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.
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, jenniferelsner.com, 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, hollithompson.com, 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.”
MAKE ME BELIEVE
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.”
LEAP OF FAITH
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.”
WITH GRACE AND APLOMB
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 lydiastrohl.com.