The Power of Design, An interview with Josh Higgins

When I was finding design I was lucky to have a professor that used the term ‘the power of design’ and would often show examples of how design solved problems for business and in society. Design as a means to effect change has always been a part of my practice and something that naturally felt right. At one of my first design conferences (before I graduated design school), one of the speakers, Terry Marks spoke of how he dedicates a percentage of his time to causes he believed in. This completely resonated with me and I decided to apply the same thinking to my own life and career. I have done so ever since.

Josh Higgins, a San Diego native, is well-known for consistent, clean, and deceptively-simple designs driven by a powerful aesthetic and fearless attitude wrapped in social awareness. His design activism led him from the role as design director on President Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign to becoming a creative director for Facebook’s in-house agency, The Factory.

Please join us and Josh along with friend and moderator Aaron Draplin on Thursday, April 21st at the Portland Art Museum for a night of inspiration and Design Week Portland Fun.

Many opportunities arose for Higgins to effect massive change through his career as a designer, but for him it all started with music. Like many of us, he collected flyers and posters from shows he attended and hung them on his bedroom walls. Eventually he began to design his own, when his career took a turn, posters became one of his more common and successful mediums of design.

I have always been drawn to poster design for two reasons.
One—it was one of the first means of communication I remember before I knew what design was. Two—one of my biggest design heroes, Art Chantry used this medium a lot and I when I made the connection that this was design I wanted to try my hand at it. I fell in love with both the design part and the process of pulling ink through screens. I like the challenge to express big ideas in a limited space.

His best-known work has been influenced by this love. In 2008 his involvement with President Obama’s campaign started from a collaboration with Rafael Lopez, an illustrator in San Diego. The poster “Nuestra Voz” is bold and emotes hope with sunshine yellows and a confident, forward-looking profile of President Obama. The poster, which became an official poster for the campaign, went on sale and was purchased by thousands of fans including Oprah Winfrey—funds from the sale went directly to the campaign.  

This collaboration between Higgins and Lopez embodied the sense of change they wanted to see in the world and resulted in a commitment to a cause important to them. It also got Higgins an invitation to be the creative head of Present Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

This official poster for the 2008 campaign went on sale and was purchased by thousands of fans including Oprah Winfrey. It also got Higgins an invitation to be the creative head of Present Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

In 2015, Josh worked with Eric Olsen of Process type Foundry to redesign the facebook logo.

Design is Everything.
A poster started with type legend Doyald Young and finished with the help of Jessica Hische.

We asked guest Elea Davidson, a student at Portland State University’s School of Art + Design, to interview Josh on the power of design. Below is a sampling of her questions and perceptions, as well as Josh’s thoughtful reflections.


What was your first reaction after receiving an offer as design director for the 2012 campaign? Did you have any reservations about entering such a huge position of responsibility over such a large group of people, especially, since this was your first time working in a position of responsibility for a political campaign?


My first reaction was that someone was playing a trick on me or that it was a fake email. I was very happy and honored to find out that it was real. I didn’t have reservations about taking on the job—I chose not to think about whether I could do it, but rather, this is how I will do it.  After it settled in I started to think of how I was going to approach everything from building the team to designing the logo.


Did you feel like your creativity was limited designing under rapid deadlines and an assumed seriousness of politics and campaign content?


It was for sure the hardest job I have ever had and ever will. The speed and pressure to produce at a very high level, both in strategy and craft was like none other. I didn’t look at the constraints as limiting, just another design parameter.

The biggest thing we had to keep in mind at all times was our audience. It was not like a normal project where you have a target demographic of 18-30 year olds. Instead it was everyone—from people in college to grandparents. Designing something that resonates with a audience that large was one of the biggest challenges and successes I’ve had.



You created tools for the people on the ground of the campaign, and personally spent a day as a door knocker with your team. Did interacting with this on the ground level effect you design direction moving forward?


Yes, in a big way. It was so smart of the campaign to require everyone at HQ to go out and knock on doors. Personally, it made me realize how important every piece of communication my team created mattered, however small. The door knockers for example are not a designer dream project. They were however an important tool for volunteers who were out knocking on doors in support of the president—this shifted our team’s thinking and its importance to our goal.

The most important characteristics of Higgins’ work are his own character and beliefs. He wants to impact the world and executes his goal with grace. Whether it’s a personal, non-for-profit or a massive international project, Higgins delivers work powered by authentic care for the cause.

Please join us for our Design Week Portland event. Friend and guest moderator Aaron Draplin will talk about process and the power of design with Josh on Thursday night, April 21st at the Portland Art Museum. 

Josh dedicates a percentage of his time to social causes. Finding creative ways to support them has manifested into exhibits and charitable projects, like The Hurricane, So-Cal and Haiti Poster Projects in addition to lecture series with photographers, designers and film makers with proceeds donated to various charitable organizations.

He has worked with an array of clients, associations, and has spoken about design often. Some of his speaking engagements include: TYPO SF, TYPO Berlin, AIGA Unite, The Y Conference, Converge Conference, and Creative Mornings. Client work includes: President Obama, Asics Footwear, HP, Yamaha, Fender Guitars, Tony Hawk Foundation, Perry Ellis International, Kyocera, Bolle & Serengeti Eyewear, Newcastle Brown Ale, and Life Technologies—to name a few.