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Josh Higgins:
Obama’s former design director on the new wave of political branding

Words by Sean Blanda  •  May 14, 2019
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I’d like you to pretend that 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 Higgins is one of those people.

A former musician who played gigs at places like the Vans Warped Tour, Higgins built his design chops creating concert posters. His love of poster design eventually led him to create posters to raise money for Haiti Earthquake relief and Hurricane Katrina victims, as well as a poster for then-candidate Obama’s 2008 campaign (that was purchased by Oprah Winfrey). Later, he was tapped by President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 as design director.

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. Designing for politics has never been more complicated. So as the U.S. heads to another highly-charged election, what role will digital product design play? And would you join a campaign if you could?

We asked Higgins 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 been in a rock band, serves on the Tony Hawk Foundation Advisory Board, and was design director on the Obama 2012 campaign.
Photo: Monica Semergiu

Will the best-branded candidate 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 [Obama] was all those things, and still several 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 was saying wasn’t resonating. [President Donald] Trump didn’t have great design, but he was saying things to the right audience. Design is just one part of it.

  • The two-color Times New Roman “MAGA” hat.
  • Created for 2008 but reused for 2016, poster by Tony Puryear.
  • Trump 2016 logo, the second iteration.
  • Hillary 2016 logo by Pentagram, the world-renowned design firm.

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. Being able to design something personally you were both pleased with and thought 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.

Inspired by artist Terry Marks, Josh sets aside a portion of his work time for social causes which led to the creation of posters for Katrina and Haiti victims.
Photo: Monica Semergiu

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 has 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. We would have them silk screened in 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 are so many more surfaces to be integrated with and to consider how they compliment each other. That’s everything from 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 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. 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 [2020 Candidate Democrat] Kamala Harris. That’s great to see, too.

Higgins’ unconventional choice of a light blue continued a trend of more unconventional color choice…

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.

…until 2020. Now, the floodgates are open, and this cycle’s logos are all over the color spectrum.

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 Presidential Nominee Mitt] Romney’s and how it would affect a woman.

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.

“I felt we could tackle anything. If we could take this group of people and start an agency would be probably the most powerful agency ever.”

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 resumé.” 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.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story displayed an incorrect version of the Obama 2012 campaign logo. It has been corrected.