Takeaways from Jelly Helm’s Show & Tell at Portland State University

By uptra / /

Stuart Cornuelle’s report on PSU’s Show & Tell with Jelly. SURFING Magazine Managing Editor // Writer and Strategist, Stuart Cornuelle has been on the case again. This time he’s been seeking knowledge in the hidden spaces at Portland State. You might have seen him at the Art Department’s Show & Tell. Or you might have seen him on Adpulp telling his story about trying to leave the surfing thing and breaking into the ad game. Be sure to also check him doing Q&L with OMFG.

The Portland Egotist

Jelly Helm posted up and made it rain truth upon a rapt few dozen last Thursday in a dimly lit, carpeted classroom at PSU. The former Wieden + Kennedy ECD and founder of its WK12 school, now running Jelly Helm Studio, was invited to speak as part of the PSU graphic design program’s Show & Tell series. “I’ve taught a lot. Mostly the wrong way,” is how he opened his account, before launching into an hour of illuminating autobiographical and prescriptive nuggets for his student audience to chew on. What follows are some highlights and takeaways culled from the Book of Jelly.



For Those Who Think Young “How long can I avoid client work and still pay the mortgage?” “I want to create a website today.” “Is school worth it?” “Mmm, good soup.” That’s a small sample of the thoughts and preoccupations harbored by students in the room, as teased out in an exercise involving “thinking cards” — blank 4”x6” sheets of paper that Helm issued to the crowd upon arrival with instructions to write whatever was on our minds. The cards were then collected and redistributed randomly so we each had someone else’s. Thus anonymized (to preclude thought judgment), the cards were read aloud to the group. Helm explained it as a tool to take the room’s mental temperature. “It’s a gift to know what’s going on with other people,” he said pithily. Verdict: we were generally anxious and hungry — hallmarks both of youth and recession.



It Pays To Discover Helm has attended school, taught school (he associate professed at VCU Adcenter), and started a school (WK12), so it’s no surprise that he’s developed a theory on the merits of formal education. “Your sole duty [as a student],” Helm declared, “is to discover what you’re about. There’s training involved, but it’s not as exciting as making discoveries.” Lovely, but for a PSU senior about to bum rush the job market — needing a storage unit just to house her debt — self-discovery may well take a backseat to staying solvent. In fact, were we a more honest bunch, I suspect many of the thinking cards would have read, “Is Jelly Helm Studio hiring?” Just saying.



Because You’re Worth It Helm is something of an ad world luminary and could, were he so inclined, easily wield that status like the ax in one of his Timbers billboards. But it’s clear he has no interest in posturing.





“Anything I say has no authority at all,” Helm announced early in his talk. “I have experience, but all experience does is deepen my point of view. It doesn’t make my point of view any better.” His self-deprecation is, in addition to charming, a reminder for cowed young creatives that “superiors” — teachers, bosses, whoever — are benefitting from a misnomer. Anyone, no matter how junior, can have great ideas and produce great work.



Say It With Failures As the fearless leader of WK12 (or just “12” for short), Helm sought to integrate the school into W+K as a positive, contributing presence. He realized early that it would be crucial to give and not just take from the agency, lest 12 become an internal burden, a distraction, “those damn kids.” So 12 conceived a gift to Wieden’s Portland office, an installation for a then-empty wall on the fourth floor. Step one in creating what would become the beloved “Fail Harder” piece was to give judgment the day off — to suspend all criticism while the ideas flowed. Helm advocates this as a standard practice; creation and judgment are our two basic settings, he says, and switching back and forth between them is defeating. During the creation stage, no idea should be withheld or laughed down, because even the bad ones may spark something brilliant. At the least, determining why an idea is bad better informs the process.





The “Fail Harder” line is attributed to Jimm Lasser (now an AD at Wieden), and the resulting pushpin execution is homage to the process of pinning ideas on the wall during concepting. The piece required 110,000 pushpins and a weekend of “pretty much round-the-clock” effort from Helm and his students. W+K employees left a blank wall Friday evening and found the completed work in place when they arrived at the office the following Monday. “Failure is a meme again,” Helm told us. “It’s not so awesome as an end in itself, but as a means of making discoveries: awesome.”



Have It Your Way Helm said at one point: “The best way to get a job is to write down all the things you love to do, draw a circle around it, and call it a job.” While that message will strike some — certainly an anxious under- or post-grad — as pie in the castle in the sky, its allure is unmistakable. Helm, for his part, certainly takes his own advice, and if any demographic is in a position to do likewise, it has to be that roomful of educated, unemployed, unmarried, un-mortgaged non-parents that Helm was addressing at PSU. Your move, youth.

  1. Wally May 9, 2011

    I enjoyed this very much.