Jessica Walsh is a designer, art director, and illustrator working in New York City. She is a partner at the New York based design studio, Sagmeister & Walsh and teaches at the School of Visual Arts. Her work has won numerous design awards from the Type Director’s Club, Art Director’s Club, SPD, Print, and Graphis. She has received various celebrated distinctions including Computer Art’s “Top Rising Star in Design”, an Art Director’s Club “Young Guns” award, and Print Magazine’s “New Visual Artist”.
Interview date: September 2, 2012
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Jessica’s work speaks for itself and there’s no doubt—she’s one talented lady. The path that led her into design started when she was young and since then, it’s been her mission to find a way to always do what she loves. The multi-talented designer gave us the scoop on her first experiences with design, the tough career decisions she’s faced along the way, her newest role as partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, and why she believes it’s important to have fun. Thanks for talking with us, Jessica. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for you!
Describe your path to becoming a designer and art director.
I was a big computer nerd when I was younger. At 11 years old, I taught myself how to code and create graphics for websites. I became really involved in the blogging world and people started asking me to create websites for them. About a year into that, I created an HTML & CSS tutorial site that also offered free website templates for many of the blogging platforms that were popular at the time. The website became really popular and I was getting about 15,000 unique visitors a day. This was right around the time that Google Ads first launched; I put one of the ads on my site out of curiosity and started making a lot of money off of it. I basically couldn’t believe that I was being paid to do what I considered a hobby. That’s kind of what I’ve aimed to do with my life ever since.
When I was graduating high school, I was a little unsure if I wanted to go more into the coding or the design side of making websites. I was deciding among NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I’ve always been a gut instinct person and my gut told me to go to RISD, so that’s where I ended up. RISD puts a lot of focus on working with your hands, which was a shock for me coming from a digital background where I was glued to my computer 24/7. I think this merging of craft with a digital background plays a big role in my work today.
After graduation, did you freelance or work for someone else?
When I graduated, I had a pretty tough decision to make because I was offered a really good job opportunity with Apple. I felt a little bit of pressure to take the money and move out to California. My other option was to move to New York and intern with Pentagram, which was a modestly paid position in comparison. But again, in my gut, something was telling me that New York was calling, so that’s where I ended up.
When I moved to NY, most of my friends had moved to other parts of the country or even other countries. I was kind of lonely during my first few months in NY, so I threw myself into my work. Within the first few months of my internship, I started freelancing through Pentagram; I was also getting a lot of my own freelance clients. Then, Paula Scher helped me get my first job shortly thereafter as an art director for Print Magazine. Everything fell into place pretty quickly.
You’re in NY now, but where did you grow up?
I was born in NY and grew up in Connecticut, about an hour from the city. My family would come to the city to see shows or go to dinner, so I definitely experienced a lot of NY when I was growing up.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Definitely. My parents were both entrepreneurs and were very business oriented; no one in my direct family was in the arts. I was a very shy child, but my mom noticed that I was in my element when I was drawing or painting, so she spoiled me by buying me lots of art supplies and craft sets.
I think the arts and creating little businesses was a theme throughout my childhood. My mom always tells this funny story about my sister and me. When I was five years old, my sister and I created this business; we hot glued moss on the top of rocks, wrapped them in cellophane, and created labels—we called it “Magic Rock Moss”. We sold these to our classmates for their lunch money and eventually, the other parents found out and we got into so much trouble with our school, but our parents were so proud of us (all laughing).
That’s a great story.
You talked about getting paid for having the Google Ads on your site when you were younger. Would you say that was an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to focus on design and web? Or did you have any other moments?
Yes, I think it was definitely when I opened one of those large checks from Google. I made a promise to myself that I would always find a way to make money by doing something that I really loved. I was also getting such a great response from the website—so many people were emailing me to say how much it had inspired them to go into design. I felt pretty lucky to have found something that was not only financially feasible, but something that I loved that also allowed me to help other people.
Did you have any moments when you had to decide between doing something financially stable as opposed to doing something more creative that you really loved?
I think it was what I mentioned earlier—the temptation of taking the job at Apple versus doing the internship with Paula at Pentagram. I knew Apple would be much more stable and well-paid, but I knew in my heart that in the end, I would be much happier at a design studio than I would with an in-house job.
Do you want to briefly share about what you’re doing now?
Sure. I’m now a partner with Stefan Sagmeister and the studio is called Sagmeister & Walsh. We do a really wide range of projects, from exhibitions to branding to book design to design for products. It’s really great because every day offers something new.
I started working with Stefan about two and a half years ago. I was working at Print Magazine before and at the time, the magazine had many budget cuts. This ended up being a blessing for me as I got to create and photograph many of the covers and interior illustrations and photographs myself. I got very familiar with photography and lighting, which now plays a big role in my work. However, after a year and a half working there, I was ready for a change and I knew I’d be happier in a studio environment. I emailed Stefan, sent him some of my work, and asked to meet with him to get his feedback on my portfolio and career. To my surprise, he said yes. I met with him, he looked through my portfolio, and after five minutes of flipping through my book he said, “When do you want to come work for me?” I was shocked. I quit my job the next day and I’ve been working with him ever since.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Yes. There are several people who have inspired and helped me along the way, especially some of my first bosses, like Paula Scher and Kristina DiMatteo.
Overall, I think Stefan Sagmeister has had the largest influence on me. I feel eternally grateful to him for giving me so much creative freedom and putting so much trust in me over the years. It’s definitely an honor to be his business partner now. He has really shaped my philosophy on how to run a design studio. I respect that despite numerous opportunities to grow over the past 19 years, he has always managed to keep it small. I think that allows us to be much more selective with the work that we take on; we pick clients that we really like and want to do work for. We also only show one option to our clients versus showing a plethora of mediocre options. I was shocked by that strategy at first, but it really seems to work. The work ends up being better and the clients are less confused.
“How we can use design as a tool to affect the bigger picture and reach larger audiences is something that has always been really interesting to me.”
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do and who has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
There was definitely a little bit of fear in my parent’s minds when I went to art school—fear that I would turn into a pothead or be a starving artist (laughing), but I think that’s pretty natural. Overall, everyone has been really supportive of me and my work, even though they’re sometimes a little bit confused about what exactly it is that I do.
My mom is now my number one fan. She “Googles” me daily and knows more about the press surrounding the studio than I do. It’s really nice to have her support.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Definitely. How we can use design as a tool to affect the bigger picture and reach larger audiences is something that has always been really interesting to me. We’ve done a few projects for charity through the studio and it’s great to be able to use our skills to help communicate messages that we really believe in. In the coming years, I’d like to work on personal projects that touch people well beyond the creative audience. I think one good example of this is the Happy Show that Stefan just launched in Philadelphia, which I did a lot of design and concept work for. We get so many people emailing us to say how the show affected them or changed their lives or just made them smile. I think that’s definitely more the kind of work that I want to be doing.
Are you satisfied creatively?
For the most part, yes. I love the studio and the work we do. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but there’s always a part of me that’s really hungry for new work and challenges. I think that a lot of the work I’m doing can be pushed to be better. I think that most creatives are usually discontent with what they’re doing; it drives us to create better work. If I felt completely satisfied, I’d be more likely to recycle the same ideas and styles into my work.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
I absolutely love the diversity of the work we’re doing now, so I would like to be doing more of the same in that sense. I do have a lot of personal projects that are really important to me that have been on the back burner for a while now. Once things settle in a bit more with the studio—we’re launching a new website, which I hope to be up in a few months—I’d like to set aside time to bring those personal projects to life.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be, or would you?
I don’t think I’d want to change anything. I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes and I’ve had some hard times in my life, but I feel like all those experiences have led me to where I am today and made me who I am today; I’m a better and stronger person because of them. Of course there’s always plenty of room for improvement, but I’m pretty happy with where I am in life.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but there’s always a part of me that’s really hungry for new work and challenges.”
If you could give one piece of advice to a young creative starting out, what would you say?
Figure out what you’re really passionate about and what kind of work you want to do and do it. If it feels like work, then you probably don’t want to spend the majority of your adult life doing it. When you’re young, seek out creatives or studios doing the kind of work you want to be doing and try to work with them. Work your ass off; be persistent; stay curious; challenge yourself; and most importantly, have a lot of fun. If you have fun and enjoy your work, other people will pick up on that and they’ll enjoy it, too.
You’re in New York. How does it impact your creativity?
I think NY is the greatest place on earth to be. There’s so much diversity and culture. I live in Chelsea, so it’s amazing to be able to wake up on the weekends, wander around the streets, and go into different art galleries and be inspired. There are always new restaurants to try or new shows to see. The general vibe and energy is something I really love and feed off of.
[Tina] Have you always lived in Manhattan?
When I first came here as an intern at Pentagram, I lived in South Park Slope, which meant I had about an hour commute. That took a toll on me over time. Since then, I’ve managed to always find a way to live close to work, which is nice.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Yes. I think it’s invaluable to be surrounded by friends who inspire you and who you can talk to about your work and process. If you’re stuck on a project, you can get an opinion from someone who you trust. It also never hurts to have friends to whine to when Illustrator crashes or your printer doesn’t match your Pantone color correctly (laughing).
What does a typical day look like for you?
What I love about working at a small studio is that there is no typical day. One day I can be art directing a commercial photo shoot and the next day, I’ll be illustrating a small poster or doing a typographic installation. Another week I could be working more on our social media or meeting with our studio to strategize on a project. I spent the last month overseeing our studio renovations on top of everything else. I love this kind of variety—it keeps me on my toes and keeps me learning new things.
[Tina] Do you keep regular hours?
I wake up at 8am and go straight to my email. I’m usually in the studio by 9–9:30am and I try to leave by 7–8pm. I know it’s common in the creative industry to pull all-nighters or work till 1am, but I find that that has a terrible impact on my productivity. I need to have a few hours to myself at night in order to wind down or see friends. That way, I can wake up the next morning and work more efficiently.
“Figure out what you’re really passionate about and what kind of work you want to do and do it...Work your ass off; be persistent; stay curious; challenge yourself; and most importantly, have a lot of fun.”
Any current albums on repeat?
Yes. I’m listening to this album called Arabian Horse by Gus Gus, which is an Icelandic band. My intern introduced it to me and for some reason, when I listen to this album, I can pump out so much work. I think I drove the people in my studio nuts because I’ve been listening to it on repeat for the past few weeks, so I went out and bought myself a pair of headphones.
Favorite movies or TV shows?
That’s difficult. I’m a big documentary fan, so I can’t pick just one. Recently I’ve enjoyed Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, and Man on Wire.
With TV shows, I go the opposite direction and watch really trashy stuff like Weeds or most recently, The Walking Dead. I like to watch some TV to turn my brain off and wind down before bed so that I can actually go to sleep.
[Tina] I like Weeds, too.
Do you have a favorite book?
There are so many. I recently read Steve Jobs, the memoir by Walter Isaacson, which I really loved. I was always a huge Apple and Jobs fanatic since I was little. I had read a lot of the earlier books, but this biography paints such a good portrait of Steve, both the good and bad sides of his personality.
I was an intern at Apple when they released the iPhone and I remember being there and watching Steve give the keynote presentation—I got chills down my spine. He was such a visionary and I think the work he did changed how we go about our lives and communicate with each other.
What’s your favorite food?
Definitely avocados—I have at least one per day.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I just want to do good work. I hope some of that will make people think or feel something or be inspired. I am so incredibly lucky to have found my passion; it feels like I never had to grow up because I consider so much of what I do to be play. So, if through my work or my talks or my teaching I could inspire people to find that for themselves, that would be amazing.
Equally important, I’d like to be remembered as a nice person. I’m very much a close friends and family sort of person; for someone I love, I would do absolutely anything. In the long run, it’s important to me to have that healthy balance between work and spending a quality life with the people I love.
“I am so incredibly lucky to have found my passion; it feels like I never had to grow up because I consider so much of what I do to be play.”