Jessica Walsh: The Face of an Expressive Uprising

Graphic design has reached an aesthetic pinnacle. Typography is microkerned and images are pixel pushed. Spend any amount of time on design industry favorite, a site for sharing and showcasing projects, and you will see endless badges and perfect icons for anything and everything. Crowd-sourced critiques and the site’s popularity have led to a portfolio that represents the combined work of thousands of talented designers, but looks like the work of a single person.

Computer-aided creations generated with programming languages, such as Processing, allow us to express information and data with mathematical precision.’s Wind Map or Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns display a massive amount of information simply using line, shape and code. They tell us a story, and beautifully. But such exercises often employ overly complex designs, making them uninformative. Graphic design’s opportunity to communicate increases with advancements in technology, but does our obsession with visual perfection and information take away design’s ability to engage an individual?

The idea of communication is being challenged by young graphic designers who have turned to a new word: expression. Graphic designers are generating content based on personal interests and beliefs. No longer waiting for the right client to say what they want, this new breed of designers engages with social and political issues and creates emotionally expressive graphic design pieces. These designers are taking advantage of access to video, photography, inexpensive reproduction methods, alternative media and social media. This expression may be a visual rebellion against the perfectionist styling of contemporary graphic design, a discipline full of typographic rules, software etiquette and client reliance on good, safe work that doesn’t risk public shaming (Search: Yahoo! and Pepsi’s new logo).

One designer in particular, Jessica Walsh, may be the face of this expressive uprising. Walsh gained attention in the design community when Stefan Sagmeister named her partner at his firm in 2012. Walsh has always found success, having received various distinctions including Art Directors Club Young Guns, Print Magazine’s “New Visual Artist” and numerous design awards. Yet her real triumph has been the success of a personal project with designer Timothy Goodman called “40 Days of Dating.”

Walsh and Goodman, both single at the time of the project’s inception, decided to date each other for forty days. The couple introduced unique rules to the daily experiment, such as holding hands for an entire day, and documented the experience with transcribed thoughts, video and photographed mementos. Each day, Walsh and Goodman tasked a designer to visualize highlights of their day together, enabling the project to become a platform for showcasing 80 unique designs by some very talented individuals. The project has been picked up by Hollywood talent agency CAA for a possible expansion into television or film, and a book deal has been reached with Abrams.

Walsh is becoming a household name. Even my friends who are removed from the design community know her by name. They are intrigued enough by her expressive project that they have become familiar with her portfolio, referencing her love of photography and of painting words on models. If I were to ask these friends what I did as a job, their answer might be “websites” or “logos,” followed by an unsure shrug of the shoulders. This isn’t untrue, but it highlights common misconceptions about our discipline’s capabilities. Now, because of their interest in Walsh’s expressive project, my friends have seen an award-winning portfolio by Sagmeister & Walsh and have been exposed to a large number of talented people associated with the project. And with that, they’ve discovered a new world of graphic design that is altering their definition of what graphic designers do. 

Expressive projects have the ability to captivate a broad audience, whereas communicative graphic design pieces target specific groups, some of whom still pass it over due to lack of interest or expectations based on format. When you pass by an 11-x-17-inch poster in a coffee shop, do you assume it is for a band or art show? What if you are not interested in that subject? Why look at it? Expressive graphic design has no reference point, allowing designers to communicate in any format they choose and gain attention through disruption.

The interest is in what is being said and the openness with which content is displayed. Perfection-obsessed designers who rely heavily on unbreakable “rules of graphic design” or crowd-sourced peer acceptance should consider giving a unique voice to their projects. Bad typography, sloppy illustrations, information overload and lack of a grid can be corrected, but if a designer fails to engage an individual and convey information, then what purpose does his or her design have? 

Through expressive projects, a designer can find his or her voice. This is key to redefining our discipline. We can capture the general public’s attention and change preconceived ideas about our work not by catering to expectations, but by designing more freely, infusing experimentation into our projects and speaking with a more compelling, authentic voice.

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About the Author:

James Walker currently works independently and lectures at the University of Texas at Austin. He has previously taught at Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy and Washington University. An MFA graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Visual Communication and Design program, James is a native of rural southern Illinois and earned his bachelors degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.