Design Crush: Profiling Jacqueline Wallace – Mél Hogan

In this piece I wanted to highlight the work of my good friend and collaborator, Jacqueline Wallace. Some people are incredible – yet incredibly understated – and so this became an opportunity for me to profile Jacquie’s work, which makes important connections between design, academia, and feminist politics. Together we tease out the intricacies of work, in and out of academia, from a start up called Veer to a dissertation about women’s cultural production.

MH: Can you talk about your background in design?

JW: I’ve always had a strong aesthetic sensibility, but I came to really know design by working at Veer. I was part of the startup team that founded the company in 2002. We produced, curated and distributed images, type and motion footage for use by creatives working in advertising, design and publishing. Veer wasn’t just a random start-up. Many of us had worked together at earlier companies in the visual media industry. When a number of us were spun out after an ownership change at the previous company, we felt there was still opportunity in the market, but we knew we needed to do things differently. The other major players in our market space were big, faceless companies–the Walmarts of the industry. Veer, on the other hand, was steeped in design. Our goal was to inspire creativity at every touch point. In fact, the company was purposefully called ‘Veer’ to diverge from the norm and disrupt an established market by presenting our products (digital photography, illustration, typefaces and motion footage) with imagination and style. We looked to appeal to the design sensibilities and “inner circle” of peers in the graphic design community who would understand the cultural references and vocabulary of our brand and voice, lend it credibility and find affinity with it.

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Image Credit: Veer

We followed a ‘look what you can do’ philosophy with our images and type and produced monthly print catalogs that showcased compelling designs and beautiful typography. We played up common misunderstandings of graphic designers’ identities in our merchandise products with whimsical t-shirts that read ‘I draw pictures all day’ or our ‘Kern’ zip-up hoodie, an inside reference to typesetting. We even produced a series of Summer Activity books just like the ones you had as a kid going on family vacation, but these ones were full of games, puzzles and quizzes created especially for designers. We were constantly interacting with the creative community through our print communications, web site and blog, at conferences and in co-productions, like our involvement in the documentary film Helvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit.

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Image Credit: Veer

MH: Tell me more about Veer: what was your role there?

JW: My role evolved from the startup phase where I was primarily responsible for communications, media relations and cultivating partnerships with other creatives, photographers or complementary brands. In 2005, I took on the role of VP, International, leveraging my international communications background, French and German language skills and ecommerce competency. I was responsible for expanding the company outside of North America, establishing our European headquarters in Berlin and an international distribution channel.

I worked in partnership with my management team peers and with our creative director and brand communications director, a team I deeply respect and a constant source of mutual learning and collaboration. Being part of a successful start-up is a remarkable experience. One is completely immersed in a culture of production and we were fortunate to build a culture that valued creativity, collaboration and which saw making mistakes as part of the creative process.

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Image Credit: Veer

MH: How did your experience in the creative industries lead you back to academia? And, what might you bring from academia back into the creative industries?

JW: I loved my work at Veer. It was deeply rewarding to build a brand, business and devoted following of the design community, and to lead our expansion into Europe. By far, it was the people I worked with that made the experience so enjoyable–smart, creative, and hard-working. Design and creative strategy were integral to my every day. I am a creative thinker, a strategist, and a believer in the power of good design–not just aesthetically, but deep design, as vital to business and brand strategy and to successfully achieve the vision and mission of any organization. I drew inspiration from our many collaborators and influencers, including the work of Marian Bantjes, Paula Scher, Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armit Vit, Erik Spiekermann, Alejandro Paul. By far, my design crush is Debbie Millman, whose circuitous career swirling around the place where design, business and education meet, resonates with my own path. I can only hope that I have a career as diverse and interesting as hers.

Yet, despite all our success, there is an underside–what I call the ‘dark matter’ of creative work, including the precarious realities and constraints of ‘emotional labour’. This extends to the tensions around agency, negotiation, gender politics, and power relations relative to the intensity and demands of a startup culture. I struggled with what I would now identify as ‘the covert nature of living my feminist values’ inside the company, including the many standpoints and paradoxical experiences of being a woman, building a meaningful career while also navigating personal responsibilities and gendered hierarchies of the business and technology worlds. I was 26 when we started Veer. I look back now and I can see internal moments of so-called ‘imposter syndrome’, where I was unsure of what to do next. I could have used a mentor to guide me. But, I also recognize a strong instinctive and strategic ability and that fear can be an incredible motivator. I knew that I would figure it out and my peers trusted me to do so. The more successful the company became, the more entrenched my work was in its management, numbers and admin, and further away from the creative practices. We were a creative company, yet the economic imperative was always biting at our heels. This is the constant state of negotiation of being invested in the success of the company, while trying to find that elusive equilibrium between creativity and commerce, between the personal and the professional.

In 2007, Veer was acquired by Corbis, a privately held Bill Gates corporation. I took on a new position as VP, Global Brands and Web Platforms for the larger organization. In all ways, being part of Veer and Corbis was a tremendously rewarding experience, however, the questions and struggles I experienced are what led me to return to school to do a PhD… to shift to researching the questions around women’s creative labour, design/making and start-up cultures. By 2009, after nearly a decade in the creative industries, I decided to apply to the Joint PhD Program in Communication at Concordia in Montreal. I wanted to be a part of this progressive program and to work with Dr. Matt Soar, whose work bridges design, media and cultural production. Combining my professional and academic interests, my own dissertation research examines the new indie crafts/design/maker movement as a cultural economy—of women’s cultural production, informal networks and entrepreneurship—a highly contemporary cultural and economic phenomenon buoyed by the rise of the so-called creative class, a do-it-yourself ethic and a broader conception of craftwork as ‘Handmade 2.0’, reifying an intersection with digital media, new technologies and networked communications. I’ve been interviewing makers and doing significant fieldwork, including a digital ethnography of Etsy, the marketplace ‘to buy and sell all things handmade’.

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I-heart-handmade

Returning to the academic world has been fascinating, challenging and intellectually fulfilling. There is an intensity, rigour and level of discourse that recognizes the complexity of cultural and creative research and doesn’t take the easy road of reducing it. My work on design and cultural production has been published and well-received by the academic community. Yet, returning to school mid-career has also been destabilizing and has a vulnerability that I didn’t expect. I thought that my startup and creative industries experience would be well understood and valued.

There is a desire among grad school programs to bring in diverse students with professional experience, but once ‘on the inside’ I’ve experienced everything from respect and admiration (nice) to suspicion and a kind of infantalization and erasure of my professional acumen in the face of academic hierarchies and institutional funding models. There are built-in assumptions in the academic system, and among its culture, that perpetuates a sense that grad students are inexperienced and that mentorship only goes one way. There are, of course, wonderful exceptions–professors, collaborators and peers who champion good work, open doors, and are great inspirations. These tensions, contradictions and pressures are a common concern among my cohort and in broader circles of graduate students reflecting the academic job market and the changing educational system. It is a critical dialogue about the state the university, the decline in tenure-track jobs, and the pressures of the market. At the same time digital tools and technologies that are requiring a recalibration of how we educate and discussions of the purpose of doctoral education. In my case, my startup experience and capacity-building has led my undergraduate students to seek me out as a non-academic mentor. Why not also at the graduate level? The combination of these conditions means we need to broaden the understanding of a doctoral education and its value outside the academy. Our governments speak of the knowledge economy, venture capital stake their claims on human capital, established firm and startups invest in ‘talent’ to fuel innovation. Addressing this problem is a design challenge, one that requires broadening the purpose for doctoral education and how the academy prepares and evaluates its students, and ensuring that companies, non-governmental organizations, and other employers, recruit from this pool of capable thinkers and producers.

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Image Credit: Veer

MH: Last May you turned down the Managing Director job at Icograda. Can you talk about this decision? How important is it for you to finish the PhD and, going back to the prior question, how will your research feed into your next move – within or beyond academia?

JW: Icograda was a dream job. It still is, really. Icograda is the international umbrella organization for design associations around the world. It was an ideal match in many ways–my experience in the creative industries, start-up capacities and ability to lead an organization that was looking for change. I deeply admire the organization and the wealth of talent on its board. It would have been an exciting new challenge for me. Yet, I still had my dissertation to write and, although I know I would persist with working on it part-time, I came to the heart-wrenching decision that the timing wasn’t right. In the past I had always pushed myself to the max, however I look back at this decision as a moment of deep introspection and determination to finish the PhD with my full attention. There are few times in life when we are able to give ourselves the time to do something as personal fulfillment and I recognized that this was one of those precious opportunities. I also believe that it was an act of personal leadership; that finishing the PhD and fully investigating the intersections of maker culture, design and women’s creative work is integral to the next phase of my career. It is also valuable research that is greatly lacking in Canada and internationally. Decisions like these are incredibly difficult. Yet, there is a freedom in choosing to believe deeply in yourself and value the present challenge, while also knowing that it is a rare occasion to come across a position that so ideally fits one’s professional experience, values and creative convictions. This is the authenticity that I will continue to bring to my work and life.

MH: What is your ideal vision of a firm that bridges the training (critical thinking and production skills) of academia with the demands of the creative industries? Do they sometimes feel at odds, and if so, how?

JW: After a seemingly ever-present discussion among my graduate cohort, at conferences and by way of my involvement in the digital humanities collaboratory, HASTAC, and the Fembot collective, there an increasingly public questioning of what academia purports to lead up to–a tenure-track job. Grad students are more and more skilled in technical and production abilities, including design, programming, social media, and data visualization alongside strategy, partnership development and process capacities (just a cursory look at the HASTAC forums demonstrates this range). Combined with advanced research and critical thinking skills, these grad students are not just ‘performing legitimacy’, they are vastly skilled and capable.

Part of these discussions is the need for more PhDs “on the outside,” especially when academic jobs are sparse and underpaid. Why are so many talented and capable researchers and critical thinkers not tackling the major problems that are facing our society? For some, there is a kind of stigma that by working outside the university, you’ve somehow failed. Yet, aren’t these the innovators who can bridge the challenges not only facing the future of the university but also the economic and social inequities that are very real. Educated, critical thinkers with cultural and social research skills are paramount to bridging the gaps between the private sector and policy makers. They are capacity builders who understand and can mobilize social, cultural and financial capital in highly productive ways. They can ask the right questions (access? media literacy? power relations?); go beyond ‘big data’ to use digital analytics and media archeologies to seek out cultural patterns and translate research for broader use and consumption. They are proven to be intrinsically-motivated (essential to finishing a PhD) and capable communicators and collaborators–vital to new modes of work in the digital economy.

This leads me to a vision for a firm that mobilizes the idea-generation, critical thinking and production skills gained in higher learning and unleashing them towards a capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life. Orienting these skills and interdisciplinarity to solve demands of the private, public and third sectors is vital to economic development and policy that takes sustainability, social innovation and cultural expression seriously. I’m inspired by firms like IDEO, the global design consultancy; frog design; and innovative program’s like Stanford’s d-school. I envision a creative collaboratory that provides strategy, product and service design, social innovation, research and education. It networks and brings together an interdisciplinary mix of scholars and professionals and uses a design-thinking model to tackle challenges from obesity to bullying to game design.

Jacqueline Wallace is a HASTAC Scholar and PhD candidate (ABD) in the Joint Doctoral Program in Communication at Concordia University, Montreal. She is a former co-founder and VP, International of Veer Inc. (veer.com), an award-winning visual media and design company. Wallace is currently working on her dissertation titled: Women’s Creative Labor: DIY Networks and the Indie Crafts Movement. She is also an advisory board member of the Fembot Collective, a scholarly collaboration promoting research on gender, media, and technology. Web: http://jacquelinewallace.com Twitter: @aliceinwunder