to actually get myself to my painting studio with any regularity — the vicissitudes of everyday life being what they are — I began to travel everywhere with a battery of sketchbooks, including one in which I make and illustrate lists (a collaboration with our daughter, who is 11); one in which I paste in found matter (part sketchbook and part scrapbook, known informally as my “scratchbook”); another bound volume that is a pared down version of the scratchbook, with less expository writing and more cryptic visualizations; and recently, a larger format book with thin, perforated pages of newsprint in which I work primarily in graphite. Along the way, I wrote a book on the history of scrapbooks in America, and struggled to come to terms with how collage factored into my visual diaries. (I still struggle with this.)

Meantime, I assign random pages in the back of each book where I work in pen and ink and make studies for small paintings I plan to attempt at some later date. The only common denominator is that there is no common denominator. Much of this work was, for a time, loosely inspired by a kind of deconstructed study in the mechanics of penmanship, which is (to me, at least) endlessly fascinating, mostly because of the tension between the proposed action and its inevitably migratory outcome.

An example of the kinds of "movement exercises" given to students of handwriting a century ago

If there’s any method to my madness, it lies in a slow trajectory, beginning with a series of scratchy drawings that led to linoleum cuts; these in turn led to work on canvas and masonite, and all of it characterized by the media agnostic nature of my explorations — pen, pencil, acrylic, oil, whatever. But does it matter? Because the minute I told myself this work was not obliged to bow to some recognizable notion of clarity, I felt liberated and became, as a result, insanely more productive. By letting go of logic, it became all about form: once that happened, I was free to just think about making form.  

Of course, many graphic designers draw and paint and do magical things with photographs: Ellen Lupton’s whimsical illustrations, which she refers to as “prose paintings” have been published in The New York Times; Stefan Bucher’s spectacular monsters have a book and website (and a serious following) of their own; Stephen Doyle’s word sculptures (also published in the Times) are intricate and exquisite formal studies of word and shape and light. Our own Michael Bierut’s sketchbooks, featured not long ago here on Design Observer, celebrate the longevity of such achievement in ways I can only dream about. I envy them all their capacity to build bodies of work framed by similar values — formal, temporal, colorful, meaningful and, by and large, logical.

I can’t, I confess, do any of this: I find that I am, in fact, an abstract painter. And it is this fundamentally experimental vocabulary  — unruly and unplanned and gestural — that characterizes the work I not only can but want to make. What's key in this equation is the process: assuming that all sketchbooks are meant to be a clearinghouse of subconscious thought, why is it that so many of us use our sketchbooks to annihilate that which lacks clarity, so that we can set the random thinking aside and consequently, produce more resolved work on the other end? On the other hand, if you think of your sketchbook as the end goal, what then? What if you start drawing with no idea about what you want to draw? What if your relationship with the pencil and the page is the whole point?

Not at all a product of logic, it is, ergo, the antithesis of design. Or is it a new way to think about design?

Not long ago, our daughter was watching me drawing something in the basement and asked, “How come the work you make downstairs never makes its way upstairs?” It occurred to me then that the degree of random exploration that was tacitly permitted in the painting studio but verboten in the design studio was, in fact, much more than this. And here’s where I had something between a breakdown and a breakthrough: logic, I realized, was my worst enemy. And designers like me were, in fact, prisoners of logic. Having spent the first half of my life making responsible, consistency-based choices, I am now passionately committed to the opposite, and it is this abstraction that fuels my every move. My sketchbooks, not surprisingly, reveal the decidedly inconsistent pattern of this unwieldy perspective, and while I pretend to capture my explorations in some steadfast fashion (convincing myself, for instance, that if I work in identically-sized sketchbooks, the wily-nily nature of my work will nevertheless be contained in some digestible, managed way) it is abstraction that surges forward as the common thread. And that is nothing if not illogical.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [16]

The need for articulation in design is one born of the salesman. Painters close to the design discipline, such as Kandinsky and Klee, have fought to represent communication on a level that transcends the need for logical explanation of the work, and because of this form visual communication capable of operating on a higher, more immediate level.

The inherent difference is that this higher level cannot be attained by the sales motivation – cannot be harnessed and exploited by marketing. It is this very quality that indicates the higher form, and what defines it as Art.
I. Hamilton

So, I'm still young and early in my design career. Is there some kind of apogee to our work where the flight from consistency seems less lazy?
Colin Santos

Triple-dog-dare you to try a new sized sketch book.

Joe Moran

In answer to Colin Santos,
there is a point when the dyspeptic booby trap becomes a viable discombobulation. However this is often frowned upon and thought of as vulgar. Then one can extrapolate the giddy feeling of urgent ungulatory goose fat to draw a simple conclusion if there is no desire to look deeper. Sigh. What a tricky hand of guilt we find ourselves desiring of. This is no longer viable. Pull the plug, pull it now! And be neat!

Do other readers concur?
David Grant

David Grant :"Do other readers concur?"

hang on im going to get the dictionary.

Ha ha! I'm sorry, but the two comments above gave me a gut-busting laugh for the day. Thanks folks!

And on to Jessica's writing. I have many sketchbooks filled with many things that never see the light of day. They are just manifestations from my mind to my hand. They may mean something or may mean nothing but all of them have recognizable form, nothing abstract. So all of them are logical in the sense that you speak of here. I don't think there's anything wrong with them not making it upstairs, you can keep them separate ... and that's okay.
Diane Faye Zerr

I would be willing to bet that more content makes it "upstairs" than seems apparent, just not in the form in which it originally emerges from our thought. I am often surprised when I review old journals and notes at how much of the content is now refined, reworked, conjoined, parsed, reformed as reflected in the version I bring to the light of day.

I'm also quite moved by your remark, "Having spent the first half of my life making responsible, consistency-based choices, I am now passionately committed to the opposite, and it is this abstraction that fuels my every move." I realize that sometimes our teachers choose to emphasize a point with more weight than it merits. Once a heavy imprint is set, it can be years before that weight lifts. Your words encourage me to be more rigorous with the real scope of these unchallenged lessons of a more impressionable time.
Mila Fairfax

well. that is not so different than my own story. lately i have been trying to loosen up even more with the sketches. letting the pencil, marker, whatever just freely create. sometimes this finds a track that had previously been created from drawings done previous in a much more rigid context. i have also found it helpful to hold the instrument in a different way, not like i would to write but more like i would hold chalk if writing on a blackboard. this allows a more random line and some interesting variations in the line. I like best to use a fresh calligraphy marker (ZIG memory system) with a broad nib and a finer nib on either end. couple that with scoring a nice square table at barnes and noble . PURENESS. . have fun with your sketches/paintings. very inspirational. for NOW. *
kurt ketchum

What is it that a sketch book can do that any other graphic design media can not do? I find as we have more personal time in our lives we can create all sorts of wonderful and inspirational ideas in a sketch book. As for me I make little books with typography, drawings, cartoons, old postcards and although they are not sketches as we know, to me they come from the heart and are not driven by a client's need. I found your article very pleasing.
Diana Graham

I know designers who don't sketch. They sit at a computer and that's the extent of it. That bothers me.

Great post, thank you for your well written candor.

Really liked the article .. and as I read through I realized as if she was describing me to a certain extent.. and this article has definitely helped me liberate myself from that logic and be more free with my creativity !
Manali Agrawal

designer, artist, explorer...

My whole life has been about creativity in some form or another. My design sensitivity, like many other designer, has had me create everything from logos to dinner tables, books to soaps and everything in between...most often expressing ideas and concepts for others and rarely myself.

Though I find myself expressing beauty easily through my home, garden and table, expressing my emotions and ideas was a far off concept.

During the past few years, I have found myself creating what many would call junk, some art, to me an outlet...

During a recent illness, I found myself in need of expression. I needed a way to visually express all the emotions that went with my illness. I headed into the studio and began creating a series of visual prayers. I make found object sculptures based on the varied global prayer bead structures. Malas, Rosaries, Tesbihs to name a few.

I was able to express my fears...frustrations...gratitudes in a way that brought me peace. The aesthetic gifts they brought me have been a blessing, I could have never anticipated. They have helped me to sort through the concept of life springing from death, closed doors, and the joy of spring.

My work recently opened in a gallery here in Saint Augustine. It was so funny to hear people say, "I thought you were a designer, I did not know you were an artist..."

I, like many other designers, started as artists and found the principles of design to create order, tension, balance...

As I sit writing this, my love of design ignites me. The principles of design have helped me bring myself back to life. After nearly dying, I rested into what I know. DESIGN.

While going through physical, occupational and emotional therapy, the concepts of design helped me to bring myself to a place of discovery. I explored balance, texture, contrast, scale...as I recreated my life.

The concept of tension helped me see how my neuro pathways had to work to recreate themselves again. I can remember one day, while I was doing neuro muscular therapy, working on balance, the topic of symmetry came up. We played with the idea and my body found ways to express it. I recall being so excited that my design background was helping me heal.

Today I am working to create an interactive installation for the gallery to launch my upcoming book. I am tapping into every skill I have as an artist designer and explorer, knowing that this interplay of sensitivities will create an engaging, meaningful and fun space.

As designers we are blessed! We are given the gift of vision, planning and execution. Our design minds create and plan execution in one fell swoop very often...what a trip...

So off I go to envision, create and live my life more fully because of design...

Florence Haridan

Die angehmen und insprierenden Bilder Prisoners of Logic ist eine wunderschöne Bild Collage, die mich an meinen letzten Kurzurlaub errinnert. Die Reise war sehr schön und die Bilder von Jessica Helfand inspirieren mich, mich wieder an diesen Kururlaub zu errinnern und an die tolle Zeit zu denken.

Wonderful Pictures from Jessica Helfand, they are reminding me of my travels and let my memories come to live. Really nice.
Jenniffer Garner

Great post and comments. Thank you! I have been doing a bit of research on drawing and cognition and found a great book over the summer. Most of you probably know it, but if you don't, "Drawing/Thinking, Confronting an Electronic Age," edited by Marc Treib (2008), is a compilation of articles discussing the cognitive and associative differences inherent in by-hand drawing and digital image creation in various design and fine arts disciplines.
Bob Newman

Think less, make more.

Jobs | July 13