It’s A Work In Progress: An Interview with Lettering Artist Jessica Hische

TypeThursday
Jul 2, 2016 · 8 min read

This week on TypeThursday we sat down with Letterer, Illustrator and Type Designer Jessica Hische. We discussed the “how” and “why” behind documenting her process for posterity and connecting to others. It was a pleasure to chat with Jessica.

Our monthly meet up is this week. Come meet fellow letterform lovers and have the chance to win Grilli Type swag.

July 7th 325 Rutledge St. South Williamsburg, NYC 7:00–10:00pm RSVP

TypeThursday: Jessica, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Jessica Hische: Happy to be here. It’s Thursday and we both make type things.

TT: Yes, good timing. I brought you in here because I know you recently published a book, not too long ago, called In Progress. So first of all, congratulations.

JH: Thank you very much.

TT: It’s a big accomplishment. Something on the back cover that caught my eye was words of praise by Stephen Coles. To paraphrase it said, “Jessica’s work is excellent. She could easily have done a monogram for her first book just showing her great work as a final product, but she chose to show designers how to make great work and share her knowledge of the process.”

How would you feel about that summarization of the book?

Origin of In Progress

Photograph by Kari Orvik

JH: I think it’s a really fair summarization. I started thinking about doing a book after Chronicle had approached me. Chronicle wrote me and said, “Hey, Jessica, do you want to do a book? We’ll do any kind of book that you want to do.” It’s not often when the publisher is the one spearheading the project in the beginning.

I felt so allergic to the idea of doing a monograph just because I’m still so young

My immediate gut reaction was, “I don’t want to do a monograph.” I felt so allergic to the idea of doing a monograph just because I’m still so young. I mean at the time when they approached me — this was like two years ago — so I was 29 or had maybe just turned 30. And just really felt like I’m way too young to make a book just to showcase my work — I think that the time to put together a monogram is either when you want to encapsulate your life’s work or if you want to put a chapter around part of your work because you plan to move on and do really different work. So if I, for instance, decided to totally switch gears and be a type designer and wanted to make a book of all my lettering, I would maybe consider doing more of a monograph-style book.

One of the things that I had brought up was my sketchbooks.

Chronicle and I were spitballing ideas, and one of the things that I had brought up was my sketchbooks. They were always something that people really freak out about when they get to see them in person because my sketches are pencil but they’re still pretty tight. I think that a lot of people just didn’t anticipate that they’d be able to see that part of the project, because so many people now work on Wacoms and assume that if you’re making digital lettering that most of your process happens digital, but I still have a large portion of my process happening analog.

It turned into a much more ambitious project than I had initially thought.

The initial thought was making a coffee table book showing the sketches and the finished artwork. But there were issues with artwork rights in the contract. Publishers really want you to give them the moon when you’re going to do a book with them. Since I was an unpublished author that was definitely the case. We fought and fought and fought over what rights they would have to the publication of future stuff within it, and thankfully we ended up in a reasonable territory. After all that, I was like, “Man, this is more of a big deal than I really had anticipated and if I’m not going to be able to put this work in another book for a certain period of time, I want this book to be a lot more than just pretty pictures.” I want it to be an actual thick, rich thing that people aren’t just going to buy, put on their shelves and never look at again.

My original contract called for me writing essentially 10,000 words, which would be enough to cover captions and a couple of chapter openers. But I ended up writing almost 40,000 words and it’s a proper introductory textbook in the beginning. Initially when I was approached it felt like Chronicle and other publishers that had previously approached me were saying, “Oh, make a book! It’s no big deal; make a book!” And I was like, “No, this is actually a big deal!” It turned into a much more ambitious project than I had initially thought.

The title, In Progress, both has to do with the fact that the work itself is shown in progress (showing the process from the beginning to the end), but also, it was sort of a wink at the fact that I didn’t want to do a monograph, because I still feel that I’m still very much in progress as an artist and human. Like, I’m not at the pinnacle, at least I hope not. I think I’ve reached a good level of success, but I don’t want to feel like I’m at the tippy-top of what I’ll achieve. So I like the idea of feeling like I’m still wet clay instead of a formed person.

TT: First of all, that’s awesome! A lot of people wouldn’t expect to learn that rights management would actually be a big issue in a book deal, in a book relationship like this. What specific content is covered that those 40,000 words in the book.

Telling the full story in an accessible way makes it so that people feel less intimidated about trying something new. Whether or not that thing is lettering.

Jessica’s Process to Lettering

JH: Instead of it just being a picture book explaining the process of individual projects (which is a big part of the second half of the book) I walk through my process in a lot more detail. I give a lengthy introduction just about how I ended up in this weird world of lettering to begin with. I wasn’t an apprentice to some printer, or whatever. I came at it from a non-artsy portion of the world and a non-artsy family. I made my way into art school and discovered graphic design and lettering while in school.

I get asked questions quite a bit from students that feel a little intimidated about how to get into whatever it is that they want to do. Telling the full story in an accessible way makes it so that people feel less intimidated about trying something new. Whether or not that thing is lettering.

Once you become an “expert” at something, it’s easy to forget all the baby steps you took to get there and how important those baby steps were. I catalogue those baby steps of my process. I’m still at this age and place in my career where young students can still feel like we’re not so different from each other. I could imagine that when I’m in my mid-40s, some 22-year-old is not going to look at me and go like, “Oh, I can be her, like, tomorrow.” Whereas now I’m right on the cusp of older sister territory. Once I get past older sister territory, it might be a little bit harder to share things to the younger generation without them thinking that I’m just being a patronizing parent-figure.

TT: To summarize, to make lettering for people starting out not feel intimidated, you want to walk through the whole process.

JH: Yeah. Exactly. The beginning of the book is really just a very in-depth walk through my process.

TT: In the time it’s been released, have you heard from any readers who’ve read it? Anyone who’s been like, “This really changed my life. It’s really helped me and really improved my design ability or my life in general”?

For me, I find the work that we do can be so isolating.

Feedback from Readers

JH: Honestly, a ton. I got a really funny email last week from a guy who asked me why I decided to share all of my secrets because clearly people are just going to start ripping me off left and right. He was thanking me for the book and said he got so much out of it but was sort of wondering what my motive was, because he’s like, “This can’t make it easier for you to share all this stuff with people and then make more competition in the world. Like, why would you do such a thing?”

For me, I find the work that we do can be so isolating. Especially if you do commercial lettering and commercial illustration — day after day, most of what you’re doing is making something prettier so that someone will buy it. Every now and then I have like a major, “What am I contributing to the world?” inner dialogue. I can get rid of all of those doubts by just sharing knowledge and teaching other people. Sharing and teaching makes me feel good about the work that I’m doing if I’m able to help other people be able to do work that they want to do. That’s my main motivation for sharing any sort of knowledge. Plus there’s a really nice side effect of solidifying your position as an expert in a field if you’re out there publishing. A nice heartwarming feeling, but also a nice professional bonus side effect.

TT: Everybody’s winning.

JH: Yeah. It’s win-win hopefully.

TT: I think so. Jessica, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.

JH: Yeah, it’s been great talking to you. Good to catch up.

Want to learn about Jessica’s Process for Lettering? Buy her Book, “In Progress”

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Type Thursday

A meeting place for people who love letterforms.

TypeThursday

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A meeting place for people who love letterforms

Type Thursday

A meeting place for people who love letterforms.