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Jessica Hagy: The Visual Grammar of Ideas

Jessica Hagy: The Visual Grammar of Ideas
Published January 6, 2010 by Jocelyn K. Glei
Melding a love of data, a razor-sharp wit, and an old-school comic strip aesthetic, Jessica Hagy crafts simply drawn charts and diagrams that play like philosophical punchlines. They contemplate complex issues, like the challenges of choosing which ideas to nurture, and simple truisms, like the relationship between joy and bacon.
essica has been publishing her addictive brand of Venn Dadagrams at Indexed since 2006, winning loads of recognition and best-of awards in the process. After her work fell into the hands of industrious filmmakers Clemens Kogler and Karo Szmit a few years ago, it was animated – complete with creepy Werner Herzog-like voicover – into one of the funniest and most heartbreaking videos ever to be seen on the Interweb.Three-plus years into her art-blogging endeavor, we sat down with Jessica – who daylights as a copywriter – to find out how she keeps kicking out the diagram jams and discuss the intricacies of “visual grammar.”

How have you stayed motivated to publish day in and day out for 3.5 years now?

It’s become a habit, mental exercise. I think it gives a structure to my week as well, and it keeps me observant. Besides, I get so many encouraging and interesting notes from readers: the site is a part of their routines too, and I wouldn’t want to let them down. On the rare weekday I don’t post, I get email asking if I’m okay. It’s oddly comforting to know that people around the world who I’ve never met are looking out for me. I owe them all hugs.

The blog has been critically acclaimed, you've done loads of guest editorial pieces, and it's become a book. I'm particularly curious what your mindset is now vs when you started.

First and foremost, I’m lucky to be able to do what I do, and I know it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this entire thing is that practically everyone is just an email away — and that’s amazing. I can ask for help and opportunities just as easily as anyone else can email me and ask for the same. Also: I can send (and should) a quick thank you note to anyone whose work I like, or who did something wonderful, because when I get notes like that it makes me day. This site is allowing me to draw and think and ponder for a living. Expanding my personal denotations of those verbs is a constant endeavor — what is it I do, and how else can I do it, where else can I do it, how can I do it bigger, better, and in more places. I want to do more gallery shows, more public speaking, more collaborative projects. When I started, I didn’t know that data visualization was such a vibrant field, and I found myself an active member of it, with people I could talk shop with and ask advice from and share projects with — almost by accident. Have I mentioned that I’m lucky? And my email is jhagy at yahoo dot com, if any of your readers want to play in those (or any other, I like to explore) creative sandboxes with me.

What was the impetus for starting the blog? Did the index cards have an offline life beforehand?

There was not a grand plan for world domination via index cards. It was really a mundane set-up: Bored advertising writer reads that “every writer needs a blog” so she steals some office supplies and tosses some ideas into the digital ether, and they’re found and shared. I actually doodle characters like monsters wearing top hats and dresses or slugs who shoot lasers out of their slimy antennae eyes more than I draw diagrams. The diagrams have become sort of my “thing,” and I like that they have strict confines in which to explore and play. Slugs with weapons: way more open ended.

How much time does each card take?

I tend to draw a pile of them on Sunday afternoons, picking which ones to publish as the week rolls by. If you think of mathematical equations as sentences, then turning interesting sentences into cards isn’t too much of a stretch — once you’ve got a verb chosen, you can tell the story with whatever subjects and predicates you like. Verbs of being are equal signs. Overlapping Venn Diagrams are say “and” or “is also.” Visual grammar follows the same rules as spoken words do. Good times!
There was not a grand plan for world domination via index cards.

With the Le Grand Content video, did you have anything to do with its creation beyond providing ingredients?

I got an email from those insanely talented film students that was very sheepish, basically saying, “Um, hi. We used your content in our student movie. And we hope that’s okay.” And I watched it, and I actually cried. It’s a beautiful piece of animation, one that gives those little cards I draw a gravity and fluidity that I’d never seen before — I wrote back as enthusiastically as I could: saying thank you and wow and yes: send that video everywhere. It’s awesome — and not in the dude, awesome sense of the word awesome, I’m talking awesome as in saw the white tunnel after the car wreck and lived to tell about it awesome — how much creativity you can access with any crusty, old laptop today.

You have a number of drawings about the challenges of producing creative work — both mentally and financially — and navigating the politics of being part of a creative team. How much inspiration do you take from your own struggle and/or day job?

I’ve been a copywriter for about a decade, and the main struggle I see in creative businesses is that egos get in the way of ideas far too often. We’re all (not just the “creatives” either — everyone) more creative than we’re given credit for. It’s encouraging to see that truth in action (when ideas win), and infuriating to see so many good ideas trumped by job titles or budgets (boo: another piece of direct mail instead of a piece of history). There’s a tension there that I’m sure a lot of people feel, and because it’s so relatable, it’s also very bloggable.

Do you think you'll ever exhaust the possibilities of the Venn diagram?

Only if I run out of weird juxtapositions, and the world is a pile of interesting, so I think I’ve got a format I can beat into the ground. Besides, Charlie Brown still hasn’t hit puberty, and he’s, what, 60 something? Cartoons run as long as the folks drawing them are belligerent enough to pick up a pen.

If you didn't do Indexed everyday, what would you do?

I would probably have a blog featuring monsters in unfortunate wardrobes who pontificate on the world around them. And frankly, maybe I should do that anyway. Might be fun. And the random posting of silly thoughts never hurt anybody.

More about Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

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