[Photography by Ryan Carville]
Jessica Walsh is the no-nonsense art director for the award-winning creative agency Sagmeister & Walsh. Consider one surreal photo illustration from an ad campaign the 27-year-old led: In cursive script, the command talk less, say more repeats like a typographical mantra down the white body of a dancing geisha. Made for the Middle Eastern luxury department store Aïzone, both the design and dictum are signature Walsh: bold, emotional and provocative.
“I want to create work that is playful, that evokes some sort of response, whether it’s bringing people joy or delight or making them think about things in a different way—shocking them,” she says.
Contrasting the magnitude of a woman’s work with the smallness of her stature may be a tired cliché, but Walsh is so physically tiny when I meet her in person—a spare five feet tall with razor-straight hair—that the disparity seems impossible to ignore. Though petite, she’s striking in a white boxy tee and black, waxed skinny jeans.
We sit on the porch outside the agency’s minimalist Chelsea studio, a white space with creaky floors where Patti Smith may have lived. “I know she was in the building, and there’s a photo of her hanging out on this balcony,” Walsh says. Nearby sits a mini-trampoline she bought for exercise during a demanding 24-hour photo shoot—a testament to her unflagging resolve. “I’m very passionate about the work I do, which drives me to be a workaholic,” she admits.
Walsh is best known for two things: a controversial nude photo and a ridiculously popular dating blog. Both have been abundantly analyzed on the web. In short, when she and Stefan Sagmeister—the 51-year-old Austrian designer famous for his collaborations with Lou Reed—became partners in 2012, they announced the news by restaging the naked self-portrait he released two decades earlier when launching the firm. Uproar expectedly ensued, but Walsh cheekily contended the design was successful because it did its job: it got people thinking about the partnership.
Then in 2013, she and designer-friend Timothy Goodman started “40 Days of Dating,” an experiment in which they gave themselves just under six weeks to fall in love. They documented their relationship with pensive blog entries, revealing questionnaires and clever, artsy videos that won five million unique visitors, an appearance on the Today show and accusations of narcissism and masochism from websites like Gawker and Jezebel. On day 40, they (predictably) broke up, but they scored a book deal with Phaidon Press and sold movie rights to Warner Bros. (Walsh says the book will be released in February, and she is now engaged to cinematographer Zak Mulligan, who she met on OKCupid).
Such scenarios make Walsh sound edgy—even a bit risqué—but her warm, goofy laugh gives away a geekier side. As an introverted kid growing up in Connecticut, she loved computer games like Neopets and taught herself website code and design. At age 12, she and an Internet friend started a profitable business designing online diary layouts. She had a little help, since her parents owned a software company and their in-house graphic designer gave her tips.
Walsh went on to study graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Right out of school, Apple offered her a $100,000 a year job, but she turned it down for a low-paying, three-month New York internship with design guru Paula Scher at Pentagram.
“I really wanted to learn from her,” she recalls. She hoped to get hired on at the small firm, but as months passed it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Exhausted from spending nights tweaking projects in the studio and struggling to keep her bank account in the green, she nearly left New York. But her persistence paid off: Scher got her a job as the associate art director at Print magazine. “I’m so happy I didn’t give up,” she says.
In 2010, she showed her designs to Sagmeister, hoping for a little constructive criticism from a designer she deeply admired. They were standing in the same studio they now occupy together, and after flipping through her book, Sagmeister asked if she’d like to collaborate. Two years later, they became partners.
“[Jessica] can make an idea look beautiful,” Sagmeister says. “One of the reasons I thought she would make a wonderful partner was that she is fantastic in all aspects of design. She can come up with a great idea, execute it, explain it and—maybe most importantly—know how to make it happen.”
Walsh’s approach to design is extremely intuitive. Her list of inspirations tilts toward the fantastical: artists like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Max Ernst and Maurizio Cattelan, and films like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Labyrinth. She’s fascinated by psychology, and a few years ago began practicing lucid dreaming—meditating on a design problem before bed and hoping to solve it in her sleep. “Creativity is somewhat elusive,” she says. “That kind of ‘anything is possible’ mentality you have in dreams is helpful in design.”
Though Sagmeister started out as Walsh’s mentor, things have equalized over the years as the agency has grown to include other designers. Currently, they’re working on a redesign of The Jewish Museum of New York and a new line of sunglasses.
“A lot of people think I have it all together when they read these interviews and see photos and everything,” Walsh tells me. “But I’m kind of a mess in real life. I’m just taking everything as it comes and figuring it out. Have you seen our studio? It’s a disaster!”
Walking out, I notice her desk by the corner window overlooking 23rd Street. It supports a mountain of papers, art supplies, a half-eaten box of Chinese takeout and proofs for the upcoming book. A dead air plant trails out of a bud vase on the windowsill. Walsh is right. It is a disaster. But out of its chaos comes refreshing, original design from one of the industry’s rising stars.