Jelena Aleksich ::: Designer ::: Brooklyn
Since it is our first meeting, let’s start from the very beginning. Who are you & what do you do?
My name is Jelena Aleksich and I’m from New Jersey, the daughter of immigrant parents from Serbia. I went to school in Vermont where I studied Psychology. Towards the end of my senior year of college, they were asking if anyone wanted to help with the school newspaper layout. I wrote for the newspaper throughout school, but thought ok I might as well try even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember that was my first experience with InDesign - seeing the program and everything. Someone was explaining it to me & I was just blown away, thinking this is how I think! It was amazing to learn that you can use this software to arrange things on a piece of paper. That was the moment I learned what graphic design was. I had no idea that it was an entire industry or that you could make a living from it. So once I graduated, I enrolled in Parsons The New School for the Graphic Design certificate just to see if I would even like it. It was super interesting because many of the people there were either self taught designers or they were switching career paths. All of them were very entrepreneurial.
That was a pretty quick decision to go directly back to school for something you didn’t study at university.
Right. I mean when I first started at Parsons, I thought it was a huge setback to lack an art background but everyone kept saying that it was actually really great because Psychology is applicable to almost everything, especially art, advertising, marketing, and graphic design. So I’m going to go back to graduate school for Psychology soon, and am using one of my recent creative projects, The Confetti Project, as a sort of qualitative study on human identity for my application. I’m always merging psychology with my more visual interests.
Working across disciplines is definitely something we have in common. I find it very hard to stick to one medium. Would you call yourself a Photographer? a Designer?
You know, I don’t think I’ll ever call myself a photographer. I feel like these days everyone is a creative because there are more resources to dabble in a variety of mediums. I think all these labels are becoming irrelevant to a certain degree. I simply call myself an artist. I have always been really interested in how different mediums can relate to one another.
At Parsons, did you focus on graphic design?
We had very basic classes at first and didn’t do anything digital until later. We actually didn’t even use the computer in the beginning, which was really great. We’d just cut up magazines with different type sizes for our typography class and we had a ruler that measured picas and all of that. They really took a hands on approach to teaching design, which was a wonderful way to learn basic things like scale, composition, etc. And then we had design classes where we would actually learn the current software: InDesign, Illustrator, etc. I did the program in a year and a half. You can really fit it into your normal life, since classes are at night. With a certificate program, you learn how to become an entrepreneur - how to have clients, negotiate rates, but at the same time, there was definitely a lack of that fine arts education. It felt much more practical in nature.
I’m also a self-taught designer, after studying Economics in school. But I’m realizing that self-teaching takes much, much longer than the formal education route.
Of course. But I do think that despite the fact that reverse engineering as method of teaching yourself design is really difficult, it does instill that work ethic that is required for practicing graphic design. You need to always be working on your craft to keep it fresh.
Have you heard that Ira Glass quote about The Gap? He talks about how most creatives start out having taste, but what you don’t necessarily have is the skill. So when you start your career, there is a huge gap between your work & what you think is good work. And this is frustrating because you have taste, you know what’s good, and you know your work doesn’t match up. And he says that only thing you can do is to produce as much work as possible to close this gap as fast as possible. And that the people who “succeed” are the ones that push through this period of bad work instead of quitting.
Right, and I think that’s a problem for a lot of people who think they are artists simply because they have ‘an eye’ for things. They start a lot of projects but don’t have the technical skill needed to finish them. Honing in on one thing & finishing it is really challenging. I used to start a lot of projects, just dabbling, never finishing. But The Confetti Project really changed that for me.
Are you full-time freelance right now?
Yes. Last summer I went freelance. I was really struggling with balancing my day job & my passion projects. While I was working full time, I got to a point where I wasn’t even creating great work because I was so burnt out. I had one day off during my time there & I remember just photographing so many different things and then coming in to work the following Monday completely invigorated and refreshed. So eventually I left & started building my freelance career from the network I had built during my working days. I started experimenting with photography, writing more, and blogging. In fact, many of my clients found me initially through my personal work, which I think is such a great start. It’s wonderful to work with people who already love your aesthetic.
Tell me more about The Confetti Project. How did it start?
The idea for The Confetti Project originated from blogging. I made a challenge for myself: with every blog post, I would create a visual. One day, I needed a photo for a post, so my friends and I decided to photograph each other throwing confetti on my rooftop. And the photos came really, really cool. Not too long after, I went to an OK Go concert that ended with a huge confetti bomb that just sprayed over the entire audience and for some reason, I stuffed a bunch of the confetti in my jacket pockets. A few weeks went by and I went to put on the jacket, having totally forgotten about the confetti, and it completely brightened my day. And I realized that there was something there. I realized what a strong celebratory aspect confetti had.
How did that idea turn into a project?
Well, I started to think about how confetti really symbolized the concept of celebration. And I thought doing a portrait series incorporating confetti could be a good entree for people to express that emotion. But also, this project was the first time I gave myself a really intense deadline. I set an ambitious goal of photographing 50 people in 3 months and making a physical book from it. I mean, that’s why I got into design in the first place - to do editorial design. And I tapped into my network of creative entrepreneurs & just started shooting at least 1 person every day. I learned so much along the way: from storing photos, to editing, to directing people in front of the camera, and realizing that even if I didn’t know all of the technical details, I was good with people & I had a vision for the project.
Where are you at now with the project?
I photographed 50 people, made a book, printed a sample. I used Small Editions in Red Hook for the printing. They hand bind everything and they do amazing work with art books. And I also decided to throw a sort of launch party (that doubled as my birthday party) and blew up all of the photos from the project and displayed them around my apartment. It was cool because a lot of the people that came were also pictured on the walls! It was really interesting to get their feedback. And I don’t know if you feel this too, but often when I do a lot of digital design & am promoting it online or through social media, I can get to a point where I don’t even feel like it’s a real thing. You work with digital files on your computer, and unless someone likes or comments on social media, you feel like they don’t exist. So when I finally blew them up, I really felt it was an official project.
And what did you do from there?
I went to Florida to escape, chill, and edit, and then go to the next phase, which was to introduce it to the publishing world. I had one literary agent in mind - the woman who did The Selby. And I had even modeled The Confetti Project book after The Selby in terms of layout, so it was perfect. She also evidently loves books that have been rejected before. Anyway, she writes me back, essentially passing on my book, but gave me some amazing advice: she said that coffee table books are by far the hardest type of book to publish because they are so expensive to produce. So most coffee table books that are published are by authors that already have an established audience. Todd Selby, for example, had his project going for years and years. I mean, he was featuring Karl Lagerfeld by that point, so clearly he had reached a certain level. But her advice was really helpful, because it allowed me to broaden my perspective and not just see my project as one book, but rather a live project. I'm now planning to continue to make & publish portraits for at least a year. My next subject is a group of kids graduating high school.
Brandon from Humans of New York did a similar thing. He’s profiled thousands of people online but his book is a selection of the most poignant stories & portraits.
Funny you mention that. Right after my book was rejected from the publisher, I started researching HONY to understand how his project had evolved over the years. And I found that something similar happened with him. From the beginning, he wanted it to be a book, but he was rejected by everyone. I started looking through HONY’s Facebook page and realized that it took over 2 years of doing the project to get any traction from the publishing world. I read that he used to post links to his website, but no one would ever click. And he just kept experimenting and finally realized that a photo with a little bit of copy was the optimal format that resonated with people. He definitely hit on something really special.
Switching gears a little bit - I love asking people about where they live. New York especially has its own persona and I’m always fascinated by how people react to that.
Like I said, I’m from New Jersey, so I’ve always had that outsider-looking-in perspective. Going to Parsons, I commuted every day, which was horrible. Then I got a job at a start up and began being her PA, Graphic Designer, Project Manager, and was commuting during that time too, about 8 months. And that was really hard. Finally I found an apartment with my colleagues off the Bedford L stop, in the heart of Williamsburg. I was there last year for about 7 months.
Straight into Brooklyn!
Yeah, I mean I never wanted to live in Manhattan. It’s just so overwhelming and it isn’t the vibe I was going for. It also feels like less of a community. So my first place in Williamsburg was amazing, but eventually the area started to feel more and more commercial. I started to think about moving back to New Jersey and then Lisa [mutual friend & former 50 Coffees interviewee] mentioned her boyfriend was looking for someone to fill a vacant room in his apartment a bit deeper into Brooklyn. It all happened very fast, but I ended up moving in there. It was perfect timing. The apartment I live in is very open, tons of glass walls, and we have a rooftop. I will also say that I don’t know if The Confetti Project would have even happened if not for that apartment. My roommates were shockingly cool with me throwing confetti everywhere. Now, I mostly just shoot in my room. Or outside!
You mentioned you are moving to Bali in November. How did that come about?
I just can’t handle another winter. I grew up here and I’ve had 25 winters and I’m just maxed out. My ideal life is to be bi-coastal - between LA and NY and then spending a third of the year traveling.
That would be the life! Thanks Jelena for chatting. You can find her Confetti Project here.