Last month saw the launch of Hillary for America Design 2016, a comprehensive website that draws together all the design work from Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign—“one that started with a tweet, was propelled to a historic nomination, and ended in a heartbreaking defeat,” as the site puts it.
The release of this vast body of work—576 days worth of websites, digital ads, social graphics, emails, pins, merch, and more—struck us as a good time to revisit a chat we had with Jennifer Kinon, the Hillary Clinton campaign’s design director, in April this year. Kinon joined the Hillary team in July 2015 after two designers, Ida Woldemichael and Meg Vazquez, were already in place. The team comprised just six people until the primaries, eventually expanding to 16 by the time the main election rolled round.
During our conversation, Kinon—founding partner at New York-based agency OCD—revealed how the design team was assembled, how it kept up steam with virtually no downtime and very little sleep, and what the day-to-day realities were like in rolling out such a comprehensive design strategy for one of the most controversial U.S. elections in recent history.
“When people applied, we’d do everything we could to put them off. We’d say ‘you’ll never sleep,’ ‘the chairs are uncomfortable’—I would continue to try and chip away and see if the light went out, or if they were just signing up for a vanity project. The Obama project was so newsworthy and this project could have attracted people who had maybe just thought that was cool. Again and again you could see the cracks and the concerns—the people who were accepted were like “yes yes yes!”, and ready to take on a challenge and willing to participate in it.
“I saw a great interview with Geno Auriemma, the head coach of UConn [the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team]. They’re well known for being a really talented team—they’re the winningest women’s college team. He was talking about how he put together his team. In basketball it’s often about being cool, and watching NBA, and mimicking that. But for him it’s not about being cool, but being engaged and taking risks: they’re looking at body language, and people who respond to team members, and people who say ‘yes’ and put the extra time in. He looks for that posture, and the excitement to learn. It was the perfect summary of what I did putting together my team.
“The team that came together had several audiences they were communicating with day to day. We were an in-house team, but we still referred to our counterparts [in policy, fundraising, etc.] on the campaign as our ‘clients.’ We spent a lot of time winning the trust and confidence of clients on the campaign who probably hadn’t interacted with graphic designers prior to 2015. That meant speaking in plain language and not using jargon, and that was reflected in the campaign itself. Everything we did was about the message, and we had to learn to talk about design in that way.
“A big part of how we structured our time on the team was to be in discussions: on Tuesdays we did case studies, for instance; [there were] Candy Wednesdays (I learned you can order cronuts); ‘Friday Favorites’ was when we we got together and everyone on the team would share their favorite thing they made that week. Things were being made so fast that not everyone got to see what other people were making, and we wanted to make sure everything was absorbed across the board. It was about learning how to talk about the work and measure its success, and to make sure the audience got what it needed.
“We had a 10 a.m. team meeting every day where we’d talk about campaign message for the day, things like the important deliverables, who’s busy, who’s not busy. That was a very centering moment, to be able to take that time just to say ‘You’re OK, I’m OK.’ We also had what we called ‘walk and talks’ every month where I would meet individually with every person on the team to get lunch or walk on Brooklyn promenade and talk about what they wanted to do more of or differently, or what they wanted to do after.
“I would come in for morning meetings at 8:30 a.m., then there were team meetings, then organizing and a pow wow with Ida [Woldemichael, team manager and design lead for states and finance], then client work and reviews. So it was a pretty predictable cycle in process, but the content was so unpredictable. It was all news-driven, so we were always checking news and social media and responding to it.
“The design takes as long as you can give it, sometimes we were there all night as our digital team were so active. It would be strange to get home before 9 or 10 p.m. at night.
“You can only eat a mountain bite by bite, so it was about taking each spoonful at a time. We had a whole team devoted to states, so they were making devoted campaigns state by state, and audience by audience. The cool part about learning on the campaigns was discovering so many new things—you realize that everything is local.
“The team was expanded to 16 people for the last four months of the campaign. We didn’t sleep much. My most memorable lens is looking back at the last year of the campaign. From November to November is 52 weeks, and we worked seven days a week for 26 weeks. So half the year, between primary season and the general election, there was no weekend. I’m obsessive, so I was trying to plan out how to get my team through the rigor and the wear and tear on your body. We never lost anyone!
“Did it drive me mad? Yes and no. I was asked what one thing I miss about the campaign, and I miss that incredible purpose you wake up with every day: you know you’re doing the most you can with your time and that it’s meaningful and important. That can carry you through a lot, and it powers you through things. It’s exhausting but everyone was doing it and you see the same people day in and day out.
“What’s really fascinating is that the campaign was an incredibly hopeful place. You don’t know the outcome while you’re working on it—none of us had worked on a campaign before, all we knew was this thing which was hopeful and supportive and matched our vision for America. That got us far. That, and a lot of snacks.
“For the last 100 days we made a paper chain, and took a ring off to count down the last 1-100 days. We had guests to come in and take one off, a lot of supporters and political people—it was a special place to be. Apparently something I said a lot at that time was ‘you can do anything for 100 days.’
“Everyone had highs and lows. I think it physically aged me ten years! But it also made me ten years younger, as it realigned my skillset and relationship with technology and digital. I’m old compared to the people who worked on the campaign. The most basic thing was that I had to download Snapchat: I personally don’t engage too much on social media but OCD as a company does, and we [at the campaign] had to. We did a lot of very fun things with it—you can really experience the humanness of the candidates through social media.
“After it was over, no one had any intention of staying in politics. Everyone viewed it as ‘we gave it everything we had, and we’ll hand it over to people who’ll grow it into politics.’ What’s fascinating is how that flipped with the loss. We were all finding ourselves in a ‘what do we do now’ place, and thinking about how we devote ourselves to the cause even more than we’d been planning. [Initially] it was really counting down to the finality of that day: once you’ve run a marathon you’re not really interested in going for a jog.
“We’re definitely media shy and still getting our feet under us, and understanding what that experience meant. We want to get people involved in progressive politics and show people what it takes, and the value of making yourself vulnerable. That team is some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, and I want to keep them in my life for as long as possible. I hope everyone has the opportunity to work with a team as great as that again.”