Yale teachers and life partners Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel like to joke that fonts drew them together, but for all of their love of graphic design, their work has always been more about people than anything else.
The two were recently selected winners of the design’s profession’s highest honor — the annual American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal — which recognizes, in part, the ways in which Helfand and Drenttel have inspired and educated future generations of designers and non-designers alike, and for work that has had a social impact. They and the other six honorees — who include Yale School of Art critic Tobias Frere-Jones — will receive the prestigious medal at a celebration hosted by AIGA in New York City on April 19.
Helfand, a senior critic at the Yale School of Art and lecturer in Yale College, and Drenttel, a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management (SOM), are among only a handful of Yale affiliates to receive the AIGA Medal since it first was given in 1920 in recognition of those “who have set standards of excellence over a lifetime of work or have made individual contributions to innovation within the practice of design” in the United States. Noted artist Joseph Albers, who started the Yale master’s program in graphic design in 1950, was a recipient in 1964: Since then, only four people who have gone through the M.F.A. program in graphic design at Yale have been honored with this recognition. They are current graphic design chair Sheila Levrant de Bretteville M.F.A. ’60, Christopher Pullman M.F.A. ’62; Lorraine Wild M.F.A. ’82 and Helfand. Frere-Jones, a type designer and critic in graphic design at the School of Art, is a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design. (See below.)
While honored individually for their careers, Drenttel and Helfand were also recognized for their collaborative work as the co-founding editors of Design Observer — a design, visual thinking, and cultural criticism weblog — and for their artistry in their design studio, Winterhouse, which the two started in 1997.
An alumna of Yale College and the Yale School of Art, Helfand has worked for such clients as The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Discovery Channel. Her books include the 2008 “Scrapbooks: An American History,” published by Yale University Press, which was named one of the best books of that year by The New York Times. She has been a senior critic at the School of Art since 1994, and for the past three years has introduced freshmen to visual thinking in the Yale College freshman seminar “Studies in Visual Biography.” The AIGA Medal recognizes her work as “an incisive critic; a pioneer in design practice and education; an innovator of new forms of visual narrative; and for her work as co-founder of Design Observer.”
Over the past decade, Drenttel has served as design director of numerous non-profit organizations, including the Poetry Foundation and Teach for All. He received a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2009 to develop collective action and social initiatives across the design industries. In partnership with Helfand at Winterhouse, he has also worked with such clients as Errol Morris, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Yale Law School, and the New England Journal of Medicine. For the past four years, he has taught design thinking and creative strategy at Yale SOM. The AIGA Medal lauds him for “advancing critical thinking about design; for his long-standing commitment to integrating design strategy into organizations; for expanding design’s role in social innovation; and for his work as co-founder, editor, and publisher of Design Observer.”
(See full biographies for Helfand and Drenttel.)
Helfand and Drenttel recently spoke with YaleNews about their honor and their careers in graphic design. An edited version of that conversation follows.
How did it feel for you to win — at your still relatively young ages — the AIGA Medal for lifetime achievement?
Helfand: My first thought was that my teeth aren’t in the glass yet! But then I thought about how great it feels to win an award for living the life I want and doing the work I care about. … It is a career that has been good to me. I get to make things in the studio, travel [to teach, lecture or work with clients], write books, and be a collector. I’ve been able to change the direction of my work over time. I’ve had an expansive career, and it’s certainly gratifying that AIGA could recognize what has been such a varied 25 years of work.
Drenttel: It’s very exciting, and it feels good to be a designer who has been able to participate in a revolution in design and technology, which was still pretty primitive when we first started in this field. Now, design is a way of both thinking and living. In some way or another, visual design is written about every day now, even in a publication like Forbes. It is wonderful to be recognized for work that spans all of this change, and to have participated in it.
Is there a particular work or body of work of which you are most proud?
Helfand: I’m proud of our Design Observer blog — which, I like to say, is my third child. It will be 10 years old next fall. It has 590,000 Twitter followers and 100,000 Facebook “likes,” which is pretty incredible. A lot of magazines have folded in the last year, but the blog has grown and really held its own. I’m quite proud of that.
After Hurricane Katrina, we shut down our office for two weeks and expanded an initiative, in which we partnered with AIGA, called No Designer Left Behind; its mission was to help people who had lost their portfolios and studios, and to help them to resettle. We also created the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing and Criticism to recognize the work of others. I think that I am as proud — if not prouder — of these kinds of efforts than I am of our work as practitioners. I’m also proud as I watch my students grow up!
Drenttel: For decades, a lot of designers have wanted design to be important in the economy and commerce of America and in social entrepreneurship, and I feel lucky that my career has allowed me to be engaged in that as well as in work in both the non-profit and business sectors that has a social impact. One of the major projects I’ve been involved in over the past seven or eight years is creating a graphic identity for Teach for All, which has taken the model for Teach for America and expanded it to 26 countries. It feels good to be a designer who has been able to participate in that cause. Like Jessica, I’m also pretty proud of Designer Observer. Also, the idea that I could be a designer and teach at a business school — who would have thought? That feels great.
How has that evolution about the understanding of design’s importance and the introduction of new technologies affected how and what you teach?
Drenttel: The world is facing big challenges, whether it is health care or environmental concerns or poverty. Organizations whose work connects to those challenges are often saying, “I wish there was a designer in the house.” Today’s technologically savvy students are very aware of the ways in which social media and design can inspire and create change. There’s exciting stuff happening here in Yale’s School of Public Health, the School of Engineering and its new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and SOM, just to name some, as students and faculty engage in and collaborate on looking at solutions to some of those problems, and are eager to learn about the role of design in their projects. There is a much greater demand now for an understanding of design across disciplines, so we are teaching courses we weren’t teaching even a decade ago — and to students whose interests range across a much broader spectrum.
What do you most love about teaching graphic design?
Drenttel: In the past, a lot of the exposure to students over the years was via the art-school model of the critique. At SOM, I co-teach [with Michael Bierut] a course called “Designers Designing Design,” which explores communications, marketing, corporate identity, and design thinking as a methodology for innovation. Typically, we have students from across the University, including from the School of Medicine, Law School, and Yale College. For me, doing a real lecture class with 40 to 50 students — and being able to have a deep engagement with those students in the classroom over an extended period of time — is very exciting. It’s wonderful to come together in a room to share ideas with people from all kinds of backgrounds and a range of disciplines.
Helfand: The technologies that are available now weren’t there when I started my career, so I would give anything to be an up-and-coming graphic designer today. One of the most special things for me is that my students always stay in touch (and I’m forever writing them recommendations). The problem is that in a world where everybody feels compelled to share every five minutes, it’s easy for everyone’s work to look like Instagram. I try to convince my students that being in a studio alone is not a bad thing: It forces them to reckon with their own internal voice. I want them to open their minds and see and say something new. When they do, I am thrilled, and I feel very lucky that I get to teach them.
Are you always talking to each other about graphic design?
Helfand: We talked a lot about it when we first met. I did my undergraduate work at Yale and Bill did his at Princeton, so we both had broad and rigorous liberal arts educations. One of the great things about the kind of work we do — and, I think, something that we’ve made a point of doing — is having conversations with scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, historians, and others outside of our field. So there are all kinds of interesting things we are able to talk about. I rather like the fact that my book “Scrapbooks” was published by Yale Press in its history section, not its art section. Still, we love the time we have in our studio, working alone or collaboratively, on our blog or other projects.
Yale’s other AIGA Medalist, Tobias Frere-Jones is considered one of the nation’s most influential designers. He and colleague Jonathan Hoefler, who also won the 2013 medal, joined their talents for designing typefaces when they started the New York company Hoefler & Frere-Jones in 1999. The two are being recognized for their “contributions to the typographic landscape through impeccable craftsmanship, skilled historical reference and insightful vernacular considerations.” Their practice specializes in the invention of new typefaces for print, web, and mobile devices, among other design work, and they have designed some of the world’s most famous fonts, including Gotham (the typeface of the Obama administration) and Hoefler Text (on the literature that accompanies Macintosh computers). Frere-Jones has been on the faculty of the School of Art since 1996, teaching typeface design. See his full biography.