JESSICA WALSH is introduced by stating she needs no introduction, which looks about right as I pan across the star struck faces of AGDA members assembled for her Sydney keynote presentation. Jessica is the “IT Girl” of graphic design (Observer, 2014), and “an ever growing personal global brand.” (AGDA, 2016)
A self-proclaimed computer nerd, Jessica was coding at 11, and soon blogging, designing graphics for websites and even creating free CSS and HTML tutorials and templates. Now 29, Jessica introduces herself as a partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, and both a graduate of, and teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design.
There is nothing pedestrian about Jessica’s creative work. “It’s bold, provocative, surprising and playful all at once,” says Dan Olson, AIGA Portland. Together with her “personal projects”, such as “40 Days of Dating” (2013) and “12 Kinds of Kindness” (2016), she is becoming increasingly well-known. Such social experiments have earned millions of unique visitors to her blog, the purchase of film rights by Warner Bros, published books and enormous (mostly) positive feedback.
On graduation, Jessica interned with Apple and turned down their $100K+ per annum role to take an internship at Pentagram design firm. Jessica entreats us to “do the work that feeds your soul, not your ego.” Next was Print magazine, and in 2010, she joined Stefan Sagmeister’s New York studio. Sagmeister – described as “the rock star designer” in the biography of one of his three TED talks – invited Jessica to become a business partner at just 24.
When Jessica talks about the role of “play”, it’s not the activity that matters, ”play is a state of mind”. We can use a playful attitude and “state of mind to be more creative”. She quotes Picasso, reminding us “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” She refers to Stuart Brown’s pioneering research on play – his evaluation of highly creative individuals, their success and well-being. Brown writes:
“We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play.”
Jessica makes time and space, away from phones, emails and clients, to play, and potentially arrive at the state of “flow”. If Jessica hadn’t become a designer, she says she’d be a psychologist and is a prolific reader on the topic. “Half of our job is psychology, getting into their [clients’ and consumers’] minds… changing [our] approach based on who they are and how they’ll respond.”
Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called “Flow”. Jessica actively sets up this meeting of skills and abilities, of complete concentration, when we’re so involved in what we’re doing that we’re no longer aware of ourselves, time, hunger and so on. This is when our best work is done.
With this playful approach, Jessica believes humour allows our mind “to make interesting and new connections – which is what creativity is about – in a fresh or slightly twisted way.”
Sagmeister & Walsh are creative celebrities, in fact, they’re so highly regarded they’re able to insist on realistic project time frames.
“Sometimes these ‘deadlines’ come out of people’s asses (sic) and if we push back they [find] us the time.”
With enough time, Jessica can take risks and fail; without adequate [play] time, we can miss an opportunity to find a new direction; we’re more inclined to pull from existing styles we feel more comfortable with.
“Every great game has a strict set of rules, and I think the same goes for design. I think limitations help creativity thrive. It’s difficult to do something great when the possibilities are endless,” Jessica explains. Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “Small rooms discipline the mind; large rooms distract it.” When clients approach Sagmeister & Walsh with open briefs, a “trick” they use is to set their own rules and constraints. Jessica:
“I used to think to have a wide open creative brief was the dream. I quickly learned that when you can do anything, it’s the worst possible scenario for a creative”…
Aishti, a premium Lebanese department store required a complete rebrand in order to compete with brands such as Prada in the Middle East, but without the budget. Jessica focused on the luxurious orange and black boxes that customers wanted to keep.
Constraint: The ads must contain the orange and black box. The campaign began enigmatically, featuring merely the shoe box, then positioned in different scenarios – on a mouse trap, in a safe, a spider web. Gradually Jessica added fashion models, typography, energy and drama, but still working within the self-assigned creative constraints.
Aizone is an Aishti sub-brand targeting a younger market, with a significant scheduling issue – it isn’t possible to show the new season range in advertising. So Jessica leveraged this production constraint for her creative constraint: creative was initially restricted to a palette of black and white, supplemented with patterns, zebra stripes, then elaborate painting of maxims on models. After three seasons, both the audience and creatives were bored of the black and white, so they leveraged the positive response to the short inspirational maxims.
In typical Jessica style, colour was added with a bang – brave and bold. The art direction and attention to detail is painstaking, see the process here: https://vimeo.com/72424814 View the print campaign appearing in newspapers, magazine and billboards throughout Lebanon here: http://www.sagmeisterwalsh.com/work/project/aizone/
On doing work WITH HEART
Jessica didn’t always have her current dream job; she created it. Persistence, not procrastination is key.
“I had a job I hated. You don’t have to have a perfect client. Don’t let that stop you. You can make what ever you want at night, on weekends.”
She asks herself: “Can we touch people’s hearts? Not just at a conceptual level but on an emotional level too.” We’re urged to “make less pretty crap, and more with heart and soul”, and to not be afraid of discomfort, any good idea is born out of some form of struggle”.
On DOING It
The overarching mantra?
See more of Jessica’s graphic design on Behance: https://www.behance.net/jessicawalsh
The morning after Jessica Walsh’s AGDA keynote presentation, Julieann Brooker and a few fortunate Sydneysiders met to Play by Our Own Rules. Read about the process and view the creative output here.
See Creative Process students in flow during Julieann’s TypePlay® workshop at Macleay College.