Four Portraits

Instead of penning something about myself, by myself, I commissioned a collection of articles, by writers I admire. What usually would be communicated by a single voice—mine—is now an odd-ball chorus. I encouraged each to try something new. Do the assignment they hadn't been asked to do (yet). I would remain hands-off. The result is a series of observations that not only delights, but gets to the same destination: the bio.

One: Obituary

January 20, 2058

By Jennifer Hritz

JENNIFER ELSNER, who redefined graphic design, dies at 90

Jennifer Elsner, iconic graphic designer and visual arts maven, died on Monday in Los Angeles. She was 90.

Her death was confirmed by her son, novelist Sam Shields, who informed the Associated Press that Ms. Elsner was walking her dog along the beach Monday morning when she collapsed.

For most of her ninety years Ms. Elsner played with perspective, reinvigorating age-old notions about design, art and the intersection between the two. Her death bequeaths a legacy of unconventional graphic design and a constant invitation to re-envision. In 2015 she redefined the term designer by offering a small coterie of clients a deeper, alternative design experience, at the same time opening herself up to criticism from some in her field who believed that her approach would render obsolete a protocol for design achievement, or at the very least erode the designer/client relationship. Instead, Ms. Elsner ushered in an era of generous design, commandeering the respect of Stephan Sagmeister and Keetra Dean Dixon, and refining the careers of luminaries such as Leandra Medine and Amanda Palmer. Her destination dinner parties were lauded as the vanguard in exceptional entertainment, and inadvertently launched the career of more than one musical artist, Sybil Kingsbury and Bridge Macklin among them. Since their inception in 2001, her holiday cards—an annual collaboration with husband David Shields, founder of the Center for Physical Typography—have been regarded as a coveted gem for the design elite.

At the time of her death, whispers abounded of a project with photographer Rasmus Højsgård Larsen, whom Ms. Elsner met at age 86 while traveling in Copenhagen and whose work has been said to evoke the intimate, storytelling style of American photographer Duane Michals. Given Ms. Elsner’s exploration over the course of her career of the ways intimacy can inform design—and how design can transform intimacy—a creative fusion with the twenty-nine-year-old Højsgård Larsen suggests how she remained nimble and highlights the synergy intrinsic to her projects.

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Perhaps the impetus for this dynamism was a sabbatical Ms. Elsner took in her forties: Land Arts of the American West. The program insisted its participants immerse themselves in the education of both creative and critical arts through field research. Relinquishing her duties as a partner in her design studio, Viewers Like You—not to mention leaving behind her responsibilities as mother and spouse—and allowing herself to be lost to the land for a two-month period gave her the opportunity to explore relationship from a multi-dimensional perspective, including as designer. Impatient with its static definition, she segued over the next few years from conventional deliverables in favor of a holistic approach much richer than any service she had previously offered, as well as a series of investigations into the way designers and clients work together. This is when she coined the term, Pragmatic Performance. Her work in this area was perhaps her most revelatory and meaningful. These conceptual engagements explored the conventions of professional practices: most radical was her year of not charging for design assets, but for each email sent and received.

What Ms. Elsner could provide was support, curated for each client, conversational in nature and yet with a distinct element of dispassion inherent to her belief for what was essential in creative problem solving.

A cornerstone of Ms. Elsner’s practice was belief in her clients’ need to focus on their métier as opposed to design. Her clients already had the action aspect of their businesses covered but didn’t have the space, time or confidence to think like a designer. What Ms. Elsner could provide was support, curated for each client, conversational in nature and yet with a distinct element of dispassion inherent to her belief for what was essential in creative problem solving. What distinguished her from other designers of the time was the vehicle for this support: a yearlong commitment and high accessibility Ms. Elsner herself. It was just this counter-intuitive generosity that stymied her competitors and catapulted her into an unprecedented design future.

Over the course of her life, up until her death, she still drew the attention of up-and-comers, who sought her authority not simply for the scope of her experience but because she possessed one of the sharpest and most discerning eyes in her field.

The depth and breadth of her vanguard practices served as a perfect reflection for how Ms. Elsner spent the past four decades. The fertility accessible during this time she defined as “feeling deeply alive.” What Ms. Elsner asked of her clients and collaborators in terms of fervor she also demanded of herself. Frustrated by the thought of being confined to any one definition and receptive instead to a more fluid concept of evolution, she constantly remade herself, stretching the boundaries of design and risking failure at every turn. The radical visionaries she admired over the years for their singular, innovative voices—Li Edelkoort, Yoko Ono, Samuel Mockbee—offered a fearlessness she also claimed.

Natural curiosity and an entrenched desire to reposition herself in relation to her subject left Ms. Elsner asking until her final days what for her had become almost a rhetorical question: How can I see this in a new way?

Rejecting contrivances like a daily meditation practice or the creation of the vision boards that littered the offices of the self-employed during the first quarter of the twenty-first century, Ms. Elsner throughout her life instead adopted a say yes philosophy, recognizing that whatever elicits an intuitive pang of fear must be explored. That philosophy, served her well, leading to a two-year stint exploring Buenos Aires street art with husband David Shields beginning in 2034, as well as the creation of a residency program—which allowed a single applicant of Ms. Elsner’s choosing to work alongside her for two weeks at a time in an obscure location selected with a mind to “re-educate the eye.” Most recently she was recognized at Design Indaba, where she was awarded their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ms. Elsner divided her time between her homes in County Mayo, Ireland and Los Angeles, California. Her later years were punctuated by travel; a solo, pan-continent drive to witness the Northern Lights—in both hemispheres—for her eightieth birthday; and many visits to Galapagos, where granddaughter Anna Shields, founder of The International Wildlife Coalition, pioneered her research.

Natural curiosity and an entrenched desire to reposition herself in relation to her subject left Ms. Elsner asking until her final days what for her had become almost a rhetorical question: How can I see this in a new way? In the detail Ms. Elsner found herself drawn. In the small, emotion infuriated or delighted. In the intimate, she pushed the edge.

In this space Ms. Elsner flourished. At ninety, she was still one of the most influential designers to date. After her husband’s death three years ago, she dedicated more time to sunrise walks with her beloved Shiba Inu along the Pacific than she had previously, but she continued to avow that she had never been more “visually awake.” A lifetime of cultivating a design concern can result in no less.

Jennifer Elsner
March 11, 1968 – January 20, 2058
Curious about the ways the past informs the present, Jennifer Hritz explores themes of memory, repression and redemption in a fictional world of her own creation—and writes almost exclusively from a gay male perspective. (You can visit this world yourself at When she’s not lost in her narrator’s head, you can find her shooting hoops with her son or driving an open road, top down.

Two: Future Software Program

Jennifer Elsner Sourced

By Nicole Killian

Note: In the future, websites will no longer function as solitary pages—because we’ll extract data from multiple fluctuating organs and bodies, digitally, all at once. The below is based around the idea of a future software program that surfs multiple internet applications and platforms to search content and information simultaneously. It should be directly implanted through an ear piece.
this image functions as a suggestion of the “knowledge prosthetic”
date: today’s future
time: now and then
location: ethereal
weather: placid

now please imagine reading every line of text, every word, all at once.

AUTOREPLY: a small coterie of relationships with email:
it seems jennifer elsner is a pleasant and optimistic human living on this earth.
sources say:
she loves to hear the next big thing
to a select number of clients actually
staying nimble and soothsaying
cultivating inbox clearing
tweets and replies:
hashtag vulnerability
grace + aplomb Sourdough
Glazed on the spot
Served piping hot
…by Mennonites 
perfect squares to share daily life

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demonstrating fruition
what is your mantra jennifer?links to inspire reverie
sources say satsuma:
quietly in mind
a re(fine)d eye
upcoming trips with a road map in-hand generosity + integrity loving a texas ruby
S’s guide 4life researching positive vibrations
a quartz in every corner waaaay authentico
home notifications messages discover:

Subject: Ceci n’est pas une auto responder following
the moon
the garden
the pie
the need
Re: the supply
how do you slow down email jennifer? soon(ish)
taking time published/updated thinking time thinking back recent activity
and tea
taking little ditty
eyes wide open and viewing-like-you
archives of crushing on this perform these motions:
seeing life through a lens of swooning museum of selfless highline expansion
jennifer can tell you what you are feeling
and listen through questions and cards
and curls
wandering the arts of land in camping cupcake cups gushing of red and sand and daily types of cyan blushing past the brush
computing tells us jennifer:
can be super chic serge gainsbourg jane firkin black and white
vintage and loved uploaded and downloaded scrolling the forest for bits and pieces of beauty
About 325,000 results (0.27 seconds) 
inspecting the elements color: transparent; overflow: hidden; position: absolute
why is the sky blue the ocean salty pluto not a planet
june 30 2001 milles house love
Check the 1:19 mark of the video, posting a design concern
behold endless summer and missing soul camp
i am the walrus koo-koo kachoo
hit play hi rewind hit the pink sunset
it seems that the prostetic has learned that:
jennifer has affections for all of you
happy to share
f i l t e r s e a r c h
among saarinen empire state skies
but first breakfast
treats to hear
summer snowflakes
skilled and humane
788 posts
followers many search Facebook recent searches Jennifer Elsner following special
old school kicking’
updated on mobile

YES TO ALL a School of Peace
bonding with the cards red string tied to a wrist
like comment share
write a comment upload photo
share a feeling
people you may know
the fault in our raw honey bliss floundah inspect element: path method status text type initiator size content time latency timeline
you are in her heart and home with fanatical love
marfa and apple and ginger sweet and good looking’ with a kick of surprise
archiving that guatama is pleased, too
with an ode to saint cecilia
she will clap when she is impressed
w e l l r e s t e d f u l l – u p h a p p y a s a c l a m
these words archive but are not limiting jennifer elsner’s being
but share a scalable spider web-reactive window into the desktop of a beach top of a beauty
a designing pleasantly drawn woman

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Next
please place ear-piece correctly and eye-slocket within to view and feel more
Nicole Killian is a designer and artist who was born the year the first cd player was sold in Japan. Her work investigates how the structures of the internet, mobile messaging, and shared online platforms effect contemporary interaction and shape cultural identity. Nicole received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology, finishing at the Bauhaus in Dessau Germany and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. She is currently a Designer­-In-­Residence at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Three: Transcript from the web

Review of Inquiry Pop-up

By Laura Belgray

The idea for Inquiry Pop-up, came while watching the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, says Jennifer Elsner of the eponymous design studio & consultancy.

“I was struck at the mention that Cunningham requires a trip to Paris every six months ‘to re-educate the eye’. I paused the film, and promptly planned a long-weekend in Paris.”

Since then Elsner has traveled twice annually, to posh locations as well as amenity-stripped campsites in the high desert, with the sole intention to clean the slate and see things differently. Upon her return she is always her most productive and inspired. That is why she’s created the invitation-only dinner party, meets residency, meets salon—the un-mastermind—Inquiry Pop-up.

Inquiry Pop-up retreats take place in visually, spiritually inspiring locations that, by Elsner’s design, “require some grit to reach.”


  1. designguru | Feb 06 15, 8:04AM
    I love the idea of going somewhere that requires “grit”! Been feeling so stuck, I’m in creative prison, help. I want my company to set a new standard for banding, tone, look. I feel like I’m always looking at other companies for inspiration, but I want to be the one THEY look at. I want to go on a journey that opens my eyes. Girl crushing on Jen Elsner ♥
  2. 18thingsofjoy | Feb 06 15, 8:11AM
    Hello! Jennifer Elsner has been on my vision board for years. Count me in. 🙂
  3. KateTheGreat287 | Feb 06 15, 8:13AM
    Vision vision vision vision. That word just makes me drool! Vision. I want it. Love the idea of someone helping me create it. Have been in several masterminds, and they’ve all (ok, mostly) been good but haven’t changed my biz in the way I’d hoped, because it’s not about little tweaks, it’s about VISION. This sounds like somehting that would help me find it. Hallelujah.
  4. puddingProf | Feb 06 15, 8:22AM
    Where do we apply? Don’t see a link. ♡ ♡ ♡
  5. superate | Feb 06 15, 8:23AM
    It’s invitation only. Did you read the peace, puddingprof?
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  1. iWantiWant | Feb 06 15, 8:25AM
    designguru, AGREE WITH EVERYTHING YOU SAID. Except why does it have to be *girl* crush? Can’t we just say “crushing on” without sexual implications? Does girl crushing on her as opposed to just crushing make it more professional?
  2. puddingProf | Feb 06 15, 8:28AM
    SUPERATE – No need to get snippy. Yes, I did read the “peace.” Also, if you’re going to reprimand people, you might want to check you’re spelling.
  3. puddingProf | Feb 06 15, 8:28AM
    * your, not you’re
  4. BKFinkel | Feb 06 15, 8:43AM
    This sounds incredible. I’m a web designer and involved in a business community, which I won’t name, where everybody’s website looks exactly the damn same and everybody uses the same $%@#! words to describe what they do. And they all come to me asking for “a website like so-and-so’s.” NO. I refuse. But the problem is, I can’t think of anything new anymore. I clearly need this. ♡
  5. HarmonyX | Feb 06 15, 9:05AM
    Price? When?
  6. marni | Feb 06 15, 9:15AM
    Must be nice, if you can afford it.
  7. SongOfSolomon | Feb 06 15, 9:18AM
    @marni, we don’t even know how much it is.
  8. CuttingEDge | Feb 06 15, 9:33AM
    Jennifer Elsner helped build a playground in Marfa, I wonder if that is where the retreats are. It’s a magical place and yes, a pain to get to but worth it. ♥ ♥
  9. stateof1der | Feb 06 15, 9:52AM
    Marfa is on my vision board. I will manifest this. Stating here for accountability
  10. Jeff Endicott | Feb 06 15, 10:05AM
    I use to love the game Mastermind. I forget what it was like but I remember playing it on the plane with my Mom, as we had a fold up version. Now kids just watch their nickalodeon shows on the plane, on a ipad, theirs no engagement whatso ever
  11. condos 4 u miami | Feb 06 15, 10:12AM
    I used to think Marfa Texas was Martha Texas LOL 🙂
  12. Kanye W | Feb 06 15, 10:18AM
    Jealous of this girl’s talent. Damn. ♥
  13. HarmonyX | Feb 06 15, 10:26AM
    WHY make the locations hard to get do? I don’t need the stress of getting somewhere. I want conveniences, so my mind is free to be creative.
  14. HarmonyX | Feb 06 15, 10:27AM
    get *to*. Why can’t we edit the coments?
  15. HarmonyX | Feb 06 15, 10:27AM
    *comments* sigh.
  16. MFancy | Feb 06 15, 10:32AM
    @HarmonyX, I’m friends with J. Elsner (NAME DROP ALERT!) and I’ve heard her say that the journey itself can spark new ideas. So it’s not inconvenient just for the sake of being inconvenient – more to get you out of your routine ways of thinking. I have to agree.
  17. macystellgimbels | Feb 06 15, 10:44AM
    Have you ever had 3 flights canceled in a row? I have, and I didn’t get any good ideas from it, except some violent fantasies about what I’d like to do to American Airlines, which sucks. 🙁
  18. 23skuhdoo | Feb 06 15, 10:47AM
    I bet you could channel those violent fantasies into something beautiful. Get yourself invited to Inquiry Pop-up!
  19. A My Name Is Alice | Feb 06 15, 10:51AM
    Whatever this is, I want some! 🙂 I love the idea of seeing things from a new perspective. My ultimate (creative) fantasy is to have someone curate my inspiration. KWIM? For instance, I’d love someone to tell me, “you must read these books and see these movies and pack your bags and go to this place immediately.” Sort of like a magic nanny for my intellectual life.
  20. Bill | Feb 06 15, 11:14AM
    This is an excellent article. Often, articles are not as well written. But I found this article to be extremely useful and informative. http://erectile-dysfunction-solver-for-you-limp-d-menfolk
  21. Sue-ee | Feb 06 15, 11:17AM
    A Mary Poppins for your mind! ♡♡
  22. Sue-ee | Feb 06 15, 11:17AM
    That was to Alice, not the erectile dysfunction spam guy
  23. A My Name Is Alice | Feb 06 15, 11:20AM
    I got you, @sue-ee. Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to say. You nailed it. Maybe you can be my Jen Elsner? 🙂
  24. DesignMyBanana | Feb 06 15, 11:27AM
    Can someone please explain the Jennifer Elsner worship? Is she famous?
  25. goforth2821 | Feb 06 15, 11:31AM
    What is “famous?” Who cares? Famousness is arbitrary, in today’s day and age when Kim Kardashian’s name is better known than the vice president’s.
  26. rhonda | Feb 06 15, 11:33AM
    Paris is magical. I met my 4th (and final) husband there. We are separated, but I have no regrets. The Louvre, however, is overrated.
  27. Missthang | Feb 06 15, 11:38AM
    Amen, amen, amen. What has Kim Kardashian and her family ever done that is worthy of our attention? Oiling one’s buttocks does not count.
  28. Anne | Feb 06 15, 11:43AM
    Simon I am dying to think outside the box, especially since I cant think of a new way to say think outside the box
  29. eames 4 eva | Feb 06 15, 11:45AM
    Just looked at Ms. Elsner’s website. I’m so appreciative that it’s not the same old “hey girl, let’s rock your biz” BS. Quite frankly, I’m over that style. Speaking of style, Ms. Elsner seems to breathe it. Maybe it’s those trips to Paris. ♡
  30. santastic | Feb 06 15, 11:47AM
    Ah, gay paree. 🙂
  31. molly g | Feb 06 15, 11:47AM
    I never understood why it was considered gay. Is that a slur?
  32. MajorPotato | Feb 06 15, 11:47AM
    “Gay” used to mean happy, molly. There weren’t gender connotations.
  33. molly g | Feb 06 15, 11:48AM
    MajorPotato I was being tongue in cheek. But “gay” still doesn’t have gender connotations. It connotes sexual preference, not gender orientation.
  34. sally bowls | Feb 06 15, 11:49AM
    Seriously? WTF, you guys. 🙁
  35. Kanye W | Feb 06 15, 11:52AM
    Y’all haters can bust on Kim K all you want, she’s one of the most brilliant, enterprising minds of our time. Peace.
  36. Whole Earth | Feb 06 15, 11:53AM
    If this is really Kanye, shouldn’t it say Yeezus?
  37. artsy bartsy | Feb 06 15, 11:56AM
    Anyone see the Koons show before it closed? Obscene: yes. Inspiring: ditto.
  38. thisisnotapipe | Feb 06 15, 12:02AM
    Off topic, but how was Taylor Swift every made the ambassador of New York? Why not a giant Spongebob from Times Square? Or one of the M&Ms? They have about as much to do with the city as she does.
  39. dani k | Feb 06 15, 12:06AM
    Must. Score. Invite. Jen Elsner is my personal Willy Wonka, and I love it. I will eat all the chocolate bars to get my golden ticket. Point me to the candy aisle. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
  40. wordpressed | Feb 06 15, 12:09AM
    I see your candy bar and raise you two. DYING for fresh hot unexpected inspiration coming out my whatsis, need new ideas people. Get me outta my head, it’s hot in here.
  41. mel tha funky | Feb 06 15, 12:14AM
    Creativity, blow on my dice. I’m tired of nice. Chicken soup with rice. Here’s my credit card whatever the price. I just made a poem, isn’t it nice? Gluten doesn’t count as a vice. Sam Breakstone says, where’s my ice!!! What’s that, my kid’s got lice? She got it from that kid with the last name Weiss. Take my advice, don’t order Thai food with extra spice.

Laura is the creator of, where she blogs about seriously random topics (from entrepreneurship to free muffin samples) and helps small businesses make their writing more compelling, entertaining, and money-making. Her expertise in catchy copy comes from 20 years of writing promos for major TV networks including Nick at Nite, TBS, USA, NBC, and Bravo. It’s the closest she’s gotten to being paid just to watch TV, and she’ll take it.

Four: New York Times Magazine Profile

When Loves Enters the Equation

By Lydia Strohl

Native Americans say there is magic in the red rocks of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, an energy vortex springing from intersecting ley lines below the earth. It is a place so serene and yet so alive, so ancient yet full of possibility, one feels grounded and winged simultaneously. These dusty paths led Jennifer Elsner to her essential self, musing to the rocks themselves.

“You are being changed on a cellular level, the emotion, stretching myself into these places that I don’t know,” she says of her time on the Land Arts program in 2013. Fashioned as a “semester abroad in our own back yard,” the 6,000-mile overland camping trip through the American West allows intimate experience of extraordinary national landmarks, to make art bridging the self and the land. “That two months was like a reset button. I saw my mid-life point and thought: what do I want the next 45 years to be?”

As Henry Miller excellently opined, “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” For Elsner, Land Arts kindled an artistic renewal that is taking her in a new direction in 2015.

That direction? Her true North.
Jennifer Elsner lives and works in the shadow of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA, the site of Virginia’s second legislative convention and Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The traditional façade of the 1895 row house she shares with her husband, David Shields, also a designer, and son Sam, belies its interior, which has been opened up, painted white and graced with art, pops of vibrant color and a rescued Shiba Inu. The rooms have a spare yet ebullient feel, not so much decorated as collected by people who care very much about the spirit of where they live.

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If it’s a bit like a livable gallery, know that its two creative principals, Elsner and Shields, are the dynamic graphic design duo behind Viewers Like You, founded in 2001. Since relocating to Richmond from Austin, in 2012 for Shields to assume the head of the Graphic Design department at Virginia Commonwealth University, Elsner has done the heavy lifting. With clients as diverse as Aveda, Arthouse at the Jones Center and TEDx, she brings years of pedigree to the table.

“Since Viewers Like You was established, everything has been pretty much word of mouth,” says Elsner, who graduated from Alfred University then the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she met Shields. Her first job was as a receptionist for Giorgio Armani, opening doors to work for Frédéric Fekkai, Eileen Fisher and Martha Stewart, to name a few.

“I find it very valuable that the people who want to work with me have to spend time on my site to understand me, and how I work. There’s not a button, ‘work with me’. There’s a rigor involved,”

In recent years, Elsner has become even more select.

“I find it very valuable that the people who want to work with me have to spend time on my site to understand me, and how I work. There’s not a button, ‘work with me’. There’s a rigor involved,” says Elsner, sitting in a sheepskin clad, white chair at a round Saarinen table that serves as her desk. Also in the room are a pair of waist-high, wooden Javanese fertility gods, a hammock that swings in front of floor-to-ceiling, street-facing windows and a pair of stark black and white James Victore prints proclaiming “JUST SAY NO.” In the kitchen a bright pink poster counters, “Just Say Yo!”

Think of that Yo-No as her yin-yang, a philosophy inherent in her work approach. Open and inquisitive, combing her resources for new ideas, images and sounds, but select when it comes to channeling those into talents and time. Potential clients evaluated not just on how she can serve and effect their business, but how they might expand her. It seems not so much a pro-con list as a gut reaction, but it’s a commitment she sticks to: once she’s brought a client onboard she is all in, there, present, constantly seeking the a-ha! solution to a niggling problem. Even when those relationships hit sour moments, she hangs in, like a marriage. For better or for worse.
Creative, genius, intuitive, sophisticated, fun, curious. Sensitive, loyal, wise, essential, iconic. New York go-go-go. These are the words clients use to describe her. Her husband adds beautiful.

And though there is definitely an Elsner sensibility, her designs are also individual, each telling their own tale. Some are soft, some are spunky, some packed with information and others over the top with images. Some are all that, and more. They emote: serious, playful, spiritual. And they work.

“I don’t copy myself, ever. That would bore me,” says Elsner.

“Design is optimistic, helping people do something. Much of what happens with clients doesn’t end up on paper. It is the ability to fail along the way, to fix things, propose things, try things out, as opposed to art, which is subjective,” says Shields, who met Elsner at Cranbrook Academy of Art and shared design space in Brooklyn with her even before cohabitation.

The two share not just a domestic and professional collaboration but a true running dialogue on design. It is just one of the ways the creative runs through Elsner’s entire life, is not just her day job. Like her home, with the clever transplant of an original pocket door, repurposed in a new master bath, and painted hot pink. Like her friends, also designers, for whom a doughnut run is not just an epicurean treat but a chance to discuss art, community and aesthetic. And like her mastermind group of serious entrepreneurial women, holistic, edgy and bold.

But this next venture,, is totally hers, and hers alone.
What she’s offering may sound curious, for a graphic designer. Except for a handful of hand-picked Design Commissions, she will not be making “graphic design.” Instead, she’ll lend her talent to push clients to the next level, through Creative Direction ~ and how will differ depending on their goals. Elsner acts as an idealist for her clients, a visionary and advocate scoping all aspects of a business to make them cohesive, aesthetically impactful and meaningful. Creating high standards, and holding them up, whatever that takes.

Elsner acts as an idealist for her clients, a visionary and advocate scoping all aspects of a business to make them cohesive, aesthetically impactful and meaningful. Creating high standards, and holding them up, whatever that takes.

“I want the freedom to express what I think is right and beautiful and answers the problem,” says Elsner. She is one moment subdued, listening with expressive eyes and nodding encouragement, as if willing your ideas birth. The next she ignites with insight, her hands punctuating her thoughts. Everything about her seems unedited yet chic, unintentionally striking, like the way she habitually pulls back her curly hair as she talks, and her shiny yet practical red Jetta wagon.

“I’m an artist who uses design as my medium. Can Creative Direction serve my clients long term—not just act as a means to ephemeral decoration? Does it expand the space they can play in? Will it afford them more confidence in their offerings?” she ponders, then answers her own question. “Absolutely!”
By all accounts, working with Elsner is much like a courtship. Once the love match is made, there is discovery: favorite color, hopes and dreams, sharing bread and wine, maybe a walk through town, or a grassy field ~ she rocks the walk and talk ~ mining feelings, emotions, penchants and predilections.

“I asked her if she wanted me to do any homework, but she said she worked best if we just got together and hashed it out ~ not a lot of expectation,” says Emily Bolf, a TV producer and nascent business owner. On their first date at the St. Cecilia in Austin, a cloistered hotel named for the patron saint of musicians and poets, Elsner mined for not only her business plan, but overall aspiration. “She gets to the heart of what you want your brand to be, and at the same time a broader view ~ of how to construct your life to support the business. It was a download and synthesis of all the information I had been collecting in my head for two years.”

For Holli Thompson, a nutritionist who hired Elsner to help build a brand, the union began by spending a weekend at her northern Virginia farm, laden with design inspiration, books, magazines and Pinterest board creation.

“It was an immersion,” says Thompson, whose site,, is a perfect example of Elsner’s sensibility illuminating the client’s vision: clean lines, white space, graceful illustrations and clear messaging. “She looked more in-depth than anyone had ever done. So much more can be done in days than an hour or a questionnaire. It was extraordinary.”

The intake can take many forms, but it is always a dialogue, easy for some and for others, who are not used to sharing information – or their workload – not so simple.

“It’s intense,” admits Elsner. “It’s a bunch of conversations, I look at what my clients bring to the table. What are they attracted to online and in real life, what stores, what websites, what people? Do they like clean and architectural or photo rich and texture? Who do they admire and why? I listen deeply to what the person wants and anticipate that that will change ~ and I design to THAT.”

Elsner pockets that information and lets it marinate, giving her the inspiration she needs to build from there.

“In the answer comes another question.”

She will often budge, but go to the mat for choices she believes in (though usually still says please). She eschews hard sell, favoring information, utility, and emotion.

As one collaborator, events coordinator Kelley Burrus says, “The magic happens when you go to your corner and then come back.”
When Elsner does return, it is with one solution. In years past she sometimes offered a bevy of them, but has come to think that more in service to her ego than the client, proof she had done the hard creative work. What then often resulted was a hybrid, “a Chinese menu of ideas,” serving no one. Decisions are what she is hired to make, not offer.

Not everyone likes this, and some try to sway her. She will often budge, but go to the mat for choices she believes in (though usually still says please). She eschews hard sell, favoring information, utility, and emotion.

Success is as individual as each design. Some chart their outreach, like Carrie Contey, a parenting coach. Her site features an online video series and other resources, plus, the added offering of EVOLVE, a year-long, online program for families ~ that has tripled her business in the past four years. Along the way they’ve become BFFs.

“There’s a synergy we both bring ~ the connection makes a sparkling dimension to who I am and what I do,” says Contey, who admits (as do several other clients) that another big gift Elsner gives them is time. “I have the freedom to go and be and do, impacting hundreds of families all over the world.”

For many clients, it is the platform she creates for them. Holli Thompson says Elsner cautioned her against finding opportunities to sell in favor of creating a dialogue on her website. After her book, Discover Your Nutritional Style, was published, readers wanting more of her insight found her website a bountiful place to land, and traffic soared.

“She is passionate, that is her call to arms,” says Thompson, who insisted her publisher hire Elsner to help with the art direction of her book, and direct the photo shoots. “It’s pure advocacy, to have her in your corner.”

Some clients tout pure measurable revenue, like 10 percent per year growth in sales of Blueberry Diapers.

“Once I booked her I got hooked. I was so used to having someone take care of it I couldn’t let her go,” says founder Marguerite McClure, who for the most part lets Elsner do her own thing. As her corporation has grown she’s entrusted Elsner with several other brand websites, and a personal one. When they do diverge on something, “it’s easy, I just tell her what I don’t like. If she tells me it has to be there she tells me why. She does what is right for my brand and my business, not her design.”
McClure is one client Elsner takes on the new journey. She fits the profile: smart, powerful, aware women, many in the wellness and fashion arena.

“Females who vibe high on self-awareness, risk takers who are curious and hungry, and above all, able to release responsibility,” explains Elsner.
And don’t forget the primary condition: she wants to inhabit their world. Talk to them weekly. Understand their needs and be there to come to their aid.

“I want to work with people who want my vision to lead. Not to usurp the client, I always want to serve, but I’m actually the more experienced when it comes to Design Thinking. When someone trusts me, I thrive. My work is selfish in that way. When I am happy, I do my best work.”

Says Shields: “What Jennifer has is a natural curiosity. Wanting to talk to the client everyday, she draws a more intimate connection to the person or the brand. Her design skills come along for the ride.”

Like a best girl friend, her proposals come with image, words, emotion and even sound ~ a link to a mix tape crafted for each individual. She will Photoshop unwanted parts from a profile picture, find the perfect dress for a television appearance, and take over correspondence when grief sets in. And she walks her walk, championing other designers and professionals she hires.

“It’s clear she’s just as interested in helping and serving me as I am her,” says Ann Moller, a copywriter. “She treats everyone with respect and we’ve become friends along the way.”
Elsner is a fine writer herself. It’s just one more facet of her creativity, Scholars may fume that the rise of e-mail correspondence eclipses a primary source of history, and writers mourn the end of full sentences, but Elsner’s missives are fully formed, often rapid-fire reports, thoughtfully crafted, witty, and direct, sometimes nerdy with detail ~ cordially signed: with grace and aplomb, Jennifer.

And once the match is made, she will add: xo, je.

Buckle up. Trust the process. Now the fun begins.
Lydia Strohl is a storyteller using print, video and design to spin tales in venues from Reader’s Digest to America’s Most Wanted. After years blogging on local food she’s traded her spatula for a passport and known traveller number, and has recently learned to surf and just enough html to be dangerous. See for yourself at