The Interviews

Jennifer Kinon, Design Director Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign


What happens when the campaign is over?

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
May 23, 2017

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Despite the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton had the most memorable branding and social media campaign ever. Michael Bierut’s design of the “H,” started it all, but the campaign branding was carried out by Jennifer Kinon and a team of 16 designers over a 16 month period. She will tell you it was the most grueling and most rewarding experience of her life.

How do you build a brand in one of the most contentious presidential races we’ve ever witnessed, with a constantly evolving news cycle and berating Tweets from the opponent? Here we talk to Kinon about the campaign branding, her team, and what happened when it was all lost in the end.

How did you end up being the person in charge of Hillary’s brand?

I was recruited by Michael Bierut. I had worked with Michael for four years before Bobby C. Martin and I started OCD, and he knew my obsession with creating identity systems. He knew me and how I lead projects, so I was flattered that he reached out and said, “This thing just went live. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. I think you should be the design director.” I was like, “Well, I have a company, haven’t you heard? I have a lot of other things to do.” He’s like, “Well, you should do this instead.” I kind of knew from the minute he called that I would say yes, but it was a long process for Bobby and I to discuss and figure out how we would divide and conquer the world at that point, knowing that we wanted to keep OCD going. We had some of our most exciting clients that we’ve ever had at that time. We couldn’t just walk away from it.

The campaign interviewed a whole pile of people, so I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to get the position. But I got the call back, and when they said yes, I knew that I would say yes, and the rest is history.

It was sort of too good to pass up, wasn’t it?

It is. I often get asked, “What do you miss most about the campaign?” It took me a while to figure out an answer. At the beginning I was like, “Nothing. I’m glad I have my life back.”

But, the real answer is, every day I knew I was doing the most important thing that I could be doing. It was a huge, exciting moment that changed dramatically throughout the experience.

When we were signing up, we didn’t even know who we would be running against in the primary. We didn’t know if Joe Biden would run. We didn’t know if Elizabeth Warren would run. There were so many unknown variables that it was scary and exciting. As we went through the primaries we were wondering if we were going to pull this off. Are we going to win the primary? And then, who is this crazy Donald Trump that we’re running against? What does an election look like with technology and with this sort of opponent? So, there was always some sort of thrilling, scary, huge moment that you just do the best that you can, as you try to solve it.

Hillary 2016 Design Team: Victor Ng, Monina Velarde, Cindy Hwang, Sharion Biggers, Maggie Bignell, Laura Bernstien, Erica Deahl, Steve Merenda, Kara Haupt, Allyn Hughes, Eric Hartman, Ida Woldemichael, Meg Vazquez, Hanah Ho, Chelsea Atwell

How did that work? Did you build your design team, or did they put a team in place and put you in charge of it?

The campaign launched in April of 2015, and I didn’t join until July of 2015. They hired two designers before I started. Often, that’s the kiss of death. If your team is there before you’re there, it’s a disaster, but they did an excellent job. Those two designers—Meg Vazquez and Ida Woldemichael—really became the heart and soul of my team. Ida was the team manager through the entire campaign, and Meg was the social lead. She single-handedly made the most social media graphics for the democratic party in the history of the world. She was our rapid response engine. That was such an important part of this particular campaign cycle.

How did you go from a team of six to sixteen?

Yeah. It’s a funny story, because I was on the campaign for 16 months. From July 2015 when I was hired, to July 2016, which was when the democratic national convention took place, there were really just six of us doing all the graphics. We got very close, very efficient. And then, once Hillary became the official nominee, we were able to hire the staff we actually needed to do the work. The design team was seated within the digital team. That’s also where a lot of the content writers sit. As the campaign grew, we started really embedding every team across the body of the campaign.

I assume you guys had to react to things going on on a daily basis creating this branded messaging. Did you have to go through an approval process?

The systems were incredible in that so many people had to work together to respond to any one thing where policy information was so critical, where message was so critical, where branding was so critical, where platform was so critical.

That campaign had built-in systems where all the departments were really working together and nothing went out without hundreds of eyeballs on it. It’s really amazing to look back and see how fast we were able to put content out there knowing how collaborative it all was.

I imagine that this work schedule was grueling. Can you tell me a little bit about what a day-in-the-life was like?

Every day was different, and there were so many weeks we worked seven days. It felt like we worked around the clock. But to go to seven-day work weeks was a new experience for me. A lot of the way we started our day and weeks was good in how we broke up the time.

We had Research Tuesdays, where we were looking at competitive research and inspiration outside of the political sphere, to make sure we weren’t completely unplugging from every day. Trying to look up what’s going on in the news, on television with graphics, and what’s fresh. Wednesday was merchandise day, where we would have this photo booth and take pictures for the merchandise website. And then we did Friday Favorites, where everyone on the design team would share their one favorite thing they made that week. We don’t often get to see what another person is doing because we’re moving so fast. Once a month we would have day-long critiques where we would put all the work up on a board and bring in people like Debbie Millman, Michael Bierut, Randy Hunt, and Bobby Martin, to come in from the outside and help us understand what’s working, what’s not working, and how to come up with better design solutions so that our audience is sharing this information.

So, we tried to structure things on a massive scale, and then on a day-to-day basis. Every morning, I would go and check in with the digital team and then at 10:00, the design team was always together. We would all gather around a marker board and talk out what everybody’s responsibility was for that day. Most of the time, it worked, and we actually executed on that plan, but a lot of times it would just dissolve with the news cycle, and we’d have to focus on what had to happen for the day.

There was a lot of talk throughout the campaign about humanizing Hillary. How did you deal with that?

I definitely saw those articles, but to me, it was just getting to tell this woman’s story. I don’t think people know about her role in women’s and children’s rights and healthcare. She has this long history in politics, but it’s an incredible and very progressive history that has gotten buried in so many years of being a politician. People were focusing so much time working against her.

We approached it like you approach any brand, where you really understand who she is and try to get that clearly communicated, and making sure the graphics are warm, engaging, and kind of badass. She’s badass.

To me, a big part of what we were doing every day was trying to deliver that personal one-on-one experience you get with her. I have such an admiration for her personal endurance, because she was really on the road for the entire campaign, finding places where she could meet with voters and talk to them one-on-one. That was really the best thing that she could do for the campaign, because hearing her speak is the most incredible experience, especially just getting to do Q&As with her. I remember there was an event somewhere in the middle of the country where someone asked about a landmine, and she was able to quote direct policy to them. When you’re watching it, you’re like, “Oh my goodness, what’s she going to do?” But she knows what’s going on and can answer in such a human way.

Bernie Sanders had this guerilla campaign and he really activated young voters. They positioned him as this guy that was so progressive and not political, even though he’s been a politician longer than Hillary. Was it tough competing against that?

I think Bernie’s brand aligned with who he is. One of my favorite quotes was from Michelle Obama. She said, “Barack didn’t say, ‘Yes, we can,’ because he thought it was cool. He said, ‘Yes, we can,’ because he believed in it.” That is how every successful campaign needs to run its branding and messaging. If you’re just delivering poll-tested assumptions, it’s never going to be real, because a candidate’s never going to be comfortable saying it, and the American public can pick out a fake. Bernie’s brand was real. It’s who he was. He’s this guy from Vermont with crazy hair who’s basically been an independent his whole life and is out there pushing independent ideas. That’s who he is and that’s what his campaign should look like.

Hillary is a white 69-year-old woman, who has been finding her way into this system for all these years, and has been pioneering rights for women in politics, and pioneering rights for women across the world, and that’s what her brand should look like.

I think those are the important conversations that we were having. Her success was due to really doubling down on who she is.

After the primaries, when it was clear she was running against Trump, did you see your brand strategy competing with Trump? Did he even have a brand?

I’m always fascinated by how much credit people give to his “strategy,” where this tweet is distracting from that tweet, or this tweet is magically doing this other thing.

It’s surprising how effective it was and still is …

It’s something that’s hard to answer right now, because it’s still so close and we’re still living in it and the consequences of it. It’s fascinating.

How is branding for a political campaign different from the work you typically do at OCD?

At OCD, we’re really user-based, audience-based. Understanding who the work is for, is really what drives us and that was our same approach through the campaign. We did a lot of regional work that was very specific to the people who would be receiving it. That didn’t change at all. The pace was very different, and I think, for me, the experience of seeing the work so public and almost treated in a way like the candidate herself was treated, was a whole new experience.

I’m one of the spoiled younger feminists who had a path already blazed for me, especially in the design industry. There are so many women I look up to, that I was never very self-conscious of being a woman in the room. But, after going through this experience and seeing what it’s like out there, I learned a lot.

Were you as shocked as everyone else when she didn’t win the election?

It’s hard to describe what that moment was like. Being there for 16 months, it was a very hopeful place to be. We were really guided by knowing we were on the side of good. My view of America aligned with this campaign and the, “Stronger together,” message is so helpful, and inclusive. The campaign was formed in that image. So we worked with a lot of really incredible, diverse, brilliant people.

So, that night, it was a very personal awakening, and realizing there was this outcome that is not inclusive in that way. I think, for me, that is what has been the moment of recovery: seeing both sides of the coin and trying to reconcile that. I’m still here. We don’t all disappear when the results come in. Now we’re living in this America and finding our voices in it. That’s also what’s so beautiful about America.

Did you feel, in any way, like your branding may have missed anything that could have contributed to the outcome?

You really like to think that. I think that if we won, I would have liked to say, “Yes, my branding helped us win.” But since we lost, we also need to ask ourselves if we missed cues in the branding. I’m definitely in that analysis period of, “What could we have done differently? What changes could we have made to have forced a different outcome with the visual language of the brand?” I’m always going back and forth on that.

I haven’t come to any big realizations yet, but it is something I’ll puzzle over probably for the rest of my life.

So, what happens when the election is over? Does everyone just go back to their old jobs?

We were very close on the design team, and once a month I would take each person out and we’d talk about how they’re doing, and what needs to change to get them through election day. We would also talk a lot about what was going to happen next. What did they want after they’ve made this huge investment? How could I or anyone else on the campaign help them move forward? I think most of us were ready to go back to civilian life. I was always going to come back to OCD. A lot of my discipline designers who have political experience were excited to hopefully start work in more traditional design firms. I think everyone felt like it was just really hard, and they needed a break.

What’s fascinating now, is that almost all of us are still involved in progressive organizations. Either going to work in a progressive organization, going to work in a woman-focused organization, donating our time, and still volunteering to knock on doors. A really memorable part of our time on the campaign, was going out into the field. In the last two weeks of the campaign, we didn’t need as much design work, so we were able to send several of the designers out in the field just to do organizing work. They were knocking on doors and helping out at field offices, and getting voters ready to go to the poll. It was funny to see the design opportunities they found out there. One of the interactive designers noticed that when someone in his field office was inputting information, the form that they were inputting from was not aligning with the form that was on the computer. So, people were writing all over this form and then they had to solve it to get it into the system. He just redesigned the input form and the efficiency in that office went up enormously.

So, for them, that was a huge awakening of how designers can get involved in the progressive movement. So now, when the team is invited to speak about our experience, a lot of what we’re talking about now is how to stay involved in progressive politics, and how everybody wants to help.

Making a pin or a T-shirt and donating the money isn’t the most effective way for designers to get activated.

Would you do it again, if you were asked by another candidate for 2020?

Oh gosh. I think I probably would. I feel so much energy going into the next election cycle. At OCD, we’re doing everything we can to support people in local elections. Right now, that’s really what’s most important—not waiting for the next presidential campaign, but getting people onto school boards, getting your local democratic officials elected, and starting to work from the ground up. We’re not waiting for it, we’re doing it now. I think that momentum will just naturally build to a yes. But I’m getting old, so I’m hoping that the people on my team are also preparing themselves to be future leaders, because that was an incredible team and they have a lot to contribute in the next cycle.

 

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