With the year drawing to a close, the EoD editors were curious about what personal revelations different creatives experienced in 2021. This series of essays, Reflections, explores the human side of design.
This is a story where everything goes left and eventually right in the end.
My pandemic experience was intense. My immune system failed me when I caught COVID in February 2020. I had seven hugs in almost two years. Immediate family succumbed to viral misinformation. Others fled their homes, directly impacted by climate crises. Everything and everywhere was compromised.
The few jobs I garnered depleted me as I overextended myself, again a one-woman skeleton crew. And I was disillusioned with the lettering and design industries, disgusted and exhausted. I shamefully collected unemployment.
One of my few lifelines was my partner, who I had met in early 2020. Because nothing is easy, we were transatlantic. He lived in Paris. We agreed to wait out the border closure because how long could it be?
I was stir crazy by the time I bought my plane ticket in July 2021. I committed to almost three months in Paris. This would have been a challenge even in Precedented Times; I live in Columbus, OH, and had never been away from home for so long, much less in a foreign country without language fluency. But I was desperate. As someone who believes restrictions are an integral component of great design, I was suffocating under my life’s uncontrollable parameters.
This was supposed to be a flight to freedom. But as I lunged across the French border, I must have tripped—because I broke my dominant right hand in a freak accident three days later. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fighting for justice or punching a Nazi. I broke it on a face-first water slide for children. And I will not be elaborating further.
People say you can hear a break. Instead, I felt mine; the electric morse code flared SOS in my palm as I wiggled my fingers in denial. My reality snapped, transforming what once was into what would be.
My pain threshold is high. I felt nothing but my body dipping into warm shock. This is every artist’s waking nightmare, I thought. I will never joke about breaking my money makers again. I calmly explained in broken French that I had broken my hand. All were skeptical—surely it was just a tendon. Surely it is not cassé, cassé?
As the lifeguard wrapped me in a sling (he called it a scarf, of course), I thought of what was sitting open and unfinished on my laptop—the largest proposal of my career, an animated food typography campaign for a retailer. Ambitious plans evaporated from my mind’s eye like old film strips. Where hopes and dreams once danced in my head, bandages and socialized medicine would consume my thoughts.
Before going to the hospital, I painfully finished the eight-page proposal, which raised several French eyebrows. But I’m American, I would explain.
We cannot afford breaks.
Relegated to the couch, I watched my life-changing proposal slip through swollen fingers. They requested spec work that I refused on principle but could not physically perform anyway. I wept bitterly into my partner’s shoulder. It all went left so fast.
Nevertheless, I persisted. As I sought to gain a foothold in the Parisian design market, my dogged LinkedIn messages to French colleagues cost hours of my life when typing with my left hand. “I hOpE tHiS fInDs YoU wElL” punctuated with denial.
In my spare time I took stock of impossible activities. Coffee required grinding, meals required cutting. Usually graceful and embodied, I became awkward and clumsy. Cutlery shot off tiny café tables. Even bread is a two-handed concept in France. I couldn’t floss, prepare meals, or turn keys.
I felt vulnerable, unable to hide my impediment and struggles with a new language. As I wept on a bridge in the French style, someone passed briskly with an oversized bag. On one side flashed “one bag for two hands.”
I grimaced. Then I laughed.
My ego was swelling, and I had forgotten the obvious: I was in Paris, a culture that prides itself on meandering. I thought I was ready to soar after two years of crawling, but life had other plans. The French say “laisse tomber,” literally “let it fall,” but colloquially “let it go.” It was time to slow down.
I read my journal entries from before and after the break. My handwriting was mangled into a psychopathic script. The “after” entry can only be read in the spirit of Grape Lady Falls. Silliness calcified parts of my grief as I became aware of the humor in this bitter pill.
The French expression for fluency literally means “I am aware.” France is a slow place, comparatively speaking, and accepting my turtle-y speed allowed me to observe things I may have overlooked at my American pace.
I noticed French graffiti tucked into alleys and terraces. The artform in the country is more concerned with style than substance; it’s quirky, often composed of an English world with a letter lifted or replaced to create gibberish.
For the previous year-and-a-half, I had done my own chores, made almost every meal, and learned how to hug myself. This vicious sense of independence blunted into complete dependence. Thankfully my partner caught my fall with immense tenderness. He dutifully prepped meals so I could eat while he was at work. He accompanied me to every appointment to advocate for my health and ensured I got back safely. He bought me cake on especially difficult days. He was endlessly patient with my broken French, my frustration. I became aware of genuine love.
The French anticipated my needs. They opened bottles, doors, gifted me cups of coffee and pastries. They helped me to my seat, sometimes without a word. I reminded a colleague I was her daughter’s age as she expertly cut my steak during a lunch meeting. “Thanks mom,” I teased. We all giggled.
A woman approached me at a pop-up boutique as I wistfully thumbed through a collection. She told me she had broken her femur at the height of her career. She worked for Boucheron, Yves St Laurent, and Louis Vuitton. After her accident, everything changed. But she was grateful for her experiences. I was in fact browsing her label. We became friends.
A quick dive on WebMD convinced me running was good for bone growth, so I began jogging again. I felt imbalanced with a massive splint consuming my right arm but relished any amount of speed. As I emerged from the forest trail, I passed a group of men and braced for the potential catcall. Instead I was met with “You are courageous!”
I began shadow boxing, which is not an allegory but certainly became one.
I then had an idea.
On the flight over, I had watched Hulu’s The Orange Years to calm my nerves. I always preferred Nickelodeon to Disney, and a decade of theme songs and characters came flooding back. I remembered the grotesque animations and type design of the early ’90s, the garish colors. The unapologetic wonkiness stuck with me.
While combing through photos, I laughed at an ominous image I shot before my trip: my camera equipment spread in a loose grid, my laptop, and my left hand.
What if I made an entire project with my left hand? I thought. The process had to be low-fi; I couldn’t hold anything in two hands. Precision was impossible, but liberation was at my fingertips.
Call it inspiration or permission to launch. I excitedly bought a large package of Play-Doh and started fashioning pieces, pulling ideas from the documentary and the quirky French graffiti I observed every day. My right hand was still comically bandaged, so I let my left hand do the talking.
Three months in France had given me access to French phrases, and my brain began copywriting in a new language. But I was cognizant of something else: energy transcends language. I’d spent the last decade being “just right” enough for my audience. I was too energetic, too gestural, too frank; and I, a lettering artist, was tired of spelling everything out. My experience was full of gibberish, near-cognizance, pockets of hastily spoken French my brain cobbled together to survive.
In the end, I used my growing collection of X-rays, colored paper, and a yoga mat for backdrops. My phone served as the ideal camera, lending a digitized component to the photos I snapped. I knew I’d be shaky, but the images looked glitchy and purposeful shot in natural light.
Between nine animated videos and an entire glitch alphabet, I captured almost 600 photos.
I did more work with a broken hand in a month-and-a-half than I had all year.
And I enjoyed the process.
My right hand is still shaky, but I am celebrating improvements. While in France, I performed a client food typography gig in my hand brace. Never mind I had to do it twice, what matters is I finished. Reducing speed made the milestones more noteworthy.
This was a trip I needed—and one I’d never wish upon anyone. In that way it was a reminder: Pain tells us we are alive. The name for the new collection of work came immediately. As a cognate shared between French and English, it was perfect.
Literal French for “bad right,” English for awkward or clumsy—this was Maladroit.