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Meet the Experts: How to Build a Successful Design Agency with World-Renowned Designer Jessica Walsh

Jessica Walsh is one of the most influential graphic designers of our time. We picked the brain of this creative powerhouse to learn how she built her thriving career, as well as her top advice for aspiring designers.

Posted 25 Aug 2022
Meet the Experts: How to Build a Successful Design Agency with World-Renowned Designer Jessica Walsh

Jessica Walsh is one of the most iconic graphic designers of the modern age. As the founder and creative director of world-renowned design agency, &Walsh, she’s had a significant impact on the evolution of visual trends and the graphic design industry. Her designs and illustrations have been featured everywhere, from the New York Times and New York Times Magazine to major celebrity and brand campaigns.

Jessica started coding and designing websites when she was only 11 and soon realized that this was more than a hobby – she wanted to dedicate her life to art and design. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design in 2008, she moved to New York City where she turned down a job at Apple to intern under fellow iconic female designer, Paula Scher. She then went on to co-found the prestigious New York design studio Sagmeister & Walsh, where she worked with big-name brands including Levi’s, Aizone and Adobe. 

After nearly a decade of building her career at Sagmeister & Walsh, Jessica is now the founder and creative director of her own company, &Walsh – a fresh, vibrant design and branding agency that produces unique, modern designs with a retro influence

In addition to being a design and business powerhouse, Jessica is also a passionate advocate for seeing more women in creative director roles, and in graphic design in general. Putting her advocacy into action, she founded @ladieswinedesign and @letstalkaboutmentalhealth – two ventures focused on breaking down sexism in graphic design, de-stigmatizing mental health, and empowering women to achieve their creative goals. 

There’s no denying that Jessica Walsh is a true expert in her field. She’s won numerous awards and distinctions – including Art Directors Club’s Young Gun Award and Print magazine’s New Artist Award – and was even named one of Complex Networks’ 25 People Shaping the Future of Design. She also teaches design and typography at The School of Visual Arts in New York, and has lectured at various international creative conferences and universities. 

Despite her busy schedule, we were lucky enough to pick the brain of this living legend to learn how she built her thriving career, and her advice for other designers aspiring to do the same. 

Tell us your story! How did you get into design and develop your career?

When I was 11, I taught myself how to code and design websites. I created an HTML help site that taught other kids how to make websites. Google Advertising had just launched, and I tried one of their banners on my website and started making a lot of money from it. I never thought I could make money from this hobby; I always thought I would have a regular job in business or finance. But my early success with web design gave me the confidence to go to art school and dedicate my life to design. 

My early success with web design gave me the confidence to go to art school and dedicate my life to design.

After graduating from RISD, I turned down a job at Apple to intern for Paula Scher. I worked there for many months before I landed a job as an art director at Print Magazine. I started working there in 2008 when the economy crashed, and the magazine’s budgets for illustration and photography were slashed.

I’ve always approached constraints and hurdles as interesting obstacles. I taught myself photography and set design and started creating a lot of the cover and interior artwork for the magazine.

This was where I developed my colorful handcrafted set design style. I experimented and played with all kinds of techniques that I had not seen done before in the design world, like body painting. I started to be recognized for this colorful and surreal set-design style and was hired by all editorial clients.

What made you want to start your own creative agency, and how did you make it a reality? 

After a few years of my set design journey, the colorful photo illustration style became trendy. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into doing this one thing, especially as it no longer felt fresh or unique. I decided that I wanted to start a design/branding studio so I would have varied clients and challenges.  

That’s when I started working with Stefan. At the time, it was at his studio, Sagmeister Inc. Immediately after starting at his studio I started handling all aspects of the project, from ideation, client management, and design, all the way through production. After a few years, I was ready to go on to start my own studio, but he didn’t want me to leave. That’s when I negotiated the partnership, and our studio became Sagmeister & Walsh. 

Since the partnership, I’ve grown the business and expanded our capabilities. We now take on extensive projects with multiple touchpoints, including rebranding, ad campaigns, TV commercials, social strategies, influencer programs, and more. We also have a photo studio and create content for brands in-house. We’re a strong creative team of 40 with diverse skills and talents. 

What challenges have you faced in running your agency? Any advice for aspiring designers or creatives? 

Running a creative business of our size is incredibly hard work, and I’ve come up against my fair share of challenges. Below are some missteps and lessons from which I have grown. 

1. Don’t grow too fast

A few years ago, we grew too fast. We had a lot of demand and took on too many designers at once without the proper operational setup. Having demand is great, but as you grow, team dynamics and feelings of ownership change, and you need to pay attention to this. We are now very strategic with the work we take on and don’t let demand dictate our growth plan. We turn down most jobs that come our way. 

2. Hire the right people

Early on, I looked for the craziest creative talent I could find when hiring. It was all about the portfolio: how strong someone was in formal design skills or conceptual abilities. Along the way, I realized that while talent is important, it isn’t everything. When considering designers for promotions, especially for senior-level positions, 50% is their work, and 50% is other criteria: 

  • Do they fit our culture? Do they understand and champion our values and processes? 
  • Are they easy to work with and collaborative team players? Too often, designers get caught up in their own egos. We need our senior talent to champion the juniors, helping them grow, evolve, and celebrate their work – not try to take credit for the work themselves.
  • Do they have an appetite for the strategy or business side of the work? Many designers can make beautiful work or come up with great ideas but don’t know when something is on-strategy or makes sense for a client’s goals or target audience.
  • What is their willingness to get involved in the small things that make our agency tick?

3. Fake it ’til you make it

This is the best piece of advice I was ever given, and I want to share it with everyone! Early in my career, I interpreted this as – if someone asked me to do something I didn’t know how to do, I’d just say yes and figure it out later. It’s not difficult to accomplish any task if you use common sense, persistence, know-how, and resourcefulness. This is my #1 piece of advice I give others when starting out. Google it, read up, research, and create your own opportunities. 

What’s your creative process for creating branding for your clients? How do you bring your design ideas to life? 

At &Walsh, when we onboard our clients for branding work, we will take them through a “brand therapy” phase to help them discover their brand personality and voice. This is done via an onboarding website, stakeholder interviews, and brand therapy workshops. These sessions aim to help brands “find their weird.”

We help each brand “find their weird”, discover who they are, and develop our work around that. 

We believe every brand has something weird, different, or unique that’s their most valuable asset. “Finding your weird” doesn’t mean all our branding turns out bizarre or strange. Sure, we’ve created some brands with pooping rainbow unicorns and flying alien dogs with spider legs, but that’s just the brands who wanted to appear bizarre or irreverent. That tonality isn’t right for every brand, and we don’t force our personality or style onto brands we work with. We help each brand “find their weird”, discover who they are and develop our work around that. 

You’ve worked with some of the world’s biggest names – literally! What have been some of your career highlights?

While I’m proud of my work, my biggest highlight has been starting my agency, &Walsh. Since I was very young, it was always my dream to have a studio that was entirely my own. Even in my teens, I created a website to teach other designers how to code and design their own websites. Being able to pass down my knowledge was something I always strived to do on a larger scale one day. I’m determined to make &Walsh known for producing top-quality creative and strategy work for clients and as a catalyst for social projects and initiatives that can give back to the world. 

What are the key things to keep in mind when creating designs that capture the essence of a brand? 

We believe great branding work illuminates a brand’s authentic 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. In particular, Direct-to-Consumer brands want to look like the Caspers & Warby Parkers of the world. The result is that branding all looks the same. 

A great brand is like a great person: genuine and honest about who they are & unafraid to show their true colors. 

When your brand looks like everyone else, it’s difficult to differentiate in the competitive landscape and create something memorable and timeless. A great brand is like a great person: genuine and honest about who they are and unafraid to show their true colors. 

Tell us about your other ventures – @ladieswinedesign and @letstalkaboutmentalhealth! What’s the mission behind these projects, and what are you trying to achieve?

I want &Walsh to be an agency that uses design and creativity for social impact. I want to invest even more into meaningful projects – such as Ladies, Wine & Design, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health

Ladies, Wine & Design is my global non-profit initiative born out of personal experiences with sexism in our industry, not only from men but from other women. The community brings women in the creative field together with mentorship circles, creative reviews, and events. 

We started Let’s Talk About Mental Health to use design to open up the conversation around stigmatized issues. This work is central to our agency, and we have big plans to grow these ventures.

We hope you enjoyed this inspiring interview with Jessica Walsh! While you’re here, check out our Graphic Design Trends for 2022 and these 8 Expert Tips to Boost Your Career as a Freelance Graphic Designer. Head to our Community Stories section for more expert interviews, or visit Envato Elements to start creating today!

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