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How did you discover your passion for identity design? As a result of being adopted from El Salvador when I was 20 months old, I’ve always been bursting with questions, comments, thoughts and ideas around identity and the concept of belonging. I’m fortunate to have grown up with a supportive family and a strong mother who allowed me to explore every facet of who I am. When I was in high school, she exposed me to the arts, and in turn, showed me that I had the freedom to make choices, to create and to put my whole spirit into what I believed in. I started my formal training at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, studying painting in the fine arts department. But about halfway through, I changed course and graduated with a BFA in communications design. I then earned my graduate degree in the masters in branding program from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan.

Design has been a central part of my career journey across many roles and companies. In my current role as managing director at New York–based branding studio ThoughtMatter, I’m designing a design business—creating meaning and amplifying purpose for people, places, products, organizations and brands. I love being an “identity” designer because the only limit is that of your imagination.

How can design act as a vehicle for social change? I have passionately shared my persistent belief that designers are Powerful with a capital P. We have the skill to use color, texture, imagery, photography, illustration, handwork and technology to construct meaning and culture. Simply put, designers create the world in which we live in real time.

In 2021, we’re all asking ourselves how we can change systemic inequities, democracy, mental health, climate action and other pressing social issues. Everyone who has dedicated their lives to the arts should be applying a critical eye to all aspects of their work to act as a vehicle for social change. It takes courage, dedication and commitment to make people think bigger, but we have what it takes to inspire our audience and design the world to be a better place than we found it.

With ThoughtMatter, you’ve worked on projects like QuintetNYC, a real-estate development project to revitalize living spaces in Harlem and Roosevelt Island without gentrifying or erasing the communities living there. What was it like designing its branding and messaging with the cultural history of these neighborhoods in mind? Real estate company L+M Development Partners reaching out to us surprised me—I was excited to learn why it wanted to team up with a design studio that, at the time, worked primarily with nonprofits. The clients said they were looking for an organization steeped in the community that understood the power of design to create meaning for people. We said look no further.

L+M empowered us to immerse ourselves in Harlem and the surrounding community, talk to locals, and understand the history and traditions to help determine the role these buildings would play moving forward. We attended community meetings, spoke to residents and walked around the neighborhoods to soak in the vibe. We knew we were outsiders coming into a community with limited knowledge, so it took time, energy, effort and commitment to learn how we might amplify what was already there.

These efforts led us to three words: respectculture and people. Through the lens of design and identity, we delivered a brand strategy, architecture, naming, photography, animations and messaging centered around the idea of “The Heartbeat of Harlem,” a nod to musical legends synonymous with the neighborhood. The work is a celebration of the modernization of the buildings and the people and neighborhoods of Harlem and Roosevelt Island.

How was it working on For the People, and what inspired ThoughtMatter to undertake this docuseries? We created the For the People project, which is now in its fifth year, to explore the tension between creativity and civic responsibility. Still, it really started with us as designers asking ourselves how we could design our way to a new political future. For phase one in 2017, we redesigned the Constitution of the United States, and it opened our eyes to how choices in typography, color, paper and printing technique have the power to make something mundane more accessible. Thanks to fundraising efforts on Kickstarter, we were able to print and distribute 3,000 copies of our design to schools across America.

Since then, For the People has continued to evolve. Since we gave more people access to read the Constitution, it was time to help them interpret it. Utilizing the power of video, we created a nine-part docuseries where we talked with illustrators, chefs, dancers, musicians, fine artists and other creative individuals about the role of interpretation in their work. The nine episodes revealed that the next phase of For the People was less about the Constitution and more an intimate portrait of what it means to be a creative in 2020. Filmed during the pandemic, the episodes have become a time capsule of creativity during lockdown.

Currently, we’re working to reformat the For the People docuseries to allow for easy distribution across the United States. We’re so proud of the way they turned out, and we no longer want to rely on the algorithm to get episodes into the hands of engaged viewers. We will be working with multiple library systems in different states to give the docuseries away for free so new people can see and experience the power and freedom of interpretation. We’re eager to show people the importance of interpreting a text like the Constitution, which was not originally written for all Americans.

How did your experience working for Kleenex inform your understanding of the consumer product good (CPG) industry? My essay to get into the masters of branding program at SVA explored the intersection of my many identities. I was a girl born in El Salvador, growing up in a White suburb of upstate New York and emerging as a creative in Brooklyn. The one thing that held all these identities together was a commitment to certain CPG brands, like Kleenex.

After graduating, I had the opportunity to work at Kimberly Clark. No surprise, but I was not given the design keys to the billion-dollar brand I long admired—instead, I got toilet paper. After a few years of exploring the wondrous world of water closets, I was promoted to a global design role on the Kleenex brand. I learned from working on both that it’s not the type of commodity or product that matters but the people behind the brand. The marketers, designers and agencies breathe life into the brand by creating guidelines, consistency and the experience consumers have with a product. These decisions are what make people believe in what a brand stands for.

When I think of Kleenex, I think of its enduring relevance—how, for generations, it’s been a market in a sea of sameness. This has fueled my curiosity in how you take these same branding and marketing principles for something as simple as a tissue and use it for organizations, brands, and people tackling the issues of our time. CPGs can hold the key to helping consumers do good.

I loved your Inc. article on developing socially aware campaigns for CPGs after Bo Burnham’s related joke from his film Inside. Why do you think CPGs should adopt cause marketing, especially in the wake of the ongoing culture wars? Not all brands are fit to tackle all problems, but with their big problems—and even bigger budgets—every brand should be asking themselves: “If we exist for reason and are here to deliver y promise, how can we make our corner of the world better?” Fast food companies should be asking about their supply systems, farmers, agriculture and their impact on local communities. Brands that use single-use plastic should be asking about their role in climate change and how their behaviors directly affect our planet. Distributors of coffee or chocolate should be asking about their impact on sourcing, representation, the pipeline of talent in the industry and how their decisions honor the origin and history of the regions their products come from.

Instead, regional economics, climate change and racial equity have become the responsibility and burden of the consumers. “Shop local. Don’t use straws. Use cotton totes. Don’t use cotton totes. Don’t eat meat. Only eat meat. Turn the lights off.” The corporations—and the people behind the brands—need to think about these issues and their responsibility at scale. I am certain the challenges of our time will not be solved by my metal straw.

Where do you seek inspiration? I was part of the founding chapter of Theta Phi Alpha, a national sorority, on the Pratt Institute campus in the early 2000s. This has allowed me to be inspired every day for the last 20 years by incredible women who all share a similar experience. I’m surrounded by women tackling big questions around leadership and representation in the design, fashion, architecture and interior design industries. I am inspired by single moms raising their children but not losing sight of their dreams. I’m inspired by women knocking down barriers as the only Black, Indigenous and people of color in their departments. I am inspired by women defying the odds in how fashion can empower us. A sorority may be many things, but for me, it has provided a network of powerful women who lift each other up every day.

My children also inspire me. My husband and I are raising our daughter and son with the encouragement to challenge and question the world around them. We’re committed to creating a world that is welcoming, accessible and supportive of their visions.

What is some amazing design work you’ve seen recently? I’m lucky to work at an agency with a founder who values and understands fine arts. I have recently been inspired by artist Bisa Butler’s recent show at The Art Institute of Chicago and the color, vibrancy and celebration of craft in her textiles.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about a recent interview for Art in America with writer Roxane Gay and fine artist Jenny Seville that has me questioning my design practice. I have gone back to it a few times to consider the preconceived notions of the female body, feminism, intersectionality, representation and the role of design. It also has me examining how power plays a role in what we see, who gets a show, who gets a book published and, in turn, how it’s marketed and branded.

Lastly, I recommend everyone read the book Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers.

Do you have any advice for anyone just entering the profession? My advice is to realize you’re starting out in this industry in 2021. We are enduring the psychological, personal and physical effects of a global pandemic. You can and should question systems that have been in place, question long-held beliefs, and explore new possibilities for creativity and the power of imagination. We’re at a crossroads—a reckoning—where we’re realizing this industry has some work to do. Interrogate the role of design. Question power dynamics. Create a brave place for those who have been historically excluded. I advise folks like me who don’t look like mainstream graphic design to keep going. Read, write and ask more questions of those doing similar work—work that moves, inspires or challenges you.

Find your people. Keep going. You belong here. ca

Jessie McGuire is the managing director at brand design studio ThoughtMatter, leading a diverse team of artists, writers and strategists to create daring designs and identities for global brands, local communities, art museums and foundations, institutions, and nonprofits. Before joining ThoughtMatter, McGuire produced and designed projects for billion-dollar brands owned by Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and Colgate Palmolive. In addition, she formerly served as the advocacy chair on the board of directors of the New York chapter of AIGA and is a regular speaker at conferences across New York City.


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