Josh Higgins has lived what seems like two radically distinct lives—and thus people tend to know of him from one or the other.
If you were a fan of the all-encompassing ’90s SoCal punk movement, you probably recall the Higgins who stomped his feet to the music, sweat running down his tattooed arms as he screamed backup vocals and anchored the bass in the band fluf. They were signed to a major label; they played with the likes of Fugazi, Jawbreaker and Bad Religion; they fully embodied the antics of the era, once even getting into trouble for a bologna-related incident aboard a tour bus with the Deftones.
On the other hand, if you’re a designer, there’s a good chance you know the Higgins who hung out with President Barack Obama and spearheaded the visual narrative of his 2012 campaign before turning his talents to Facebook.
Regardless of which Higgins you’re familiar with, clad in all-black and toting a mind-boggling résumé, he can seem an intimidating presence. But when you meet him you’re immediately struck by how friendly he is—not to mention polite. He has said those trademark manners go back to his dad, who was an actor, and used to bring him along to formal dinners as a boy clad in a tiny tux.
Growing up in Southern California, Higgins’ parents would divorce early in his life, and his mom remarried when he was 5 or so—to someone Higgins didn’t get along with. That bred anger. And that anger served as a natural gateway to the world of punk that was cropping up everywhere around him. Higgins began performing in bands in middle school, and when not playing, he could often be found at Kinko’s, creating the show fliers that wallpapered San Diego—deriving almost as much joy from them as he did being on stage.
After playing in a string of bands, Higgins joined fluf, which exploded and signed to MCA/Universal. There were Fender endorsements, a string of albums, intense shows, hijinks galore. It was all fantastic. But eventually, after a decade of life on the road, Higgins was exhausted. He knew he needed to do something else. (After all, as he has said on stage in design presentations, he didn’t necessarily want to become the next Bret Michaels.)
A friend suggested he give graphic design a try—but Higgins didn’t know what the heck it was. When she explained, he was floored to realize that the gig posters he had been creating throughout his life fell under the purview of a viable career path. He enrolled at San Diego City College (where he’d deliver the commencement address as a decorated alum years later) and was hooked upon taking his first typography class.
Emerging from school, he had credentials in hand for a new discipline he loved … but he couldn’t find work. He reached out to his old pals at Fender and agreed to do some T-shirt designs to try to connect the company with more contemporary musicians. The resulting work became a brand mainstay, and when he saw a member of Green Day wearing a shirt he had done, he knew he had met their goal.
Years of agency work followed. And then one day he was asked to participate in the Hurricane Poster Project to benefit victims of Katrina. His poster went on to bring in more money than he could have donated on his own, and to him—after years of thinking bullshit whenever he heard someone proclaim that design could change the world—it was a revelation. Design really could move the needle. And that knowledge has defined the rest of his career. Higgins began setting aside an allotment of time for causes he believed in, and he participated in or launched more poster projects—one to help those impacted by the San Diego wildfires, another for victims of the Haitian earthquake and, of course, one his friend Shepard Fairey had put together in 2007 for Barack Obama. People went wild for Higgins’ piece … among them, Oprah Winfrey. That drew the attention of the Obama campaign, who used it as an official poster, alongside Fairey’s iconic “Hope” image.
Time passed. And then an email pinged into his inbox: “You should come work for Obama.”
He read the subject line and laughed it off. But he came to realize it was a very real offer—and soon enough he was in Chicago, building a team as design director for the 2012 Obama reelection campaign. He put all of the visual infrastructure in place, from websites to logos to door hangers, working 16-hour days, the world consuming his output in real time. “The passion, the cause and the adrenaline kept me going,” he has said, elsewhere noting, “There is no certain path you can take to be successful. Whatever the path is you just have to work your ass off.” It might have seemed like he was cramming the intense sum toll of his music career into a condensed timeframe with a singular objective. The difference was, at the end of the day, he didn’t emerge burned out on the craft and ready to move on from it.
Higgins had done his part in sparing the world a Mitt Romney regime. As he was heading back to California following Obama’s victory, his phone rang. Facebook wanted to see what he was up to now. And in the company, he found not only his next design challenge, but an ethos that jibed with his own. As he said when interviewed by Print magazine in 2017, “[Mark Zuckerberg’s] mission is to make the world more open and connected because he believes each of us having a better understanding of each other makes the world a better place. So many backgrounds are represented at Facebook. There’s diverse thinking, and having creative design thinking be a part of that mix … is integral.”
Like with the Obama campaign, Higgins was soon in charge of a vast array of visual touchpoints, and he was also a key player in the development of Facebook’s creative shop, The Factory. Some of his highlights: The beloved tear-inducing Facebook 10-year videos; Facebook’s birthday and friend anniversary videos; the company logo redesign with Eric Olson. Today, Higgins is in charge of VR and AR, and his most recent project is Portal, the video communication hardware.
Which Higgins do you know: the punk, or the designer?
Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive. Perhaps he’s always been driving at the same thing, his old life not a skin one sheds, but more akin to the tattoos that still ornament his body.
As he has said, “After years of being angry and destroying things, it got old. As my anger faded a little bit, I was able to see punk for what it really was. I think punk is more than music. It’s more than an outlet for anger. It’s personal expression and a drive to question the status quo. It’s not fashion or the latest trend. It’s an idea that guides and motivates your life. Punk urges you to think for yourself, be yourself, and do it yourself. When my understanding of punk shifted from this outlet for anger to a way of how I approach things in my life, everything changed. It not only shaped those things, but it also really helped me find design.
“Punk is not dead. It’s very much alive.”
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Debbie Millman: Josh Higgins is the executive creative director for virtual and augmented reality products, and hardware at Facebook. Before Facebook, he was design director for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign. If that seems like a major career leap from presidential politics to social media giant, just you wait. Before he got into design, Josh was a musician. For over a decade, he performed and recorded with the band fluf. In other words, Josh is a renaissance man, and he's also a really interesting guy. Josh Higgins, welcome to Design Matters.
Josh Higgins: Hi, Debbie.
Debbie: It's really great to have you here at long last.
Josh: I can't tell you how excited I am to be here.
Debbie: Oh good. Good, good. Well, let's see once I ask you all the questions I got for you.
Debbie: Josh, I understand that Facebook will do laundry for you, but your wife won't let you bring yours to the office. She doesn't want you to be that guy. So, who's that guy?
Josh: That's true. Facebook afford the employees many wonderful perks, that being one of them.
Debbie: So, they wash your underwear?
Josh: If you need.
Debbie: If you let them!
Josh: Yeah. If you need, they do, but yeah. I took my laundry in once, thinking I was doing my wife a favor, and actually I offended her by taking it in. So I don't do that anymore, although they do dry cleaning as well. They help us with that, and so that's okay. That's within the limits.
Debbie: She lets you do that?
Debbie: Okay, good. You grew up in Southern California. Your whole family surfed and you, too, started surfing by the time you were seven, and I understand that your first career aspiration was to be a professional surfer.
Josh: It was.
Debbie: So, you're quite good at it? Are you still quite good at it?
Josh: I'm not quite good at it, still. I would say I was fairly good at it, but not good enough to make it a career, and thankfully I realized that early on.
Debbie: Your parents divorced when you were three. I understand that your dad was one of the first two actors. Howard Hughes signed his production company.
Josh: Wow. Yes. Yes, he was.
Debbie: Tell us a little bit about him, and his career, and how that impacted you.
Josh: Yeah. So the story I've been told, by my mom, is that my mom was a model for Saks Fifth Avenue, and my dad was there, and went on a date. Their first date was on John Wayne's plane, to a party here in New York. Yeah. My dad had retired by the time I could really understand what it was he did, but he did show me many photos of me on Robert Redford's lap as a child. There was one picture I remember in particular where Robert Redford was in the bushes, a little bit inebriated, and I was sitting on him.
Debbie: Now I read that your dad used to bring you to fancy dinners in a little tux, and that's where you got your impeccable manners that you're known for, which are perhaps a bit of an anomaly in the world of punk rock.
Josh: I learned early on how important they were. He was very, very adamant about being a gentleman. I think early on I saw what sort of reaction people had when you were a gentleman, and it was great positive feedback, and so ...
Debbie: Are you sure it wasn't because they were enamored by a little boy wearing a tuxedo?
Josh: Maybe. Maybe.
Debbie: And the picture of you and Robert Redford, where you're sitting on him, is that in a tuxedo? Are you both in tuxedos?
Josh: No. I think it was in some bad seventies gear that my mom put me in.
Debbie: Yeah. Your mom got remarried when you were four or five, and you didn't get along with your stepdad. You were very angry growing up, and following years of therapy, you said ... and I did speak to your therapist, so I don't want you to think there's any violation of any HIPAA laws here, but following years of therapy, you said it was because you were sad that your parents weren't together anymore. Did that anger play out as you were growing up?
Josh: Yeah. It was funny. I never realized, until I started going to therapy, why I was so angry. When I was introduced to punk rock, the energy, and angst, and anger that you could release was what drew it to me, and I never thought of myself as an angry person before that, and then it all came out, and when I got into therapy, I remember being told that, “Oh, he's a bad boy,” or I used to, when I was three and my parents first divorced, I used to bite people, and I was just acting out. My therapist reminded me, “No. You were probably upset, and so people thought you were just a bad boy, but you were actually just in a reaction.” So I started, when I got older, started putting it all together that the punk rock was like another outlet for that.
Debbie: So it helped you heal in a lot of ways.
Josh: Yeah. It really did help me heal, and I found this community of people that were either from a similar background, or something else really made them angry in their lives as well.
Debbie: One of the first albums you ever purchased was a Minor Threat record, so can you talk a little bit about that? You're smiling, so there's a story there.
Josh: I love these questions. These are amazing. Yeah. A friend of mine, Jim Brown, came back from England. I guess it was in the very early eighties, and when he left, he was this normal surfer like myself, and he came back, and he had spiked hair, he had these shoes called creepers on, he had a safety pin in his ear, and I was like, “What the hell happened?” He was the one that turned me onto punk rock originally, and he said, “We need to take you record store shopping,” because the only record I had, had at that time, was I think Van Halen, Boston ...
Debbie: Those are all good albums.
Josh: They're all good albums.
Debbie: Would you remember what your first album purchase ever was?
Josh: Yeah. It was Boston.
Debbie: It was.
Josh: It was Boston.
Debbie: The More Than A Feeling Boston?
Josh: That was it.
Debbie: The one that Paula Scher did!
Josh: That was it.
Debbie: Yeah. She hates that album cover, and I don't understand why.
Josh: Oh my gosh. It was just a great album cover. I think that's why I bought it, actually. I didn't know the band. Yeah, so he said, “We need to take you record store shopping,” and I went into this record store, it was a very small store, and they carried all punk rock stuff, in San Diego, and I saw the Minor Threat record. It's a very simple black and white record. The picture of it has a bunch of sheep on the front, and one of the sheep is black, and it's walking away from the flock, and it says, “Out of Step,” and I was like, “Wow!” I just related to it, and he told me that, that was a great record. So I bought it for the cover, I remember, and then ended up ... They're still one of my favorite bands to this day.
Debbie: One of the punk bands that I first bought an album of, or by, because the cover was Flipper. Do you remember Flipper?
Josh: Yeah. Of course.
Debbie: Generic Flipper with the greatest logo of all time, the fish with the crossed eye is just, I think, one of the greatest albums of all time.
Josh: That's amazing. I had no idea.
Debbie: Yeah. So good. Yeah. Oh, I've got some range, Josh! You're looking at me like, “I thought you would be into Olivia Newton-John,” which I am actually, but ...
Josh: No. I didn't think that, but I just didn't think Flipper.
Debbie: So, at this point in your life, after going record store shopping, and discovering Minor Threat, did you start to think at that point of shifting your career goals from surfer to musician?
Josh: Yeah. I'd always played music. My parents were very encouraging of that, and I always had guitars. I remember my parents bought me this really small practice amp for electric guitar, and I said, “Well, I want something bigger than that. It's just not loud enough,” and my mom said, “There's no way.” and so I went out to a pawn shop, and I bought one, and snuck it in while she was at work, and put it in my bedroom.
Josh: And I don't know how I thought I was gonna get away with that, but yeah, I'd always played music, and surfed, and then when I realized that surfing wasn't gonna be my career, I started really heavily focusing on music.
Debbie: And in middle school, you began playing in bands. Did you start straight away with punk music, or did you start with something else?
Josh: Yeah. Yeah. I started straight away with punk music. It was probably the easiest thing to get into.
Debbie: And I read that you could often be found at Kinko's, chopping up type, and enlarging photos for your band's flyers. How did you get the job of band designer, as well as musician?
Josh: It's really funny in bands. Everyone sort of takes on a role, and it's unspoken, really, it just sort of happens, and I took on the role, early days, of manager, and so I would try and setup the gigs, I would try and setup tours if we were gonna play out of town, and that also meant promoting, and helping promote, and so I would just emulate the flyers that I'd seen from my punk rock days, that I had in my bedroom, and looking back at some of those flyers, they are just horrendous. I was just mixing type like crazy.
Debbie: But that was the visual language of the time. I mean that was the Souther California punk scene explosion.
Josh: It was. It was. I just ... Now it hurts, but it was a lot of fun at the time, and I remember just thinking, “Oh, these two look good together,” and I often used rub down type, and ...
Debbie: So it looked like ransom letters?
Josh: Yeah! It absolutely looked like ransom letters.
Debbie: Do you still have any of them?
Josh: I do. I have a few of them left.
Debbie: We should do a little slideshow of those. That would be fun.
Josh: Yeah. I'd love to share them with you.
Debbie: You went to community college for a year, but dropped out. Instead, in the early nineties, you formed your band fluf. Why the name fluf? Lower case! So all lowercase letters. f-l-u-f.
Josh: So the band had been going a couple years prior to me joining, but the story of the name is that there was a lot of bands out at the time that had these very one word names, that were very heady.
Josh: Yeah. Just crazy Mudhoney and ... I guess that's two words, but they spelled it as one. So they wanted a name that was the opposite of what the band was, and so they picked fluf.
Debbie: Oh! Okay, but over the years you recorded several albums, you played an insane amount of shows, you played with all the gods of punk at the time, Rancid, Bad Religion, Jawbreaker, you had Gwen Stefani and No Doubt open one of your shows. They opened one of your shows! And then in '94, you signed with a major label. You signed with MCA at Universal. Tell us the story about getting signed.
Josh: Wow. What an amazing time it was for just music in general, especially for alternative rock or punk rock bands. Nirvana had just broke. Every record company was looking for the next Nirvana for their record label, and fluf had always had a lot of major label interest through its career, and then the drummer, Miles and myself, were very excited to sign with a major label, and just see where that would take the band. O, he's our singer, short for Otis, he, I, and Miles decided that we were gonna entertain, and so we started talking with different record labels, and ultimately ended up signing with MCA. The same day we signed, Sublime signed with MCA as well, and then shortly after that, Blink 182 signed with MCA, so they had grabbed some bands pretty quickly.
But yeah, I remember when I started playing music, it was the ultimate goal was to sign with a major label, and have a career in music, and it afforded us to be able to have money to live. It was a lot of money at the time, and I remember it was the first time that my parents actually thought that it was a real career because I was actually making more money than my dad for once. All at once. It just switched. It was just really interesting. Even with as much money as it was, it really just brought me up to a normal standard because, before that, I was living with no car insurance, no health insurance, a mattress that was on the floor. It was bare bones, and all of a sudden I was able to get these normal things, but it was really, really great to be able to finally do something that you really loved, and be able to earn a living doing it.
Debbie: You also got endorsed by Fender, which meant that all of your gear was suddenly free, and you no longer had to drive it around in a van, that you were piloting, to a bus with a driver. That must've been so heady. Did you feel like a rock star?
Debbie: I mean literally and figuratively!
Josh: I kept just being so thankful for everything that was happening at the time, and just going, “Wow. I can't believe this happened,” and then it was actually during our first, I think it was our first or second Warped Tour, I actually had my first panic attack. I think just the enormity of everything just hit me all at once, and I remember it being about 5:00 AM, and we were going through Wyoming, and no one was up, and so there's this little seat right next to the bus driver that you can just sit, and watch, and just meditate, and I went up there, and I sat with him, and we didn't talk. We just kind of looked. It was just beautiful, beautiful mountains. There was a little bit of snow on them.
All of a sudden I just felt my throat start closing up, and I was like, “What? I'm gonna die. What is going on with me?” and it wasn't until probably a year later that I realized it was all because of everything that had happened so fast. It was all just hitting me at once. I almost think back of it as the best and worst times because it was like a dream coming true, but also I think the pressure of now having to sell our music to make a record company happy, and ...
Debbie: I mean they were paying all that money because they're betting on your success, but they want that money back.
Josh: They want that money back. Yeah. It's not free.
Debbie: You said that the all time favorite tour you did was with the legendary Fugazi.
Josh: Oh yeah.
Debbie: What was it like to play with them on that tour?
Josh: I'd always heard these legendary stories about how sweet they were, and what nice people they were, and that was true from the very first night. So the first night, I remember we played at this venue, and some people had broke the sink off in the bathroom, and the club owner came, and was gonna take it out of the show's pay, and Fugazi ended up paying for it themselves because they knew we were obviously not making as much as they were, so the tour sort of went from there.
There's so many stories from that tour. One of them, I remember being backstage at, I believe it was, the Huntridge Theater in Las Vegas, and everybody had gone out to do something, lunch or something like that, and this guy comes back, and he almost looked homeless, and I was like, “How did he get back here?” and he said, “Hey, have you seen Ian?” and I go, “No. They went to lunch, man, but you're welcome to sit here and wait for them. They should be back very soon,” and so he sat down for a while. It turns out that was John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, during his heroin phase.
Debbie: Wow! Oh, okay.
Josh: So I just didn't recognize him at all, but I was like, “Wow. I wish I would've known that was him.”
Debbie: Yeah. I'm wondering if you can tell us about an infamous incident involving the Deftones and bologna sandwiches?
Josh: Yes! So the way the Warped Tour worked is, the buses would all leave at the same time, approximately about an hour to two hours after the last band played, and the catering would bring you snacks for the drive, and then you would get your itinerary for the next day, and I remember they brought us some bologna sandwiches, among other things, and another thing that would happen is, you get bored just being on your own bus all the time, so often when you had friends that were in other bands, you would switch, and they would come on your bus for a while, or you would go on their bus for a night, and just watch movies, or whatever.
Well, this night, we all got a little high, and we started getting into the bologna sandwiches, and instead of eating of them, we started throwing them at the window, and the bologna would stick, and then just slowly go down the window, and we just thought it was hilarious. The bus is not yours, it's actually the bus driver's, and he pulled over the bus, and was so angry at us. I mean, he literally made us clean the whole bus before he would drive any longer.
Debbie: So despite all the success, and all the bologna sandwiches, you decided you didn't want to live the life of a full-time musician. What made you decide to say, “Nah, I don't want this life.”?
Josh: We were playing a show, they call them radio shows, and Clear Channel owns hundreds of stations across the US, and they have bands fly into those cities, and will play a festival show. So we were literally flying from state to state, playing these shows for Clear Channel, and there was a time where the president of MCA showed up to see us, and we got in a little bit of an argument with our A&R rep, our artist relations rep, and she was really upset with us, and she told the president of MCA that we had gotten in this argument.
Debbie: Why was she upset with you?
Josh: So when we would show up to these shows, they would rent the equipment for us because all we were traveling with was our guitars, and we showed up to this show, and I didn't have the normal amplifier that I usually have, and I asked why didn't I have ... I don't have the usual one, and she said, “Well, the rental place didn't have them,” and so then our singer chimed in, O, and he said, “Why didn't they have it?” and then the rental guy overheard, and he said, “Well that's because your label was the very last people to rent the equipment.” It was a really weird argument. Ended up with her saying, “O, is that gonna be your excuse for not sounding good today?” and I was like, “Oh shit, you don't say that to O,” and he said some choice words that I won't repeat, she started to cry, and then took that to the president of MCA, and that escalated into another argument with the president of MCA, and it was at that moment where I said, “Wow. This could all end today over this really kind of ridiculous argument.”
I just figured, I knew I was getting older. It was a bunch of a combination of things. I was getting older, I was sort of getting tired of traveling, I still love music to this day, but I just knew that it was gonna be a really hard career if I was to continue for the foreseeable future, so that was sort of the defining moment. There was others, but I think that was the ... because we actually ended up putting out another record after that, but I remember that being the one where I was like, “Wow. This is all so fragile.” You're basically in a small business with two other guys whom I love to death. O is still one of my best friends to this day, but at any moment, it's like any relationship, it could just end, and then your career is done. That was sort of the thing that I kept thinking about.
Debbie: You decided, at that point, to go back to school, and you enrolled at San Diego City College to study graphic design.
Debbie: Why on Earth did you pick graphic design?
Josh: So O, Otis in the band, he designed all our first records, and I was always just really enamored with him, and his skills. He was such a great designer. He's a photographer. He's really a renaissance man as well, and that piqued my interest, and then a friend of mine, Jill, had just graduated from City College, and she's the one that said, “Hey, I think you would like graphic design,” and I literally said to her, “What is that?” and she mentioned, “Well, remember the flyers?” “Wow. You can make a living with that?” She goes, “Not exactly.”
Debbie: About as good as an unknown band.
Josh: Not exactly, but she told me I had to meet this woman, Candace Lopez, who ran the department there, and I did, and Candace completely changed my life.
Debbie: And she recalls you being really, really talented right from the start, but you said that you didn't have the same confidence that she did in you. What were you envisioning at that time? What did you think your possibilities were?
Josh: I was so unsure with what the industry even was. It was so new. I wasn't sure where it would go. I thought it was gonna be this very service orientated, someone gives you a task, and you do that task, and she was the one that really taught me that, before you put anything down on paper, it has to have a good idea, it has to have substance to it, and that really broadened what I thought about design, and then from there I just grew, and grew, but I wasn't sure that, that was the type of thinker I was. I had never explored that part of my brain. So I wasn't sure if I was gonna be good at it or not. I was a little nervous, and Candace really was so encouraging all the time.
Debbie: The following framed note has sat on your desk ever since you first received it in the late 1990s. “Dear Josh, I truly enjoyed meeting you. Your interest in typography, logo design, and beautiful manners impressed me. You are particularly thoughtful. Candace is an inspired teacher. Lucky for you. If you want additional comments on your work, I'd be happy to look at your efforts. Meanwhile, keep up your excellent work and, of course, the best of luck. Kindest regards, Doyald.” That note was from Doyald Young, the late great master typographer, and I understand he went on to become a mentor to you.
Josh: Yeah. He was ... Sorry.
Debbie: No. It's okay. I feel the same way. He was ... and for any of our listeners that might be interested, many, many years ago, I did do a Design Matters interview with him, which is one of the highlights of my interviewing career, but he was really one of the greatest typographers to have lived in the 20th century.
Josh: And I have to add, humans.
Josh: I mean he is just ... It really wasn't until later in my career that I realized just how amazing Doyald was as a typographer. I always thought he was just an amazing human. I obviously knew his skills. The way I met Doyald is, Candace invited him down to city college to critique. She had been friends with Doyald for a long time. He came to our logo class, and it was a class of 30 students, and so you had to put your name in a hat. He was gonna choose three people, and then you would get one on one time with Doyald.
Debbie: It's like winning the lotto.
Josh: Oh my god. My name got pulled, and I was like, “Holy shit,” and I received that note after that meeting, my first meeting with Doyald, and I remember I spent a whole weekend, I mean probably at least 20 hours on this logo.
Debbie: What was the logo for?
Josh: It was a fake hotel called King Plaza.
Josh: I knew that Doyald had done a lot of work for hotels, and so that's why I chose that one, and I spent 20 hours lettering this thing, and I had just piles and piles of tissue paper, and I brought it in, and he sat down with me, and then in the first four minutes he goes, “This is very good, Josh, but had you maybe of thought about this?” and just, within 30 seconds, drew something more beautiful than I ...
Debbie: Freehand, right?
Debbie: God, he could do that well.
Josh: And then I was just like, “Oh my god,” and I was just shocked, and that's sort of where our relationship started, and then he was just always open for any feedback, but I've often said that the thing that I learned most from him was about manners.
Debbie: He was such a gentleman.
Josh: Such a gentleman, and human, and he was just so, so giving. It was just really amazing.
Debbie: After you graduated, you didn't have an easy time finding work. Why?
Josh: I remember Candace saying this is the worst time she'd seen in at least her time teaching at City College. There wasn't a lot of jobs, and I was sending my resume out along with, I don't know if people do this anymore but, those little silly gifts.
Josh: Candace told me about the time that she sent to BBH, she sent one shoe with a note, and then followed up a week later with another shoe.
Debbie: And what was the point of this?
Josh: It was just to get their attention, so you'd be able to sort of rise to the top, and go, “Oh, maybe I should look at that portfolio. That's really clever,” and so I was always trying to think of clever things to do, and so I was silk screening shop rags with my information on them, and sending those, and I remember sending spark plugs.
Debbie: Very literal.
Josh: Yeah. Nothing was really working right away.
Debbie: Over the years, you ended up getting some work, and working for Conover, Adio Footwear, Murillo, Graphico, Vitra, and Departure? The magazine? Is it Departure Magazine?
Josh: No. It was a JWT company. Departure was a digital agency. It was one of the first digital agencies in San Diego. Well not the first, but one of the bigger ones in San Diego that were doing more national work.
Debbie: You've said that you used to call bullshit in your mind when your professors said design could change lives, and then you designed a poster for the hurricane poster project, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and your poster ended up bringing in more money than you could've donated on your own, and I understand that's when you realized that design could indeed help change the world, and you decided at that point you would always allocate a percentage of your time to designing for causes that you care about, and I believe you still do this today. Is that right?
Josh: Absolutely. Yeah.
Debbie: And you then worked on a project to benefit Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and you daydreamed about working for a cause you believed in full-time, and I understand a poster of yours went viral, and shortly thereafter, you got an email that changed the trajectory of your life. As you told the crowd at TYPO in San Francisco, “Treasure the moments. You never know when a life changing one will come along. Don't let them slip by.” So what happened to you?
Josh: I received an email that said, “Come work for the president,” and ...
Debbie: You thought it was a spam email, right?
Josh: I thought this was such bullshit, and I had a friend of mine trace it back to ... I did want to see what server it was coming from because I was like, “This is a great punk.” He said, “No. That's coming from the Obama servers,” and I said, “I'm still suspect.” So I just replied, “Sounds interesting,” and a couple hours later I got another email for a conference call.
Debbie: And so after an intense round of interviews, and background checks that I think you thought you weren't going to pass.
Josh: I thought that's where I was gonna get the ...
Debbie: The bologna sandwiches were gonna come back and haunt you, right?
Josh: I thought that's what it was gonna be.
Debbie: You got the call offering you the gig while you were napping on a beach, and you answered half asleep. They offered you the job, and you asked if you could call them back. Playing hard to get, Mister Higgins! Now you didn't want to ... You weren't entirely sure you were all the way awake, so you didn't want to respond half sleepy?
Debbie: So were you an Obama fan at the time?
Josh: I was. I was a very big Obama fan at the time. Shepard Fairey got me really interested in Obama in 2007.
Debbie: Because of his poster, or because of conversations you had with Shep?
Josh: Both. His enthusiasm got me to really check out what was going on with Obama, and so I was swept up with the whole wave, and did a poster for his campaign in 2007.
Debbie: Now I understand after you accepted the job, you spent four days driving to Chicago, which you said was the worst thing you could've done. You suddenly had a lot of misgivings. How come?
Josh: You have a lot of time to think during those four days.
Debbie: But what could've gone wrong? I mean you're going to work for the president, how could that possibly be bad?
Josh: I just started thinking of all these things, all these questions I should've asked before I accepted the job.
Debbie: Like what? Give us one.
Josh: What does the team look like?
Debbie: Oh okay. That's a really important question.
Josh: I didn't get into ... I was just so blown away that I was gonna work for the president, that I kind of said, “Fuck it. I'm just gonna do this,” and then when you have time to really think bout it, that's when I started thinking, “Wow. Did I just do something really stupid?” One of the things I thought about was, “What if I meet the president, and he's not who I think he is?” That was one of the biggest things. It's gonna be really hard to get through this if he's not the human that I think he is.
Debbie: Did that ever happen?
Josh: Yeah. He's definitely the human you think he is. He's just a wonderful man. Yeah. Just amazing.
Debbie: What was it like to be taking design direction from the president?
Josh: Well, luckily he wasn't ... I didn't talk to him directly about design direction, although he would send emails. When his site went up, he was very excited on how that looked, and he sent an email saying, “Congratulations. This is great,” but most of the time I was working with Jim Messina, and David Axelrod, and the White House [inaudible 00:32:43] Teddy Goff, my director, they were the ones giving most of the creative feedback.
Debbie: You updated the Obama logo, you designed a slew of websites, you redesigned virtually everything under the sun to represent that campaign, and your time there was really intense. You worked seven days a week, 16 hour sprints every day, and when asked about the secret to success, you've said, “It's super simple. There is no certain path you can take to be successful. Whatever the path is, you just have to work your ass off,” and I kind of loved that because I think everybody really wants things to happen really fast now, and just by the sheer virtue of wanting it. Can you talk about one or two peak moments for you during that time?
Josh: A couple of them were things that didn't have anything to do with me, really, but they were just things that were just, “I can't believe I'm here when this is happening,” and it was more around when the president came out about gay marriage, and the repeal of don't ask, don't tell. The energy when that went down was just amazing. Another one was ending the war in Iraq. We spoke with the white house every morning at 10:00 AM on a call, and it was just to align messaging, and different things like that, and I remember hearing that the war in Iraq was going to be wound down, and I was just like, “Wow. This is amazing. I can't believe this is gonna happen finally.”
I think a third was Candace Lopez, my professor from City College, came and visited me, and I was able to show her the campaign. I think that was really special for me because she is someone who completely changed my life, and to be able to sort of show her a little bit about how that has developed was really special.
Debbie: After President Obama's victory, you went home from Chicago, and you got a call from Facebook. Another phone call that changed your life. They were interested in your joining the company. Everyone seems to have an opinion now about Facebook, informed or not. What did you think of Facebook at the time? Did you even have a Facebook account?
Josh: I did have a Facebook account, but I was not very active on it. I really had no idea what I would do at Facebook, when they first called.
Debbie: You joined and led a team responsible for Facebook's identity design, marketing pages, environmental design, films, company culture. So I guess I'll ask you the same question I asked about President Obama. What was it like taking design direction from Mark Zuckerberg?
Josh: It's actually awesome.
Debbie: In what way? Talk about it.
Josh: He is so curious. I think that's the right word. Curious. I remember when we were redesigning the Facebook logo, he took a lot of interest in it, which I was really, really excited that he did, and asked some really great questions, and gave some really great feedback, and some of the questions were really, really pretty intricate questions on why did the C and the E interact in the way that they were, and I was like, “Wow. He's really noticing some things that most people probably just take for granted.” So it was a really awesome experience.
Debbie: You then went on to help build the factory at Facebook, which was dubbed a group of artists, engineers, designers, misfits, writers, filmmakers, producers, strategists, and people you'd want in your lifeboat. I know that there's a lot you can't talk about, but what can you share about the kind of work you were doing on that team?
Josh: Yeah. The factory, one of the first things that we worked on was the personalized video program, was one.
Debbie: You had something to do with birthday videos, too, right? We owe that one to you.
Debbie: I just had a birthday, so thanks. I felt very loved.
Josh: Awesome. Myself and two other creatives were the first that worked on that. Redesigned the Facebook logo.
Debbie: Just the small stuff.
Josh: Identities for other teams. Facebook campaigns. So both out of home campaigns, as well as TV. It was a very wide range of brand and marketing for Facebook Incorporated at an ink level, and then we did a lot of work for the products as well. So groups, and events, and things like that, they all are separate products within Facebook.
Debbie: Today you are the executive creative director for VR and AR, virtual reality and augmented reality at Facebook. Why the move to AR and VR, and what kind of future do you see as humans having with these different kinds of realities?
Josh: Yeah, so one thing I realized about myself is that I love challenges, and I love being in uncomfortable places.
Debbie: You'll have to teach me that. You have to teach me that talent.
Josh: I like being put into two things that I have to figure out, and that seemed like one I didn't know much about. Building 8 was a new venture for Facebook.
Debbie: And why is it called Building 8?
Josh: Because there is no Building 8. It's a secretive group within Facebook.
Debbie: Very Twilight Zone. I like it.
Josh: And so it was started by this woman, Regina Dugan, and she was very interested in how Building 8 would be sort of represented, both graphically and the vibe of Building 8. She felt that, that was really important. I was like, wow. This is amazing. This brilliant woman ... She ran DARPA before coming to Facebook, and I was like, “This brilliant woman is so interested in the branding of this group. This is amazing.”
Debbie: That's a good sign.
Josh: Great sign, and I started working with her on the identity of Building 8, and that turned into just a really great friendship. Yeah. So I went over, and started helping her build the creative team there for Facebook.
Debbie: So let's talk about Portal.
Debbie: Portal allows Facebook users to communicate face to face on a standalone video platform, but it's kind of in an innovative manner that goes beyond simple FaceTiming. The portal device has a smart wide angle camera. So as the user moves, it zooms, and pans, and tracks them automatically, which feels like magic, but it could also play music through connected apps, or stream video, and Facebook has said that the device makes for a more natural video chat environment since the smart camera does all the work. How did you know that there was a gap in the market for this?
Josh: Yeah. I think people smarter than me saw that there was a gap in the market.
Debbie: Oh, come on. You're masterminding this, so I don't fully buy that.
Josh: I think if you've ever done video chat, it's very difficult.
Debbie: Especially if you're doing it with lots of kids, like I do it with my niece and nephew, and I'm ending up talking to them, but don't even see their faces.
Josh: Yeah, because their off camera.
Josh: The other day, I was video chatting my sister-in-law, and she said, “Is there anyone in the room?” I said, “Oh, I'm sorry. I'm over here.” So yeah, Portal helps to make it feel like you're in the same room, and it's really ... I think it's an amazing product myself. I'm really proud of it, and I'm really proud of the team.
Debbie: How do you decide at which pace you introduce more and more innovative technology? It feels like it's sort of playing a bit of psychology, for what consumers are ready for, or what they're not ready for. I mean I'm thinking back to things like ... What was that called? That device before ... The Newton! The Newton! One of Apple's few failures. How do you know when the culture is ready for something like this?
Josh: I think the answer is you never know. You really don't know until you do a lot of research, you do a lot of talking with folks, and ultimately you go with your gut a lot of times on it. It's informed by a lot, but I had someone who's a veteran of shipping hardware on the team tell me that some of the best things that he's worked on didn't do well, and then other ones that he thought were just so-so did really great.
Debbie: So it's like timing and Russian Roulette.
Josh: It's the same with software, too. You think about all the apps that go out in the world every day, and it's random which ones hit. I think it's a combination of what's happening in society. For instance, all the ephemeral sharing that happens of pictures, and things like that, I think years ago that might not have been something that people did, and now it's huge.
Debbie: Yeah. If somebody had come to me with the idea of Instagram, and wanted to know what I would've thought about it, I would've been like, “What? What? Just post a picture?”
Josh: Yeah. Yeah. I remember the first time someone told me about Twitter. They were like, “Oh yeah. You just put out your thoughts,” and I was like, “That sounds terrible.”
Debbie: Right? Has any part of you been tempted to return to political design given the era in which we now find ourselves?
Josh: Yes. If our friend Beto runs, you'll be hearing from me.
Debbie: Oh. Let's hope he's listening. I'm wondering what you do, or how you'd feel if Donald Trump was as big a Facebook power user as he is with Twitter.
Josh: Yeah. I'd be disappointed. I'd be disappointed, but the platform is for all voices. It was made for that, so I think that's sort of the beauty of Facebook, is that it is there for everyone.
Debbie: Well speaking of social media, in 2012 you mused on Twitter that even though you hadn't been on a skateboard in 15 years, you still see a good spot and ponder how you'd skate it. Still the case six years later?
Josh: Always. Yeah. I was walking around New York, just going, “That looks really skateable.”
Debbie: Where's your board?
Josh: Oh my god. I would kill myself now, but yeah. I always think in terms of how skateable it is. It's really bizarre, and I have daydreams in my head of what it would be like, and the feeling of it under my feet if I were to do it. It's something I always ... I think about that with waves as well. When I see a good wave, I think the same thing.
Debbie: Josh, my last question is this. You've written that you've realized you have to play music or life is just off. So how are you managing that these days? What kind of music are you still playing? Any place we might be able to see you?
Josh: Only if you come into my living room about 5:30 when I come home from work, and my son grabs my arm, and pulls me to the guitar, and says, “Guitar! Guitar!” I play for him.
Debbie: How old is he?
Josh: He's two, two and a half, so I play for him.
Debbie: Punk music?
Josh: Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. We play punk music. I have some videos of him dancing to Jawbreaker when I play that, which is just one of my favorite things ever, but he is really moved by music. I don't know if that's true of all kids, I only have one, but any time I put on music, he's really moved by it, and it's one of the greatest things that I have ever seen.
Debbie: Josh, thank you so much for making the world so much more interesting, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Josh: Thank you so much for having me, Debbie. I really appreciate it.
Debbie: You can find out more about Josh Higgins on joshhiggins.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening, and remember we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, but we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.