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Interview: Jessica Walsh

Posted: May 30, 2014

As part of our Process Journal Edition 10 focus on New York, we spoke with Jessica Walsh of Sagmeister & Walsh about what it means to be a designer living and working in New York City.

Studio Name: Sagmeister & Walsh
Studio Size: Four
Location: Manhattan, New York, NY
Further Reading:

Initially teaching yourself how to code and create graphics for websites, your inception into design was via web development of HTML & CSS. How did this then transform into studying and then proceeding with a career (primarily) in graphic design?  

Through web development I started teaching myself various graphic programs such as Paintshop pro and photoshop and became very interested in the design side of web creation. When it came time to choosing what college to go to, something in my gut told me to go to RISD, an art school in Providence, RI. At RISD they put a strong emphasis on working with your hands. This was a shock for me since I had been working on my computer 24/7, but I ended up loving the change. I learned how to paint, sculpt, and create 3d objects. I choose my major in graphic design, where I ended up combining these skills of digital and handmade elements.  

When you graduated, you were faced with the choice of deciding between a job opportunity at Apple and a less lucrative internship at Pentagram at New York. What was it about the internship and working at Pentagram that ultimately led to your final decision?

It was a gut instinct that New York was the place to be, and that in the long run I'd be happier with more variety in a design firm rather than in-house.

In a recent visit to New York, we have also interviewed Eddie Opara and Natasha Jen (Pentagram New York’s two newest partners) for this edition. Can you tell us about your time at your time at Pentagram and perhaps some insight to your most valuable experiences there?

I was only there sixth months but it was incredible to see the collaborations between the partners and designers, and how the client work was handled. I soaked up and absorbed as much as I could while I was there about how a small design team was run. I also greatly admired Paula Scher as a strong women in the design industry. I admired her confidence and her way of directing designers.  

Having recently partnered with extremely well renowned graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister to form the studio Sagmeister Walsh. Combined with an offer from Apple, your experience at Pentagram and Print magazine, you have achieved an incredible amount by age 26. Obviously more than just luck, what factors do you ultimately attribute to your success?

Great passion for what I do, and persistence.

How would you generally describe yourself as a designer? Not necessarily from a technical or aesthetic perspective, but as more of an ethos?

I describe myself as a playful creative. I am endlessly curious and keep a sense of humor in everything I do. I get bored rather easily, so I am constantly pushing myself to learn new things, try out new mediums, or try out new techniques. I think this comes through in my work.

Your first engagement with Sagmeister was originally just an email, that then lead to an interview, resulting in an on-the-spot job offer. What initially lead to you to approach Sagmeister and what most appealed most to you about him and his work? Do you still find these qualities relevant working alongside him today?

I was always drawn to the emotion and humor in Stefans work. It always effected me in some way, whether it was through beauty, wit, humor, or the shock value. This is the kind of work I wanted to be doing more of. My goal is to touch people through my work. I am interested in content and authorship, I am not interested in just making things pretty.

On that day, what do you feel it was the Stefan saw in you that compelled him to offer you a job on the spot?

He said that it was a combination of a strong portfolio and passion for design.

Sagmeister’s work projects the presence of an incredibly creative mind along with personality and a unique sense of style. Now as a partner of the business, how did you find aligning your own personal direction and style with such a specific vision and bold personality?

I think my personality and visions have always come through in my work. The great thing about working with him is there is not one set style. The content and/or message is key, and it's always about finding the appropriate way to communicate the messages.

Sagmeister Inc / Sagmeister Walsh, now arguably one of the most highly profiled boutique design studios in the world. Through many contributing factors including Stefan’s individual celebrity, keynote speaking and controversial promotional pieces, how important do you feel the public profile is to the success of design studios of today?

I think it helps bring in more work, and clients sometimes like to attach themselves with our studio because of the high profile. However I do not think it's necessary. I see plenty of small studios with no publicity doing excellent work.

How much of your time do you spend on studio or self-initiated projects as opposed to commission based client work? What purpose do you feel these projects serve, not only to the studio but also as an individual?

I think my personal work inspires ideas and techniques in the client work. It can also keep the passion alive for what I do.  
You have recently completed the ‘project’ 40 days of dating. Even though the project is surrounded by a ‘design’ aesthetic (and completed in conjunction with a fellow graphic designer) it is not a ‘design’ project per say. How do projects like these, influence your work and do they stimulate you creatively?

This project was transformative for me as a human being, which only helps what I do as a creative. I definitely believe it's a design project. We used design to communicate and touch an audience with our story.

What is your perspective on the current state of graphic design (and community) in New York currently?  

I love the city because it is filled with so much creative energy and passion. There are so many people doing so many interesting things. It's inspiring and also drives creatives’ to do better work. Most of the people I know in the community are very supportive of each other.

Image Credits
01: Jessica Walsh (Sagmeister & Walsh)
02: Sagmeister & Walsh, New York Studio
03–05: Jewish Museum Identity (Sagmeister & Walsh)
06–07: Adobe 24 Hours (Sagmeister & Walsh)

Process Journal
Process Journal Edition Eleven (New York) is now available in print, with free worldwide shipping from our online store.

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