David Womack: A Conversation with Jessica Helfand

by MFA IXD August 6, 2009

Faculty member David Womack interviews Jessica Helfand for INSPIRE, a publication from the Adobe Experience Design team. A senior critic in Yale’s graphic design program and a partner in Winterhouse, Helfand shares her insight on the “changing nature of the visual biography… from scrapbooks to Facebook.” Below is an excerpt from the article.

Credit: Jessica Helfand With all the different projects and issues you’re involved in, why choose to focus on scrapbooks?

JH: I came of age as a designer at the height of the no-nonsense, neutral International style, so the idea that design could be personal and idiosyncratic was pretty verboten—so naturally scrapbooks intrigued me! Since I was a grad student I’ve been obsessed with biography, and particularly with what I call visual biography. My favorite scrapbooks are the messy ones where the narrative changes literally ebbs and flows—just like life does. So maybe the deadbeat dad or the ex-girlfriend’s face is ripped out, or someone scribbles over a caption, or annotates later, after the fact.

How would you compare scrapbooks to Facebook and Flickr?

JH: For one thing scrapbooks are tangible and analogue, which makes them captivating in a world of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Facebook status updates. Also, there’s something annoyingly homogenized about all that is digital. It flattens everything out and hides the creases. It’s hard to imagine our grandchildren clicking through a Photostream and having the same sensation as I had, coming upon my grandmother’s scrapbook, with its little pictures of my grandfather, and dried flowers, and so much more.

What influence do you think our current social networking tools have had on the images of ourselves we choose to display?

JH: The current image free-for-all online occupies a strange zone where, on the one hand, you’re encouraged to share, but on the other you need to protect yourself from current or future predatory interest. There is no way to express the gravitas of posting all these images to anyone under the age of 25. I think it’s generational: I see all these people in my generation worrying how and how much their children are projecting images of themselves out in the world, like we know we’re supposed to teach them some serious cautionary tale about privacy. This generation, the “new millennials” I think they’re called, they just laugh, because to them, sharing is perfectly natural. They’re not territorial like I am!

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