Creative director, illustrator, and partner at sagmeister & walsh
Photos courtesy of sagmeisterwalsh.com
Jessica Walsh – known for her bold, emotionally engaging, concept-driven work – has become a design icon for many visual artists around the world. As art director and partner at New York-based design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, Jessica has played an enormous role in the creative direction of many world-renowned creative projects we’re all familiar with in one way or another. In the following brief interview, Jessica chats with us about creating bold work, the extent of the work ethic that has shaped her career, and lessons learned from a recent failure.
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I read an article mentioning you often felt inadequate amongst other designers in college. Do you still sometimes feel this way, or are you much more confident in your work and placement in life? It took me a while, but I am very confident these days with my work and placement in life. That doesn’t mean that I am arrogant. I am very self-aware and I often see how the work that I am doing could be better.
What would you attribute to your accomplishments? I would attribute my accomplishments to a few things: hard work, passion, and common sense. In regards to hard work, I almost never took a day off the first 6 years of my career. I worked most nights and almost every weekend, and I’ve always been determined to push myself and go the extra mile. Maybe it’s because I am getting older, or maybe it’s because our studio has grown and I have more help; but it’s only recently that I learned the value of also giving myself a break occasionally in order to rest and recharge.
I rarely come across designers with that kind of intense work ethic I had. However, if I do see someone with that spark and hunger, I do try to hire them. I believe hard work and passion is often is more important in the long run than talent.
Passion I think is a must in order to find success. You have to love what you’re doing because that becomes a motivator to work hard and go the extra mile. I also believe passion shows through in your creative work. If you put love and energy into what you’re making, the viewer can often see or feel that in the end result.
In terms of common sense, this is not so common. They should probably change the name of this word to one of its dictionary definitions: innate intelligence. This is the ability to perceive and understand things in the world around you or in situations you encounter, and make smart and practical decisions on how to respond or move forward. Using good sense and instincts is extremely important in managing business and client relationships, and selling through your ideas to a client. Creating great work is only a small part of the battle of making great work. It’s just as important, if not more important, to know how to execute that work, convince your clients to go for bold ideas, and to find clients that are willing to take these risks.
“Using good sense and instincts is extremely important in managing business and client relationships, and selling through your ideas to a client.
Logo redesign and website conceptualization for Meetup.com, with Jessica as design lead. See further.
In 2010, you boldly sent an email to Stefan Sagmeister that would open up an enormous door of opportunity. You’ve mentioned in multiple interviews you were very shy growing up, so I’d love to know what it was that got you to step out of your comfort zone enough to do this. Since the time I was young I was always pushing myself to do things that are outside my comfort zone as I found that once I overcame my fears I felt much more free and happier. The idea of fear is so much worse than actually doing the fears themselves. So I am constantly pushing myself to do things I am afraid of, even to this day.
“The idea of fear is so much worse than actually doing the fears themselves.
Conceptualization, illustration, and photography for the cover of the Sunday NYTimes Magazine feature “Will Trump Swallow the G.O.P Whole?” by Mark Leibovich, with Jessica as creative Director. See further.
Accompanying illustration for the article. See further.
From my understanding, Sagmeister & Walsh has very humble ambitions of remaining a small agency. With that said, what are some of your personal goals for the next five to ten years? Perhaps another viral success project? I don’t care about creating viral work, I care about creating meaningful work. My goal for the next years is to continue to create more personal and self-initiated projects on topics I find meaningful. I do want the work that gives back to people in some way.
You’ve undoubtedly become an icon in the design space. I think with every success though, also comes with at least a few failures. Can you share what your biggest failure has been thus far, and your most valuable takeaway from that experience? Most recently I tried to do a really ambitious personal project related to the presidential election in order to inspire millennials to vote. It was a really great comedy script that I wrote with my friend Timothy Goodman. The script relied on at least one celebrity in order to make the project happen. Our agents at CAA loved the project and tried to attach actors, but we were short on time and in the end they didn’t pull through. I was so bumped at first, it was my first real failure.
However, we pulled it together and refocused our efforts on a new project. Out of that first project I also came up with the idea for the “Pins Won’t Save the World” project which was a big hit, and we raised a ton of money for charity. What I learned from this project was that it’s often easier and better to do more contained concepts that don’t rely on too many other people. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that can be done very easily that are the best. I also learned that nothing is a waste. Many of the ideas we had for the original project were repurposed for the “Pins Won’t Save the World” and “I’m With Her Because He’s Crazy” projects.