What better way to tackle the kind of big and scary problems brought on by the pandemic than with a major dose of creative thought? New challenges require new ways of thinking. But many of us struggle to harness our creativity toward a specific business outcome.
To gain inspiration and tactical tips, we reached out to someone who lives and breathes the creative process, designer Jessica Walsh. Walsh created our new Hybrid Work emoji pack, which debuts on Slack today and is available for all users. The Hybrid Work pack was motivated by the unique experiences we faced this past year and the changes we’ve made to the way we work now and in the future.
These emoji can be used to foster more connection internally and externally and promote flexibility whether you’re working from home, in the office or a hybrid of both. For example, use the Working from Home or Working in Office emoji to signal where you’re working. Or select the Kid Drop-Off emoji to let your team know that you’re doing the school or daycare run.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Slack: You’ve created a signature style that blends handicraft, photography and painting with digital design. What inspired your signature style?
Jessica Walsh: I do have a colorful, handcrafted visual style in my personal work, but [with my agency], &Walsh, we don’t have one set style for our branding work with clients. Our goal is to help clients discover their own unique brand personality. All our creative work is a reflection of the brand’s distinct personality, from copywriting, typography and color choices to the images we create. This helps a brand build equity in something true and honest to them and helps set them apart from their competition.
What advice would you give people who are looking to make their mark in their industry or career?
Many people struggle with ideas, especially when it comes to self-initiated projects or business concepts. It’s easier with creative client work, since you’re often given set rules and limitations from the client, such as timeline, budgets or pre-existing style guides. With your own projects, you can do anything!
That is exciting but also daunting. It’s like going to a restaurant with a thousand menu items—it’s much harder to choose what you want.
There are three parts to my advice.
- Learn how to come up with ideas. Many of the best ideas start with the question “Why?” These could be things that bother you in your daily routine, things that bother you about yourself, or things you think can be improved in the world. Create a list of all these whys and home in on the ones you’re most passionate about. Next, ask yourself what you could do to fix each of these problems.
- Create a plan to produce your ideas. The next challenge is following through and producing the work. Put milestones and a project launch date on the calendar, and treat it like client work. I think having a partner in self-initiated work helps because you can hold each other accountable for meeting these deadlines. After you have a deadline, you need rules and constraints to work within. Is your project something you do every day, once a week or once a month? Setting up and sticking to parameters will hold you accountable and make it easier to execute.
- Develop unique work. Use visual constraints to develop unique graphic languages and ownable styles. I will use an example we did at &Walsh: a rebrand for Appy Fizz, a carbonated apple beverage from India. The liquid is made up of thousands of carbonated bubbles that are spheres. An apple is also a circular shape. So we had the idea: What if the entire identity was made out of circular shapes? The second constraint we set was the color: We kept the red, black and white palette. Everything from the logo to the graphics for TV to print and digital content were made with dots and spheres in these colors. Even though we worked with a variety of illustrators, animators, directors and designers, these stylistic constraints helped unify everything in a cohesive visual language.
You’re in the business of creativity, and inspiration must be central to the work your team does. How do you spur creativity among your team remotely?
In terms of collaborating creatively, so much can be done with team’s and client’s interactive online brainstorm tools. In addition to dropping inspiration on Slack, we use the Mural app and Airtable as places to collect ideas and thoughts in real time together. It also helps to do video calls/check-ins with the team for project kickoffs or inspiration sessions.
You became your own boss when you started &Walsh in 2019. As a business owner and designer, how do you manage a team while also staying creative and productive? Any tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
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 that I have grown quite a lot from.
- Don’t grow too fast. Years ago, we grew too fast. We had a lot of demand and took on too many designers at once without the right operational setup. Having the demand is great, but as you grow, team dynamics and feelings of ownership change. You need to pay attention to this. We are now very strategic with the work we take on and do not let demand dictate our growth plan.
- Don’t try to do it all. Over the years, I have learned that while I like to do it all, at a certain scale I can’t do it all. Taking the weight of every detail of the business off my shoulders has made a big difference in our work and office culture.
- Hire the right people. This is one of the most important skills you can have. When considering designers, 50% is their work and 50% is other criteria, such as: Do they fit our studio culture and champion our values and processes? Are they collaborative and a team player? Do they have an appetite to understand the strategy or business side of the work? And what is their willingness to get involved in the small things that make our agency tick?
You must deal with a huge array of requests from clients all around the globe, across different industries and time zones. How do you manage effective client relationships and communication? What tactics or tools do you use to best understand your clients’ needs, even while remote?
Working effectively and efficiently with clients and teams across various time zones requires strong workflows. We do all our project management and communications via Slack. Slack Connect lets us easily connect with clients in the same way we connect within our own team. Email makes everything more rigid and formal, whereas Slack allows you to connect quickly and add more emotion to the conversations, since the messaging is more informal and allows for more joy through emoji integration. It also allows us to quickly brainstorm or send ideas and references more informally throughout the process with clients, which helps our work and client relationships.
The past year prompted many brands to digitally transform, refresh their product offerings, and reinvent new ways of working. How do you think brands can maintain their authenticity in these challenging and changing times?
Covid-19 changed the way we consume and create overnight. Everything done in-person went completely online. People didn’t stop making things or stop socializing; it just happened in a different way. This shift is not just for the current times. It will have a long-term effect on how we create and consume forever.
To start, I think that people see the value of social media and its capabilities more than ever. All over the world, people rolled up their sleeves to experiment on social media during quarantine: adapting TV shows, interviews, mentorship circles, conversations, competitions, festivals, concerts, art, stories, branding, advertising—everything. How can we use design in the social media space? How can we use design to connect people with one another virtually? How can we collaborate when we are not in-person? We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg for these questions.
You’ve been quoted saying you were “determined to make &Walsh not only known for producing top-quality creative and strategy work for top clients, but to be one of the best places to work in terms of agency culture.” What elements of workplace culture are most important to you? What role do tools like Slack and emoji play in helping build this culture, especially for remote and hybrid teams?
It’s a challenge to create great work at scale and run an ever-evolving creative company with numerous people. We had just started working toward all new workflows and team-building routines when the pandemic hit. We quickly had to shift to remote and rebuild all our workflows and routines from a digital perspective. I honestly don’t think it’d be possible without Slack, which is essential for keeping projects organized and staying collaborative and communicative together digitally.
What made you excited to partner with Slack on this emoji pack?
First of all, I love Slack and am eternally grateful for everything it has done for our studio, so it’s always a joy to partner with companies I already use and love. Second, emoji are such an essential part of digital communication and can really enhance conversations. We know we’re creating something that might improve communication on Slack or make someone smile—this to me is a dream job!
Can you tell us about your creative process for thinking up and designing these emoji? What sparks your inspiration, and what’s important to keep in mind when designing? How do you translate what’s happening in the real world into emoji?
Emoji have always been an integral part of my digital communication style. With the pandemic and remote work, we were all going through new emotions, experiences and challenges, which required new language to communicate—which inspired these emoji. I’ve often found that struggles and frustrations are a great source for innovation!
How do you think people will use this new emoji pack? Which emoji do you think will be most popular and why?
My favorite is the Me Time emoji. We all need to remember to take short breaks throughout the day, both for our mental and physical health. Humans were not designed to be hunched over a desk for eight hours straight. I think it’s great for companies to have this option as one of the status updates, to encourage people to simply take a break.