As designers, so much of our craft has been defined by the people who came before us. We look up to the greats of yesteryear, and attempt to create work like theirs. However, Jen Mussari, a NYC-based lettering artist & illustrator, warns that to create truly great work, it's not enough to mimick an aesthetic — you have to truly understand the history of design. I chatted to Jen about nostalgia-driven lettering, treating every project as a learning experience, and the joys of creepy podcasts.
From the outside looking in, it seems like you’re enjoying a lot of success in your career right now — you’re making great work, for great clients. But I’m curious: what does success mean to you? How do you define success?
Oh boy, that's a really tough one! I feel like my definition of success is quite a practical one: living in Brooklyn is really expensive, so, y’know, just being able to afford my rent — being able to afford to live how I want to live, that’s success to me right now.
But then there's that more intangible sense of success — feeling satisfied. Like, that's really a tough one. I really don't know what success looks like to me, but I think that opens it up for me to be surprised & delighted by what does happen — I’m allowing success to define itself as it comes along.
Is there a point in your career that you particularly regret?
Even though I met and hung out with some of the most wonderful people there, I do regret living in San Francisco. I feel like if I’d graduated school in Baltimore and then went right to New York, I would’ve had a much easier career path. San Francisco just wasn’t the right place for me at the time.
So what was it that initially drew you to San Francisco?
Well, my now-husband worked for Adobe, and I’d always heard that there was this amazing culture there — that all these artists lived there, and that there was this great low-brow art scene there. And then I got there, and none of those people wanted to hang out. None of those people wanted to help me when I reached out, and there was just this lack of a real community there.
And then you moved to Brooklyn, right? What sort of an impact did that have?
Yeah, so I moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco in 2012, which was a massive change — not only for myself, but for my work. I fell into this really wonderful, really supportive community in Brooklyn — One that I certainly didn’t have in San Francisco. In SF, I was constantly grasping at straws, trying to find anything that worked. Yet amongst my community in Brooklyn, it felt like people were just giving me straws — showing me that freelancing didn’t have to be this lonely thing. So yeah, being in Brooklyn enabled me to really work on what I actually liked — my work became less trying to appease other people and a little more representative of myself.
Is there a time when you’re at your absolute happiest — a moment of just utter bliss?
Really, really, really late at night, when I'm drawing something ridiculous and listening to something creepy — that’s probably when I’m at my happiest. I've been finding all these creepy podcasts lately and I'm just obsessed with them, so that’s how I spend my nights these days. It’s terrifying, I love it!
Amazing! Speaking of scary things: what scares you most about the near future?
Y’know, it’s a bizarre time to live in, like, any American city, because we're having all these young people like myself moving back in. In the fifties and sixties, white flight left a lot of cities open and the suburbs flourishing, but now the generations who grew up in the suburbs are kinda sick of that suburban lack of culture, and are moving back into the city, causing gentrification. It's kinda bizarre to be witnessing and living that. Gentrification lowers crime and allows small businesses to flourish, but it also skyrockets property values which makes it hard or impossible for people who have been there for decades to stay. If there's anything terrifying about living in New York City right now, it's the idea of not being able to afford to stay now that I’ve finally found a place that feels like home.
And that’s happened to me already, in San Francisco — I basically got evicted from my apartment there, because they were going to up my rent by $800 a month and thought that I could just afford to pay that, no problem. I was like “I'm working retail, I'm barely making any money through my freelance practice — you think I just have an extra $800 lying around to give you every month?!” That apartment I rented is now being rented for more than twice the price that it was back then, and that was only four years ago.
For me, especially as a freelancer and as someone who hopes to continue being a freelancer for life, my biggest fear is just being able to afford to live. I'm not gonna pretend it’s, like, “creative satisfaction” or whatever — that's just stupid. My biggest fear is finance, straight-up.
Is there a time in your life — an age — that you wish you could relive?
[Long pause] I'm not much of a nostalgic person, so that's kind of a hard question for me. I really feel like I'm fully enjoying life right now. I had a lot of fun growing up in Pennsylvania though, because I was surrounded by woods and animals — I spent a lot of my time digging up bugs, riding horses that I wasn’t supposed to be riding, things like that. Like, if I could go back for a couple minutes here and there, I'd probably go back to the barns in Pennsylvania, but I definitely wouldn’t want to actually relive that whole age.
It’s interesting that you say you’re not a nostalgic person, because it seems like so much of today’s lettering is driven by nostalgia — do you think that’s a fair assessment of today’s lettering scene?
I don't know if that's necessarily untrue, but I do feel like lettering gets cheapened by that notion. There are a lot of people making lettering these days because they want to bring back an era that has passed — an era they didn't even live through, and that they don't actually understand. I don’t think it’s enough to create lettering solely for nostalgic purposes — there’s not enough substance there to elevate the work from just a trendy style and prevent lettering from fading out of popularity again. At the moment, lettering is very much riding a trend, and I feel like it’s our responsibility to pull it out of that cheapened, nostalgic context.
Lettering is an industry with a lot of history, and if we don’t acknowledge that history, the work is too easily dismissable. Lettering artists and designers must know the artists that came before and established this industry, or else the work just isn’t going to have the context it demands. We have to respect the designers before us, and fully understand why they did things the way they did — just mimicking their style, without actually doing the research, is detrimental to lettering as a whole.
And is there a way for designers to “rescue” lettering from this nostalgic trend, would you say?
That's really hard to say — you can either feed a trend and it becomes a monster, or you can shun it and feel good about yourself, but be making work that's not popular. I definitely feel a responsibility to hand-lettering and I feel responsible to make work that’s good — not just good in that it satiates the client, but it has to be typographically sound too. If it’s not, I feel like I'm disrespecting those that have come before me, but also myself. It just doesn't feel good to make mediocre work.
What kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind for the design world, then? How do you want to be remembered?
Dude, I don't know. Like, I don't want to say that I'm just making work to make myself feel good, but I also don’t want to be like "I want to be the greatest designer in the world!" because that's crazy. The idea of a legacy implies an amount of ego that I’m just not comfortable with. I guess I’d just like to make positive work that breeds further positivity. I never want to make accusatory, or negative work. I just wanna make happy work. That’s all for now.
And finally: if you could go back and give advice to yourself at any particular age, what would you say?
So, a bit of history: 20+ years ago, an illustrator’s career could be made by one art director. Like, if one guy hires you for the New York Times, your career’s set — you’ll always have work. Thanks to alternative outlets for recognition, that’s not the case anymore, but because of my traditional schooling I didn’t know that when I was just starting out. So right out of school, I felt a lot of pressure & anxiety to get that one job that would make my career. But when you’re starting out — especially as an illustrator — you kinda have to just take whatever jobs come to you. Oftentimes, it’ll be, like, your friend’s aunt who’s starting a cupcake business and needs a logo. Gradually, though, clients start looking to you for what you already have in your portfolio, and eventually, people stop hiring you because you can draw, and they start hiring you because you can draw like yourself.
If I could go back, I think I’d tell myself that every single project, no matter the client, is worth doing and doing well — every project is an equal learning experience. Persevering, moving forward, making good work — that’s more important than any client.