Ten years ago, the American graphic designer and art director Jessica Walsh rose to international fame when Stefan Sagmeister asked her to be his creative and business partner, resulting in the joint studio Sagmeister & Walsh. In 2019, Jessica founded her own agency, &Walsh, specializing in branding, packaging and advertising. Having more than 500.000 followers, Walsh, often uses her personal Instagram account to express her views – often surprising, sometimes mind-blowing, never boring. Time to talk!
Interview by Gerrit Terstiege
Gerrit Terstiege: Visiting your studio´s website or your instagram accounts, both the professional and your personal, the first thing that grasps one´s attention is your strong use of colors. This holds true for your corporate designs as well as for your packaging graphics and your self-comissioned work. How do you find new colors and color combinations for each project?
Jessica Walsh: People have described my personal work as “colorful, bold, emotional, surrealist, and provocative.” I do have certain visual sensibilities and I am drawn to that surface as themes in my personal work. With that said, we don’t have one set style for our branding work with clients. Our goal with brands is to help them discover their own unique brand personality through our strategy phase. All our creative work is a reflection of the brand’s unique personality: from copywriting, typography, color choices, to the images we create.
The process of branding or re-branding is very fundamental for any company. Usually a great number of people are involved – at times nervous and often with very different expectations. How do you manage to realize such personal works that are instantly recognizable as art directed by you?
Many people can create great work on their own. The challenging part of the process is making work that is accepted by clients, especially when there are multiple stakeholders involved at a larger company. Another difficulty is running an ever evolving creative company with numerous people, and making sure the team is creatively stimulated, collaborative, and offered enticing growth opportunities that make them want to stay. When we first started growing, I didn’t realize how much team dynamics and feelings of ownership over work can change quickly as the team size grows. I was so spread thin myself trying to manage everything, and didn’t pay enough attention to that, and as a result we lost a few talented people along the way. In the last few years, I’ve started strengthening the systems behind our agency’s operations. I’m determined to make us not only produce top quality creative work, but also be one of the top places to work at in terms of agency culture.
Your visuals and digitally enhanced spacial illustrations are oftentimes super slick, witty, surreal and/or disturbing. Do you sometimes discard ideas that are too far out for a company or the public?
The constraints you set for yourself can be anything. Try limiting color palettes, working with a unique tool, only using a specific shape to make an illustration, solely utilizing typography to make a poster, etc. The tighter and the more unusual the constraints, the easier it is to do something unique. This applies to any kind of creative work, not just design. Most of the constraints we set in our work at our studio are inspired by the content, the audience, or the location we are designing for. I will use an example we did at our studio: a rebrand for Appy Fizz which is a carbonated apple juice in India. We started by doing mind maps & word association charts. The liquid is made up of thousands of carbonated bubbles that are circular spheres. An apple is also a circular shape. We kept coming back to the keywords: bubbles, spheres, circles, dots. So we had the idea: what if the entire identity was made out of circular shapes? The second constraint we set was the color: we kept the red/black/white. We choose red because of apples. We chose black as the main secondary color as one of the brand attributes was “dark & mysterious”. Everything from the logo to the graphics for TV, print & digital were made with dots & spheres in these colors. Even though we worked with a variety of illustrators, animators, directors and designers, these stylistic constraints helped unify everything in a cohesive visual language.
How important are visual trends and trends in branding and advertising for you? Is it possible to ignore them and completely go your own way? You have mentioned both classic surrealists like Max Ernst and Dalí as important for your work, as well a contemporary artist like Maurizio Cattelan. So where do you find artistic inspirations these days?
When you look at other work within your field as inspiration, you run the risk of creating things that have already been done before. I frequent museums, photography shows, watch movies, listen to music and have conversations with friends as means of inspiration. I read books about psychology and science and blogs about popular culture. Quite literally, everything we do, see, or listen to can inspire us subconsciously. I try to expand my experiences to keep my work diverse and interesting.
I would say expose yourself to a wide variety of inspirations from different creative disciplines, not just from your own field. Look at film, music, art, photography, fashion, design. Become a collector of things that you find beautiful or that resonate with you on an emotional level. In time, you will notice patterns and themes within your collections of what you resonate with. These patterns can hold clues to your own passions, key experiences or emotions and styles you gravitate towards — all of which can be used to develop your unique voice.
In a way you have turned yourself into a brand: a strong image of a strong woman, yet addressing for example feelings of anger or insecurity. In some projects (i.e. SuperShe) and in many posts you reflect being a woman and the fact that there are so few design studios founded and/or run by women in the US (1%!). To promote the idea of connecting creative women world-wide you started Ladies, Wine & Design seven years ago. It also has chapters in German-speaking countries. How is L,W&D doing these days? What have you learned so far?
Now, more than ever, with the current political climate and the world outwardly battling against hate, sexism & racism, we need to come together and support one another. I started LW&D as a safe space for women & non-binary creatives to build positive connections, start dialogues, mentor and empower each another. We hold free mentorship circles, portfolio reviews, talks and creative discussions on topics relating to creativity, business, getting paid, leadership & life around the world.
It’s been amazing to see what can happen when we come together. The stories that have come out of LW&D have been so inspiring. We’ve heard stories of women who have met through the events and have gone on to form studios together, come up with product ideas together, or help one another find jobs. People have told us how our events have inspired them to confront their bosses who were sexist and inspired them to leave their toxic work environments to pursue their true passions. We’re excited to continue to grow our community and have big ambitions for future events and to give back in other ways.
Your sister Lauren has joined &Walsh – what exactly is her role? In what ways do your roles differ?
My sister Lauren helps run New Business & Strategy at &Walsh, sometimes I don’t know how I operated without her help, but I’m already lucky enough to work with her.
Right after you opened &Walsh, the covid19 crisis started. How has it affected your business, your work? For example you often use models in your visuals, but there must have been a time when doing a photo shoot just wasn´t possible – expecially in NYC which was taken hard by covid …
Covid changed the way we consumed and created overnight: everything done in-person went online. People didn’t stop making things or stop socializing, it just happened in a different way. The speed at which we adapted to these changes proves that people want and need content and that, no matter what, they will figure out how to get it. This shift is not just for the current times, it will have a long-term effect on how we create and consume forever.
Here comes the Stefan question … he recently turned 60, was there a party? Do you still see each other or even work together?
All is great with Stefan and I. Stefan has said he does not plan on doing commercial work for the foreseeable future. Stefan and I are going to continue collaborating together through the Sagmeister & Walsh name on art projects like our exhibition and book on Beauty.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ll be interested to see where life takes me. Right now, I absolutely love what I am doing and enjoy the dynamic atmosphere of the studio. As long as I continue to find challenges and joy in what I do, I’ll continue doing it. If I lose that, I may seek out other creative disciplines or challenges. Or maybe I’ll move to a different country! No matter what I do or where I am, I want to continue to learn and do good work that touches people in some way.
Jessica Walsh is the founder, CEO and creative director of &Walsh, a New York-based creative agency specialising in branding and advertising. She graduated from the renowned Rhode Island School of Design in 2008, then worked at Pentagram and New York magazine Print. In 2010, she started working for Stefan Sagmeister, who offered her a partnership in his agency just two years later – when she was only 25 years old. She was a partner at Sagmeister & Walsh until 2019.
In 2015, Walsh founded Ladies, Wine & Design, a non-profit organisation, a global charitable initiative with local groups in over 285 cities worldwide. The aim is to promote and connect women and non-binary people to achieve more diversity in the creative industry, especially in leadership positions.
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