NYF Ambassador Program Spotlight interview series featuring: Jessica Walsh, founder & creative director at NYC based creative agency & design firm &Walsh.
Join Mitra Shahsavand, the Design Director and founder of a Tehran-based Brand Design Studio and Ambassador for the New York Festivals Advertising Awards (NYFA) in her most recent Spotlight interview. In her role as Ambassador, Mitra has conducted a series of in-depth interviews with cutting-edge designers, thought leaders, and industry innovators, shedding light on their creativity and their journeys in navigating the advertising landscape. This week Mitra interviews the iconic designer Jessica Walsh.
In the interview below, Mitra engages in a indepth conversation with Jessica Walsh, an accomplished American designer, art director, illustrator, and educator. Jessica was a partner at the renowned design studio Sagmeister & Walsh and is the visionary behind &Walsh, a creative agency distinguished as one of the rare 1% owned by women in the industry.
Jessica's influence extends far beyond her agency work; she shares her expertise on design at creative conferences and universities worldwide. As a design and typography instructor at The School of Visual Arts in New York City, she nurtures the next generation of creative minds. Her exceptional talents have garnered her numerous prestigious accolades, including recognition in Forbes' "30 under 30" and ADC's "Young Guns."
Her work has won numerous awards from most major design competitions including Type Director’s Club, Art Director’s Club, SPD, Print, New York Festivals, D&AD, TDC Tokyo, and Graphis, among many others. Jessica's work has been featured in numerous books & magazines and have been mounted in galleries and museums internationally. Clients include: Museum of Modern Art, Barneys, The New York Times, Levis, Adobe, The Jewish Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, and The School of Visual Arts. She has taught at the School of Visual Arts.
In the interview below, Jessica opens up about a wide range of topics that offer a deeper insight into her creative journey. She shares her personal motivations that have fueled her remarkable career, delving into what drives her passion for design and innovation. Jessica provides a wealth of knowledge and experiences, making it a captivating and enlightening conversation that delves into the heart of creativity, innovation, and the impact of women in the industry.
Mitra Shahsavand: You became very successful at a very young age and by now for me it’s like you’ve seen it all. What excites you for the future? And what keeps you motivated?
Jessica Walsh: I’m excited to see more representation from designers of all backgrounds, especially those that have not been afforded the same opportunities as those currently dominating the industry. I’m motivated by the potential our industry has to grow from becoming more inclusive and diverse, not just in talent but also in technology and tools. Pushing forward our creative work, building our diverse team, and growing our business is what drives my productivity and gets me up in the morning.
Mitra Shahsavand: Most of your designs are surreal and dreamlike. Can you tell me about your intuitions? Where do you get your ideas?
Jessica Walsh: 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. I prefer to collect inspirations from fields outside of design: such as art, fashion, film, furniture, literature or psychology. The more varied and obscure the inspiration is, the more surreal and dreamlike the work is.
Mitra Shahsavand: You have a style and it’s big and bold. How do you manage to prevent it from overshadowing your clients’ brands?
Jessica Walsh: Just because we’ve had a lot of prominent colorful campaigns and branding, doesn't mean that's all we do, and this style does not define us as a studio. What we do with our clients often starts in the strategy phase where if we’re hired on for that work, we help define what makes a client unique and special and help translate that to visuals and copy. Colorful, bold, and edgy work isn’t written for every client. We’ve done plenty of black and white or muted color branding, for example look at our work for Thief & Heist or Otium, Gut or Countdown.
Mitra Shahsavand: I would like to expand on this question. I think this is a challenge all designers are facing on different levels. Through years of designing, we all develop our own style. It’s not something you can put your finger on and say this is it. This is Jessica or Mitra. It’s not about colour, or taste. It’s the soul of a designer if I may say. The presence of an artist in their art is a wonderful thing; but when we move to brands, since they are living, breathing entities, it makes me wonder is it necessary (or possible) to challenge ourselves to forget about our taste and style and experience and re-invent ourselves with each project we start? And could it result in a new me, as a designer with each project? You may say it is already happening and we find different aspects of our “designer self” with each project. I just want to know what is your take on this?
Jessica Walsh: I find part of the joy of being a designer is, in fact, challenging myself to forget about my own taste, style, or experience in order to deliver beautiful client work that not only makes the client happy, but also contributes something to the greater world. I don’t feel as though I lose myself or my artistic vision if I design something for a client that maybe I wouldn’t design for myself, because it’s not for me. As designers, we’re able to help our clients tell a story, demonstrate a need or a function, communicate a mission, etc. and the way in which we do that is with the client and their audience in mind, not ourselves. If I insisted on having my own taste and style in each client project, then they would all look the same or similar, to the detriment of my clients. Thankfully, having my own agency allows me to have a more personal, stylistic outlet to express myself how I want to through studio projects like Sorry I Have No Filter.
Mitra Shahsavand: Just like brand strategy needs to be translated to images for visuals and to words for verbal, it needs to translate itself to musical notes for music. How do you oversee and direct the creation of music for your brands?
Jessica Walsh: Music and branded sound is one way to create something unique and memorable for a brand, in a similar way a unique wordmark or visual language can help. It’s the same principals we use for the visual design of the brand. What is the personality and audience? This helps inform decisions about the personality and tone of the visuals or sound/music.
Mitra Shahsavand: I have seen you took projects from different parts of the world and I know you usually travel to those countries to get familiar to the culture and needs of your new audiences. Can you tell me more about this process? Specially for FMCG products in some countries there is usually a lot of concerns from sales and marketing teams.
Jessica Walsh: Our approach is to listen carefully to our clients goals and help them do something that will be effective for the brief. What we do for each client can be different, but I’ll talk about a few that come to mind.
One example is our work for Aizone (here, here, and here). The client wanted to do something very creative and art-driven that would stand out and get attention. First of all, stylistically for a campaign, this body painting typography work, or painting an illustration into a 3d set, was very novel. Also, we ran ads for a department store in the Middle East that showed nudity but not a single product from the store, which was really unheard of. These campaigns made a big wave in the advertising world for how new they were stylistically and for pushing boundaries, which ended up functioning quite well for them as they got a lot of press.
Another example is our miniature campaigns for Frooti. They also wanted to do something completely different from what people were used to seeing in India and the goal was to get people talking. The photographic and stop motion approach using these miniature characters and hero’ing the bottles was so different stylistically and conceptually from what anyone was doing in the space The campaigns were extremely memorable and successful in getting audiences attention. Plus, there was tons of humor in each ad or commercial that got people talking and sharing the ads. Now, if people see the miniature characters and worlds, they know it’s a Frooti ad, without even saying Frooti or showing a Frooti logo, which is a big milestone in branding when your visual language can be recognized on its own, apart from your name.
Lastly, for our work with the Egyptian-based restaurant Zooba, we did travel to Cairo and were inspired by the beauty of the layered visuals we saw on the streets: the hand-painted typography on foul carts, geometric patterned tapes, mix & match colored tiles, posters, and painted illustrations on walls. We worked with a Cairo-based calligraphy artist to paint the Arabic type for the branding. We layered this with modern versions of patterns and illustrations inspired by the streets of Cairo. Just like their food is a modern twist on traditional classics, we aimed to do this with the visual language.
Mitra Shahsavand: Do you find AI a threat or an opportunity for designers? How do you see the future of design as a profession? Will we go extinct or change into something different?
Jessica Walsh: When these conversations first started, AI tools were in their infancy stage and it felt as though it would be years until they get to where they are now, but it only took a few short months. With the rapid development and utility of AI tools, we need to make sure the work being generated is not too close to anything that exists. We also need to make sure that any work being fed into the AI was approved by the original artist and creator, and that they’re compensated appropriately for its use. I believe AI must offer licensing fees to the artists whose work is fed into AI, and obtain consent. There are absolutely ways to come up with calculations for percentages of this based on how much is used in the final output. Companies who can ensure fair and equitable use of their tools should work with artists, and not in place of them.
Regarding the backlash with AI, it’s important to remember that the invention of the computer and design software had a similar backlash, designers feared it would take their jobs. But really it just eliminated a lot of the tedious work and expensive barriers in design; and ushered in a new wave of creatives who couldn’t have dreamed in the past to be a designer due to the expensive tools, where they lived, or the intense training and time required to master the craft. This turned out to be an amazing thing for the design world, allowing in new voices and design styles that couldn’t have ever been possible pre-computer.
AI can do the same thing, it can democratize creativity/entrepreneurship in a way we never imagined as it becomes easier and cheaper and more accessible to make things. Do you know there are AI tools developed to help generate apps and websites? That’s so exciting! Anyone can have an idea and make it come to life without the barriers of time, money, connections or locations. Imagine what the possibilities of what we can create to help humanity, and who can be a part of that. So I’m also trying to view AI with both optimism about how it can help humanity when used fairly, and in the right hands; and with skepticism about where it will go in the wrong hands.
I’m also realistic. Looking 50+ years in the future, humans may not be needed for work in most industries, with the way AI and technology is developing. Are governments spending enough time thinking and planning for this? I doubt it. The entire foundation of capitalism and societies may need to be restructured as we see massive shifts in the next decades with AI and automation. Our education and work systems are human made constructs. Can we create new structures that center joy and rest and creativity and art independent of profit with universal basic income? I don’t know but someone better start figuring it out.
Mitra Shahsavand: Once you mentioned we don’t have many women role models in history books, and it’s true and its happening everywhere in the world. What do we need to do to prevent this from happening for the future generation? What steps should we take?
Jessica Walsh: There are steps that we can take as artists and creatives, which is to be the change we want and need to see. This requires making self-sacrifices, working harder and longer than the people around us, being selfish, and busting our asses. Then there are steps that our society must take, systemically, to ensure more women are celebrated in history books. Our educational institutions need to hire more women professors and instructors so that students can see people who look like them in leadership roles and learn from them. Our government needs to do more for parents and families, and make it more possible for a woman to have a family and a career if that’s what she wants. Our industry needs to eliminate the misogyny and sexism that’s present at all levels, but most importantly at the top. We, collectively, need to value women’s work the same way we value men’s, which means equal compensation and exhibition.
If any organizations are looking to help, we’re looking for sponsors and funding to help our non-profit Ladies, Wine & Design. We offer free mentorship circles, talks, and networking events in over 280 cities worldwide. We have events on topics such as Creative Leadership, Design & Business, Diversity in Design, and more, which are tangible steps to take for change.
Mitra Shahsavand: As a woman designer did you ever hit the glass ceiling? What was your personal experience with sexism in the design industry?
Jessica Walsh: There are many reasons why women, myself included, have found it more difficult to develop our careers, some of which include:
#1. Sexism in the workplace. Studies show that companies are often consciously or unconsciously biased in favor of male candidates, which leads to more men being hired, getting raises, and receiving promotions. The imbalance in gender representation then creates a heightened sense of competition between those of us trying to make it to the top, which means defaulting to internalized sexism.
#2. A lack of diversity in mentors or idols historically. Open a design history book, and you’ll see that almost all the famous designers mentioned are white men. The design industry used to be a boys club at the top, lacking diversity across both gender and race. With a lack of representation among their role models, underrepresented people can be deterred from pursuing creative positions.
#3. The responsibility of childbearing. Many start families and have children around the time they’d be considered for career advancement. Historically, most cisgender men continued working and did not hold child-bearing responsibilities, leading to a gender imbalance in terms of career success. Many call this the “motherhood tax,” referring to the financial burdens and sacrifices involved in motherhood.
All of these issues are multiplied tenfold for women of color, women with disabilities, and other intersectional identities.
Mitra Shahsavand: You use human forms in many of your design projects. I want to know what human forms mean to you and why are you interested in using them?
Jessica Walsh: Humans are biologically drawn to other humans and faces. Thats why so many magazine covers use human faces, it's proven to capture peoples’ attention more than most other types of visuals. As creatives we want our work to resonate with and connect to other humans, and using the human form, especially in a way that's unique (such as the body painting or surrealistic executions) is one way to do that.
Mitra Shahsavand: Have you ever faced serious restrictions while designing a project and if so how did you handle it? For instance, if you are told you can’t use human body; can’t show skin or close-ups from a face … what would you do? What impact would it have on your design
Jessica Walsh: I’ve always approached constraints and hurdles to be interesting obstacles. I see restrictions as an opportunity to get more creative. In fact, when the briefs are too open ended, that's where creativity becomes difficult. A large part of the strategy work at the beginning of a client process is figuring out the right ways to hone in and create focused constraints to guide the creative work.