It’s been seven years since Jessica Walsh came on as partner at the studio of Stefan Sagmeister, a move that was announced by a now infamous nude portrait of the two designers. She was 25. Last month, the studio announced (fully clothed) that Walsh would be opening her own creative agency specializing in branding and advertising called &Walsh.
As industry changes go, this is a relatively nuanced one: Sagmeister hasn’t been involved in the studio’s client work in the past four years, instead focusing on art and exhibitions. He’ll continue to do that at Sagmeister Inc. Walsh will keep the same team, with a few new additions (including her sister, Lauren Walsh, a brand strategist), and the same clients—namely startups and lifestyle, fashion, and retail companies (like Wix, Baboon, Milly, Kenzo). They will stay in the same space, too, at least for now. Sagmeister and Walsh will still work together on select non-commercial projects, like their Beauty book and traveling exhibition, under the banner Sagmeister & Walsh.
Per Walsh, the splitting of the studios just makes official the mode in which they’ve already been operating for years. Per Sagmeister, he’s done his due with commercial work and wants to only do self-initiated work, and is now able to do so. If there’s more to the split, they’re not letting on.
One thing opening a new studio offers is the chance to define both the creative and operational direction moving forward, and &Walsh has made some changes in that regard. Its new branding hinges on a large, style-shifting ampersand that will change with each new project and signal that its clients are also its creative partners (__ & Walsh).
Over the past decade, Walsh has solidified a distinct visual style through her studio and self-initiated work. Her visibility through personal projects like 40 Days of Dating and through Sagmeister & Walsh makes her a highly recognizable figure in the design industry. We talk to her about her plans for the studio, her relationship to social media, and her thoughts on personal branding.
Can you talk about your decision to make &Walsh its own studio? Why now, and what specifically will change?
Stefan hasn’t been involved in the client work in the last four years, so it just made sense to separate the businesses. With &Walsh, we will do commercial work and social initiative projects, and Stefan and I will continue to collaborate under the Sagmeister & Walsh name for our joint art and exhibition projects on beauty. However, &Walsh is a new company, and with that we formed new values, structure, and processes. We’re doing a lot more deep strategy and brand development work, for example.
Another thing that’s different is that when we onboard our clients for branding work, we will take them through what we’re calling a “brand therapy” phase to help them discover their brand’s personality and voice. We’re doing it through a combination of an onboarding website, stakeholder interviews, and brand workshops. The goal of these is to help each brand find their own version of “weird”—we think every brand has something different and unique about them, and we help them discover what that is and how to convey that to the world.
Does the new studio also mark a new creative direction for you?
I’ve been defining my style, especially with my personal work, for a while now. People call it colorful, sometimes surrealistic, at times a bit provocative. I like to be vulnerable and honest with the self-initiated work, and I don’t think that will change. I think it’ll continue to evolve. I’m constantly trying to push our work forward and into new territories, but I don’t think you’re going see a drastic change now. In terms of the client work, I’ve never really believed in having a set style because I don’t believe in placing my own style onto brands.
You do see a lot of colorful work and photography work in the branding and advertising work we do, and that’s because a lot of clients see what I post on Instagram and they like it and they feel that’s right for their brand. But that’s not right for everyone, and we try to use our strategy phase to produce stronger, more functional work.
You’ve received a lot of exposure and name recognition from your self-initiated work, like 40 Days of Dating. A lot of the promotional language around Sagmeister & Walsh positioned you and Stefan at the center of it. With the new studio as well, you as a person are clearly a selling point for the brand. How much of that do you consider just the work, and how much of it do you consider necessary to running a successful business?
I’ve always loved doing self-initiated work, with my own writing, my own content, and using my own voice. That’s something that I think a lot of people know me for, and so it’s something that was important to me to include in this next step [in creating the studio]. But I don’t think it’s mandatory for everyone. Some people prefer to keep themselves entirely out of their company’s branding. They don’t want their voice to represent their company. I think that that’s a fine strategy as well.
It’s something that I’ve seen people criticize us for. For me, there’s not really a right or wrong: people and clients respond differently to the different methods.
There’s a discussion I often hear in the design industry around this idea of “designer-as-celebrity:” that to get good client work, you need to be recognizable, get profiled, give talks, have vocal opinions. One argument, though, is that this is detrimental to the field because it takes the focus away from the work itself. Do you follow this line of criticism?
I’ve seen people be successful both ways. I know very successful creatives who don’t give talks, who don’t put their image on their work, and who are still doing amazing. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who choose to do those things. You see time and again that when you post something that comes from a human voice or has yourself in it on your own social media, people respond to that way better than the work. I’ve talked to numerous people about this. You can see it just through the amount of likes and engagement. And I notice it when I interact with other people’s social media—when I see an image of them, or when I see a video caption or something that’s coming from a deeply personal stance, I connect with it on a human level. That’s what I’m drawn to and that’s what I respond to.
I think people just like connecting to other humans. I don’t know why, as graphic designers, we should feel like we have to keep the human element out of it—communication is at the core of what we do. But I also don’t know about this idea of “designer-as-celebrity.” I don’t consider myself a celebrity; I have no desire to be a celebrity. But I like the human element in work. In almost any other creative industry—filmmakers, writers, artists, and others—that’s the goal with the work, to connect with people. One of the greatest joys I’ve found through my work is making these human connections. It’s something that I like to do and that I continue to do.
Has your relationship to social media evolved over the course of your career?
I guess the biggest change is that in the beginning I was kind of trying to do everything on all social media platforms. Now I’ve mainly focused on Instagram. I used to just have the Jessica Walsh account, but now I have way too many, probably like 10 Instagram accounts across all my studio work and self-initiated projects. I use social media to keep an eye on what’s going on in the world, what people are saying. I don’t only follow creatives—I follow writers, activists, and other thinkers—but I do use it heavily for recruiting and finding new talent and collaborators. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I’ll spend hours randomly surfing Instagram, then discover a feed… I’ve found so many new people to collaborate with in that way.
“I tend to do my best work when there is an element of newness.”
How do you judge your own work when you have such a big public following and inevitably a strong public reaction to whatever you put out?
I always really trust my gut instinct. But I also know that my experiences and my views aren’t everyone’s views, so I do value other people’s opinions. I find it interesting to see what people respond to and don’t respond to, and I do sometimes take that into consideration when making new work, because I want to create work that connects with people or that starts dialogues. How people respond to certain things is very useful in thinking about how to create work moving forward. But I don’t let that dictate everything.
You’ve been really open about your mental health, in certain projects and in your writing and interviews. How does that play out in a work environment?
I think because I’ve been so open, people feel comfortable coming to me to talk about their own mental health issues or personal issues. In terms of how we handle mental health at our studio, we of course offer paid time off as well as sick days for either physical or mental health issues. It was important to me that we clearly outlined this in our new studio handbook. Physical and mental health shouldn’t be treated any differently, they’re both crucial for overall wellbeing and they’re also connected. When people ignore their mental health it manifests in physical ways.
You became partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, very young and in a very visible way, at a highly visible firm. Did you ever feel a sense of imposter syndrome?
Yeah, there were times in my career early on that I felt over my head. But I also found that I tend to do my best work when there is an element of newness: I double down, I research, I put an incredible amount of time and effort into making sure whatever I do is done very well. Throughout my life and my career, I’ve purposefully been putting myself in situations where I felt a little uncomfortable, because when I’m able to overcome those fears I evolve professionally and personally.