Currently working on her first cookbook, we recently caught up with chef, food blogger, and designer Alexandra Stafford to talk about her experience in the DCA program and her career path since graduating.
Tell us about your background and what led you to pursue a design education?
After working in restaurant kitchens for a few years, I became the food editor for a small newspaper in Philadelphia. Because the staff and budget was small, everyone wore many hats, so in addition to writing articles and taking photos, I had to spend time at the computer laying out the pages of the food section. This was my first introduction to working with type and images together — we used QuarkXPress back then — but it soon became my favorite part of the job. It not only gave me an appreciation for the work that went into creating engaging spreads but inspired me to want to learn more about layout design. When my husband got stationed at Camp Pendleton, I found myself freelancing for some local papers, and one day while exploring Westwood, I stumbled across a UCLA Extension course catalog. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in Design Fundamentals.
Looking back, what are your thoughts about the DCA program?
I think about concepts and skills I learned throughout the DCA program all the time. I remember JAG telling us in Design Fundamentals that learning programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator is not the key to becoming a successful designer — it’s the ideas and thoughtful concept development and problem solving that ultimately matter. In Stephen Child’s Icons and Logos class, I remember struggling to create 75 to 100 different sketches of the same two letters together, doubting the utility of the exercise, fighting every urge to get on the computer to start playing with fonts and colors. But I now begin every design project in this same manner. Finally, I still create mood boards as I learned in Shirin Raban’s Package Design course, and because I am constantly editing photos for my blog, I use skills I learned in Lisa Carney’s Photoshop II class all the time.
What was your favorite class and why?
Drawing for Communication with Henry Mateo. Henry had serious standards for homework and for how that work was presented. Even if the assignment was simply to fill a page with hand-drawn circles, he demanded it be presented cleanly. Henry taught us about teensy but powerful magnets to aid with this purpose, and I still use those magnets today. Every class began with a critique and a discussion of our homework, something that everyone in the class got better at and more comfortable with as the weeks went on. I remember while I was taking that class that I began viewing the world in planes and shapes and lines and shades. Before taking the class, I doubted I would do well, and I doubted I could learn to draw after so many years of not practicing, but the principles and fundamental rules I learned truly helped me improve as a drawer — I noticed progress every week.
You run a popular food blog as well as sell your own line of stationery – how have your multiple projects informed one another, and what role does design play throughout?
I have always loved food-focused stationery, and I have always loved food-focused photography. But as much as I love a beautiful photograph in a cookbook or on a blog, I don’t love a food photograph on a card. That said, the inspiration for almost all of my cards is a photograph — of a pear or a cast iron pan or a block of cheese, etc — I’ve taken for my blog. For my blog, the photographs are the key design element. I try to make them dominate the space and keep everything else to a minimum. For my cards, simple graphics in conjunction with type are the key design elements. For the Julia Child notecards series I designed, I began with a photograph of my pegboard and from there created a simple but recognizable graphic that evoked the spirit and kitchen of Julia Child.
What has inspired you recently?
Cookbooks are a constant source of inspiration for me. Being home with three small children makes it hard to travel or even to get out to restaurants, farmers markets and cooking shops, all places I once turned to for inspiration. But cookbooks, especially ones filled with beautiful photographs, have the ability to transport a reader to a high-end restaurant kitchen or a southern backyard bbq or a roadside coffeehouse. Cookbooks aren’t just pages filled with recipes anymore — they are collections of stories, photos (both of food and environment), and often illustrations, all of which tell the story of the home cook or chef or establishment they are representing. I love the photographs of Eric Wolfinger, who I discovered with the cookbook Tartine Bread but whose most recent photos in Manresa are true works of art.
Any advice for budding designers just starting out?
First, I would say try to recognize your strengths and work at developing those strengths. Second, don’t be afraid to reach out to designers or design companies you admire. When I started looking into printing some of the cards I had designed, I emailed a ton of small stationery companies and asked about their printing process and who they used to print their cards, or if they were printing the the cards themselves, what paper they used and what printers. I didn’t hear back from everyone, but I learned a lot about the printing process from the few who did respond. Through an email exchange, I found a great small printing company, who I used for awhile, but ultimately discovered that for the price of paying someone else, I could buy a high-quality inkjet printer and nice paper, and I could print the cards myself. Finally, I would say, don’t take classes or pursue jobs for practical reasons. As cliché as it sounds, if you listen to your heart and take the classes or pursue the jobs that genuinely interest you, things will fall into place.