Jessica Walsh is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in New York City. Combining an ongoing love of graphic design, photography, painting, and sculpture, she conveys a strong sense of design, composition, illusion, playfulness, and bold visual concepts in her work. Her art looks hand-made and at times quite daring.
Jessica has won design awards from the Type Directors Club, Art Directors Club, Society of Publication Designers (SPD), Print magazine, and Graphis, and she was named Computer Arts magazine's Top Rising Star in Design and Print's New Visual Artist. In 2012, she joined forces with Stefan Sagmeister Inc., now rebranded as Sagmeister & Walsh.
Jessica spoke with us from her studio after a busy day with clients to tell us more about herself and her work — which she considers more fun than work.
Inspire: Your artwork is diverse and eye-catching. How would you describe it?
Jessica Walsh: A mixture of passion, play, concept, and form.
Inspire: What types of projects do you work on?
Walsh: It's a really wide range including branding, typography design, website design, photographic illustrations, exhibitions, and art installations. Within the last few years I've started designing and art directing animation, film, and 3D work as well.
Inspire: Is it mostly client work or personal work?
Walsh: At the [Sagmeister & Walsh] studio, it's mostly client work but we all try to make time for personal projects. It's really important to have that mix.
Inspire: Walk us through the phases of a project from concept to final realization.
Walsh: It depends greatly on the size and the type of project we're working on but it's usually a team effort. We start out by sketching and coming up with concepts independently. After we all come together and discuss what everyone is thinking, Stefan and I usually decide on a direction for the project. This is, of course, followed by a lot of refining and pushing the work until we're ready to share the proposal with the client.
Inspire: Do you find anything different or unique about the studio's approach to a new project?
Walsh: One thing that's unique at Sagmeister & Walsh is that we usually show the client only one fully fleshed-out concept instead of wasting a lot of time on numerous iterations just for the sake of options. I think it forces us to really hone in on the best solution, which is much harder to do than coming up with numerous mediocre options. Our work usually benefits greatly from this process.
Inspire: Do you prefer to work independently or as part of a team?
Walsh: I prefer to work as part of a team. During the first couple of years at school, I had more ego attached to the work I was creating and wanted the design and concepts to be entirely mine. Now I find it much more interesting and satisfying to work as part of a team and collaborate with or direct other creatives.
Inspire: Surrealism really does spring to mind when I see some of the work you've done. What else inspires your work?
Walsh: When I'm stuck on a project, I try to dream of the solution. I just think about it over and over before I fall asleep and then I try to dream about it. Oftentimes this works because the possibilities are endless, and I am not limited by existing technologies or budgets. I don't often dream of the actual design solution — the ideas do seem better in the dream — it's more an inspiration for ideas that I then come up with during the day. I've had some pretty crazy orange-box dreams for the client [Lebanese luxury department store] Aïshti, for example.
Inspire: Speaking of orange boxes, your color palette is very interesting. At times it's particularly vivid, while other times it's almost monochromatic with a splash of color here and there. Why does this selective use of color appeal to you?
Walsh: When you limit the color palette a few colors, it really helps you focus on the overall composition of what you're working on and can be used as a tool to direct emphasis towards content. I also think it's a really great tool in helping to create a visual language and identity for a brand — like we did for our client EDP [energy company Energias de Portugal], with the color red, or the orange, yellow, and black for the Aïshti campaigns.
Inspire: How has your multidisciplinary background helped you do your kind of work?
Walsh: I started with a very digital background. When I was 11 years old I taught myself HTML and CSS and was publishing websites. But when I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], I was in for a little bit of a shock because I couldn’t use my computer all the time.
You see, during the first year at RISD you go into what's called Foundation Studies, where you focus on all sorts of crafts like woodworking, painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture. I absolutely fell in love with this variety and learning to play with various materials.
When I went back into graphic design during the second year of school, I started incorporating a lot of what I had learned from that foundation year into my graphic design work and started combining these things made by hand back into the computer and making it digital.
Woodworking, painting, drawing, and photography are a lot of the things that I now incorporate into my work. In the editorial illustration work I've done, you can see I create these set design–like installations which I then photograph. A lot of them are a combination of making things out of wood and paper, painting found objects, and taking pictures of them, and then bringing them into [Adobe] Photoshop and maybe manipulating them. So it's a diverse combination of different tools.
Inspire: What is your workflow and what tools do you rely on to get the job done?
Walsh: I usually start by collecting my thoughts and ideas and references in an [Adobe] InDesign document, and then for the actual design work, I most often work in Photoshop and [Adobe] Illustrator. My time is split in the middle between the two. I often have them both open at the same time and move pretty seamlessly back and forth between them, depending on if I need to be doing something vector or more image-based. By the way, the new Auto Save feature in Photoshop [CS6] makes me want to hug everyone at Adobe. I love you guys! [Laughs.]
Inspire: Thanks! By the way, what are your thoughts about Adobe Creative Cloud?
Walsh: I've been working in the cloud for a few years now. I started with Dropbox and I've been waiting for this technology to advance. It's so practical to be able to have all your files [in one place] and be able to download [file] updates on whatever computer or iPad or iPhone you have — you know, have your files with you or be able to log on to any computer and have them there. I absolutely think it's the future. It's extremely useful for the way I work and for collaboration.
Inspire: Some specific projects I've seen have really amazed me. The campaign for Aïzone, the casual side of Aïshti stores, features interesting models who are painted like a checkerboard. How did that idea come to be?
Walsh: We started off by rebranding the Aïzone stores and designing all their in-store materials such as bags, boxes, and tissue paper. What we did for the branding was a very bold graphic identity that had a large focus on black-and-white and patterns. With this client we had a very open creative brief. You'd think this would be a dream, but it's actually much more difficult to work this way. It's hard to hone in and refine one concept with endless possibilities.
Oftentimes in the studio when we have these very open briefs, we come up with limitations ourselves that help us focus on a concept. For this [campaign] the limitation we used was that it could be anything as long as it was black-and-white, which was inspired of course by the branding we did for them. So [for] the first campaign, we used the black-and-white patterns that we had used in the store branding to create typographic illusion ads that use inspirational messages. I've always loved the look of painting objects or people. For the second campaign, it evolved that we painted these black-and-white patterns onto the models. For the campaign after that, we painted the inspirational messages onto women's bodies. So each campaign has inspired the successive one.
Inspire: Were you totally hands-on for this project, so to speak, or did you have help painting the models?
Walsh: It's definitely not just myself. I hired a really excellent team of people who helps make the images happen. I was mainly responsible for the design and art direction; the actual painting itself was done by a very talented body painter named Anastasia Durasova and the photography was done by an excellent photographer I've worked with named Henry Hargreaves.
Inspire: The Levi's "We Are All Workers" billboard at Houston & Lafayette streets in SoHo, with the rotating gears on it, is like a kinetic sculptural piece. It's clever. How did you go from concept to an actual moving billboard?
Walsh: Surprisingly enough, this was a fairly easy project because the client was so excellent to work with. The process moved pretty swiftly from the concept through the production phase. It's such a treat to have a client that's not only open creatively but is willing to take risks and can push boundaries on the technology that doesn't exist yet — and also has a reasonable budget to do so.
We didn't personally build the billboard. Atomic Props did the production. There's a little trick they used, which is that the gears don't actually work like real gears; it's an illusion. The small [real] gears were actually placed behind the larger [display] gears, so it looks like they're interlocking like real gears.
Inspire: What is a typical day like for you?
Walsh: I get up around 8 am and start doing my e-mail. Then I'm in the studio around 9:30. I try to get a lot of the e-mail and more boring accounting-type work done in the morning and then focus on creative work. I try to leave the studio by 7 or 8 pm — the latest I work is 9 or 10. I think it's really important to get off at a reasonable hour and see friends or go to a movie or art opening — and have that other side of life.
Inspire: Speaking of that other side of life, do you have any hobbies?
Walsh: Stefan has a really good line, "Hobbies are for people that don't like what they're doing." [Laughs.] I would say that's the case for me. My work is my hobby. I absolutely love doing it.
Inspire: If you couldn't have been a designer, or do anything creative, what do you think you would have been?
Walsh: I'm fascinated by people and psychology and how differently we all approach life, so probably a psychiatrist. A taxi driver would be kind of fascinating because you get these little windows into other people's lives.
Inspire: Any special words of wisdom for our readers?
Walsh: Do what you love to do and are really passionate about. Continue to challenge yourself and work your ass off. And don't always give in to the client. [Laughs.]
Inspire: Don't give in to the client?
Walsh: Yes, challenge the client as well. If they say something needs to be changed and you strongly believe in your idea, then stand up for yourself.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He also produces videos for Adobe TV and the Adobe Developer Connection. Stefan occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.