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Reagan Ray is the lead designer and resident illustrator for Paravel.

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Jessica Hische

May 02, 2011

Tell us about your background. How did you get started and when did you begin specializing in lettering?

The wayback-background begins with two very understanding and supportive non-artsy parents that stocked our house full of every pencil, marker, and paint set imaginable. I grew up knowing I wanted to do something art related for a living but had no idea what graphic design was until my Sophomore year of college. I took an intro course and was hooked. Design was satisfying in a completely different way than fine art—everything was like a puzzle you had to solve and it wasn’t (for the most part) self-expressionistic. As a nineteen-year-old from Nowheresville, Pennsylvania who lived a relatively charmed existence, I didn’t feel like I really had much to “express” yet. Being able to think and execute artwork on the behalf of others—to address their needs rather than my own—was a giant “Eureka!” moment.

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I couldn’t get enough of my design courses. I was the kid in class everyone hated because they did five times the work they were assigned. It took until almost the end of my senior year for my classmates to realize that I was working hard because I loved it, not because I was trying to one-up them. I procrastinated from every other class to work on design projects. I was insatiable.

I started lettering for the same reason a lot of people do—I was broke and couldn’t afford good typefaces. I was (and remain) a perfectionist. I would find typefaces that were “close but not perfect” and then end up scrapping them all together to make something new. I noticed quickly that incorporating lettering into my projects elevated them above my classmates’—everything was cohesive and considered. At this point, I didn’t realize that it would become my specialty—that it was something you COULD specialize in—but I knew I loved it.

Louise Fili offered me a job soon after I graduated and while working for her I really honed my lettering skills. I was doing a ton of freelance illustration at night and tried to incorporate lettering whenever possible in small ways. Clients started to notice my lettering and were requesting it specifically when hiring me for illustration work. My portfolio quickly transitioned from “illustration” to “illustrative lettering” and continues to evolve with the more lettering work I get.

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You mention how cohesive your work becomes since you’re incorporating your own lettering into your projects. To create that harmony, do you typically start with the lettering portion of a project or does the design dictate the form and structure?

I think it’s important to consider lettering and typography early in a project, but not necessarily make ALL of your decisions about it as the first step (meaning don’t solidly declare you MUST use a certain typeface before you’ve addressed the rest of the design). I work very additively in almost everything I do, making general decisions and then shaping and whittling away until the design feels “right”. When I approach a new project, I first think about the general feeling that I want the piece to have—where it should fall on the “vintage” to “modern” scale; the masculine to feminine scale; the minimalist to highly ornate scale. Thinking about a project as being “a moderately vintage, feminine but not overly ornate” is a much less intimidating starting point, and having a general mood goal helps put clients at ease. It’s my tendency to jump to the lettering and type next, but it really varies project to project.

You’ve developed a strong identity as a custom lettering specialist, which obviously requires a high degree of time & focus. Do you devote most of your time to continuing to deepen that skill set or do you try and expand your knowledge base beyond that?

I definitely try to diversify my knowledge and skill set beyond lettering—I think it’s impossible to be a well rounded designer if you’re not at least reading up on related industries. I spent six months of this year attending a continuing-ed. program for typeface design thinking that because the type industry is adjacent to lettering it was a natural next step in my career. After getting my feet wet, I realized that I am just not built to be a proper typeface designer—it requires an inordinate amount of patience and a love of long-term projects, neither of which come naturally to me. I’m very patient in short bursts but if a project lasts more than a few intense weeks I get antsy to move on to something new. I learned an incredible amount about the type industry and typeface design in that short amount of time, so it of course wasn’t all for naught.

I love learning about new things whether or not they directly connect to how I earn a living and I think that this desire to pay attention to related industries is one of the reasons why I’m a figure in the design community. It’s by learning about many things that you’re able to understand specialization—that design is broken into countless micro-industries. If you don’t understand the differences between them (or acknowledge that they exist), there is no way for you to find your own specialized niche with in it. As much as graphic designers roll their eyes and joke that “anyone that has Photoshop thinks they’re a graphic designer”, many think that just because they have Dreamweaver they can be a web designer.

I make a giant distinction between the work that I do for clients and the work that I do for fun. This past year, I’ve learned an extraordinary amount about web design and front-end coding, but I would never web design professionally—I am not skilled enough nor entrenched enough in the web industry to offer this as a skill to clients. I try to put myself in the client’s shoes. If I were looking for a web designer, I would want someone whose main passion and interest was web design—someone that lived and breathed it and had the resources already in place to make my project happen smoothly. I advocate for specialization because if I were a client, I would want a designer that was self-aware and knew when to delegate and when not to. I’d never hire a carpenter to build a skyscraper.

When working on a lettering project generally how many drafts do you go through before you arrive at the final piece? Where are you trying to improve you lettering skills?

The lettering industry operates very much like the illustration industry—generally I start with pencil sketches to present to clients (three options being the norm, sometimes less if they have a very clear idea of what they want and just need me to execute it), the client then approves one of the pencil sketches to go to final. Once I’ve presented final artwork, the client can of course give feedback for minor revisions and once the revisions are complete that’s it! I am, for the most part, working with art directors or other designers for lettering projects which translates to a relatively smooth work process. Most of my lettering work is for advertising, book covers, and editorial but I do occasionally do lettering for logos. Identity work is a bit different as I’m working directly with the end-client instead of with an art director go-between, so I usually have to do a bit more work up-front to get approval. It’s much more difficult working with non-creatives as they need to essentially see final art before they understand what your vision is, so I try to only take on a few logo projects a year.

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I’m always trying to improve my lettering skills, especially in attempting to work in new styles that I’m not completely comfortable in. It can be very easy to be a one trick pony in the lettering and illustration world—you’re constantly being hired to play your greatest hits. You have to really push yourself to do something new since it’s so easy to just go through the motions and repeat what you’ve done in the past. Lately I’ve been trying to improve my ability to make a convincing brush script or handwriting script, something with a little heft that isn’t overly girly. Working in more masculine styles is very hard for me since I’m so used to doing feminine work and making masculine scripts is particularly challenging.

Tell us about your work environment and what a typical day looks like for you. Do you have a dedicated office? What kind of music do you listen to while working?

I like to mix up my working environments quite a bit. I have a dedicated office that I share with three other illustrators in a space known as The Pencil Factory (it’s an old Eberhard Faber factory converted to work spaces) which is where I spend most of my “work day” hours. There are a ton of amazingly talented people in the building including about 15 of my illustrator friends plus photographers, music labels, etc. I work a lot, so I don’t like to work in one place for more than about 7 or 8 hours—this forces me to take breaks, eat real meals, and walk around a bit.

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Here is almost my exact schedule every day: I wake up between 8 and 8:30, jump on email before I jump in the shower to make sure no one is having a client emergency that I have to take care of. If I have sketches due, I like to do them in the morning at home rather than at the office, so usually on sketch days I get to the studio a bit later (11 or noon compared to the usual 10am). I take the train from my apartment in Bushwick to the Bedford Ave stop in Williamsburg, get a coffee at El Beit, and walk a pleasant mile or so up to my Greenpoint studio (rather than taking the G train). I pop in to my neighbors studio (occupied by Josh Cochran, Gavin Potenza, Alex Eben Meyer and Neil Swaab) to finish coffee and chitchat, spend most of the late morning and early afternoon answering emails and doing businessy crap, spend the late afternoon making actual artwork, leave the office at dinner time, and work to television at home usually until 11pm or midnight but occasionally later.

When I’m alone, I like to work to television rather than music because it helps me pace myself and feel like I’m not working long hours (3 movies seems way less intimidating than 8 albums). I re-watch series a lot—Law and Order SVU, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, Party Down, etc. During the day I primarily listen to rdio for music and I tend to listen to a lot of the same stuff over and over again (old Modest Mouse, Destroyer albums, Pavement, Pixies, Violent Femmes, old girl group stuff and contemporary indie/garage rock stuff).

Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

As cheesy as it may seem, this is definitely the most inspiring thing I've seen this week. I'm now engaged to my main nerd partner / love / best friend, Russ Maschmeyer. A wave of "I get to make awesome things with a person I love for the rest of my life" excitement swept over me. I can't wait to dream up all the fun things we'll do together both personally and professionally.

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This has been great Jessica, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Jessica Hische's Work
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