Exclusive Feature

Josh Higgins
The potentially career-ending risk of being a designer in politics

Words by Sean Blanda  •  Apr 22, 2019
Link copied to clipboard

I’d like you to pretend I just handed you the world’s most mysterious design brief.

There are few projects bigger than this one. Your customer? Every American. Your goal? To help shape the world’s oldest and most successful democracy for the better. You will work seven days a week, and there’s a 50/50 chance your project will be totally irrelevant when it’s over. Your pay is certainly less than you’re making now. But, on the flip side, there’s also a chance your work is adopted by the world’s most recognizable and influential executive. The brief is to be a designer for a presidential candidate in the United States of America.

There are few people alive that know what this challenge is like in the age of the internet. Josh Higgens is one of those people.

A former musician who played gigs at places like the Vans Warped Tour, Higgens built his design chops creating concert posters for TKTKTK. His love of poster design led him to creating posters to raise money for Haiti and Hurricane Katrina victims, as well as poster for then-candidate Obama’s 2008 campaign that was purchased by Oprah. Later, he was tapped by President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. After the campaign he found a home at Facebook where he’s now the VP of TKTKTK.

As the U.S. lurches toward the 2020 election, what passes for “normal” campaign design is changing rapidly. The most iconic campaign imagery of 2016 was a red hat. The media landscape reinvents itself every two-to-three-years. Meanwhile, today’s candidates are eschewing previously sacred conventions such as color and typeface.

Designing for politics has never been more complicated. So as the U.S. heads to another fork-in-the-road election, what role will digital product design play? And would you help out if you could?

We asked Higgens to reflect on design’s role in politics and to share some lessons from his career.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The renaissance man: Josh Higgins has served on the Tony Hawk Foundation Advisory Board, the Obama 2012 campaign, and is now the ECD of AR/VR products at Facebook.

Will the best-branded candidate always have the best shot at winning?

That’s not true. It all has to be there. I think the secret sauce is that the candidate should believe that they are definitely the best candidate. Barack was like all those things, and still, all these things needed to line up for him. I thought [2016 Democrat Presidential Nominee] Hilary Clinton had great design, but she wasn’t the right candidate and she wasn’t saying wasn’t the right things. [President Donald] Trump didn’t have great design, but he was saying things to the right audience. Design is just one part of it.

  • Trump 2012
  • Hillary 2012
  • Trump 2012. This is a long caption that will wrap
  • Hillary 2012

It’s the same for digital products, right? One can have the best design, but if there’s no customer base, who cares? It doesn’t matter.

Right. If people can’t find a way for it to fit into their lives, it doesn’t matter.

How does the day-to-day differ when you are designing for a campaign?

The stakes were way higher, right? The second thing was the audience. The audience part was probably one of the biggest challenges and being able to design something personally you were pleased with and thought it was a good design that would resonate with everyone from your peers to your grandparents. I think that was probably the biggest challenge. And then timelines were super, super, tight. And so you’re trying to do the best work of your career in absolutely no time.

We had very senior designers that we’re working on door hangers. Leave your ego at the door and you have to just be fully open to doing whatever it takes to help.

What’s your advice for designers that are considering working on a campaign? What should they be prepared for?

Be willing to work on anything. We had very senior designers that we’re working on door hangers. Leave your ego at the door and you have to just be fully open to doing whatever it takes to help. When I first got there I remember thinking, “Okay, I probably won’t focus on this thing or that thing.” But in the end, any one piece is the difference between winning or losing. It could have been the door hanger. It could have been a white paper. It could’ve been an email. So everything literally the same level of not just craft, but intensity. We had to put the same effort into every piece.

That was one of the hardest things to do: get motivated but also motivate other people to do that. Especially when you’re exhausted and you’ve been working 14 days in a row.

How do you keep people motivated over a grueling campaign?

It was finding projects to work on together outside of the things that we had to do. Stuff that would both help the campaign but also was fun and different for us. For one of the things, I found out that bands and artists were playing concerts on behalf of the president in different parts of the U.S.

So I reached out to the state directors and said, “Hey, if you have Chris Cornell or Bruce Springsteen playing, we can make posters for it.” And we put all the designer’s names in a hat and choose who got to design a poster for, like, Death Cab for Cutie. We would have them silk screened than Chicago and then send them to the state where the concert was happening to help them promote it.

What is different about doing a campaign in 2020 versus 2012?

There are so many more channels and platforms and things that candidates need to be aware of. Back then, the integration was the same five surfaces. Now, there’s like so many more surfaces to be integrated with and to consider how do they compliment each other. That’s everything from like Snapchat to Facebook to Instagram to Instagram stories. And you can’t just take what you’re doing on one platform and put it on another.

I think I would probably think about that a lot harder today. And the platforms weren’t as sophisticated as they are now either.

What are you noticing that’s different in 2020 about the way candidates brand themselves?

I’ve definitely noticed the level of execution has gone up. Across the board, not just Democrat, but also Republican candidates. I remember doing a bunch of research before I even moved out to Chicago [to work on the campaign]. I started looking at campaigns and noticed that like the same blue and the same reds have been used since 1964 for presidential candidates.

That was like one of the biggest reasons that I chose the colors that I chose for Obama [NOTE: need to include image comparison here!]. I wanted the message to be “This guy is completely different than anybody that has come before him, or will probably come after him.” We need to have them represented that way visually. I see candidates now are taking more on with color. Like Kamala Harris. That’s great to see, too.

Caption Here

In previous campaigns, I think [campaign design] was mostly about trying to falsely attach what you stand for to “Be American.” While that’s important, what’s even more important is representing who you really are. Whether that’s what color or design or other communications.

Current Campains

Was there a time where the digital work you did impacted the campaign in “real life”?

We made a site called “The Life of Julia.” It was showed the differences between Obama’s policies and [2012 Republican President Nominee Mitt] Romney’s and how it would affect a woman.

This is a very long caption. This is a very long caption. This is a very long caption. This is a very long caption. This is a very lhjkhjkh hlhjkhj lkh jkjklhh ong caption. This is a very long caption. This is a very long caption.
Photo By: Francois Cote

And as soon as we released it, we saw an immediate shift. It was huge. I remember, I was watching the Daily Show, and all of a sudden [Jon Stewart] starts reporting on the Life of Julia, this product my team made. We had just built and shipped it, and it was having such an impact. It’s all of a sudden showing up in pop culture now.

Caption

What are some misconceptions you think people have about designing for a campaign or doing work with social change in mind?

That you’re doing it for free or at a discounted rate, so you can do whatever you want. I’ve heard younger designers say, “Oh yeah, I want to work for a nonprofit because it’s a lot easier.” The nonprofit is just like any other entity, they want to promote their product, whatever it is. You still have to work within the bounds of design parameters. You still are working to push the business forward.

But a campaign is not necessarily about selling something, it’s about communicating an important idea. And you could argue both products and campaigns are about communication, but I think the results of that communication are quite different.

When you told people you were working on a campaign, how would they react?

It was one of two things: My father was like “Why the fuck would you do that?” He’s a Republican [laughs]. So I either heard “that guy sucks” or “Godspeed, you need to save this country.”

Do you worry that your affiliation with a campaign will harm your reputation with people who don’t share your politics?

I was doing a talk in Texas about this work, and I’ve never thought of my talk being political, right? It’s always been about design to me. But this dude at the conference helped me have a different perspective. He sent a tweet out that said something like, “Hey, doesn’t this Obama guy know that he is in Romney country?”

Oftentimes now if I’m in a red state and I’m talking, I say, “Hey, just to preface this, this talk is not about politics. This talk is about design. It happens to involve something I believe in. But if you believe in something else, please go do it.”

This dude at the conference helped me have a different perspective. He sent a tweet out that said something like, ‘Hey, doesn’t this Obama guy know that he is in Romney country?’

Are there any other surprising ways working in politics affected your career?

On the campaign I would think all the time: “Hey if we lose, that’s going to be on our resume.” People will say “That’s the team that made Obama lose.” Quite a few times I thought, “This could be like career ending.” But it was worth it, for sure.

Do you think design has a role in bringing people together?

We need to work cross functionally with other disciplines in order for it to actually change the world. One of the biggest things that I feel is frustrating about our profession is that I’ve always heard, “Design can change the world.” I totally agree with that, but it’s only part of what can change the world. You must have a good, solid idea that is beneficial for the world as well.