Interview: Jessica Walsh discusses play, her favourite designs, future plans & that photo

Sagmeister & Walsh's Jessica Walsh, an award-winning designer, illustrator and art director from New York City, took to the stage at Adobe Max – for which she also designed the identity – to discuss the importance of play in innovation. I spoke to her afterwards to find out more about upcoming projects and her favourite projects to date. 

Jessica, 26, used her Max talk to share her views about play. “I'm a player,” she began by saying. “I know what some of you out there with dirty minds are thinking. But I'm not going to spend the next hour talking about my sex life.” 

“Play prepares us,” she said. “It allows us to practice skills that we need in our adult lives.” 

“I love to play in my work as a creative. I actually see my work as play instead of seeing it as my job. When I look back at the body of my work, I realise that the more fun and more play that went into creating my work the better people respond to the end result.” 

“Play has been the foundation of innovation for years,” Jessica added, highlighting figures such as the Wright brothers and Steve Wozniak, whose play resulted in inventions that changed the world. 

Jessica created the identity for this year's Adobe MAX logo using purple-painted pencils 

Jessica's love of design began with the web. When she was 12 years old, she enjoyed playing Neopets – an online game that lets you have your very own virtual pet – and she loved to ensure that her Neopet had the best website. So, instead of rollerblading or going to the movies, she spent her free time teaching herself HTML and CSS until she could design the best Neopet website.

When other kids started to come across her Neopets website, they began emailing Jessica to ask her whether she could help them design their sites too. And so her career began. She soon found that her website – which featured web-design tutorials for other Neopets lovers – was averaging 15,000 unique visitors a day.

Jessica said that, when she began making money from her website thanks to Google Ads, she made a promise to herself that she would “always find a way to make money by doing something that I truly love and enjoy.”

It wasn't until Jessica went to the Rhode Island School of Design that she discovered other types of design. Jessica's parents weren't keen on the idea of art school, though. “They thought I was going to become a pot head or a starving artist. And I did,” she grinned.

However, she made it past graduation, and began work as an intern for Pentagram for 10 months, and then as associate art director at Print Magazine until 2010, when she took her portfolio to show Stefan Sagmeister, who hired her on the spot. Two and a half years later, Stefan and Jessica became business partners, rebranding the Sagmeister studio as Sagmeister & Walsh.

Stefan famously made a postcard featuring a naked photograph of himself to send out to co-workers to announce the opening of his studio 20 years ago. So, when Jessica joined the studio, they decided to recreate the postcard (above) to announce their partnership, this time featuring a naked photograph of both Jessica and Stefan together.

“If you have a message you want to get out really, really fast, I highly recommend getting naked,” Jessica joked. “Within minutes we had hundreds of Tweets, messages and lots of blog posts.”

The Sagmeister & Walsh studio is small, with just three permanent designers and a couple of interns. Jessica said that they keep their studio small so they can be much choosier about the projects they work on.

“With a small studio, your overhead is much lower,” Jessica told me when I sat down with her after her talk. “You're not supporting the salaries of tons and tons of people, so you can take on only the projects you really want to be doing, versus having to take on a lot of big advertising clients to keep the bills paid.”

“Also, I think that a lot of people over hire, and put a lot more people than needed on a project,” she added. “We found that when you put one person in charge of something, they feel a lot more ownership over it, and a lot more passion, and they really see it through well. Whereas if you have a huge team of people working on something, no one really feels ownership over what they're doing. It's just like everyone always expects someone else to get things done. So we found that's the best way to do it.”

As well as being a designer, illustrator and art director, Jessica has also recently taken on the role of a teacher, at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

“I think Art & Design subjects are really important in education,” she told me. “I discovered it outside of school, but a lot of people discover their passion because they take it as a class and they realise that they want to go to art school and pursue it further.”

Future projects

I asked Jessica what other new projects she has in the works.

“We have a few projects we're working on for two museums," she says. "I can't tell you their names but that's really exciting. We're also doing some subway posters for the School of Visual Arts.

“We have The Happy Film coming out next year, which is really exciting. I have a book project that is being published at the moment, and a personal side website project – neither of which I can really tell you much about. So, a mix of client and personal work.”

All in all this is a pretty busy schedule, so I wondered how she finds the time to work on all of those projects at once.

“It's just non-stop work," she says. "I mean, I absolutely love what I do so... you know my business partner says that hobbies are for people that don't love what they're doing. So this is my hobby. This is my passion so I don't need as much outside stuff. 

“Of course, I have friends and I have a life, but I don't need to play basketball or something like that.” 

Jessica told us that she's subscribed to Adobe's Creative Cloud, which she uses most days for her work. “I pretty much work fluidly between Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, and Lightroom a lot for when I'm managing a lot of photography.”

Favourite projects

Jessica told me that her favourite projects to work on to date would have to be the campaigns that Sagmeister & Walsh worked on for Aishti and Aizone, high-end department stores in the Middle East. 

The projects were Jessica's favourite because the clients gave Sagmeister & Walsh so much freedom, and had reasonable budgets too. “Normally in our projects we have to figure out how to do them with no money.”

 Despite being given complete creative freedom by Aishti and Aizone, Jessica still set herself personal rules for the campaigns.

“You would think that having no constraints would be a dream, but in reality, it's much harder to come up with a solution when there are no boundaries or guidelines,” she explained. “I think creativity thrives off constraints. When I have limitations, it does make it much better. So when I'm given open briefs, I end up making my own constraints and rules up, so that it can help guide me to my concept.”

Jessica and her fellow designers at Sagmeister & Walsh began the project by redesigning Aishti's branding materials, but when it came to the advertising campaign, they set themselves a limitation that they could do anything as long as it contained an image of the brand's well-known orange gift box.


The first advert they did was just an image of the Aishti gift box, but over time the studio began to experiment with different scenarios to help represent the brand as exclusive, sought-after and luxurious. Boxes in a safe, boxes on the wall in the museum, a box on a spider web, for example.


Aishti's affiliated store for younger shoppers, Aizone, also hired Sagmeister & Walsh to create advertising materials. This time, the rule was that they could do anything as long as it was black and white, so they decided to paint monochrome patterns onto their models instead of giving them clothes to wear.


The body-painting theme continued into the second season of the campaign, when this time, instead of painting patterns onto the models, they painted inspirational quotes.

For the next season, Sagmeister & Walsh decided to remove the black and white constraint from the designs (because they got bored of it, says Jessica), this time sticking with the rule that the adverts must contain the inspirational messages. They created the messages out of various materials, including flying paint, light and hair.


Jessica describes that, in order achieve the above image, she had to photograph paint being thrown up into the air in hundreds of different shapes, and then get a retoucher – Erik Johansson, who also spoke at Max this week – to turn those photographs into the finished message. 

With graduate season just around the corner, I asked Jessica what advice she has for students – and what she would have done differently if she had her time again.

“Just work your ass off. Be persistent and follow your heart and intuition," she says. "The only thing I regret is when I say yes to too much. I need to learn to say no more often, because when I take on too much work, the rest of the work seems to suffer.

"So it's better to focus on having less people in the studio, taking on less work and focus on the work I do have.”

[Image credits: Henry Hargreaves (top), Sagmeister & Walsh]

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