Jessica Walsh Kicks Major Ampersand
By Brett McKenzie Posted on Aug 05, 2019
Legendary designer opens up about her brand new studio, &Walsh
Out of all of the incredible creatives in the Young Guns community, few have had as much rockstar success as Jessica Walsh. From winning YG8 at the age of 23, to becoming a full partner alongside design icon Stefan Sagmeister less than two years later, Jessica has had a rocket strapped to her back, fueled by endless talent and ambition. 40 Days of Dating, 12 Kinds of Kindness. #JessicaWalshHasNoFilter — she never fails to surprise.
But the biggest surprise came just two weeks ago, when Jessica rocked the creative industry by unveiling her own brand new studio, &Walsh. Parting professional company with Sagmeister — the two will continue to produce art exhibits and other non-commercial projects together — Jessica is set to take things in a bold, more collaborative direction, one that champions diversity in what has historically been a straight white male world.
Launching a studio is a lot of work, but Jessica still found time to sit down with us to chat about her new endeavor.
Sagmeister & Walsh, 2012 — &Walsh, 2019. Compare the feelings of first getting your name on the door versus being the name on the door.
I went into some of this on our website, but both times I felt exhaustion from the non-stop work that led me to that point, but also an anxious excitement for what’s next. This time around, I feel incredibly privileged for &Walsh to join the .1% of creative agencies founded by women.
How have the years as not just a designer but also a leader prepared you for this moment? What are some of the things you've learned as a businessperson?
Running a creative business of our size is incredibly hard work & I’ve come up against my fair share of challenges. I've made some missteps & I have grown quite a lot from the lessons that I've learned.
- Don’t grow too fast. A few years ago, we grew too fast. We had a lot of demand & took on too many designers at once without the right operational setup. Having the demand is great, but as you grow team dynamics & feelings of ownership change & you need to pay attention to this. We are now very strategic with the work we take on & do not let demand dictate our growth plan. We turn down most jobs that come our way.
- Don’t try to do it all. I talk about this in my recent blog post. Over the years, I have learned that while I like to do it all, at a certain scale of our business: I can’t do it all. This was especially evident a few years ago — our team grew very quickly, with the usual growing pains, & at the same time, I went through something terrible in my family/personal life. I was spread incredibly thin. As a result, this past year, I've dedicated all my focus towards making a few new key hires & a new operations plan. Taking the weight of every detail of the business off my shoulders has made a big difference in our work & the office culture. It’s something I learned the hard way, but an incredible relief as we move into this next endeavor.
- Hiring the right people is one of the most important skills you can have. Early on I always looked for the craziest creative talent that I could find when hiring. It was all about the portfolio: how strong someone was in terms of formal design skills or conceptual abilities. Along the way, I realized that while talent is important, it isn’t everything.
When considering designers, especially for senior-level positions, 50% is their work, & 50% is other criteria: (1) Do they fit our culture? Do they understand & champion our values & processes? (2) Are they easy to work with, are they collaborative & a team player? Too often designers get caught up in their own ego, & we need our senior talent to be champions of the juniors, helping them grow & celebrating their work (3) Do they have an appetite to understand the strategy or business side of the work? Many designers can make beautiful work or great ideas, but do not seem to have a sense for when something is on-strategy or makes sense for a clients' goals or target audience (4) What is their willingness to get involved on the small things that make our agency tick
"Find Your Weird". What was the impetus for this becoming a driving ideal for &Walsh and its clients?
We believe that great branding work illuminates a brand’s true voice and personality. Too often we see brands fall on identity trends that make them look like everyone else: whether that's corporate swiss modernism or more recently the “start-up brand” look & feel. These days, DTC brands in particular want to look like the Casper & Warby Parkers of the world. The result is that branding all looks the same. When your brand looks like everyone else, it’s difficult to differentiate in the competitive landscape and create something memorable and timeless.
At &Walsh, we aim to create timeless brands that stand out from a brands competition. To do this, when we on-board our clients, we will take them through a “brand therapy” phase to help them discover their brand's personality & voice. These personality attributes should be honest to the brand, but they should also help them stand out from their competition. This “brand therapy” is done through a combination of an onboarding website, stakeholder interviews, & brand therapy workshops. The goal of these sessions is to help brands “find their weird”.
Too often brands are told to suppress idiosyncrasies or opinions out of fear of how consumers will respond. The problem is that when you try to please everyone, & avoid anything that might offend someone, you wind up with a “vanilla” brand that says nothing. No one hates those brands, but no one truly loves them either. We’ve seen that the most successful brands stand for who they are unapologetically. A great brand is like a great person: true & honest about who they are, & unafraid to show their true colors.
"Finding your weird” does not mean all our brands turn out bizarre. Sure, we’ve created some brands with pooping rainbow unicorns, but that was for brands who wanted to appear irreverent. That tonality is not right for every brand. We help each brand discover what truly makes them unique, who they are at their core. From there, we can create ownable brands that reflect those traits.
"... the most successful brands stand for who they are unapologetically. A great brand is like a great person: true & honest about who they are, & unafraid to show their true colors."
Same office, same employees, same bold leader — what would you say is the single biggest thing that will make people go "ooooooooh, that's new!"
Our strategy work & on-boarding process for our clients as well as new members of our team. We’re working very hard to make both these processes stronger & more collaborative.
I'd like to address that .1% statistic that you mentioned earlier — the dearth of creative shops and studios solely owned by women. Why is this such a rarity, even in decidedly 'woke' 2019? What will it take to get that number closer to the percentage of women in design schools? You've lived it, you are living it; what moves have you made, and what have you learned from them that you can impart on the industry?
The numbers prove that while 70% of design students are women, when you look at the top, the numbers are unbelievably small; only 5% of CEOs are women. Approximately 11% of creative director positions are held by women. Only .1% of creative agencies are women-owned, which is shocking. There is an even larger leadership & pay gap for women of color. How does this make any sense when women drive about 80% of consumer purchasing? Diversity in leadership at agencies drives profit.
There are many reasons for the lack of women founders/execs:
- Sexism in the workplace Studies show that companies are often consciously or unconsciously biased in favor of candidates who are men, which leads to more men being hired, getting raises, & receiving promotions.
- A lack of diversity in mentors or idols historically Open a design history book, & 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 & race. With a lack of representation among their role models, underrepresented people can be deterred from pursuing creative positions. This is also true of not seeing yourself in media/entertainment at the top. So while I stress getting people there in real life, I also put a big emphasis on diversity at the top in the media & the messages we put out there.
- The responsibility of childbearing Many people start families & have children around the time they’d be considered for career advancement. Historically, most cisgender men continued working & 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 & sacrifices involved in motherhood.
All of these challenges were my inspiration for starting our non-profit initiative Ladies, Wine & Design. We offer free mentorship circles, talks, & networking events in over 250 cities worldwide. We have events on topics such as Creative Leadership, Design & Business, Diversity in Design, & more. I put a lot of my time & heart into this community, & this topic is very close to me, but these social initiatives will also be a driving force of &Walsh. I want to implement these principles within our studio, building an agency that provides equal opportunity for all to learn & grow creatively & climb the ranks towards leadership.
What can we expect from &Walsh in the coming months — workwise, client-wise, structure-wise...
We see the landscape shifting quite a bit. While we will always have a love and passion for print, we have developed a focus on digital content production that is not only impactful but also fast-to-market. With social media, brands are struggling with keeping the quality of content up & also delivering content in a timely matter. We are growing our in-house photo-studio work & doing more digital/social content for brands that stands out from the cookie-cutter filler work that we see so much of today.
We never like to put ourselves in a box with the types of clients we take on. We love to work across verticals, project types, branding vs campaign, startup vs large corporation because it expands the way we use design & strategy to tackle a problem or opportunity. When you take on too much of the same type of work you fall into the trap of repeating the same solutions.
With &Walsh, I’m dedicated to making a few new key hires & a new operations plan that will roll out with the launch & should allow for more growth & retention for top talent & more mentorship for our junior designers. We are also growing our strategy & copywriting team, with a flexible strategic process that meets different brand needs.
I’m also looking to bring on a few senior-level roles, eventually including art & creative director roles. I hope to find a few people as ambitious, hungry, creative/business/production-minded & fiercely loyal to the studio as I was when I was starting out. For the right people, I will mentor them into associate partners or maybe even partner roles.
Sagmeister & Walsh isn't completely shuttering, but rather becoming the banner under which you and Stefan will collaborate on art and exhibits. As his business partner for so many years, what does the ascendency of &Walsh mean for the next phases in his creative and professional journey?
Stefan is a design legend & one of the most creative & intelligent people I’ve met. He is focused solely on self-initiated work & I can’t wait to see the beautiful, interesting & thought-provoking work he will create in the next few years.
Speaking of Stefan, now that you're running the show, what's the Jessica Walsh equivalent of the famous "Sagmeister sabbatical"?
I hope to take a sabbatical one day, but it’s not possible at this point in my career. I have a mortgage on my apartment & I am saving money to have kids, which is extremely expensive in New York City. As a woman, I have a time constraint around my biological clock, so this needs to happen in the next few years! In the meantime, I will continue to do social initiatives with our team on the side of our client work, which allows me to expand my creative thinking outside of client work.
Finally… describe to me the perfect ampersand.
(laughs) We drew 1230 ampersands to get to the ones that felt just right for our studio’s brand. The final ampersands we landed on felt perfect to represent us, though I wouldn’t say that they are perfect for everyone or every brand. As a fun exercise for our team, we are going to challenge them to reinvent the ampersand for each of our partnerships. The ampersand should reflect the tonality of the brand & what our partnership entails.
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