It’s a deceptively simple idea, but a stroke of genius when it comes to self-promotion. A young Brooklyn-based type designer leaves her day job to go freelance in September 2009, and needs a personal project to keep her motivated and show off her skills. Blogging? It’s been done. Online portfolio? Already got one. So the designer, who draws every new alphabet by hand, vows to create one new letter every working day — a decorative drop cap. After a brainstorming session with friends, she also decides to make each letter available for online use only, “for the beautification of blog posts everywhere” — a sort of open-source style dictionary. Ten months later and with a target 12 alphabets on their way to completion, the Daily Drop Cap is keeping people engaged with what designer, illustrator and typographer Jessica Hische is producing, while keeping the spotlight on what she’s good at and allowing her to set her own agenda.
“I realised it wasn’t just making the letters that would make it popular, it was making it more interactive and allowing people to re-use the drop caps,” says Hische. “I’ve had unbelievable amounts of feedback. Months and months later, people are still sending me stuff, and I get so much traffic because of people posting about it on different blogs. What I thought would be a side project has been helpful for my other projects as well.”
Just twenty-five, Hische (“just like ‘fish’ but with an H”) says the Daily Drop Cap project has also encouraged potential clients to overlook her comparative youth.
“It was a hindrance at first, being young,” she says. “But I got so much exposure that people now just take me seriously, as well as taking it as an inspiration for how quickly you can do things.”
And, given the way she works, Hische is quick. It can take her as little as a couple of hours to draw a new typeface, though her first commercial font, Buttermilk, was three months in development (on and off). Her trademark vintage-look, hand-drawn style is created in Illustrator rather than Fontlab, the preferred software for most typographers as it generates crisp, perfect curves. However, Hische says a bit of wonkiness works better for her.
“I don’t want it to look too mathematical or perfect, or for my work to look like it can be made by anyone,” she says. “Before I started the project I was already pretty fast, but any practice makes you faster, and I make decisions faster. There’s a lot of fine-tuning that happens. It takes me less time now to make a new display font for something than to scour the Internet for something really good.”
As a promotional enterprise rather than a profit-making one, the DDC sits alongside Hische’s identity and book design projects, and her other work as a freelance illustrator. This has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, and often includes her characteristic swirly, vintage-look letters and wry anthropomorphic drawings of animals — such as the one featuring partied-out, passed-out cats produced for the new year’s issue of a financial magazine.
Her calendar is, she says, generally clogged up for four weeks in advance. She gets so many questions emailed to her from students and other designers that she’s created an FAQ section on her website to avoid having to respond to each individually. Hische’s success is, however, not an accident. She spent three years freelancing heavily at night after clocking out of day jobs at Headcase Design in her native Philadelphia (where she worked on, among other things, Dirty Blonde, a compilation of Courtney Love’s scrawled, illustrated diaries) and New York-based studio Louise Fili, which specialises in packaging, restaurant and book design.
Hische admits that, right now, she has five new drop caps to catch up on, but says that coming up with new ideas has never been a problem. “I never know what I’m going to do until I sit down, which can be intimidating. But I always want to do something completely different to what I’ve already done. It’s always good to know what you don’t want to do — given limitations I tend to do better. I actually thought I would be more experimental than I have been, so I’m going to push myself more for the last ones.”