A month ago, I was privileged to listen to Jessica Walsh speak to a crowd of designers in Portland, Oregon. We drank our local craft beers, listening to Jessica comically describe her passion for design and the thought process behind her creations. She inspired me, and made me laugh.
There are so many things I can write concerning Jessica Walsh, such as her unique and brightly colored influence on design, her wit and humorous approach to art direction, her mastery of creative typography, or her daring ability to display her feelings (and sometimes herself), naked to the world, through passionate projects like 40 Days of Dating. Instead, I want to talk about my impression of how other people seem to perceive who Jessica Walsh is.
I don't know Jessica at all. I have never met her, so my understanding of her is completely based on my own research and what she told us. So why do I want to discuss how others perceive her?
Jessica is young by most people’s standards. In fact, she was recognized by Print Magazine for being young, talented and under 30. She went to RISD, one of the most famous and prestigious art schools in the country. She has worked on famous designs and products. So, why is it that when I bring her up with other designers, the first thing people talk about is how she looks? And why do so many assume that she got her job at Sagmeister because she is a pretty young girl? In the opening of her talk, she even joked about people messaging her on Twitter, telling her to take her clothes off (presumably because she once posed nude with Sagmeister). So, if a woman takes off her clothes is she therefore not serious about her work? In fact, I heard someone once say something like, "Why would I listen to her speak? She's so young. I have no idea how she got that job at Sagmeister” (wink, rolls eyes).
Why is it so inconceivable (yes, I just heard Princess Bride as I typed that word) that a woman was hired, and keeps getting hired, because she is talented? Why does her beauty come up first and not her credentials, or the work that she has done?
During the Q&A a middle-aged woman in the audience asked her, "How do you spend your money?" It was one of the strangest questions I have ever heard in a Q&A. Jessica politely answered that she is not swimming in money (which was implied in the question). She said it is very expensive to live in NYC and she has just purchased her first tiny NYC apartment. (1) Why in the world would this older woman assume that Jessica has tons of money? (2) And how is the way Jessica spends her money her business anyway? It is as if Jessica's success/character/legitimacy should be judged on how charitable she is verses, God forbid (insert sarcasm here), that she spends her own money on herself. Is it that a successful woman should always be generous in order to be worthwhile?
The conclusion I arrive at is this: if a woman is young, traditionally attractive, and successful in design, she is immediately written off. When will the design community look first and foremost at a woman’s work, credentials and talent instead of her looks, money and status?