Jessica Walsh Tells All to AIGA Portland

Posted on Aug 6, 2015
Jessica Walsh Tells All to AIGA Portland

Disclaimer: This blog entry is not meant to be an all-encompassing summary of everything Walsh had to say. It’s simply a more detailed write-up a few days later, of my own take-aways and musings upon reviewing my notes jotted down at the event.


“Get off the computer and make shit.”

It’s getting close to 7pm and 400 or so designers are chatting in their seats in the event space at Revolution Hall, the stylishly made-over school building that sits at SE Stark and SE 14th in Portland and now houses several businesses and a few bars. After several AIGA Portland announcements and introductions, Jessica Walsh appears on the stage every bit looking the part of a 20-something designer who has “made it” in Manhattan. She saunters across the stage wearing five-inch platform avant-garde modern wedges on her feet, a strategically messy ponytail, red lipstick, and a piece of stylish clothing that looks like a power suit and a 1-piece romper had a baby. One of the first things she does is show everyone she’s wearing a Nike sports bra under it all to honor Portland and to dispel any myths that she’s not wearing a bra (someone tweeted about her lack of undergarments after a past talk she gave). Taking in her confidence and beauty, I admire her right away, settle into my seat and get ready to listen to her talk, prepared to look for nuggets of wisdom but also for reassurance of her talent because after all, her success at such an early age is almost too good to be true. How could one of my design heroes, Sagmeister, have possibly seen enough value in this runway-model-esque Millenial to make her partner at age 25, fresh out of design school? Was there a catch? If she is really that awesome, I definitely want to hear what this 110-pound slice of Manhattan had to say.

Walsh announces that she’s a player.

Not in the urban dictionary sense of the word, but in the sense that she’s a human who engages in play. She feels strongly that play is a vital part of her success as a creative and as a designer. Recommended reading on this subject is Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown. “Play is a state of mind,” she says, “where we feel creative, focused, or alive.” She feels we have a “play deficit” in our society, and if we incorporated more play into our daily lives we’d be more productive and innovative.

Walsh then segways into discussing the joy we feel from experiencing “flow”. I’ve heard about this before, in the documentary, Happy, and was just describing it to someone the other week who I noticed had a great workflow down behind the counter of the cafe he was working at. As further reading on happiness and flow, she recommends the books of author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. “Csikszentmihalyi is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic,” according to Wikipedia. Specifically she is interested in the flow in creative play, and how it is the opposite of creative block. She gives a few conditions she finds necessary to enter a state of play:

1) Confidence

2) Plenty of time to fail (for lots of exploration & experimentation)

3) Persistence

4) Humor

5) Stay small (as a creative firm, this allows you to play more and worry about overhead less)

6) Be choosy about what jobs you take

To justify some of these assertions, she reminds us that Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Upon a Google search, I find that Jobs follows up this statement with, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

“Creativity is just connecting things.” – Jobs

Walsh goes into more detail on #6 above. At Sagmeister & Walsh, they actually have a pretty strict set of ground rules to help them decide whether or not they want to take on a new client or project. I have a feeling that when Sagmeister started out, he would probably not have been so picky all the time – you do have to make money after all. However the prestigious reputation he has built allows them the luxury of being choosy with clients. In fact, both Sagmeister and Walsh seem to share the philosophy that they’d rather struggle financially and work for clients they like, than be financially stable or comfortable and compromise their happiness by working with less than ideal clients. Factors that influence whether or not Sagmeister & Walsh take a new job include:

1) Do we like them?

2) Do we believe in their message or product?

3) Do we have enough time to take risks and experiment? (They typically require 3 months (!) between project start and when they deliver the first creative concept.)

4) Can we learn something? (New mediums cause anxiety which makes them try harder. Doing something they’ve done 1000 times means they can do it in their sleep and they don’t try as hard, which results in not-as-awesome work.)

5) Can we touch people’s hearts? (They want to take projects that offer them the opportunity to make a splash – to shock or elicit a heart-felt emotion.)

“Any good project starts out with rules.”

Does Walsh ultimately want projects where she’s given creative carte blanche to do whatever she wants? Not exactly. “Any good project starts out with rules,” she says. At Sagmeister & Walsh they begin each project by agreeing on 3 brand attributes with the client which they must use to guide all creative. In terms of creative execution and design style, the agency tends to set up their own very strict style and visual theme for a project which they then turn into a campaign. Such as, black and white images only, that are painted on model’s naked bodies. Or, giving a mango a personality and interacting with it through miniature figurines in abstract settings and sticking to this. A common thread in their work seems to be to bring bold, modern, hand-made abstract graphics into 3-D invented dream worlds using still life, stop animation, words created out of materials, and naked people. (This requires a LOT of photo retouching – Walsh sings praises for their favorite photo retoucher, Erik Johansson.)

Walsh provides some insight on her work process with Sagmeister and the team at Sagmeister & Walsh. After the client signs paperwork and pays a deposit, and after Sagmeister & Walsh take their initial 3 months to play with creative ideas on a project, they present only one concept to the client and sell it HARD. At Sagmeister & Walsh, they tell clients they will only present one creative option, but if the client doesn’t like it, they agree to completely redo the work. Walsh explains that they don’t want to redo the work if they can help it, and laughs, which was why they sell their concepts so hard. But, they are concepts that the team believes in, so it’s not like they’re trying to rip off the client. Walsh believes that “options make art directors out of the client,” which she sees as a bad thing. When presented with options, the client is invited to pick and choose what they want from various options and then asks these to be combined which results in an undesirable “franken-comp”. “We’d rather just start over,” she says.

Walsh proudly provides multiple examples of concepts that they sold to a client where the client was reluctant to accept one detail or another of the creative, and she (they?) was absolutely adamant that the detail remain in the work and she won the battle and the detail remained. For example, a bird craps on someone’s head in the imagined animated world for their video for client edp (see 00:35 in the video) which the client questioned but accepted. But she also cited another time the client pushed hard for a detail and she accepted it despite her better judgement, and it was successful – the Indian mango juice company Frooti insisted on a wink from the Indian celebrity at the end of their video which she thought would be cheesy, but in India the celebrity’s fans swooned nationwide.

Selling out is a concern of all designers and artists…

…and Walsh touches briefly on this topic while sharing her project, 40 Days of Dating. “Do work that feeds your soul and not your ego,” – this was a hard lesson she admits she had to learn. As a result, she vowed to herself to spend 25-30% of her design time on personal projects that she’s passionate about. These projects end up feeding back into studio work without that being the initial intention. They often get adapted into creative for upcoming client projects. Walsh asserts that as designers, we needn’t worry that our personal interests or lives are not relevant in the design world or to the larger public. She reminds of us the quote by James Joyce, “In the particular lies the universal.” Walsh acknowledges that putting your personal projects out there is risky, and you are likely to espouse a few haters among the fans. “If no one hates it, no one really loves it,” she says. “There’s a fine line between love and hate.” (I’m assuming this involves jealousy and trolling, though she didn’t get into details.) The takeaway? You don’t need a huge budget or the perfect clients to make the work you want to be making. Engaging in play by creating personal work can make you happy.

Walsh shared an intention she set for herself written as another handwritten visual projected behind her:

Note to self: Make less pretty crap, make more stuff with heart, soul and voice.”

I left the event feeling that there was no catch to why Sagmeister made Walsh partner at such a young and tender age. It certainly doesn’t hurt that her brain and talent come in such a PR-friendly package, but I’m confident Sagmeister made a smart choice. I can see much of him in her – specifically an attitude that is simultaneously in-your-face and yet also humble and insecure, a drive to create something unexpected with each project, a desire to push themselves to create something that is truly great not just good, a willingness to exploit their own body for their design projects, and a startling honesty about their personal shortcomings. Oh, and they’re both clearly workaholics. But …

When you’re having this much fun, is it still work?