A Different Light: Art Director Jessica Walsh Talks Shop with Use All Five

By Ryan Ernst on

Jessica Walsh is a partner at NYC-based design firm Sagmeister & Walsh. We talked to her about what drives her to push the boundaries of design and her upcoming personal work.


Your studio and personal work is incredibly varied. How do you keep order in your work life? How do you juggle and prioritize your projects?

Jessica Walsh: My rule in life is to always under promise and over deliver.

I have always been good at project management and having an intuitive sense of how long a project would take me or one of our designers – and sticking to deadlines. I never like to miss a deadline even by an hour. I think this is a really important skill that many designers seem to lack from my experience.

You have to take the time to know yourself, your talents and limitations, and be able to match that against your workload, and create smart estimates of time. You then will be able set up reasonable expectations to your client or employer, and you’ll find processes will go a lot smoother.

I budget my personal project time in the same way. I set deadlines for myself, and try to stick to them. Of course, if there’s a client emergency, that’s going to take precedent over personal projects.

I often find dreams and the musings of the imagination more interesting than waking realities


You’ve mentioned before that your own dreams can influence your creative work. Can you expand on this?

Jessica Walsh: An easy trick to making successful creative work is take something that everyone is used to seeing all the time and then make them see it in a way they’ve never seen. Put an unexpected twist on it, show it in a different light, combine it with something they’d never expect. This can evoke curiosity, humor, or numerous other emotions; it can also promote innovation.

Dreams are a huge inspiration for this technique of twisting elements in life in unexpected ways. I’m sure you’ve woken up sometimes and been like, what the fuck was that! It’s too bad our minds don’t do that more naturally during the day.

As humans we often define what happens in our day to day life in the waking world as what is “real”. However to me anything that can be conceived of in the mind, conscious or unconscious, or in my dreams can seem just as real to me. I often find dreams and the musings of the imagination more interesting than waking realities, as they are not bound by the structure and constraints of waking life, and they twist different parts of life in unexpected ways.


How do clients react when you present them with only one design option when the industry is accustomed to multiple options? Does this work with everyone?

Jessica Walsh: We assure our clients that if they don’t like what we do, we’ll redo it. However we often get it right the first time. I believe a large part of this is spending a generous amount of time on the research and design process.

We spend a good amount of time when we start a project researching our client, and understanding them and their product or service. We strategize with them to determine brand personality attributes. We do competitive analysis. After all this we force ourselves to think of what the best possible solution might be that works for a client’s goals but also fits within their restrictions.

This is much harder than coming up with numerous iterations and then making the client decide: that’s just lazy and leads to “frankencomp” work where the client thinks they are the art director and starts combining different elements of the various iterations.


What is a medium or material you’ve never used that you’d love to try? This doesn’t have to be realistic.

Jessica Walsh: I would love to design the US currency.


What has caused you the most anxiety in your work and how did you first confront it?

Jessica Walsh: Expectations. Once I became partner at Sagmeister & Walsh I felt people were judging what I do or say and are expecting me to produce a certain kind of work that meets their vision. Then I realized if I tried to cater to everyone I’d produce nothing interesting: it’s just impossible to please everyone in life.

So I’m just doing the best work I can that keeps me excited and passionate. Some people will like it, some may hate it, that’s just life.


Your project “40 Days of Dating” with Tim Goodman became incredibly popular and I think a lot of people are excited to see more of your side projects. Do you have any plans for new personal projects? Can you share anything about them at this point?

Jessica Walsh: Yes. I’ve been working on a new personal project with Tim. It’s a social experiment using design as a tool to express our ideas and thoughts about certain issues we feel are universal. This time though, it’s not about dating.

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