In July 2013, after struggling with opposite relationship problems (fear of commitment vs. love of love), New York-based designer friends Timothy Goodman and Jessica Walsh embarked on a now-infamous experiment: they dated each other for 40 days and recorded their experiences for the whole Internet to see. Their journey turned into a viral blog that has drawn over 10 million unique visitors since its launch—not just because it was an engrossing romantic dramedy (couples therapy! sexy trips to Disney World! crying and downing wine on planes!), but because it was illustrated with bold typographic artwork by Walsh, one-half of design studio Sagmeister & Walsh, and Goodman, who runs his own T. Goodman studio. It's also being turned into a movie by Warner Bros., to be directed by Michael Sucsy (The Vow, Grey Gardens) and written by Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World).
The movie's release is still a ways off, but a book adaptation of the blog, 40 Days of Dating: An Experiment, has just been published by Abrams. On the occasion of the book’s publication, Co.Design caught up with Walsh and Goodman about design as therapy, risk-taking in both work and love, and their hard-won dating wisdom.
How has your approach to love, dating, and relationships changed since the experiment?
JW: Before the experiment, I was trying to chase love, in a way. I was looking hard for the right person, which indirectly put way too much pressure on my relationships. I took things too seriously and couldn’t just date and have fun with it. Through the experiment and therapy, I realized I needed to focus on myself and have fun and not take things so seriously. I had a much more carefree attitude, which helped in my dating life.
I met the right person afterwards. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. We met on OkCupid, my first date a month after the experiment ended. It wasn’t love at first sight on the first date—I was much more reserved after 40 Days. I didn’t want to fall too quickly and get my heart broken again.
TG: The project enabled me to be more honest with myself about wanting to find a relationship with someone worth it, someone great. Jessie made me realize that. It’s given me a greater capacity to be open and vulnerable.
How did this project change your approach to design work?
JW: I’m interested in creating work that connects to people outside of the design community, and that can be a challenge. I’ve always leaned toward creating work with a personal angle that evoked emotion—even in our client work, I wanted to make someone laugh or think or feel. This project took it to a whole new personal level—mashing design with our personal lives. It created a unique storytelling platform. Now Tim and I are working on another project.
TG: I recently heard a great quote by Lena Dunham. She said, "By sharing your own stories, you’re essentially performing a kind of activism that’s very important…by sharing things that are close to you, you will connect to other people who feel alone in the world." 40 Days of Dating has torn down this wall in me—it’s allowed me to be more vulnerable on a human relationship side, and as a designer, too. I’m more interested in sharing my experiences through design and doing emotional work. Now, we’re working together on another large social experiment similar to 40 Days. The topic is secret, but it’s something that looks at our fears and habits in life and how we can change or overcome them.
What was the thinking behind the design aesthetic throughout the book?
JW: We wanted it to reflect the digital presence we had: colorful, with lots of big, bold typographic artwork. In designing the book, our first instincts as designers was to make some big crazy fancy coffee table book with postcard cutouts and perforated pages. But ultimately, we wanted a lot of people to have access to it. We wanted a cheap price point, and to have it be very intimate—something you’d read on the train or in bed, not a big coffee table book. At the end of the day, it’s not a design book—we used design as a tool.
How did your design and illustration work help you process what you were going through emotionally during the experiment?
JW: We used design and illustration as a way to process thoughts and feelings. There were moments that were very therapeutic—like on day five, when we drew and wrote things about our exes.
After doing this experiment, what dating advice would you offer to a single friend?
JW: If I had to give dating advice, the first piece would be to enjoy it all, because once you find your person, that’s it. Also, right after the experiment ended, a friend told me to make a list of qualities you want in a partner, and to focus on that list, so that you’re not wasting your time with people who aren’t on the level of what you’re looking for.
TG: I don’t know if I have any advice. That’s the funny thing—people want us to be dating experts now that we’ve done this project, but the very reason we did this is we were bad at it. I guess my only advice would be, if you’re wondering about dating a good friend, I’d say go for it. Don’t be afraid to take risks when it comes to love and relationships. The project was a really big risk for both of us, personally and professionally.
What career lessons did you learn from the project?
JW: I was much more reserved before 40 Days of Dating in terms of sharing my feelings and personal life. Even my public image on social media was very curated and work-focused. Now I talk about things I’m going through in my personal life, both publicly and in the context of my relationship with [my husband] Zak. I can say anything I’m feeling or thinking. It’s let me be more open and honest.
Where is your friendship now?
JW: We’re closer than ever.
40 Days of Dating: An Experiment is available from Abrams Books for $18 here.