What do you do if you’re offered a well paid, even half-decent job straight out of art school? In an uncertain economy and a landscape of unpaid graduate labor, most would say that you take it. But that’s not what Jessica Walsh did. After turning down a graphic design job with Apple for around $100k per year, Walsh instead took a three-month internship with Paula Scher at Pentagram. She’d just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and was determined to follow her dream of working on a range of projects, as opposed to being under the thumb of a single brand.
Walsh extended her branding skills to the creation of her own distinct persona. And whether you love or hate the notion of design celebs, Walsh is memorable: who could forget the nude photo announcing her partnership with Stefan Sagmeister to form Sagmeister & Walsh, or the continual stream of love life confessions from her 40 Days of Dating collaboration with Tim Goodman, or her now very ubiquitous bright paper-made sets that fans fawn over on design blogs and in magazines?
Today, Walsh tells us the story of how she developed her distinctive early style, and the projects that taught her the skills she’d need to become a partner of her own firm at the age of 25.
“I knew in my heart that I wanted to work in branding. My goal was always to open my own design studio, so I wanted to work at a studio that I respected to learn as much as much as possible beforehand.
“I had been interning and doing freelance work for Pentagram for several months after graduating when Paula Scher received an email from Kristina DiMatteo at Print magazine saying that they were looking for an associate art director. Paula recommended me. I was hesitant to take the job, because I loved working at Pentagram, and they had said that if a position opened they would like to hire me, there were just no full-time openings at that moment. I remember feeling very disappointed at that time; I really, really wanted a full-time position at Pentagram.
“In the end, taking the job at Print was the best thing that happened in my career as it allowed me the space to develop my personal style.
“I started at Print in 2008 right after the economy crashed, and budgets at the magazines were slashed. There was less money to hire outside photographers and illustrators for covers and interior illustrations. Since I knew how to do photography, illustration, and set design and we had no budgets, I took it upon myself to do as much as possible on my own.
“I had been working at the magazine only a few months when Kristina gave me the opportunity to work on my first opener spread and cover concepts. There were numerous covers and illustrations I worked on over the year and a half I was there, but a particularly memorable one was the brief for the Regional Design Annual, which was a survey of the top American design broken down by the regions of the USA. We found objects that represented all the different regions and spray painted them in one color.
“I also loved the 20 under 30 cover, which was about emerging artists. I designed the type to be cut off, so when I photographed it on black plexi it reflected to finish off the letters.
“Throughout art school, I had always loved combining design with photography, and I would often create colorful set designs using props and cut paper. I had an obsession with spray-painting everything, and would often use paint, found objects, or even my arms as elements in my sets.
“At Print, I had the opportunity to refine this colorful photo illustration style I had started developing at school. This was almost ten years ago now, and at the time this style felt more fresh than it does today. I began to receive recognition in the industry for the style through online press and awards. Other magazines and brands started hiring me to do that kind of work because of what they saw me do at Print, and I started developing a solid portfolio.
“It was a very exciting time for me, as the more work I had, the more press I’d receive, and the bigger the clients and budgets became. A few years later this translated into creating bigger set designs productions for clients like Aishti & Aizone. I moved from painting my arms to body painting entire people!
“The work I created at Print helped me begin to create a name for myself in the industry. However, a few years after creating this style of work, I lost interest.
“I began to see so many other younger designers doing the colorful photo illustration style. It became so trendy, and I didn’t want to be pegged into just doing one thing in my career, especially as everyone was doing it.
“For me, my favorite part of the creative process was coming up with concepts, so at that point I decided I wanted to shift my focus towards brand strategy and identity design, and that’s when I started working with Stefan.
“For us, it’s about what will function best for each individual client, versus serving our own stylistic interests. We do also create colorful brands, and use photo illustration work that is reminiscent of the work I started doing when I was younger, but only when it’s appropriate for that brand.
“I guess the biggest takeaway from my time at Print was developing a scrappiness and resourcefulness in production. Even though we have bigger budgets now than the days I was in editorial, I’m still able to find ways to stretch whatever budget we have to allow us to do really interesting, large-scale, unique creative concepts within standard ad campaign budgets that would normally only allow for very straightforward model photography. This allows us to create higher quality and unique content for our clients, without breaking their marketing budgets.”