Jessica Hische - the lettering type

Jessica Hische speaking at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster
Jessica Hische speaking at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster

Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, and self-described "avid internetter" (aren't we all?) She is known for her personal projects Daily Drop Cap and the Should I Work for Free flowchart. Just five years out of university, she's one of the more accomplished young 'designistrators' working today.

Hische's parents are from New Jersey, but she grew up in north-east Pennsylvania, went to college in Philadelphia, lived in Brooklyn for five years and now lives in San Francisco.

"Nowadays New York feels as safe as Disneyland. My parents grew up a stone's throw from New York in the '50s and '60s, and remember a much different city than the one I came to love. Now it's full of a bunch of transplants from Wisconsin and Canada and everybody's very nice to each other. San Francisco is a bit grimier.

"It has a huge homeless population, many of whom have serious drug problems, but everybody's still too hippy-dippy to ... well, they're very helpful but not in the best ways sometimes.

At first I wasn't sure if I'd like San Francisco, growing up on the east coast (think Woody Allen's aversion to California in Annie Hall) but it ended up feeling a lot like a combination of two neighbourhoods in Brooklyn I really love plus a bit of the nitty-gritty small-city vibe of my former home - Philadelphia. It feels a lot more like home than I thought it would be."

My first question was, what does she think of new words like 'designistrator'?

"I am a maker-upper of words, and designistrator is a title I created for myself. I also like 'illustrategiser' as a way to describe what I do. The lettering industry is a really niche industry. Lettering and type in general is a very small specialised field to find your way into, and there's only a small number of movers and shakers within it. Almost everyone I know that's involved in the type and lettering world (aside from very, very recent graduates of university), found their way into the industry by following different paths.

"I began in graphic design but then found my way into illustration, and then from illustration into lettering. So I'm a designer, illustrator and letterer, but most of my client work now is lettering so 'designistrator' became an appropriate title; I'm an image maker with a design background."

I asked where the fascination with type came from.

"It came kind of organically from attending art school. I thought I'd end up in painting or drawing but because my school focused a year of education on experimentation and taking electives, I took a graphic design course, immediately loved it, and found myself declaring it as a major."

She then found her way into lettering by way of design.

"I started doing lettering for projects in school because I was broke and could'nt afford good typefaces, but after I graduated and doing a lot of freelance work, I incorporated lettering into illustrations and design because they helped elevate my work above my peers. Everything felt more considered. The computer was my medium, but everything was drawn from scratch. I ended up doing a lot of illustrative lettering, and wasn't aware at the time that thanks to people like Marian Bantjes there was a real renaissance of lettering happening."

Revolutions in type include the spreading of hand lettering with literacy, then movable type (which created social revolutions and challenged the power of the church). Type came to be redrawn (for example, Plantin) to make up for the spread of ink hitting the paper like newsprint as mass produced print took hold.

"Many type designers still create type specifically for certain kinds of paper. For example, if a typeface is being designed for newsprint, a designer will intentionally create divets within the type to accommodate for where the ink will bleed. If you look at it on screen it looks really funky, but once printed it looks smooth and great; the divets disappear. It's not a stylistic choice, it's a necessity."

Hische also talks about how we all expect scalability these days, whereas formerly people would draw a face specifically to be seen at a certain point size. Scaleability adds all sorts of complications, for example comma size in relation to stroke.

That's because computers came along - everyone could use good type, and trained typographers' tricks like leading and kerning were now handled by the computers. Everyone's computers.

In the late 1980s, type 'exploded' with the digital revolution. Then it literally exploded, to look at. Unfortunately, new designs looked like the results of bomb attacks and became unreadable in a triumph of style over content. Type became distressed - and so did I.

Nowadays, readability on small device has become extremely important again as people read millions of words on tablets and smartphones. Not only can you read a newspaper on something that fits in your pocket, entire volumes are on iPhones, smartphones, iPads, tablets and kindles. Type has to be clean and clear, but it's still called upon to emote, convey tone and feeling, and to evoke.

The history of type is really important, as it's so rich. Hische: "There's no weekend workshop that could give you a complete background."

Hische looks far too young to be obsessed with lettering, and to know all she knows. So I asked where the fascination with type have its place in this day and age:

"There were a few letterers who stuck in there and made type cool again."

Then this new crop of people came in, finding work where digital typefaces weren't able to fit the bill. "Print designers had become used to a huge array of typefaces. But now typefaces are coming to an audience that had been so deprived - web designers and developers. Those who find craft in their own work and believe that the backend of a website should be as clean and beautiful as the façade, have learnt to appreciate the craft behind a good typeface. I think there is a real renaissance on our hands in the type world, and a big part of of this is the new audience full of people used to working with less and being generally under-appreciated for the time and craft they put into the work they do."

Of course, Hische's own site, Daily Drop Cap, was a big part of bringing beautiful lettering back into the scope of those who work in digital media.

"I love making display type and lettering, and often these don't make sense as typefaces ... Explaining the difference of lettering compared to type has become my life's mission." Someone had emailed Hische the morning I talked to her asking for the typeface of the title of a book she had created. "I had to explain that the only four letters of that 'typeface' were the four that formed the word of the title of that book!"

"Our attention spans are so limited because of all the media we consume every day, that a lot of people question why it's important to focus on such a fine level of detail in your work. I'm positive that there are a lot of accomplished graphic designers in the world and self-proclaimed "type nerds" that have barely scratched the surface of what there is to know about type. I know that every year I step back and think "God, I know nothing about type!" There's been a real resurgence in old printing methods though, and a massive new interest in type, and hopefully some of the people interested actually take the time to stare at a letter for an hour and see what you can learn from it, how deliberately every curve was drawn, and how making the tiniest adjustments can completely change a typeface."

She's a great fan of individual type foundries. She's aware that people can 'freak out' about the prices of different letters and faces, but she totally gets why type costs so much. It can cost US2 million in overhead creating a typeface that may only net US4000 over five years. She recommends contacting the foundries. "They're often open to working out deals and discussing the licensing."

I asked what designers Hische rated. "I really love the work of Wellingtonian Kris Sowersby. He does a lot of text type. Almost everybody who releases through Village, which has really beautiful typefaces ... I tend to love almost everything from Underware, Mark Simonson, H&FJ of course, and Alejandro Paul ... I tend to gravitate to different people for different reasons. And it's different to have a favourite type foundry compared to a typeface."

And more sophisticated, I'd posit.

Jessica Hische gave a presentation at 12:45pm in the Illot theatre, at Webstock in Wellington: Typography through song: an historical and epistemological journey. The talk was full up and very popular.


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