Emphatic monochrome lettering, interlacing type, and a cool and current sense of Swiss minimalism characterize New York-based designer Jessica Svendsen’s striking portfolio.
Her career thus far reads like a recent graduate’s dream trajectory: she spent two years at Pentagram with team Michael Bierut, a year at Apple as a designer, and now she’s associate creative director at Dropbox. Svendsen splits her time there, at the Pratt Institute and Parsons New School where she teaches typography, and working on her own freelance commissions for the likes of Verso Books, the New York Times, and the MIT Technology Review.
The designer has an unmistakable sense of identity—perhaps unsurprising as she received her MFA in graphic design from the Yale School of Art, where a personal and emotional relationship to work is encouraged above all else. Here, Svendsen tells us the story of her first important commission during her time studying in New Haven, which paved the way to developing a signature style and process.
“For two years, I designed weekly posters to announce visiting critic lectures in the MFA Photography Department at the Yale School of Art. It was perhaps my first project where I had almost complete creative freedom. Unlike other projects, where I worked under a design director or collaborated with a peer, this was one of those exceptional projects where I was able to explore my own point of view on design. It also required that I broadcast the work to a much bigger audience than I was accustomed to.
These announcements were circulated to the entire school and broader university, so it forced me to give up some of my treasured anonymity as a designer.
“Given the limited timeframe, I never submitted sketches or even options. I usually designed them in a day, on a weekend, and on top of my graduate coursework. I would send the final poster to Gregory Crewdson, the department chair, and hope that there were no objections. Typically, I like to mull over ideas, allowing plenty of time to challenge myself, or push the work iteratively. But for this project, my process had to become quicker, more analog, and less perfectionist.
“A professor at the time made the point that someone will always be technically better than you, it’s your ideas that matter. To a certain extent, this series made me focus on ideas first. With the quick turnaround, my first idea usually became the final image. This approach became formative for later commissions with tight timelines, especially editorial illustration where you usually only have an afternoon or evening to create the image.
“Each poster references the work of the visiting artist, but across the series, I focused on various formal devices—collapsing depth of field, the qualities of light and shadow, and playing with space. Because most of the artists were photographers, I avoided incorporating or altering their work (because I too dislike it when others design around my work). Instead, each poster became an interpretation game, as if I could somehow decontextualize their work or approach and reframe it in a new perspective. Because I didn’t include images, I often resorted to typography doing most of the leg work.
“For a poster announcing lectures by Richard Misrach and Joel Sternfeld, both color photographers who capture the transformation of the natural landscape, I used vinyl letters on plexiglass. I then photographed how the sun casts angled and distorted shadows behind the letterforms. To find the appropriate backgrounds, I spent several afternoons exploring various spaces and materials around New Haven. It became a battle against overcast weather and broken glass, but I ultimately captured over 50 different scenes. The final posters are photographs of the vinyl letters and their shadows in the same frame. It ended up becoming one of my most rewarding projects, because it managed to combine my interests in architectural space, light and shadow, and distortion.”