Annalee Giesbrecht is a graphic designer, photographer and all-around excellent person. She also comprises one-fourth of the creative energy behind Whether Magazine, a “non-partisan forum where writers and artists can engage with culture, art, politics, philosophy, science and theology without privileging rigour over beauty or insight over wit.” Most of these words also describe Annalee. While she was traveling this fall, I chatted with her via email about Franz Ferdinand, haggis, good design, and the importance of being serious without taking yourself too seriously.
Julienne: First of all--where in the world is Annalee Giesbrecht?
Annalee: I’m currently in Sarajevo. I traveled around the Balkan peninsula (mostly the former Yugoslavia) before coming to Sarajevo. It’s a beautiful and fascinating city that I would recommend to anyone to visit. Then I’ll leave the Balkans to visit friends in Edinburgh, where we will deck ourselves in tartan and drink scotch all day, probably.
J: Is this trip allowing you to recharge your creative batteries? Or have you simply moved your "office" halfway around the world?
A: I think it’s allowing me to recharge all my batteries! I always dream of returning to some kind of pre-kindergarten golden age where I have nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no one to please, and this is my chance to live that dream! That said, I am still working on several projects—I’m writing this from a tea shop where I’ve come to get work done, which is delightfully named “Franz and Sophie” (after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who you of course remember was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, along with his wife Sophie, which gave future Sarajevo the opportunity to put his name on hostels, tote bags, tea shops, and anything else that isn’t already named after Tito). This is more or less exactly what I’d be doing at home.
J: Tell me a little about your work with Whether magazine. How does the work break down?
A: Whether is an online literary magazine that features essays, short fiction, poetry and artwork. We put a new issue out monthly based on a theme—in October we released an issue with the theme of “Movement,” which has pieces on moving away from home, early moving pictures (or “movies,” as the kids say), and the experience of having one’s movement restricted by a disability, among others. The editorial team decides on themes in advance and issues a call for submissions, and we also do a lot of shoulder-tapping among our many talented and interesting friends. Once pieces are submitted, the author works with one of the editors to shape and refine the piece, while I work on illustrations and any other design issues.
J: What's your role?
A: I’m the art editor, so I’m responsible for the look of the website in general as well as the illustrations for particular pieces. At the moment I do all the illustration, although I’d love to get more illustrators involved someday. I did a degree in English before finishing design school, so this is a great way for me to combine these interests.
J: Whether is pretty unique as far as online periodicals go. When you and the rest of the team first came up with the idea for Whether, did you notice particular "gaps" in online publishing that you wanted to fill?
A: I think the answer would be a little different for each of the editors, but I think all of us wanted to create a space for the kind of writing we’d like to read. For me, that means writing that is genuinely curious, by writers who know they haven’t got everything figured out already. I think there’s an expectation that you can’t start writing or painting or anything until you’ve got all of your opinions all figured out and consistent, which seems a little ridiculous. Who actually has all of that stuff ironed out ever?
J: I love Whether's statement that "by commenting on culture we are creating it, whether we like it or not." What kind of culture do you hope Whether can help develop?
A: Well, we’ve chosen as our guiding principles “curiosity,” “restlessness” and “sincerity,” which address some of the things I mentioned in the previous question about being open-minded. We’d like to get away from this culture where everything is irony all the time—irony can be a great tool if you use it well, but if it’s the only way you ever approach the world, it gets harder and harder to actually fight for something, actually love something, actually have fun. We’d like to develop a culture where you can be serious without taking yourself too seriously.
J: In what ways do you see your design work, for Whether and otherwise, as positively contributing to or creating culture?
A: I’m most interested in working in the field called publication design, which involves communicating complex or abstract ideas in a way that is both clear and engaging. I think that go-between is essential, because important new ideas are often developed in ways that are academic or experimental or just kind of disorganized. So my dream is to be part of making important ideas accessible to a wider range of people.
J: Why is design important to you? To you, what elements contribute to beautiful design?
A: Someone quoted at me in design school defined design as the “sustained application of intent,” which I like because it gets away from this idea that design is just taking something that already works and making it pretty. It’s not: design is what makes things work in the first place. And this is what I’d like my role to be as a designer, whatever I end up doing— making things work in a way that is elegant and easy to understand.
J: Where are you headed next? (In the world, and in your career?)
A: This time next week I’ll be on a plane to Edinburgh, where I’ll spend 5 weeks with my best friends in the world, eating haggis and dancing in a kilt to the sound of distant bagpipes drifting over the moors. After that I head back to Winnipeg, just in time for winter, where I’ll start looking for a grown-up design job and apartment.
J: How do you deal with uncertainty about the future? How do you stay positive?
A: Well that is a pretty good question, given that once I return home from this trip I will be homeless and unemployed. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by only the most amazing people, and they have always been there for me when I have been in need. I’d be pretty lost without those relationships, but having that support network gives me the confidence to take risks I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.