Jessie McGuire, Managing Partner at ThoughtMatter in New York, has spent over a decade working with billion-dollar brands like Kimberly-Clark, P&G, and Colgate-Palmolive—transforming them into social icons. She’s also a mother of two, a Salvadorian-American, a graduate of Pratt and SVA, and a former Advocacy Chair on the board of directors of the New York chapter of AIGA.
As a “young, adopted, brown girl who frequented the [high] school crisis counselor,” Jessie says she had a lot to prove when she arrived at design school in 2001. She’s done so—in spades. Beyond her degree, a masters in branding, and an in-house role at Kimberly-Clark, she now leads ThoughtMatter in their “relentless pursuit of using the power of creativity to change the world.” Through this written interview, I enjoyed getting to know more about Jessie’s unique take on socially conscious design and branding, how designers can demand better behaviors from the brands they work for, “woke-washing,” and the relationship between design and activism.
For a special treat, read though the bonus round of the interview to hear a Spotify playlist her team put together—an ode to high school art rooms in the late 90s.
ThoughtMatter and Jessie’s career
Can you talk a little bit about your personal and professional path to joining ThoughtMatter?
My life has been shaped by luck, creativity, and constantly being underestimated. I’ve struggled with mental health, but have always been comforted by my love and passion for art. Sophomore year of high school things got really bad and I was given permission to be in a twelfth-grade art classroom. It was there I saw seniors preparing their portfolios for art schools like SCAD, RISDI, SVA, Pratt, Parsons, MICA, and more. I knew I had to go.
I was a young, adopted, brown girl who frequented the school crisis counselor, so I suppose I didn’t fit the private college mold. However, I am the product of a single mother who spent 40 years in education. She was relentless in encouraging me to apply to every school possible. I ignored the doubts of my department head and got into all four private art schools I applied to.
I started my freshman year at Pratt in September 2001 knowing I had a lot to prove. To my HS art teacher, my mother, the financial aid office, and to myself. I had to show I truly belonged at a four-year private art school in New York City.
A few days later—on September 11—the world changed forever. Being in NYC during this profound moment showed me what passion, creativity, and community can do to shape the world around us. After graduating with my BFA in Communications Design, I spent five years working as a designer at some great shops with wonderful people.
In 2010, I applied to the first year of a new SVA Masters of Professional Studies in Branding program, after which I spent three years in Neenah, Wisconsin at Kimberly-Clark. I worked on one of the biggest brands in the world, Kleenex, all while pregnant with my first child. When he turned one, I knew it was time to get back to the city.
ThoughtMatter would become my new professional home. When I arrived in 2016, it was a small studio with only a handful of people. The potential to build a design studio around work that mattered to me and the world my colleagues and I occupied felt too good to be true. I’ve since been dedicated to building a sustainable business of work worth doing with ThoughtMatter’s quickly growing team and client list.
What would you say is unique about your approach to brand-building at ThoughtMatter?
Our relentless pursuit of using the power of creativity to change the world around us sets ThoughtMatter apart. Our manifesto captures not only how we think, but more importantly how we act.
When we see the writing on the wall, we hear opportunity knocking.
Dialogue thrives when we come together and dissolve hierarchies.
When we want a different answer, we ask a better question.
We believe there is more than one way to view it or do it.
We bend till we make breakthroughs. We explore unexpected angles and the spaces in-between.
We make messes and take guesses.
We enjoy work that invites a closer look. Serious people who don’t take themselves too seriously deserve a closer look.
We look at everything but design, to design. We do our best when nothing is taken for granted and everything is up for grabs.
What if we challenged it all?
For the last six years at ThoughtMatter, I have thought about how to foster an environment for our team of strategic, smart, and talented creatives to challenge norms and expectations while creating brand identities, campaigns, and experiences with purpose. Figuring out what is needed to think bigger than ourselves. Striving to identify problems that need new solutions and helping brands show up in new ways. The exploration of these questions is what I would consider our unique way to approach brand-building in 2022.
ThoughtMatter notably has a socially conscious approach and works with a lot of purpose-based brands and orgs. How do you choose the brands you work with and how has the recent business focus on “brand purpose” affected your work?
At ThoughtMatter, we excel at bringing people together around big ideas that are important to society. We use the power of design to address unmet needs across interconnected areas such as cities, economic development, civic engagement, creative expression, gender equality, racial justice, and sustainability.
When I first started working at ThoughtMatter, we were determined to do purpose-driven work. Then we evolved to the mission of “work worth doing.” What has been fascinating over time is redefining what it means to do work you care about, has purpose, and matters to you.
This has helped us better determine what projects to take on. We are more connected and educated than ever before, but seem to shy away from the big, hairy, wicked problems of our time. Maybe it’s because we’re scared or we don’t know where to start, but no matter what, we believe it’s important to at least try to take action.
We have taken on projects with small nonprofits, using our skills to help them raise more funds, build their creative capacity, and help them tell their stories across platforms to multiple audiences, all in the pursuit for them to continue their important work. We have also worked with large global organizations to help them transform their business. What I love most is whether we are working with a local grassroots organization or a conglomerate, at the end of the day our design identity, campaign, or experience is helping tell important stories. These stories unite us to work toward a common goal. A compelling story has the power to accelerate meaningful change in society. We equip brands with the tools they need to tell great stories that bring people together and galvanize action.
You’ve discussed the responsibility of designers to take a bigger role in demanding better behaviors from the brands they work for. Why should this be the case?
Hot take: brands are not people. Brands are manufactured. They are a promise somebody created for us to buy into. So when I’m asked what the designer’s role is or why we should be talking to designers about examining their own practice, it always makes me laugh because designers are behind every brand, organization, product, or service out in the world. Everything is designed.
Every person using their talents, creativity, and thinking needs to examine and understand their role. We talk a lot about responsibility and accountability, but what we really need to talk about is action. We have to help designers see that they have agency over what they put out and encourage them to think about the effect of their work and build the world they want to live in.
I’ve spoken at length about the tech industry’s responsibility in understanding their scale and impact, and I can only imagine what would happen if the people behind those companies were given space to act with purpose and use the full extent of their power.
Hot take: brands are not people. Brands are manufactured.”
In your opinion, what brands are setting a good example when it comes to promoting real positive change?
Early in my career the hot trend was innovation. Apple and Nike made an appearance in every client and agency presentation. Though there were some great lessons to learn from both brands, I always struggled to imagine what practices other companies could implement in their innovation pipelines to match their success.
I feel the same way about the question of what brands lead with purpose. Not to beat the same drum, but the best examples of companies making real positive change are made up of people who truly believe in “future-making.” It must start with a personal belief that your brand can make a positive societal difference.
If I had to choose the three brands that would show up in every client and agency presentation about purpose, I’d go with Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, and Lego. I love what these brands are pioneering. However, two other brands caught my eye for promoting positive change at scale: Oreo and Fenty.
Oreo might not be an obvious choice, but I love their commitments around promoting LGBTQIA+ rights. They are successfully engaging with organizations within the LGBTQIA+ community and creating consistent content without hesitation. Bringing people together is at Oreo’s core and I admire the choice to use their platform to amplify the importance of belonging.
I can’t think of a better house of brands promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion than Fenty and Fenty Savage. Both of Rihanna’s brands are forcing the beauty and fashion industry to come to terms with what it means to put inclusion at the forefront of product development, as well as what it means to foster communities in new ways.
You’ve written about the dangers of “woke-washing” in the CPG sector. Why is that space particularly susceptible to inauthenticity around social or environmental issues?
One of the reasons I wanted to work at Kimberly-Clark after grad school is it’s a global corporation that sells one of the biggest commodities out there: paper products. Commodities pose an interesting branding challenge in that the only way to gain market share is to take it from a competitor. It’s not about getting new users, it’s about highlighting the fundamental difference of your brand. You have to create a meaning that will resonate with people and lead them to choose your product over another almost identical one.
Consumer packaged goods are trying to sell more things, to more people, often for more money. An easy way of doing that is leaning into what’s trendy or happening in culture. Right now, purpose-driven and socially conscious initiatives are very in. I can imagine all the reports, strategy documents, and white papers saying younger consumers want to buy things with purpose or meaning. For me, this is not a passing fad. It’s my personal and professional mission.
We as consumers need to understand our role and our power to shape what brands do and how they should behave. With that said, consumer packaged goods for products and services need to demonstrate that they understand what part of the world they are impacting.
Brands and companies belong to a larger social system and are responsible for the impact of their actions and products. It’s not enough to put forth a socially conscious brand campaign. Customers these days are smarter than that. Change needs to be happening from the ground levels of their organization. That long-term thinking is what will make a CPG’s effort feel authentic and give them the competitive edge they’re looking for.
ThoughtMatter gets active in social causes, including designing protest posters. Have you applied any lessons from these internal projects to any of your client work?
At the core of ThoughtMatter is the belief designers are activists. With our skills we can bring about political and social change. November 2016, our founder, Tom, told each of us we have the chance to use our skills to do right or do nothing. These are words we’ve lived by since.
We created a series of posters for what was supposed to be an important but small women’s march in Washington. This evolved into us printing and distributing 10,000 posters for what became one of the largest moments of protest in US history. I read somewhere that design has a lot to learn from protest, that protest is the space between action and hope. Our contribution to this protest gave us a belief and spirit that still drives us today.
We take the lessons of our internal projects and apply them to client projects, but more importantly our internal projects reinforce our investment in long-term thinking. Nothing changes overnight or without action. Every internal project, which we refer to as in-between work, is a step toward the future we believe in. We invest our time, energy, and resources into our client work to reinvest it in transformative internal ideas that attempt to change the world around us.
Q&A BONUS ROUND with Jessie McGuire of ThoughtMatter
What’s an object in your home that you love?
My children’s artwork, which is ever-present and ever-changing. It reminds me how important the unpolished act of creativity is. That said, I throw out quite a bit of my children’s artwork, much to my husband’s chagrin. The physical work is secondary to me, it is more important for me to engage with them on why they created something and how it made them feel than to keep every piece of smudged paper to show their messy genius. It will be up to them to think about what they make and what will be worth preserving.
What’s a personal routine or ritual you adhere to?
For most of my adult life I have called my mother every day. There have certainly been moments when it wasn’t possible, but it has remained an important routine for me at the different stages of my career. I would call her on my way to the subway when I had a 15-minute walk in Flatbush. I would call her on my hour-long car ride up to a design studio in South Norwalk. And once my babies came into the picture, I’d call her when they finally went to sleep.
After two years of living through a global pandemic, I was lucky enough to help my mother move into an apartment on the first floor of our building. Now my routine is to visit her every morning before working from home. This routine has also been passed to my 8-year-old, who talks to my mother every night to complete his reading homework. Family and community is critical to my personal wellbeing, and these daily check-ins with my mom have reminded me anything is possible when you have the right people in your corner.
What’s playing in the office (or home office) while you work?
While working from home, the team realized a way to stay in touch was to create Spotify playlists we could all listen to. Our creative director designed 10 covers, thinking there was no way we’d be home for 10 weeks. Little did he know. As of March 2022, we have created 98 playlists! They range from thematic moods to artist compilations. A personal favorite is one we made as an ode to high school art rooms in the late 90s:
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.