On Thursday, June 6, 2013 Emily Lessard, spoke to a room full of attendees at the Museum of Art and Design. Despite being seven months pregnant Lessard delivered a thrilling, energetic talk, full of lively stories, entitled AIGA/NY Design + “The Fixer” Lessard explained, “anything I can do to mention Pulp Fiction and associate myself with Harvey Keitelâ€™s character, Vincent Wolf, is a happy day!”
Lessard, a Brooklyn-based designer, currently the Design Director of Aperture Foundation, began her talk with two very simple but important tips on how to be a good designer, or, in general, how to be good in life.
First: Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Second: Find the smartest people you possibly can, and then find a way to have them around you all the time. Lessard showed a map of all the places she has lived in the United States before the age of twenty-two with a dozen dots scattered all over the map. Her parents loved adventure and taking new jobs across the country. Moving frequently taught her how to adapt and how to be “the new girl” in at least five different schools.
When it came to her second point, Lessard humbly thanked her family and her sisters for being a part of the smartest and craziest people in her life. “Sometimes you don’t have to look so far in order to find the best people,” she says. Lessard continued by mentioning Jessica Helfand, her thesis advisor at Yale, and Barbara Glauber, from Heavy Meta, whom she acknowledged with a giant bright-green starburst, “Really, I can’t thank you enough!” Lessard exclaimed. Finally, she showed a slide of her husband John. “He makes me a way better person, and a way better designer, I didn’t want to show anything pre-John.” She pointed out the importance of appreciating your surroundings and reminding you that you can’t do it alone.
Lessard, a great storyteller, delivered her talk in five different chapters:
1. The Criminal
2. The Improbable
3. The Recluse
4. The Holy Shit
5. The British Sunburn
Each chapter focused on one of her projects and how she defied obstacles along the way.
The Criminala’s brief was to â€œdesign a book that was illegal to read. This project was a collaboration with Jill Magid, an artist who spent a year with eighteen different spies working for Avid (the Dutch Secret Service). Magid recorded her relationship with them, all of their stories, and wrote a book. After much effort, and Lessard’s detailed design work, the Dutch government sent the book back and erased all of the content that was strictly not allowed to be published. At times, full pages were blank. The government officials had pasted white paper over the content, and scanned the pages, something Lessard found incredibly beautiful and used in her future revisions. After much brainstorming, Lessard found a solution and kept the white blocks in the book design: she kept the page title header, the page numbers, and punctuation, which helped give the book structure, and a sense of movement even without the content. The project gained attention and after being shown at the Tate, the revised books were shown as a sculptural landscape at the New Museum.
The Improbable chapter described the process of how to transfer a website into a book under eight weeks. The challenge was that the website’s content and photography was random. Lessard used an ordered color system, to design the book Photography Changes Everything.
The Recluse’s brief was to design a book for an 80-year old Mexican crime photographer, Enrique Metinides, encompassing his 50+ year career. The challenge was that he didn’t speak English, nor travel outside of Mexico, yet he wanted to be involved. Lessard studied his newspaper tear sheets, his identification papers, and on the contrary, didn’t look too closely at the gory, bloody photographs for too long. As a result, she found a balance to create something personal and intimate to the photographer. She let the photographs breathe, giving them each their own spread. Lessard designed a book for Aperture Foundation and one that could be sold commercially, switching the covers photography. One was a shocking photograph of a car crash and the one that could be sold worldwide did not show a hint of violence that lay in the book. A sneaky move, however, was to print the covers wrap around double-sided and add some gore there. “When there’s a will, there’s a way”, she explained.
The Holy Shit chapter described Lessard’s latest achievements; re-designing the Aperture Foundation’s logo, the website, print collateral, books under a tiny budget. Sometimes, “you simply don’t have to look too far,” she said. She was given the first Aperture Magazine from 1951 and thought, “why did we ever leave this place? It’s perfect.”
The British Sunburn chapter describes her task to re-design a book that has already been designed by one of the best designers ever, Martin Parr’s Life’s a Beach, beautifully designed book by Xavier Barral. Lessard had to transform this luxury product into a commercial product. Time after time, the team would fire back a big no. Until one day, Lessard walked her dog and found a bright, green sun parasol in the trash. She thought, “This is Perfect!” After that, E-bay packages kept flowing into the office and Lessard would get more and more excited by the vintage, summer printed materials she collected. The book ended up using these prints, and they work charmingly with Parr’s photography.
Lessard’s advice can be summed up in the following tips: Be adventurous, be inspired by the people around you, take on every assignment you’re excited by even if you think it will be impossible, when using gold, use Beyonce-gold. And lastly, if you have a dog, walk it often you never know when you’re going to find your next inspiration.
AIGA/NY Design + The Fixer