Jessica Helfand explains her typographic reimagining of Emerson’s Self-Reliance, a manifesto for independent thinkers

The release features six covers by the likes of John Maeda and David Adjaye, and sees the influential text republished alongside new essays on what it means to be a maker during a crisis.

26 November 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read


Ralph Waldo Emerson published his most famous essay Self-Reliance in 1841, following a devastating financial collapse in the US and a resulting societal climate of panic and uncertainty – sound familiar? At the time, the values of society and humanity were being reformed, and Emerson’s text encouraged non-conformism, championing the power of the individual and suggesting that the richest lives are those lived with an independent mind. Now, at an apt point in time, the text is being republished – edited for a contemporary audience – and given a typographic reimagining by Design Observer’s Jessica Helfand with Jarrett Fuller. The release also features 12 new essays by Helfand and is being published with six different covers by six designers including John Maeda and David Adjaye.

Helfand and her commissioning editor at Thames & Hudson Lucas Dietrich believed the text would have “renewed resonance” for contemporary readers during lockdown. The Self-Reliance Project became a daily essay about “what it means to be a maker during a crisis – to think through making, to know yourself better through the process of producing something – and how this kind of return to self-knowledge might just be the entire point,” Helfand explains. “In a year in which we are all forced to work and live and produce as solo operators, Emerson’s words deserve our attention.”

The release is packed with typographic history, explains Helfand: the original text was set in Emerson, a typeface designed by Joseph Blumenthal at the Bauer Type Foundry in Frankfurt and initially named Spiral. Blumenthal showed it to Stanley Morison, typographic advisor at the British Monotype Corporation, which produced it for machine composition; Morison then recut the type for the Monotype Corporation in 1935. Its first appearance was in a special, private-press edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature, and was since known as Emerson. Reynold Stone wrote that it “avoided the rigidity of a modern face and preserved some of the virtues of the classic Renaissance types.” 

The version used in this new book was digitised by Jerry Kelly and Helen Brandshaft for NonPareil Type. “My essays are set in Neue Haas Unica Pro, a hybrid of Helvetica, Univers and Akzidenz Grotesk,” Helfand says. Designed by Team ’77 in 1980, Unica was designed and digitised by Toshi Omagari and released by Linotype in 2014. “It is the official typeface of Design Observer, so seemed appropriate, and modern, in a book such as this where the two essays ‘speak’ to each other. The typographic interpretations use both typefaces and interrupt the text at occasional intervals.”

For the covers, the team approached six creatives to design their own interpretation: architect David Adjaye, designer John Maeda, illustrators Maira Kalman and Yuko Shimizu, photographer Daniella Zalcman and artist Kensuke Koike. “The pandemic made all of us realise that as much as we were stuck indoors, the fact that we were ALL stuck indoors meant we could reach out and contact anyone. The bigger idea here was to have a really wide range of contributors,” Helfand tells us. She explains how Adjaye insisted on reading the essays before agreeing to participate, and how she sees his design as a response to a particular Emerson quote: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred stacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

Daniella Zalcman’s photograph captures “the social isolation and loneliness that often attend our attempts at self-reliance” says Helfand, while John Maeda’s text collage “plays with scale and focus, a play on perspective and gravity”. Maira Kalman has depicted a tree in watercolour – “we loved its immediacy and simplicity and spirit”; while Kensuke Koike’s image represented to the book designers “a kind of Emersonian struggle, trying to gather your many selves, to align your mind and body, to stay steady”.

Self-Reliance: Thoughts for a New World is published by Volume, backed by Thames & Hudson.

GalleryJessica Helfand: Self-Reliance, Thoughts for a New World (Copyright © Volume, 2020)


cover by Daniella Zalcman


cover by John Maeda


cover by Kensuke Koike


cover by Maira KalmanYuko Shimuzu


cover by Yuko Shimuzu

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David Adjaye's cover design for Jessica Helfand's Self-Reliance, Thoughts for a New World (Copyright © Volume, 2020)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on

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