Women in Design — Jess Gommers, Art Director, Exhibition & Print Designer
Who were your early creative influencers?
Mum was a kindy teacher and always encouraged my creativity – as kids we were always creating, painting and playing at home. Dad was a truck driver and I have vivid memories of admiring his name – sign-written, hand-painted – on the cab doors. During secondary school I had great art teachers. I loved art history and remember conversations with my grandmothers about art, paint, heritage, lineage and creativity, inspired mostly by tones, forms, texture and text employed by New Zealand artists.
What were your first years out of design/art school like, and when did you begin to feel more confident in your work?
I had designed posters and catalogues for other Visual Communication students while studying at Unitec. Not long after graduating, a good friend suggested I apply for the graphic design role at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, in New Plymouth. I landed my first full time job and moved towns, age 22, knowing no one. The team was small, we worked with local and international artists, curators, and their projects – it was a phenomenal experience. I worked on exhibition brands and catalogues while gaining insight into exhibition processes. It was a privilege to work with the brand and exhibition identities developed by leading NZ designers at this time. I started to follow the work of design studios and began to understand what worked and what didn’t – I think this is when I began to gain some confidence. By my mid-20s I’d discovered international book designers Alexey Brodovitch, Irma Boom and James Goggin. I was also interested in independent publishers and smaller publishing imprints … I decided to move to Wellington and start freelancing.
Can you tell us about your career milestones and creative journey so far?
I completed a small business management course through Positively Wellington Business in 2005 and worked with a variety of lovely clients – Te Papa, Te Papa Press and City Gallery – on catalogues, identities, websites and publications. In the late 2000s I started my own imprint, umbrella. After navigating CNZ applications with two project teams, I designed and published a limited edition book and then a limited edition catalogue.
In 2007 I landed what I now see as a dream job – Designer at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. I was soon promoted to Senior Designer and worked with massive budgets to create award-winning publications and wide-reaching exhibition identities. I received a Clemenger BBDO Research Scholarship in 2010 and used the funds to travel through London, The Netherlands and New York, visiting studios, interviewing designers, studio managers and publishers at the Tate, British Museum, Guggenheim, MOMA, Werkplaats Typografie, et al. During my Melbourne years I was also privileged to have worked alongside Studio Round and then Frost Studio as they each created overarching brand systems for the NGV. In 2015 I was successful in another round of CNZ funding and produced my third limited edition publication.
You were recently involved with the opening of the Te Rau Aroha on the Treaty Grounds. What were your favourite parts of working on this project?
Fair to say I knew little about the Māori Battalion or Māori war service when I started working with Workshop e on this project two years ago. The number of stories, images and voices that have emerged and/or been found during this project is incredible. The building, Te Rau Aroha, provides a permanent home for the exhibition, The Price of Citizenship, which presents a visible story of Māori commitment and sacrifice in times of armed conflict from 1840 to the present day. I realised it was a unique opportunity to work so closely with these images of young men overseas and young women holding it together at home. It was a privilege to recognise up close the ordinary people in those extraordinary circumstances. Typesetting the Roll of Honour which now covers two walls approximately 12x4m and 15x4m was quite a task, but one I will always be proud of.
The best part though was being present at the dawn opening ceremony. As thousands of people gathered in the dark, the building, the exhibition and the content was blessed before crowds went through the museum for the first time. Once the doors open, my graphics (each image, paragraph width and production method), held so close and deliberated over for so long, become something else – they now belong to the viewer.
And what did you learn from working on such a culturally significant project?
Home to precious stories and taonga The Price of Citizenship offers a unique exhibition experience. The environmental, exhibition and graphic designs are refined, subtle, accessible, the multimedia high-tech – combined these elements present and clarify an important aspect of New Zealand history.
Museum audiences read labels, look at images and listen to audio, but visitors here tend to also reach out and touch the portraits and names on display. These visitors will run their hands over other textural, more analogue environmental details too. There is something grounding, emotional, contemplative and potentially spiritual about the beautiful wooden detailing, kauri gum and running water components – each intentionally sourced and purposefully shaped and placed.
In this project both process and outcome were influenced by Māori cultural values such as manaakitanga and whanaungatanga. The Workshop e team was able to articulate a concept of maimai aroha and I learnt as I assisted the Creative Director, Lead Designer and Interpretive team to carefully hold and diligently uplift these people and their stories.
What do you enjoy most about exhibition print and identity designs?
I find each exhibition process really interesting. I work with teams of exhibition designers, curators and content developers who gather stories together, shape them into spaces and categories before writers and editors start creating the texts which accompany objects and images. A Creative Director and/or Lead Designer, sometimes a Project Manager, will set the tone for the exhibition, and as this is all happening I start work with colour, textural and print material palettes. The best part for me is when all of this work is amalgamated into an identity – font/s, palette/s and text hierarchy realised.
What project, personal or professional, are you most proud of and why?
I designed a Ron Mueck exhibition identity, marketing and merchandise campaign for a touring NGV exhibition in 2010. I designed the publication too, and it was soon picked up and published by Yale University Press. The campaign and book each won several design awards, but I am most proud of this because the design concept referenced Grover’s “Near and Far” clip from Sesame Street, 1975. I love knowing that this successful project had such simple and light-hearted beginnings.
What does your typical workday look like? (we are keen to hear about the extraordinary routines/juggle of women in design.)
I work an average of 25 hours a week but my days and weeks can vary a lot. I freelance from home in Auckland. Workshop e (my primary client) is Wellington-based with projects opening around the world. I travel for work every 4–6 weeks and I’m a single mum with a pre-schooler.
During the term my work days start after I drop Max at kindy. I’ll settle him in and then get to my screen. My workday averages 4–6 hours, but I’ll often work weekends too. On a bad day, when a project runs late or Max just needs me it can feel like an impossible and overwhelming hustle. On a good day, when work is steady and Max is content, I might be able to work, fit in a good walk or catch up with a buddy too.
What does career success look like to you?
For me, career success looks a whole lot like my life right now. I am privileged to work in the way I do, alongside the people I work with. The brief, location and audience is always changing so I continue to discover and learn through each content development, design concept, production and install phase. I remember the handful of people who told me it was unwise to try and create a career or expect to earn a living out of exhibition design – I am acutely aware and super-stoked that I am lucky enough to be doing both!
How do you find balance between work and life?
I am still learning how to do this – the nature of my work means that some weeks/months I just need to focus on work and Max (who is still so little and will be at school before I know it). It’s not always ideal, it is hard work but the flip-side is that eventually there are times when I can refresh, reset and enjoy some time out. Max and I have had some fantastic holidays the past few years so I’m definitely not complaining!
What are you most passionate about?
I love being in nature; outside and offline. I like gardening, cooking and sharing these simple enthusiasms with my son. I enjoy discovering and affirming everyday life with my invaluable friends and family.
Where can people see more of your work?
Photos: Fran Parker
*(DA’s defines female as anyone who identifies herself as such).