Why Sagmeister & Walsh Stays Small

By Emily J. Potts

Let’s face it, when most of us start our careers, we dream big, as in working at a big, fast-paced agency with high-profile clients, surrounded by other creatives.

That’s great and all, but some of the most successful graphic designers—including Sagmeister & Walsh—have purposely set their sights small to create big. In our November 2014 issue, HOW spoke with the principals of six design firms, each operating with five people or less, to find out what’s so great about maintaining a small studio—and how anyone can do the same.

Here, we learn why Sagmeister & Walsh stays small.

Sagmeister & Walsh

Photo by Henry Hargreaves

Sagmeister & Walsh:
Take Responsibility for Everything You Make

Stefan Sagmeister, co-founder
Sagmeister & Walsh, New York City
Year Sagmeister Inc. founded: 1993
Year Sagmeister & Walsh founded: 2012
Number of people in studio: 5
Notable clients: The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Jewish Museum, Levis

Stefan Sagmeister has been rocking the design world for more than 20 years, so it came as quite a surprise when he decided to take on a partner at his illustrious studio in 2012. But his reasoning is quite simple, and admittedly self-serving: “I did not want Jessica [Walsh] to go off and start her own agency. I thought there were many things we might be able to try out together yet.”

In fact, most of Sagmeister’s protégés have gone on and made their own mark in the design world, and he couldn’t be more pleased. “I am extra happy when I see something great that any of them have designed. M&Co., the company I worked for before I started my own, left behind a giant legacy of design companies, and I always thought that was one of Tibor Kalman’s crowning achievements.”


Sagmeister & Walsh studio shots by Mario de Armas, mariodearmas.net


“We tend to work with clients who have products and services we use or would use ourselves (this way we don’t need to lie), who are kind people, and who have appropriate deadlines and budgets.” —Stefan Sagmeister


But just because he took on a partner, doesn’t mean he wants a bigger studio. He and Walsh quite like their arrangement and small staff, where all of them can be in creative control of everything that comes through the door.

“We are all responsible for the projects we work on. This creates ownership and responsibility. We do not pitch for new work, so we do not work for clients we do not have. Instead, we concentrate our efforts on the clients we do have. This way the work we design actually gets made,” Sagmeister says.

“We like it. So do our clients, as they know that the work they pay us to do actually gets designed by the best designers within the company, and not—as is so often the case in large agencies—by the B team, while the A team is out pitching new clients.”

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In fact, the studio is in the envious position of being able to turn away work. “We have the luxury of picking and choosing the projects we want to do.,” he says, and he quotes Kalman: “The only difficult thing in running a design studio is not to grow; everything else is easy.”

The best part about maintaining a small agency is the flexibility and freedom to pursue the kind of work that is important to Sagmeister and Walsh.

“We are not financially dependent on our clients, we have the freedom to pursue unusual directions, we are nimble, we are focused, we are responsible, we all get to design, and be involved in all aspects of the job, so we are not bored. There is little need for meetings. There is rarely any misunderstandings internally, so what we design mostly gets produced.”

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1114_cover_300Want to read about 6 more design firms, each operating with five people or less, to find out what’s so great about maintaining a small studio—and how anyone can do the same? Get your hands on the November 2014 issue of HOW.