Interview by: Illana Curtis
A quick peek into the home/studio of Elana Schlenker is an enlightening experience for those familiar with her eponymous design practice—the tropical forest of potted plants in the living room next to the sun-soaked kitchen and forest green accent chair are striking echoes of Schlenker’s aesthetic choices. Her home, like her graphic design style, is sophisticated yet funky and manages to delight, surprise, and attract in ways that are almost addicting.
Schlenker always knew she wanted to be a graphic designer. Her design career started in elementary school, as the founder of a girls-only newspaper, which quickly evolved with the technology and trends of the early nineties into an AOL email of emojis, images, and colorful, curly text. Today, her work continues to span mediums—her practice, Studio Elana Schlenker (est. 2011), specializes in publications, brand identities, interactive work, and printed matter. Schlenker has worked on books, posters, exhibition identities, vinyl and CD packaging, and murals—all while managing her magazine, Gratuitous Type. She also collaborates with Mark Pernice in their joint studio, Out of Office. As you’ll see, Schlenker’s practice is bold, her designs are original, and her passion for graphic design blends the space between personal and professional work.
You’re a self-taught designer, so what was your initial draw to the profession?
Before I could even name it as a profession, I wanted to do graphic design. I was always making books, magazines, and websites, or playing with text and images and how they might work together. Eventually I understood this was called “graphic design,” but was (naively) wary of art school—maybe because I’m from a small town and didn’t grow up around professional creatives who could encourage me to pursue that path. Laughably, I thought getting a liberal arts education was somehow more practical. I ended up at the University of Pittsburgh with the goal of becoming a graphic designer, but since there is no design degree program there, I had to do a lot of self-directed work to make that happen.
How did you segue into full-time graphic design work?
After I graduated I moved to New York and started doing odd design jobs. I had a very underdeveloped portfolio but had started a magazine that I edited and designed when I was at Pitt (and continued to work on for a few years after I graduated). That proved to be something that helped get my foot in the door. My first full-time job was as an editorial designer at Rodale Books (now Penguin Random House)—it wasn’t glamorous, but I was making magazines and getting paid to be a graphic designer, so I was thrilled. My design director there, Barbara Reyes, was in many ways my design school; she taught me so much. Even though it was not, on its face, my ideal job, it was an extremely formative experience.
Studio Elana Shlenker’s “Slow Down Your Hurry Up” campaign for Facebook.
How did you begin to grow your business?
I went from Rodale to Condé Nast, where I was an art director, and then from there to Princeton Architectural Press, where I worked as a book designer. PAP was, I thought, my ideal job—a small arts and culture publisher where I could work with artists, architects, and designers making books I wanted to read. All along the way, I was also doing freelance design work and publishing Gratuitous Type, a magazine I started as a side project when I was working at Condé Nast. What started out as work for friends and colleagues grew into a much larger network, which further expanded with clients who began to find me through GT. Eventually, I was so busy at PAP and so busy with my own client work that I had to choose one or the other. Though I had never set out to start my own studio, I realized how rewarding it was to work for myself, and that’s what I chose. I have been running Studio Elana Schlenker full time now for 6 or 7 years. I also periodically collaborate with Mark Pernice under Out Of Office.
Is there a particular type of project you gravitate toward?
I’ll always be passionate about books and publications, but it’s important to me to work on a variety of projects. I love interactive work, exhibition design, branding—I even hand painted a mural recently. I love to immerse myself in new things.
I’m most interested in working with like-minded clients who trust me and who are committed to collaborating on something we’re all going to be very proud of, who want to do work that is culturally or socially impactful (or better yet, both!).
What have been the challenges and surprises about branching off on your own?
At the beginning, I worked with a lot of people who just needed any designer, and for me, those weren’t the most fruitful collaborations. Around the time I started my own studio, people began to say, “We want to work with you,” or, “We saw Gratuitous Type, and we want you to do that for us.” That’s the ideal starting point. It’s not an ego thing, it’s about working with people who appreciate what my studio can uniquely bring to their project, and trust us to deliver it.
Issue 4.5 of Schlenker’s Gratuitous Type— “occasional pamphlet of typographic smut.” The half issues were created to examine subjects from full-length issues in greater detail. Image courtesy of Elana Schlenker.
Gratuitous Type appears at many major book fairs and stores across the US. Has the publication’s success helped shape your career?
At first, I intentionally made it very personal and informal because I was young and self-taught and felt like, who am I to say anything about design? Even calling it Gratuitous Type was some acknowledgement that it was a frivolous project. I figured I would publish one and no one would ever see or like it, but the magazine has done a lot for me. After the third issue, people started to find it and wanted to work with me. It’s still just a little independent magazine, but it has definitely led to many cool opportunities to speak about it, to travel, and to connect with people.
Though I continue to (slowly) publish Gratuitous Type, I’ve also done a few other self-initiated projects outside of the studio, and that kind of work has really been an important through line in my career. Even as the paid work I do has become more and more creative and fulfilling, pursuing this other work is a vital part of my practice.
I read in an interview with Make Nice that you wish someone would ask you about your garden. So tell me about your garden! Does gardening inform your design practice?
Gardening has become my favorite pastime. We bought our first house a little over three years ago, and at the time we moved in, there was really only grass and a few mature trees in the backyard. Bit by bit I’ve been planting more young trees, shrubs, and perennials—each year my empire expands a little more. I’ve become very immersed in the work and I’ve found it so rewarding to be a student in a totally new field. I even went through Phipps Conservatory Master Gardener Program!
Garden design is so different from graphic design, where you know how you want things to look and are, more or less, in complete control of the outcome. In garden design, there’s so many more external factors at play—time in particular is a factor that I really don’t have to deal with as a graphic designer, at least not in the same way. I’ve really come to embrace the patience and unpredictability that comes along with this work, and I think that’s informed my life outside of the garden in a lot of ways. I don’t know how directly gardening informs my design work, but I know that the attention to detail I’ve honed throughout my career has helped me become an observant gardener.
On a similar note, how would you define your design aesthetic?
A lot of people say that my work is very simple, which I think is nice. It’s also probably apparent that I love color and production and the way both can support the concept of a project. While I certainly have my aesthetic preferences, my process is about honing in on the story of the project and letting that guide our decisions, rather than applying a singular style to everything. Coming from a publishing background, I also end up being very engaged in the content of a project. I often work closely with clients to redevelop initial concepts or build out new ones; it’s not something you see, but it’s a huge part of my work.
Spreads from Pot Dealer Vol. 1, a catalogue of LA-based artist Ben Sanders’s ongoing series of painted planters. Image courtesy of Elana Schlenker.
Can you share some of the exciting projects you’re currently working on?
We’re working on a type specimen for Google Fonts, which I’m really excited about. We’ve also got a number of books in the pipeline for Aperture, Conveyor Editions, and Image Text Ithaca Press, among others. Last year we helped redesign and relaunch the Cornell Journal of Architecture, and we’re just beginning work on the next issue this month. We’re doing some exhibition and catalog design for a show opening up at The Warhol Museum in the spring, and portfolio websites for a few different artists. Through Out of Office, Mark and I are branding a luxury vegan shoe line and working on an illustration for the New York Times, among lots of other things. Like I said, I love to keep a varied practice, and our workload at any given time really reflects that!
To round out this conversation, what advice do you have for emerging/aspiring graphic designers?
I eked into my place at Rodale just a few months before the Great Recession of 2008. I was certainly not working in my dream job, but I was grateful to have any job at all. I really feel for the young designers who are graduating into these uncertain times without one. I always try to tell students that there are so many reasons you might not graduate directly into your dream job, but it doesn’t mean you won’t get there. There’s no singular, correct path—and the reality is that what you see as the path might even change along the way. For instance, I thought I wanted to work for an independent publisher, and once I did, I realized that actually, I’d like to run my own studio. Just keep at it and you’ll find your way. And if you’re struggling to get paid to make the work you’re most interested in, try to create those opportunities for yourself through self-initiated work.
Beautiful. Really quick, a lightning round. Pencil or Pen?
Muji (RIP!) five-point pen. It’s one of the really thin ones.
Hard cover or soft?
Flexible hard cover!
Brooklyn or Pittsburgh?
Challenging. Well, Pittsburgh, I guess, because I’m here!
Podcast or playlist?
It really changes. I would say podcast. My friend recommended “The Complete Woman,” which is a really funny faux self-help series for the 60s wife.
Final question: InDesign or Illustrator?
About the author:
Ilana Curtis (b.Boston, MA) holds a BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and will be pursing her Masters of Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in fall 2021. She is driven by design projects that connect community, people, and place, an interested fostered during her tenure at PLP.