Jillian Adel: Quick and Dirty

It’s Typography & Lettering Month at the ADC and with the help of our friends at Monotypewe’re showcasing the many ADC Members who make their mark with letterforms. Whether they’re designing brand new digital fonts for the world to use, or creating free-flowing calligraphy to adorn a wall, these artists know that there is more to written words than just their meaning.

Next up is L.A. based Jillian Adel, who’s curiosity for organic chemistry and song lyrics, plus a chance letter in the mail helped to peak her interest and her eventual career as an art director, designer and typographer. Her style is ‘quick and dirty’, letting go of the elusive ‘perfect’. There is emotion and feeling on the page and in her work. She’s got a really great idea for what we think could be a cute short animated film called “Sans vs Serif” where the winner takes all. You can read about that and more below, and peep her gallery of work she has so generously shared.


Jillian Adel
Art Director, Designer, Typographic Illustrator
Los Angeles, CA


Profile photo by Jeremy Perez Cruz


Where did this crazy adventure begin? Did you have a creative upbringing?

I was always a creative kid. I was an only child and my mom was a single mother, so I had to find ways to amuse myself that typically involved some sort of craft. My mom went back to chiropractic school when I was in elementary school and she remembers how I used to trace the hydrocarbons out of her organic chemistry books. When I was in middle school, I remember starting to recognize and love song lyrics. I would leave blank tapes in my stereo so that when a song I loved came on, I could record it. Then I would play it back, stop and start, stop and start, copying the lyrics on a notepad to learn them. It wasn’t long until I started drawing them all over my notebooks and journals. Song lyrics are still what I love drawing most.

What made you realize you wanted to make a career as a typographer? What convinced you it was even possible? What steps did you take to get there?

I went to college for graphic design at Syracuse University, but I never felt I “got it” until after graduation. After college, I moved back home to live with my mom in the suburbs of Philadelphia and was trying to tap into the local design community for support. Jessica Hische had graduated from Tyler just a few years prior and was still living in the area. She was giving a talk with AIGA, and I received a promotional card in the mail for the talk that she had lettered. It had these curly, but modern script letterforms on it that struck me as the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I didn’t make it to that talk, but as Twitter gained popularity, I started following her. Jon Contino wasn’t far behind & between the two of them gaining momentum, I started realizing that drawing letters was a thing a person could do for a whole job! I immediately knew I had to do it. But how? Well, by some stroke of fate, the Cooper Type program was just starting up that year. Someone (I really wish I could remember who) had recommended me to Type Directors Club as a good place to meet some likeminded type folk, but what luck that the Cooper Type program was being born. I went to every TDC and Cooper talk I could (they were cheap or free), I took a few workshops (Alejandro Paul, Ken Barber, Friends of Type), and I made as many friends as I could. Some of those friends ate tacos with me, talked to me about type and their lives, critiqued my attempts at lettering, and somehow saw something enough in me to hangout with me and invest their time in critiquing my work. Add to that equation hours upon hours upon hours upon Friday nights with Netflix upon full weekends in drawing letters and practicing and looking at tons of type, and I felt like I started to maybe get somewhere.

How would you best describe your style in a sentence? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

My style will always be evolving, but as it stands, I might call it “quick and dirty.” I am the anti-fastidiousness. I feel like I started to find a voice when I let go of trying to have things be perfect and started embracing the imperfections of my hand, and not only that but also my deep, innate desire to have the page be an emotional response to the issue at hand. Most people are focused on the content of a piece. I’m more focused on how it feels. Even if I have a style that I want to emulate for something, it is still filtered through my lens so it allows it to feel like me. But rather than fighting for or against having a style, I think my voice comes through the absence of fighting, the absence of trying to be anything in particular, but letting go and letting the solution move through me.

Walk us through your usual creative process. How does a project generally come in? How do you brainstorm? Do you start on paper? Digitally? How do you know when you’re “finished”?

Process always depends on the project and the client, if there is one. If I have my designer hat on, the process is more strategic and there is more back and forth with the client. If we’re talking about lettering & illustration, I tend to be hired because people like what they’ve seen and what I’ve done and they trust me to make something interesting (or maybe even sort of crazy). I frequently try to think about a big picture concept at the start. Sometimes I’ll pull image reference if it’s relevant and talk with the client about limitations and desires for the project, what we should aim to use or avoid imagery-wise and why, and then go to work playing with visual puzzle pieces. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of graphic imagery paired with super illegible, messy type that I draw straight in Photoshop with a Wacom and Kyle’s Ultimate Brushes. Or I’ll quickly draw some type & scan it with the Scanner Pro app on my phone and drop it in. I do very little digital editing. I want things to retain their gritty, organic nature. The more we refine, the  more we take away the soul of the asset.

Everybody’s got a favorite brand of marker, a favorite kind of ink, that pencil with just the right amount of heft. What are yours, and why do you swear by them?

I go through phases with all sorts of art supplies. I started out with a Pentel Water Based Sign Pen as I was practicing a lot of Spencerian and Copperplate scripts a few years ago. I went through a Tombow Fudenosuke phase. In both cases, I love the harder tipped brush pens that don’t fray like felt ones do. I tended to use those on Bristol, Paris or similarly very smooth paper. But then I went through a phase where I used a lot of cheap paint brushes and acrylics, a phase where I loved drawing with a basic pencil and a newsprint paper sketchbook, and a phase where I would literally buy any new thing I found, from a Copic airbrush to pieces of canvas and paint and super wide paint markers, just to see what it could lend. Most recently, I’ve been doing quick drawings with a ballpoint pen or pencil or going right into Photoshop with Kyle’s Brushes. I’ve been all over the place and back again.

What’s your favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design? Why is that your favorite?

Probably “S” it’s just pretty to draw in script.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

Right before the first punch is thrown, Serif & Sans Serif make eye contact, the background fades out, faint violin music starts to play in the distance. They move slowly towards each other and proceed to make tender but powerful love to each other in front of the crowd.

“Wait, what is that you do again?” How do you explain what you do for a living to people who aren’t in creative fields? What’s the thing they can’t quite grasp about it?

People tend to associate lettering with fonts. I have to explain that I work with letters more like illustrations, which is why the term “typographic illustrator” sometimes works better for me than “letterer” although I’m not sure that’s an actual thing. I reference Jessica Hische’s work for Moonrise Kingdom or I just hand them my business card which, as of last year, has lettering on it. So I can hand it to them and say “I do this.”

Tell us about your favorite project to date. What set it apart from everything else?

Well, I love making interesting visual work. My Kate Tempest posters, my 2016 fortune teller, and the wine label work I get to do for Club W are all really fun. But also, I’m currently spending some time in-house at Uber and we’ve been working on building out and refining the new brand system. Working on such an impactful and omnipresent brand has been one of the most interesting strategic challenges I’ve had so far, and it balances the other side of my brain that works on projects where the strategy is simpler but the work is more visually out there. I like complicated case studies just as much as I like complicated visuals.

What would be your dream project/assignment/client?

I really love designing posters, so I think my dream gig might be to design artwork for some bands or movie directors I love. I’m not going to list all of my favorite bands because that would take a long time, but I’m just saying if Karen O or David Lynch came a’knockin’ I could probably die happy. I also love environmental work and being involved in my local community, so I think doing a mural in any of the cities I’ve called home (Philly, South Jersey, Upstate NY, NYC or LA), would be really rad.

“Rules are made to be broken.”

What is the most difficult thing about making a career out of what you do? How do you get around that, and what advice would give to others facing similar challenges?

All the noise of everyone else. When you’re younger in your career, or a student especially, it’s hard to balance the noise. You never want to block it out, because the best thing about what we do is the community, sharing, learning and being lifted up by each other, but balancing all of that with your of voice is crucial. Early on, you don’t trust your own gut so all the external voices can get REALLY confusing and sometimes downright detrimental to your cause. There’s no guidebook for how to navigate this other than to know early on that, even though your voice may not (will not) be very developed at that stage, that you are you, and you are unique, and you are on this earth and being driven to want to create because you have something to offer the world that literally only you can give. That’s fucking special, so as long as you keep moving forward knowing that, you should be able to navigate all the smaller choices in a way that makes sense for you and get you to a place where your voice eventually makes its way through all the influence.

What other creative outlets do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

I pole dance. I live in LA and like enjoying West Coast life after 28 years on the East Coast. I have a cat and a lot of friends who are wildly interesting and smart and bold people. I started up with a great therapist last year and she helps me learn about myself in ways that influence my work. I’m inspired by vulnerability, mindfulness, and connection with others. I’m inspired by love and lust and sex and sensuality, and every corner of human emotion that doesn’t fit in a neat little box. And I’m inspired by people who aren’t afraid to own those emotions, or any emotions, because feeling them means we’re alive.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world and why? Have you had any creative mentors?

My mentors and support system tend to live in the design world, but not necessarily typography all the time. They tend to advise me more on business and interpersonal issues more so than aesthetics. They support me, cheer for me, and challenge me when I need it. And visual work I crush on most tends to strike me more because of texture and color, regardless of whether the subject is type or image. My first boss and best friend, Amy Weibel, has been my go-to mentor for all things work and life for the last 6 years. I basically owe anything I know about type to Thomas Jockin who ate tacos with me and taught me about letterforms and how to ask for more money when I was a total new kid. Garrett Derossett and Tim Lampe have been my support system this past year in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank them for. I admire them each for their respective creative genius. I learned how to split the design and illustration worlds and a lot of how I process design thinking from Rich Tu, since we worked closely for about a year.

People who’s work I crush on all the time who I made be my friends so I can try to absorb some of their genius: Braulio Amado, Zipeng ZhuAdam Garcia, Kelsey Dake, and Jacqui Oakley.

When all is said and done, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

The fact that the rules are made to be broken.