The Leaders in Design Series is supported by Volvo.
Jesse Thomas founded the creative agency JESS3 as a student in 2007. In a few short years, he managed to climb an impressive entrepreneurial ladder. The company has completed projects for Facebook, Google and Nike, among dozens of other tech companies, publications and brands.
Thomas spoke to Mashable about his proudest moments, which include the NASA campaign that checked astronaut Doug Wheelock into Foursquare from outer space. He also reveals the clinical nature of design, explaining that sometimes his work feels more like plastic surgery than an academic endeavor.
Read on to discover where Thomas began and what he sees for the future of design.
Q&A With Jesse Thomas, Founder of JESS3
Explain in your own words the concept and work behind JESS3.
We embody the youthful spirit of our team and clients by constantly pushing to be as great as the masters we study. The vision of JESS3 as an agency has always been to experiment with cutting edge technologies and creative techniques for application in advertising/marketing efforts. Our drive is combining social technology with raw creativity. We have always been interested in visual storytelling and have recently been focusing on data art.
Our approach to design and strategy is very academic and surgical. Some days we feel like brain surgeons at a top military hospital, other days we feel like plastic surgeons. Our clients allow us to think big, and we like that. My goal for JESS3 is two separate paths: [to become] an agency conglomerate like WPP, [and to develop] product design and services like Microsoft.
Your list of services reads like a six-page diner menu. Is there anything you don’t do?
We focus on the things we are good at. But part of being independent is trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Our core focus has always been interactive design, but as we started doing more information design projects, we needed to have in-house research people.
Our clients wanted us to focus on just strategy, so we started hiring people to do that. We saw an opportunity to combine our infographics design with the modern version of PR, in which the focus is targeting bloggers, so we did that. And clients wanted us to build them large installations for their events, and it seemed straightforward enough, so we learned the bits we weren’t familiar with and made it happen.
The name JESS3 is somewhat eponymous. How did you land on it?
Years ago when I was a student … Eminem was quite popular, and he was writing his name in all caps with the second E as a 3, but because it was in all caps it was subtle. People told me it was a bad idea to use my name, but I looked at successful brands like Ogilvy, and thought about the lineage of consultants like lawyers and doctors, and realized that naming something after yourself is how it’s always been done. Plus, I always liked putting my name on stuff, and it was an excuse to print up stickers and write my name all the time.
Define your own design philosophy and how it continues to influence your company.
We always strive to get things right the first time. Being precise with creativity is not easy, and thus we have needed to hire a team of dedicated professionals that share the same passion for accuracy. We often mock-up multiple directions to find that perfect one, instead of forcing one process to produce that perfect product. We never know what the next project might be, but we can plan ahead and use our experiments in new client projects. We operate like a creative lab in that sense.
What are the projects you’re most proud of?
I’m most proud of our diverse body of work: from an outer space Foursquare check-in for NASA to a stop-motion video production for Google. I am most proud that Facebook asked us to build a site for their 500 million user announcement. It was such an honor at the time, and we continue to work with Facebook.
Where should today’s designers be looking for inspiration?
Look for inspiration in the real world. The web is a great place to start, but strive to see for your own eyes the best works of the world. Go outside and take a pen and paper. I also use Delicious to save all my web links for inspiration, and I still love magazines like Monocle and Wired. Dribbble and Forrst are great new interactive design communities that didn’t exist a year ago. Go there! Communities like Kickstarter, Behance and Etsy are great new places to meet like-minded designers and be inspired by their work. And make sure to always study the history of design — those that forget history are doomed to repeat it!
What’s in the cards for future design?
Design is on the front lines of everything from saving lives to entertainment. I think you will see more exciting partnerships between industries like music and design. Perhaps it is a combination of game, website and music? Google, for instance, has a sweet small team called Data Arts, which created Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown.
One key thing to look for in the future is better, more accessible tools. Right now we have a huge gap between professional and consumer, which I think will close in the future. I think it totally sucks that Apple and Adobe don’t get along. Apple is the kind of brand that should offer better design tools natively. Motion and Final Cut Pro are great for video and animation, but where are Apple’s Photoshop and Illustrator killers?
Ten years ago we had glorious Flash sites, and that kind of rich experience is what got me excited about digital design. Then web 2.0 came along and social networking made it cool to have a lame website with no design. Somehow we allowed ourselves to step back for the sake of scaling across mobile and unprecedented growth. Audiences didn’t want rich websites. They wanted the illusion of a lighter option, which to purists is simple, soulless crap. Social networking killed the web-design star!
Series supported by Volvo
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