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Jessica Walsh opens up unspoken dialogues through design

The award-winning designer and art director draws from life experiences to create poignant works and large-scale social projects

For a self-proclaimed introvert, Jessica Walsh’s public persona is anything but coy. Voted “best person on the Internet” according to one of her Instagram comments, the prominent designer and art director continually blurs work-life boundaries by publicly exposing herself in her works, in body and spirit alike. There is the #jessicawalshhasnofilter series, filling our Instagram feeds with Jessica’s raw emotions. The Sagmeister & Walsh studio website streams their New York City workstations live, day and night, for all to see. Then there are the social experiments with fellow designer Timothy Goodman, in which the two dated each other or challenged themselves to practice benevolence and empathy (in 40 Days of Dating and 12 Kinds of Kindness respectively). In a cultural moment where oversharing has become the new norm, Jessica’s honest work strikes a relatable chord for many, piquing the interest of both the designer crowd and other audiences.

“In a way, my personal projects are a rejection of my upbringing,” Jessica explains. “I grew up in a conservative town in Connecticut where everyone tried to make their lives appear perfect. No one talked about family problems and people were very judgmental.” Jessica’s different set of values led her to openly address her own psychology and behavior, and that of others. “I often use design as a way to open up dialogues about these topics. I want to expose the flaws and imperfections in my emotions,” she says, hoping for others to recognize their own inner turbulences in hers. Her very distinct style, with its bright color palette and ingenious use of typography, inspects the human psyche in a light and humoristic tone. It’s a masterfully crafted celebration of our innermost feelings. And as these feelings of hers gain more exposure through design, she tells us, she only grows more liberated and confident in real life. “I don’t want to have many boundaries and don’t really care about my privacy,” she admits. “My one boundary is with my husband. He likes his privacy and I try to respect that.”

Jessica Walsh Hates Holidays, National Men Make Dinner Day
Jessica Walsh in Jessica Walsh Hates Holidays.

Empowering female creatives over wine

There’s something about online anonymity that compels people to voice their most extreme, and often harsh, opinions – and Jessica’s work hasn’t been immune to these comments either. In 12 Kinds of Kindness, Jessica mentions that while she finds this criticism to be understandable (“I am well aware that it’s impossible to please everyone,” she writes), it’s the sexist comments that really get to her. As a successful 32-year-old female, Jessica is no stranger to tweets and comments attributing her success to her age, good looks, or other belittling statements.

Yet Jessica finds this blatant sexism to be even more unsettling when it comes from other women in the design industry, confirming how deeply we’ve internalized our misogyny. Inspired by a real-life encounter with a female colleague, who turned out to be far from the hateful troll that her online persona suggested, Jessica looked to cultivate an environment where women can empower one another rather than compete. In 2016, she initiated Ladies, Wine & Design, a series of meet-ups for creative women (or trans and nonbinary individuals). Since its launch, the series has expanded to over 220 cities worldwide, gathering talented female creatives from different disciplines for talks, mentorship circles, and portfolio reviews in a highly supportive and inclusive spirit.

“The stories that have come out of these events have been so inspiring,” Jessica shares with us. She speaks of women who’ve met and bonded over a glass of wine during the meet-ups that have gone on to open studios together, or became business partners. Other attendees were inspired to make the career change they were dreaming of, to ask for a raise, or to confront a sexist co-worker. “The stories go on and on, and it’s very motivating and inspiring for me to see ladies all around the world empowering their local communities,” Jessica says. “It’s amazing to see what happens when women work together, instead of against one another”, she adds – which is what the initiative is truly all about.

Jessica Walsh at the Wix Design Playground, Ladies Wine & Design
Jessica Walsh at a Ladies, Wine & Design event at the Wix Design Playground, New York. Photo by Noam Atia.

Eliminating mental health stigma together

Ladies, Wine & Design is not the only ongoing project of Jessica’s that’s sprouted from her and Timothy Goodman’s 12 Kinds of Kindness. Her Let’s Talk About Mental Health website and Instagram account is another continuation of that 2016 project. In 12 Kinds of Kindness, Jessica shared difficult stories from her past, describing in detail experiences of sexual assault, an eating disorder, anxiety, and a suicide attempt. Readers found her candid recounting of events inspirational. Jessica herself discovered, once more, the power of opening up – and how she can utilize the medium of design to have her own life lessons resonate with other people. “I believe if we were all more honest and real, we’d all feel less alone in our fears and insecurities and find that they’re surprisingly universal,” she writes in 12 Steps of Kindness.

Following the experience and looking to encourage a better conversation around mental health, Jessica invited readers to contribute their own stories to be shared on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health platform. Three years later, the stories still come pouring in, and Jessica posts them regularly accompanied by her vibrant illustrations. The discussion around mental health has only grown in recent years, and we’d like to believe that projects like this one are partially to thank. For Jessica, this is exactly what makes social media so great. When used correctly, the Internet allows us to promote causes that we’re passionate about. “I hope in our generation we can move towards ending the stigma and shame around mental health issues,” she writes, “and I hope to contribute to this movement even if it’s in a small way.”

Let’s Talk About Mental Health illustration by Jessica Walsh
Let’s Talk About Mental Health, illustration by Jessica Walsh.

Design won’t save the world

Yet despite these high hopes, Jessica is somewhat hesitant about the impact design can make in the real world. “Good creative can help elevate ideas and get messages out to wider audiences,” she comments. But deep down, Jessica remains skeptical. “Maybe someone like Elon Musk or engineer designers can save the world, but graphic design won’t do shit.” Something of this notion is carried onto many of her projects. While constantly bringing topics close to her heart into her designs, there’s also a self-aware tone that stays away from taking anything too seriously. Her Pins Won’t Save the World project, for example, created with Stefan Sagmeister, offers a laughable, shoulder-shrugging form of political activism.

Another example is her perfectly executed series of Instagram images, #jessicawalshhasnofilter, in which she shares the sides of our personalities that most of us would prefer not to broadcast on a 451K account. In this impeccable art direction series, Jessica creates set designs using vivid color palettes and a nostalgic array of peculiar props, from an ‘80s fruit cocktail to vintage floral wallpaper, that together form a surprisingly stylish and zeitgeist-capturing look. Seamlessly incorporated into the household objects, are typographical messages that elevate these somewhat suburban scenes into a cynical statement on our current-day lives.

“Not caring about what others think of me has been the most freeing feeling in the world,” Jessica concludes. And when you take those external considerations out the equation – such as what people might think, or saving the world – we’re left with the one mission that still holds true: creating good design. For her future endeavors, Jessica dreams of redesigning a large-scale project whose scope and influence will reach far beyond that of the design world. “I would love to design the US currency,” she tells us, and we can only imagine the result.

Jessica Walsh's No Filter art direction series, Bunt Out

Jessica Walsh's No Filter art direction series, Brunch

Jessica Walsh's No Filter art direction series, Former People Pleaser
From Jessica Walsh’s series, #jessicawalshhasnofilter.

For more wise words from Jessica, head over to this one-of-a-kind advice column, where Jessica answers our burning design questions.


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