Having secured her name in Computer Arts magazine as “Top Rising Star in Design”, L magazine’s “25 under 25 Envy List”, an Art Director’s Club “Young Gun,” and Print’s “New Visual Artist”, Jessica Walsh has become a sensation in the industry since landing the position of partner in Stefan Sagmeister’s eponymous and legendary design firm. At the time she was only 25 and Sagmeister had run the company successfully for 19 years without a partner. The renamed Sagmeister & Walsh design company threw further fuel on the fire by reinterpreting the notorious naked introductory card that Sagmeister posted to potential clients back in 1993. The card represented the extremes Sagmeister was willing to go to, both for his own benefit and that of his clients, and this was perhaps reiterated in the Stefan and Jessica remake where they both appeared naked. Yet, it provoked speculation around the nature of their relationship, and criticism of Jessica at the time.
Coming from a performance background rather than a design background myself, I had first come across Jessica Walsh because of 40 Days of Dating, a project that became an online phenomenon last year and was more akin to the worlds of theatre and performance art, than to that of design. Jessica and her friend Timothy Goodman embarked on a 40 day experiment in which they dated and documented their experiences through words, photography, design and illustration. The result was a viscerally earnest portrayal of the inception of an intimate relationship, however artificial and self-aware. It drew millions of comments and followers across the States, whilst also securing a movie deal. The project captures what is apparent across all Jessica Walsh’s work – the exposure of the self to draw attention, define ideas and communicate. We met her ahead of her upcoming OFFSET talk…
You’ve risen in the world of design in an astonishingly short space of time. But I’m wondering what piece of work from early on in your career marked a turning point, the discovery of your signature style? For a few years after college I was doing these playful and surreal photo illustrations where I’d paint my hands or body or paint objects (above). I brought this technique to the work I started doing for Aizone, which I believe is one of the most successful campaigns I’ve worked on.
When you were announced as the new partner to Stefan Sagmeister, the firm is now Sagmeister & Walsh it was the biggest news in the industry. For 19 years he ran the firm himself, then you were brought on as partner at the age of 25 in 2010. How do you explain the unexpected partnership to yourself? To others? Stefan and I had been working together for two years. I was in charge of most of the client work, and helping run the studio. I was ready to start my own studio, and when I told him this, he asked me what I would want in order to keep working with him. I had wanted more control of my time and ownership over my work, and I proposed the partnership. We worked out a partnership deal that we thought would be mutually beneficially for both us and our clients.
You repeated the famous Sagmeister introductory business card by both posing naked. In retrospect how do you feel about your decision to do that? I feel good about it. The original card was a joke. We made a joke of a joke. The goal was to let people know about the new partnership, and it functioned well.
Your work combines photography with graphic design, often photography of installations, often illustration, and it really stands out for looking very different to anything else. Have there been any readjustments in terms of vision or style since joining Sagmeister? No, not really, I think I’ve kept my style. I’ve definitely have a desire to do more personal and emotion driven work since working with Stefan, though.
Favourite piece of work you’ve done since becoming partner? Probably the 40 Days of Dating project.
Are you striking a balance between personal and commercial projects or are they one and the same thing? What are you currently working on in both? I have two new personal projects I am starting on, but might be a while before I am ready to share it. As for client work, I am continuing to design / art direct campaigns for Aishti / Aizone, the lebanese department store. I am working on branding for The Jewish Museum and The Aldrich Museum. I am also designing sunglasses.
The ’40 Days of Dating’ project really resonated with a lot of people, a lot of them outside of the design world. Why do you think that is? To me it seemed like something out of a Woody Allen movie – I loved it and it seemed more like a performance or live art to me, more than design-related. James Joyce says, “In the particular is contained the universal,” and I really believe this is true. While many of us try to distinguish ourselves as individuals, our emotions and reactions to things are often universal, even across ages and cultures. By opening up about them and being honest, people were able to relate to us and find themselves in our story. Since the launch, we had over 5 million visitors, and have received thousands of emails from people around the world. Much of the mail we’ve received is about how our stories and struggles in love have touched people in some way. Some people say our story has forced them to reflect on their own relationships, and has been a catalyst to make positive change. Others tell us how they found comfort in relating to our feelings, or how its helped them understand the male / female perspective better. Others tell us it gave them the courage to seek therapy, or gave them closure on past breakups. Others say that it helped them pause in a busy world and reflect on their own behaviors and patterns. One of the main goals I’ve had is to touch people in some way through my work, so receiving this feedback has been amazing and humbling.
You said it reinvigorated your belief in design. Could you explain how? Designers have the skills and tools to communicate with a wide audiences quickly and efficiently. This is a very powerful thing, and the response to 40 Days of Dating was a wakeup call to that. To me content creation and expression through design is just as (if not more) important to me than designing other peoples content. I want to continue to spend more time on more personal work like this.
You’re currently engaged? May I ask who your fiance is and how you met? My fiancee’s name is Zak Mulligan and we met on OKcupid.
Exposure, often self exposure, both figuratively and literally, seem to be an important component of both the Sagmeister & Walsh design ethos, and perhaps of your own personal ethos. If so, could you explain what draws you to it? Do you mean putting ourselves into in our work? People respond to things that are human. There are studies that show the most clicked on book covers on Amazon are peoples faces. Since we’re the cheapest models we know, we often use ourselves.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna