November 20, 2019

Charlie Hess: Illustrating Community Service

To look at the logo for Big Sunday — a child’s handprint with a heart-shaped center — is to see Charlie Hess’ artful presentation of the community service weekend’s raison d’etre: to lend a helping hand. Since Hess created that logo nine years ago, pro bono, he has continued to lend his hand in many ways, most notably by creating every graphic image for the annual event. This makes Hess one of the key behind-the-scenes people who’ve helped Big Sunday grow from a one-day event with a handful of projects and participants to a weekend-long event, with 50,000 volunteers pitching in at 500 nonprofits, schools and other agencies across Southern California last May.

A native of Washington, D.C., Hess came to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and was soon involved in the startup of Buzz magazine. As art director, Hess drove innovation in design and photography, helping to create the magazine’s clean, sophisticated look. Buzz was “a cross between New York Magazine and The New Yorker, but for L.A.,” said Hess, whose six-year tenure gave him what he calls “the best education about Los Angeles.”

“I grew to really love L.A. and appreciate its diversity, how complex and interesting it was once you dug beneath the surface.”

With the birth of his first child 14 years ago, Hess says he began wanting to use his “expertise to do something that was worthwhile.” He became design director of UCLA Magazine — always a worthy cause in his mind, but especially so recently, as budget cuts threaten the future of public higher education in California. In addition to UCLA, for whom he continues to work, Hess has designed and art-directed publications for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Cash for College and other nonprofits.

In 2000, Hess, his wife and their then-first-grade daughter signed up for what was at the time Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day. “We had no idea what it would entail,” Hess recalled about visiting an assisted-living home for the elderly in West Adams.

“The place was dark and gloomy and ominous and kind of scary. And my daughter, who was always considered shy, just plunged right in…. Watching her come out of her shell and how the residents responded to her — their faces just lit up — was the inspiration that got me started,” Hess said.

When he volunteered his design skills to the cause, Hess knew he wanted “the graphics to be as menschy and grass-roots” as Big Sunday itself. He used his daughter’s handprint for the logo, which along with other graphics by Hess can be seen on nearly every tangible object connected to Big Sunday — mugs, T-shirts, banners, Web blasts and more.

“The amount of different ways we’re able to communicate with people has grown exponentially,” Hess said, citing the Internet as the most dramatic example. In addition to creating Big Sunday’s Web graphics, Hess also coordinates all of the site’s photos. Each year he organizes about 40 photographers — professionals and amateurs, all volunteers — who take photos at about 100 of the projects. Hess then spends nearly a month winnowing the 2,000-plus images down to 200, using them to create photo albums and slide shows both for the Web site and for promotional use in the community. He also recently created a Facebook page for Big Sunday; it now has close to 1,100 fans.

Hess and his family — he also has a son — live what he calls “a comfortable life … smack in the middle of L.A.” But he wants his kids to fully experience “this big, complicated, daunting city … to know that the world is a much more challenging place than just what they experience.”

To this end, Hess and family can be found at six different projects each Big Sunday weekend. And wherever they go — whether to Watts, Pacoima or not far from their own backyard — they are among people whose paths might not otherwise cross. These diverse people, working and having fun together, creating meaning and community, are what continue to inspire Hess.

“To me, graphic design is like being a writer. I get to tell all these great stories … but I’m writing a story through the pictures.”

You can be a mensch, too! Join the cause.