Q&A: Design guru Jessica Walsh talks new studio, mental health and contradictions

Q&A: Design guru Jessica Walsh talks new studio, mental health and contradictions

"I just try to turn my pain into fuel."

Jessica Walsh, one of the most celebrated names in design and branding, is known for her bold, brave creations. Designers all over the country turn to her Instagram for inspiration, and those just starting their careers strive to intern at her studio. 

When I met Jessica at Cindy Gallop’s Sky Apartment years ago, I was impressed by her humility and honesty – she even runs a non-profit to support other female creatives and has a side-project for mental health.

Recently, I found out she has opened her own independent studio, so I asked her to sit down with me for a Q&A.

Find out what the bold design leader is doing now, how she overcame depression and what her goals are for the future.  

You’ve spearheaded nothing short of an art movement in branding and advertising. Was that always the goal?

Our work has stemmed out of the frustration that so much of branding and advertising is cold, lacks emotion and a lot of it looks the same. 

Modernism put a lot of focus on ‘Helvetica’, white space and these perfect computer made compositions. I always felt they were cold. That style worked really well for a while but after so many big brands had done it, it screamed "I’m a big corporation". 

What we strive to do at our studio is to put emotion, beauty and craft into everything we do. So what it looks like for each brand could be different. We work with a wide range of different styles for different clients with different personalities. 

Years ago you declined an opportunity at Apple, and instead chose to work with Paula Scher as an intern. Why’s that?

I always knew in my heart that I wanted to be in branding. I knew that if I went in-house at one company, I would only get to work on one brand style and not learn how new brands are created. 

Apple already has such an amazing brand identity so it was not like I was going to get to create the brand identity from the ground up, which is where my interest was. 

I wanted to learn from the best. From someone who was doing the kind of work that I wanted to be making one day to reach my goal of starting my own agency or design studio. 

I knew in my early years it’s going to be a lot easier to take those risks then. Especially at the time I didn’t have a mortgage or major responsibilities. I felt that it would be worth it. I did the internship, and they paid. Pentagram is nice, they pay for internships like we do. 

How did this interest in running a business come up?

I was into design and creativity but I also loved business. I wanted to merge those two things and I wanted to make the best work I could.

I grew up around my parents who were starting their own business when I was young. I heard a lot from their point of view of what it meant to run a team. It also made me really empathetic in understanding what it was like to be a boss when you run a company. 

I was not only really eager to be the best creative I could be but also to be the best employee and the best leader. If I was given the opportunity to lead or to oversee people I took that super seriously. 

I learned everything I could about production and leadership skills, I googled, I watched the videos and I’d read the books. 

It’s one thing to have a good idea it’s much harder to see that idea through and produce it on time and on budget. And then, it’s even harder to get a team to do that and keep the team motivated and happy. Each one of these things has been a challenge and I’ve tried to do the best. 

A lot of talent is going in-house or turning to tech. What’s your vision on talent retention? 

The difficult part is that so many of the start-ups either have massive investment funds to give or these huge benefits and huge salaries. That’s very hard for smaller studios and agencies to compete with. Even though many smaller studios and agencies like ours offer above industry standard rates, we’re still not going to be able to compete with the tech giants. 

But that said, not everyone is after that comfortable easy big paycheck right away–that’s not what I did starting out. A lot of people want the opportunity to work on really cool creative work, to learn, to grow their creative skills. In terms of retention we try to just make sure that creatives get to work on the best projects they can. We try to give them ownership opportunities over projects so that they know they’re really making big contributions, because they are.  

Do you say no to clients or certain projects?

We say no to most work that comes our way. We’re very selective with the type of work we take on. We make sure it’s a product that we believe in. If it’s a product that we don’t understand or it’s something we don’t believe in, it’s not going to be beneficial for us or for them.

You openly discuss struggling with severe depression in your early years. How did you triumph over it?

I’m very grateful I don’t struggle with serious depression anymore. It’s something I struggled with when I was younger. However, I still deal with anxiety. What I try to do is, I see it not as a weakness but as a strength. 

Even if I deal with depression in the future, which I’m sure I will because these things can come and go with different seasons of life, I’m going to be much easier on myself.

It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be depressed. And not to see it as something that is bad, but try to understand why and learn from it and evolve.  

How did you get into this more positive headspace?

I have this better mentality about it because I’ve been through it before. And I’ve seen what a positive impact it had on my life. Had I not been through that, I wouldn’t have been able to go through such a period of self-reflection. I would’ve ended up walking through life doing what I thought other people wanted of me versus taking the time to really learn what it is that I want for myself. 

The very top designers and illustrators and business owners in the world struggle with mental illness. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of times it means you have a deep sense of empathy or feeling of things. And when you can feel things deeply, your creative work can be so much better.

But I do struggle with anxiety. If you want to get a lot of shit done anxiety is great. It is people who aren’t anxious about anything that I worry about sometimes. Because when you have that butterfly feeling in the stomach, it forces you to be so much better. I just try to turn my pain into fuel. 

In your words you say, ‘I’m fucking proud of myself,’ but you also say that you enjoy the creative pursuit more than the accomplishments. Tell me more.

Yup. Even one of my #NoFilterQuotes says, "I’m a mess of contradictions."

I’m trying to learn more to be grateful and to stop and pause more to be proud of where I am versus constantly feeling discontent. But it is a contradiction because I am someone that’s constantly discontent and wanting to push myself in the studio. 

I hope in three years when we look back, we’re doing way better than we are now. So it is a contradiction but it is okay to have contradictions. We all are full of contradictions. There are times I’m a workholic and there are times when I’m lazy as fuck. So that’s where the contradiction comes from. Yes, I want to be proud, and I’m trying to implement gratitude, but I also want to be better. 

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