Long before gaining fame as a graphic designer, Jessica Walsh was determined to tackle challenges on her own terms and share what she'd learned.
For example, in her teens, Walsh created a website to teach other young people how to code and make sites of their own.
"Being able to pass down my knowledge was something I always strived to do on a larger scale one day," she says. "As I got older, I realized there were other motives outside of passing down my knowledge and putting beautiful work into the world. I also wanted to have control over my future, like where I live, when I can have kids, and major decisions around how to run the business."
What's more: "It was always my dream to have a studio that was entirely my own."
Last week, after seven years as a partner in Sagmeister & Walsh, she made that dream come true, launching &Walsh, a wholly owned agency operating out of her previous company's space in New York's Flat Iron district. She'll still collaborate with Stefan Sagmeister under the Sagmeister & Walsh banner when opportunities arise, but he's not part of the new company.
With 25 employees—mainly from S&W—and clients such as Apple, Beats by Dre and Snapchat, &Walsh becomes one of the very few women-owned creative shops in the industry. Moving ahead, Walsh seeks to expand her base and build on efforts for clients such as apparel brand Milly …
… luxe jeweler Thief & Heist …
… and chef-crafted dog-food label Pet Plate:
Rarely subtle (even the type-heavy Thief & Heist campaign really pops), she's become renowned for a style that's bold and playful at the same time. Walsh's work demands attention, but never loses its sense of fun. She sidesteps sameness, amplifying each client's unique voice.
"In the last few years, we've moved beyond design and art direction into deeper strategy and brand development work," Walsh says. "We work with brands in early stages, advising on products, identifying audiences and helping to shape the brand from the ground up."
Along with client work, she wants &Walsh to use design and creativity for social impact. That means investing more into projects such as Ladies, Wine & Design—her global nonprofit that brings women in creative fields together for networking—and Let's Talk About Mental Health, which harnesses design to spark conversations around issues that typically have a stigma around them.
"This type of work will be central to our agency and we have big plans to grow them," she says.
Never shy about quirky self-promotion, Walsh has become known beyond creative circles for efforts such as 40 Days of Dating, a 2013 social experiment with designer friend Tim Goodman. They did, in fact, become a couple for 40 days, generating a much-trafficked blog, TV appearances and a book deal.
"The response to 40 Days of Dating was overwhelming, and it made a huge impact on my work since," Walsh says. "It gave me confidence that as designers, we can create work that connects with people on an emotional level. There is a prevailing belief in the design industry that people should remove themselves from their work physically or mentally. However, I've found time and time again that work functions better when there's a human element to it."
More recently, she and Goodman teamed up for 12 Kinds of Kindness, illustrating steps people can take to make the world a better place.
In the conversation below with Muse, edited for length and clarity, she reveals her creative philosophy and discusses the inequality that exists in the industry:
Muse: Do you have a design philosophy?
Jessica Walsh: A great brand is like a great person—true and honest about who they are, and unafraid to show their true colors. Too often, brands are told to suppress idiosyncrasies or opinions out of fear of how consumers will respond. The problem is that when you try to please everyone, and avoid anything that might offend someone, you wind up with a vanilla brand that says nothing. No one hates those brands, but no one truly loves them, either. The most successful brands stand for who they are unapologetically. When we on-board new clients, we take them through "brand therapy." This happens through a website we're developing, stakeholder interviews and workshops, resulting in work that makes us proud while delivering on brand goals.
What's the best advice you'd give a would-be owner/founder?
If you're a creator, focus on your passion and craft. What can you bring to the craft that's uniquely your own? The most successful people I've known prioritize the content and the work they're creating before fame and money. The people I know who set out with the intention of only being rich and famous never went too far. Second, while you have to work incredibly hard to get to leadership positions, don't forget to enjoy the journey. So many of us get tied up in the end goal that we forget to take a step back and appreciate the process, our teams, and all the incredible people you meet along the way. I have been guilty of this in the past, and it's something I definitely want to focus on with this new chapter.
Talk about women leading agencies. Or people of color. Or trans folks. What steps can the industry take to boost deserving diverse employees into senior roles?
The numbers say it all: 70 percent of design students are women, but when you look at the top, the numbers are shockingly small. Only 5 percent of CEOs are women. Approximately 11 percent of creative director positions are held by women. Only 0.1 percent of creative agencies are women-owned. Point. One. Percent. How does this make any sense when women drive about 80 percent of consumer purchasing? Diversity in leadership at agencies drives profit.
In addition to the leadership gap, there is still a pay gap for women and an even larger gap for women of color. We cannot talk about feminism without including the varying intersections of privilege and oppression. Feminism all too often champions the equality of white, cisgender, straight women. Feminism should be inclusive of all people, championing equality for everyone—no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age or ability. Studies show that after transitioning, transgender women's earnings fall by nearly one-third. Studies and conversations about the gender pay gap need to be more inclusive, rather than just about comparisons between cisgender men and women. Most corporations do not recognize people's genders outside of male and female, and for this reason, there are very few studies on wage discrepancy for non-binary people, and this needs to change.
I have many privileges in this life. I'm white and cisgender in a heteronormative relationship. I came from a family who could afford my education without leaving me in debt. I found a career I am passionate about. I've had the incredible opportunity to work with amazing creative people who inspire me, to work on projects that challenge me and to find success along the way. In this next chapter of my career, I'm determined to use this privilege to continue to give back to the world and to our amazing community in bigger ways. This means putting a focus on social initiatives that champion and amplify underrepresented voices, to pass on what I've learned to others, and to give back to those less privileged.
That's why I started Ladies, Wine & Design. We offer free mentorship circles, talks and networking events in over 250 cities worldwide. We have events on topics such as creative leadership, design and business, diversity in design, and more. These social initiatives will be a driving force of &Walsh. I also want to implement these principles within our studio. I'm excited to build an agency that provides equal opportunity for all to learn and grow creatively and climb the ranks toward leadership.
What creative work inspired you as a young person? What inspires you now?
Growing up, I was inspired by my grandmother's crazy fashion. She didn't have much money, but she was able to put together these amazing colorful outfits that were so inspiring. [Today] when I come across something I find beautiful, I collect it. I take a photo or video of it, tear a page out of a magazine, or copy a passage from a book. For photography and videos, I use Pinterest to organize all my inspirations. I also collect things into an inspiration folder on my Dropbox and organize them by field: sculptures, fashion, psychology, photographs, paintings, nature—as well as by themes: colors, shapes. For writing or text-based inspirations, I organize them in Evernote. I prefer to collect inspirations from fields outside of design: art, fashion, film, furniture, literature or psychology. The more varied and obscure your inspiration is, the fresher your work will feel.
Are you surprised by your level of celebrity, and does it inform your work?
While I didn't predict my following would be quite as large as it is today, I did know that I wanted to use design to create an impact and open dialogues to the public on topics I feel passionate about. As I created projects on topics outside the design industry, my following grew larger. It's a privilege to have an audience, and I want to use this for our social initiatives, and to champion and amplify underrepresented voices. I also want to pass on what I've learned to others, which is why I started our blog with my longer-form writing. We have many exciting plans and new project ideas in the works, and these initiatives will be a driving force of our agency.
OK, you and Jony Ive are chasing a great project. Why should the client choose you?
It would be difficult for me to answer this question without knowing the client or the project and if we'd truly be a better fit than Jony Ive. He would be a better fit for many projects. We know our core strengths in strategy, branding and advertising. We choose clients partially based on whether we're confident we can actually make a difference for them and help them achieve their goals.
We also like to work with brands that want to create something true to themselves and differentiated in the competitive landscape. In the last few years, there have been many design studios and agencies trying to replicate the "startup brand" look and feel. Everyone wants to look like the Casper, Warby Parker and Aways of the world. The result is that all these DTC brands look identical with their millennial pinks, blues and yellows and clean minimal typography. You can't tell them apart, and people are tired of the sameness and craving something new. When you follow what everyone else is doing and create a trendy brand, you're putting a ticking time bomb on your branding.