“What jessica does is like client management. Because she works for herself, she works directly with the clients. Being in-house is very different from working in client services. I can be very good with work where I have established trust and deeper relationships on a longer-term basis.”—Russ Maschmeyer
Jessica Hische + Russ Maschmeyer, Don’t Fear The Internet + Letter Together / San Francisco CA
“what jessica does is like client management. because she works for herself, she works directly with the clients. being in-house is very different from working in client services. i can be very good with work where i have established trust and deeper relationships on a longer-term basis.”—russ maschmeyer
Can you profile your individual and collaborative work?
Jess: We do very different solo work. I do lettering, illustration, and type design. I work for myself, which means that I am endlessly doing freelance, client projects, and self-authored projects, which is very different from how Russ works, which is extremely collaboratively, and he has to talk to people all of the time.
Russ: I do product design for Facebook, which means I look at its features and different aspects. In particular, I work on searches within Facebook. I look at the different interfaces that we build for people to use and figure out ways to improve them. I build new interfaces for new problems that people might have. I solve those. It is a lot of UI design, product strategy, and interaction design. It is pretty firmly rooted in technology design.
Jess: Because of Russ’ job schedule, it is harder for us to work on our own collaborative side projects right now, especially since he is a Design Manager at Facebook, which carries a lot more responsibilities. One of our collaborative projects is Don’t Fear the Internet, which is a website that Russ and I created together. Well, I made it, then forced Russ to work on it with me. I was endlessly empowered by learning how to build on the web. I think that our relationship made me excited about it, because being with someone every day that was doing it, allowed me to hopefully, politely, pick his brain every now and again. I wanted to give that knowledge to other people, and it worked really well. It was a collaborative project between the two of us because Russ had a lot more experience in web design than I did. I could speak to the beginners from my newfound joy and perspective, while he could give a lot more technical, in-depth advice, and solve things that would go wrong. We were great editors of each other in that way, because when Russ wanted to go down really intense paths, teaching something that was great for our readers to know, but maybe was a little bit more involved than I thought they were capable of handling, I could rein it in a bit.
Do you democratize tasks, or are the roles in your collaborative projects preset?
Jess: When we first started working together, we matched a bit too much, so once we figured out how to use each other’s strengths collaboratively, that was a win. Russ was a graphic designer before grad school and Facebook. We have that shared world.
Russ: We have become more focused on interaction over time.
Jess: Russ was also in a band while we were together. He told me that the main reason why he got into graphic design was to make stuff for the band, which I think is a lot of graphic designers’ stories.
Jess: That is a very visual path. But now he works at Facebook, and he focuses so much less on the visual and so much more on the actual usability and interaction. We were able to delegate a lot better on the wedding project than if we had done it much earlier in our relationship.
courtesy of title case
Would you say that you both rub off on each other?
Jess: Without a doubt. When we first started dating, we wanted to do a competitive lettering project together. And Russ was killing me, he was doing so good at it.
Russ: I was very proud of myself. She would literally spend two hours on something and I would be twiddling on something for a whole week. I had a feeling that I had something to prove. Jessica is so much more talented than me at graphic design, and particularly at lettering.
Jess: Then when Russ let me into his web design world, I started invading Russ’ life in general. Without him next to me, allowing me to ask him, ”Hey, how do you do this? How do you do this? Help me!” I would not be as polished as I am in web design.
Are there areas of work that are gray areas, that are between your skill sets?
Jess: I think so. Russ is a very detail-oriented person. He doesn’t think that he would do very well in type design, and I have always disagreed with that, because he can make the most insane pixel-perfect micro icons and stuff like that. If you can see that level of detail, then you can see it with type. I think that is a raw talent.
Russ: There isn’t really an area where we compete with each other, or where we are both trying to do the work.
Jess: Sometimes I want to be more of a product designer, and that’s when I invade his space. I think, ”Oh I know how to do that.” Then Russ says, “No, you don’t.”
Russ: There is good criticism. I don’t know how to do type design, but whenever I’m working on new fonts, I can look over Jessica’s shoulder and realize that there are a couple of things that I could do without knowing everything about it. And vice versa.
Have your skill sets slid together?
Russ: I have definitely learned a lot from Jessica in terms of typography and hierarchy, and all of these different types of things that you learn in fundamental design school—stuff that I just never learned. I have definitely improved in terms of straight up, classic graphic design stuff.
Jess: Being surrounded by San Francisco, having a core group of Facebook tech friends, and overhearing/participating in their conversations, has all made me feel that I can hang pretty hard with the tech people. I hold these conversations on Wednesday mornings, which was originally a way for me to meet people instead of doing portfolio reviews, but some of them have become these really interesting advising sessions; one of which happened last month where a UX specialist, who was in his mid-40s, set up an hour session with me to talk about positioning his portfolio and career in the New York design space. If I didn’t have this life with Russ and know a little bit about product design and web design, from what I have picked up along the way, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the conversation at all.
In what other ways do you influence each other’s work?
Jess: We are really socially different. I’m an extrovert and Russ is an introvert. Russ is very social, but I am the most extreme extrovert anyone has ever met. I think that is one of the outside influences that affect our lives because we probably have more quiet introspective time together than I would if I was left to my own devices. I am comfortable mixing with a lot of different people. He would keep to himself more, if he was left to his own devices. There’s no way to avoid that influence. Russ is meeting a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, because I am a fly trap for humans. He spends a lot more time chilling out, which is really good for me.
courtesy of title case
Does that trickle into the work somehow?
Jess: If you move to California, you are surrounded by all of these people making tech things that are affecting the whole world—people who are going to change the whole world with their product, or whatever. That kind of thinking made me feel not very proud of my pretty illustrations. I felt limited compared to that. That then made me experiment in a lot of different ways and try to do things on a larger scale. But ultimately, I have sort of appreciated going back to the thing that I love the most, which is to do custom artwork. I think that Russ, and our life here, has affected me that way. It made me really explore and consider new things. It has also reaffirmed the things that I love.
Can you maybe talk about the collaborative differences between Title Case versus Facebook?
Jess: At Title Case, Erik and I literally do the exact same thing for a living, so when we collaborate, it’s straightforward. We teach workshops, which is very collaborative. When I got hired by The New York Times and the deadline was crazy, like it always is, I wasn’t sure if I could take the job. I asked Erik if he would work on it with me. We both submitted sketches, and we decided that we would both work on whatever sketch was picked. One of my sketches was chosen, so I did the first half of the illustration, and he did the second half. In the end, the result was both of our work. We can directly collaborate and intensely criticize each other’s work because we do exactly the same thing.
Russ: Facebook is a very different kind of beast in that regard, because it takes many people to build a product of good quality. Even a small team has five engineers, a PM, a designer, a full-time researcher, and a content strategist who either helps you write the language or helps people relate to the product and understand how to use it. You are also collaborating with the management team, the director of your product, the director of research, and you are always taking the products to them and giving them updates on stuff. They always have really good feedback. The amount of people involved in larger products and projects takes on a very different style.
Jess: You are endlessly collaborating. It’s no one’s project. It’s everyone’s project.
Can you each walk us through an example of your collaborative process on a project?
Jess: When I am working on a lettering project, I do research and brainstorming, then really loose thumbnails, and then sketches. I send the sketches to the client, the client picks one of them, and the final one gets made. In that case, and in the case of when I work with Erik, we typically brainstorm together, come up with a few ideas, and then delegate those ideas to each other. I worked on projects for Target with him as well, and we each had four different headlines, so we split up the headlines based on line length and general concept. If I thought that he would be better for one because it was clear that it should be in a certain style, then I would give it to him, and vice versa. We did our own sketches, each did our own final, and then collaborated on the final, which meant that we looked at the sketches, ensured that we weren’t being repetitive, and then sent the finals to Target. Together, we check for consistency and variety of color, style, and typography.
Russ: In terms of product design, you are working with the PM, probably some kind of lead engineer, and the designer. You decide on an area of products that you are interested in building. In my super early days at Facebook, we were working on a communities project. We already had a groups project that existed, where you can come onto Facebook, and you can make a group, and you can invite your friends to the group, and you have this sub area within Facebook where you can have a conversation. But we thought it would be a good tool in universities, for people that wanted to create this kind of environment where they felt safe and close, that they could enjoy within the university group, and that would always be available for students and teachers. We felt like it would be a great space for students to collaborate for classes, or intramural sports, or fraternities/sororities, and other clubs and organizations. We started by sitting down with the lead engineers and going over rough ideas. We interviewed people about their experience with the group, and what they liked and didn’t like about it. Then we started doing rough mockups of what it would look like. The design problem was how you would invite everyone in college to join this product, and then get them using it in a single day. It was all about that on-boarding experience. We designed a few touch-points to let them know that this thing existed. We invited them to join some groups, then we told them all about what it was, and invited them to become hosts and invite their friends to the group. We did the first half of the design. We did a half-run with some select universities, saw how that did, and realized some problems in the funnel of getting people to create groups and start using them. Then we iterated on it every two weeks, launching it at new universities. After 12 or 14 weeks of doing one university after another, we figured out what the right puzzle pieces were to get people interested and excited about using this product. Then we solved all of those puzzle pieces together for the final product, which we then turned on over to hundreds of universities at once.
If you guys had to switch jobs for a day, or a week, could you hack it?
Jess: People would eventually see that I was a total fraud, but I think I could fake it pretty good.
Russ: What Jessica does is like client management. Because she works for herself, she works directly with the clients. Being in-house is very different from working in client services. I can be very good with work where I have established trust and deeper relationships on a longer-term basis. Jess has to always be in that customer service mode, which kills me. That would actually be the hardest part of Jessica’s job for me. Spiritually, that would be so hard.
courtesy of title case
Jess: Russ is a manager right now, and he is a good product designer and thinker, but he struggles with management skills, because he is not a natural people-wrangler and cheerleader. I would just kill it at that part of his job, but I would have terrible ideas about Facebook.
What role do you play as designers in the community?
Jess: We have a lot of projects that deal with the community. There are these maker clubs here. They are happy hours centered on the Facebook people, because it started with them, but they are open to anyone. They can be like big drinking festivals. Facebook itself has designers. That’s Russ’ end of the community. I try to set up community-focused things quite a bit in San Francisco, but it can be tough to keep up when I travel a lot for conferences. I do workshops at my space. I hold Type-Nerds Breakfasts, which are just eight people that sign up to come and I have doughnuts and coffee available in the office. I haven’t done them in a while, because I’ve been wanting to turn them into a thing like Unhappy Hour, in which I bring everyone to a coffee shop at 7 AM, which is why it’s called Unhappy Hour.
Do you set up projects with people you meet while traveling?
Jess: I meet so many people, so it is more like managing my enthusiasm around new people so that they don’t immediately think that we are going to work on a big-time project together.
Russ: Jess is one of those super connected people, and because you are often engaging with all kinds of random strangers, you are always connecting the people that you meet with other people that you know who could have mutual interests.
Jess: One of the most fun things about all of the traveling is meeting people and then introducing them to others that they could work with. Conferences are always looking for new people to showcase, and because I have done so much public speaking, I can give references for people that I have seen and heard and met before, or people that I meet who don’t have a lot of speaking experience, but have the enthusiasm that would make them good for it. I also meet random people all of the time. I was going to do a project where I wrote down every single person that I met in a year, just because I meet four people a day. I don’t cook ever, which means that I am always buying food from places, and I engage in conversations with those people.
Letter Together Workshop
courtesy of title case
courtesy of title case
Can you describe the Letter Together workshops?
Jess: Erik and I run them together, unless he is not available. They are two-day workshops; the first day is all analog, while the second day is all digital. Each student is assigned two letters of the alphabet. There are 12 students in the classroom, so they each get two letters representational of the complexities of the typeface in general. We always choose a classic typeface, like Caslon, and they pick the letters: one has rounds and one has straights or upright strokes. We give them five assignments on the first day; we hold up the H and the O, and I make them draw it from memory. For the rest of the first day, they never see the alphabet itself. We make them imagine what the letters look like that match that original H and O. We end up getting wildly different results from everybody. When we finally show them, going through the alphabet letter by letter, we explain things to look for and why things happen. The second day is all about digitizing that and digging deep into vectors. We show what early digitized faces look like compared to modern digitized faces. It is interesting, because it is collaborative in that we are constantly critiquing each other’s work and working on the same project together. All of the letters that are meant to create this complete alphabet at the end, could not be more different. But that is also kind of the point of the project, that even if you sit in a room with 12 people and they are all working on the same thing, it is all really different, as long as you are not tracing it.
courtesy of title case
Russ, did art school impact your work at Facebook?
Russ: I went to art school in undergrad at NYU. I ended up going back to grad school at SVA in New York for a couple of years between 2009 and 2011. While what I do now is very different from what I did in undergrad, it is actually very close to what I did at SVA. The program there is called Interaction Design, but I don’t think there is a program that could be closer to product design. It is very focused on making; some grad programs can be focused on conceptual stuff. If you look at the Royal College of Art in London, that can be very out-there in interaction design world—impractical, but with interesting lines of inquiry into what technology means to us. Then you have something on the other end of the spectrum, like CMU [Carnegie Mellon], which is all about human-computer interaction. SVA is the sweet spot in between; the classes give you room to explore ideas, but it is focused on building things that solve real problems for people, which is very much in line with Facebook.
Is there any carryover from being in a band?
Russ: Yeah, there were some things that I gained from working in a band, which is basically like a startup. The music and the image of the band are the product. You are there with other people who have no idea what they are doing, and you are desperately trying to find some connection with an audience that is going to love this thing that you are making. You not only have to make the thing, but also market the thing, and build a narrative that gets people interested in the thing. I think that it is very close to a lot of the things that we do at startups. That said, Facebook isn’t much of a startup these days. There is still a lot of startup DNA in the company, in the way that teams are run. There is a certain degree of scrappiness and getting it done. We talk about how hacking is a core part of Facebook culture. If you can solve a problem in a scrappy fast way, why bother spending five years trying to solve it?
Do you have any dream collaborative projects on your list?
Jess: I dream of Russ building my future iPad and iPhone apps, but I don’t think he is into that.
Russ: Yeah, that seems less of a collaboration and more of a ”let me build that for you” type of thing. I don’t think we spend a lot of time planning the future of our collaboration. When they happen, we get really excited to do things together. We have figured out each other’s working styles, and how we can contribute in a unique basis and keep stuff going forward.
Jess: I really want to do workshops with Russ on the Don’t Fear the Internet material. We need to figure that out and schedule a time.
Russ: We talked about doing a Don’t Fear the Internet tour across America, where we would bring the workshops to all of these local towns across the US.
Jess: Yeah, we wanted to go to some places that don’t usually get a lot of workshops and speakers coming through. I would do some sort of local AIGA talks on lettering, and we could also do a Don’t Fear the Internet workshop.
Russ: We would rent a camper and go across the country.
Jess: We would do 60 workshops in 60 days.
Do you keep work and life separate?
Jess: More so now, than before. When we were in New York, it was way more intertwined. We would be working throughout the day because Russ was freelancing and at school full-time, and he wouldn’t get home until late, so I would work at my studio pretty late. We would still have a lot of work left to do, so we would sit on the couch next to each other and watch TV while working. But now that Russ has a real job, my schedule trends toward more traditional job hours. When I come home and he doesn’t do anything, we chill out and watch Sherlock. I tend to give in pretty fast when it comes to doing work at night.
Russ: Yeah, you fold pretty easily now.
Jess: Russ will be like, ”You know what’s way better? Let’s watch this shitty movie.” And that sounds so good. So I think we now have a little bit more separation. I feel like I work at night when I want to, or have to, but not all of the time.
Russ: We also do a lot of work on the weekends where we will go to the coffee shops and work on personal projects outside of work. I have pet projects that I am always working on. Sometimes it is nice to hang outside of your studio and get coffee and hammer on stuff all day uninterrupted.
Jess: I love working on the weekends, because then my Mondays are the most amazing day of the week. I think that, for the both of us, if we spread the work out a little bit more over the weekend, instead of trying to condense it into work hours, we end up less stressed-out in general. That is how vacations are for me too. If I take smaller vacations and mix them into my schedule, it is way less stressful than taking bigger vacations and having to prepare for that. Whenever I go away for significant periods of time, I just can’t turn it off. I have to warn clients two weeks in advance and not take on work because it can’t fall within this timeframe, and blah blah blah.
Does your environment influence how you work with other people?
Jess: Russ’ ideal work environment is not good for me.
Russ: Jess has this really open office layout, where everyone just has desks in a big open room. Even Erik doesn’t have an office; he has a desk out in the middle of the room. I find that really distracting. It makes it almost impossible for me to get work done. Whenever I get a moment where I have an hour to actually do something productive, instead of popping into a meeting and contributing my two cents on something, I find a little quiet space, where I am not surrounded by people on all sides buzzing and shooting all around me.
Jess: I like to think and sketch and read at coffee shops a lot. I do feel a little guilty being in a workspace with another person but requiring quiet time. I have recently been working on writing a book, but I can only write in complete silence. I like having an office and sharing an office with other designers; I have been doing that since I was 23. Ever since I got out of school, I have lived in a computer lab environment. I wanted to replicate that in real life, which has happened pretty easily for me. It is just me and Erik in the studio here in San Francisco, which is crazy that we get along like two peas in a pod. When one of us is out for whatever reason, usually because of traveling, the other one gets a little bit lonely. Erik and I get along really great, and we both like an active, talky environment. We play music out loud, we shout things out to each other, and it is not an interruption. I have been in studios where there are too many people, and one or two people require total silence all of the time, and that puts everybody else into headphone world, which keeps the studio really quiet. But if you establish quiet hours, like before noon so that everyone can answer emails and take care of business, then in the afternoon it can be loud and fun and happy.