by Lauren Festa
It’s Typography & Lettering Month at the ADC and with the help of our friends at Monotype, we’re showcasing the many ADC Members who make their mark with letterforms. Whether they’re designing brand new digital fonts for the world to use, or creating free-flowing calligraphy to adorn a wall, these artists know that there is more to written words than just their meaning.
Jessica Walsh has become something of a household name in the design world. You might know her name from one of her many viral projects, including 40 Days of Dating and 12 Kinds of Kindness, both projects completed with creative accomplice Timothy Goodman. Jessica who has been dubbed the ‘it girl of graphic design’ by the Observer, a Young Guns winner and the Walsh half of creative agency Sagmeister & Walsh, her story in becoming a design darling is as inspiring as the very art she makes. From her handwritten quotes that appear on her Instagram with the hashtag #JessicaWalshHasNoFilter to her commercial work for clients including Frooti and Aizone, her work has a sense of empathy and human connection. Plus, it looks damn good.
You have quite an incredible story. Can you give us a brief history from when you just started out to becoming partner at Sagmeister and eventually, working on some really interesting projects? Was typography and design always the vehicle?
When I was 12 I taught myself how to code and design websites. I created a HTML help site that taught other kids how to make websites. Google advertising had just launched and I tried one of their banners on my website and started making a lot of money off of it. I never thought I could make money from this hobby, I always thought I would have to do a regular job in business or finance. This was part of what gave me confidence to go to art school and dedicate my life to design.
After graduating from RISD I turned down a job at Apple to intern for Paula Scher. I worked there for many months before I landed a job as an art director at Print magazine. I started working there in 2008 when the economy crashed and the magazine’s budgets were slashed for illustration and photography. I’ve always approached constraints and hurdles to be interesting obstacles to work within. So I taught myself photography and set design and started creating a lot of the cover and interior artwork myself for the magazine.
This was where I developed my colorful handcraft set design style. I experimented and played with all kinds of techniques that I had never seen done before in design world, like body painting. I started to be recognized for this surrealistic set design style and did work for all kinds of editorial clients. After a few years of doing this I realized I didn’t want to just be pigeon holed into doing this one kind of illustration style. Plus at that point other young designers were imitating some of that work and having a singular style lost its appeal to me. I wanted to start a design studio so I could focus on coming up with smart concepts and solutions for different kinds of clients, and get to think creatively across a wider range of mediums.
I emailed Stefan Sagmeister for advice on my portfolio and he met with me. He asked if I wanted to try working with him and we did. After a few years together I was ready to start my own studio. It was at this point we started having conversations about ways we could continue to work together, and the partnership was the result.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in “making it” as a professional in your field?
It was difficult starting out in NYC as I barely made any money as an intern. This city is expensive, fast paced and can be unforgiving. In the beginning I had to work my ass off balancing crap jobs that made money alongside making creative interesting work that I was passionate about on nights and weekends. Actually I still work my ass off and barely take any vacations, but its on my own terms now. I love what I do so that helps.
Sky’s the limit: What is a dream client or collaboration?
Redesigning the US currency, or a US airport, both are quite horribly designed an used by so many people every day.
You’ve worked on many projects that have garnered tremendous success in the design community and beyond. Did you anticipate their viral-ness?
I am not a trend forecaster. However it’s not too difficult to gauge what people will like and react well to if you keep in mind audience and context. Generally if you create work that is unique and fresh that moves people emotionally in some way, people respond well to it.
Of these projects, which has been your favorite or the most rewarding and why?
Some words I would use to describe your style are bold, colorful, unexpected, playful. Would you agree?
What kinds of projects really excite you?
Work I’ve never done before. Work that can touch a mass audience.
What is your favorite practical typeface for everyday use?
Is there an educational source, website or book that you would recommend for aspiring typographers/designers?
Lots of goodies here.
From software to soft skills, what are your must-have tools?
Calligraphy brush pen or sumi ink and a paint brush.
Peeping your Instagram, I especially like your #JessicaWalshHasNoFilter posts. Did you develop a special kind of font for these?
No I hand write them every time.
How does travel help re-energize your creativity?
Communication design is all about empathy. Understanding how to speak to people in various contexts. Traveling the world and meeting new people helps me understand different kinds of people and cultures. The more unique experiences we have as designers, the better we can be at our work.
Serif vs Sans Serif: Who wins?
They are both useful based on context.
What is your favorite letter and why?
Z. It sounds and looks cool and its also the first letter of my husbands name.
How do you continue to challenge yourself and avoid hitting creative plateaus?
I always go after work, topics, or clients that are unfamiliar and new so I can keep learning things.
Who in your orbit is producing work that you are loving right now?
In the design world: Stefan Sagmeister, Eike from Hort, Christoph Niemann, Timothy Goodman. In art: Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Erwin Wurm, Hans Hemmert, among many others.