Interview: The Hillary for America design team; a story of purpose, hope, and bouncing back

A couple of months ago I received this AIGA NY email:

The Hillary for America Design Team.

The full Hillary for America Design Team will reunite for an evening of tales from the campaign trail, and its aftermath. The focus of this story-telling event will be on what it was like to work on the campaign including the best day, the worst day, the process and just a little of the product as well as some of what we can all do next.

I was in!

Having worked with designers for almost 20 years, I was fascinated to learn how the design team were reconciling the hard work, passion and energy they poured into the campaign with an outcome that must have been crushing.

During the fantastically curated and presented panel event, each member of the team shared their motivations, experience and current feelings.  As I listened, I wished I could share it with all of you; so the next day I reached out to Jennifer Kinon, the Design Director of the campaign, and asked if I might interview one of her team members. She introduced me to Erica Deahl, a product and UX designer, who kindly agreed to chat and share her experiences with us.

I hope you enjoy it!

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Justine Clay: Erica, I’m so happy to chat with you today; thank you so much for speaking with me about your experiences working on the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign.

Erica Deahl: Sure! I’m happy to speak with you.

JC: During the event, you mentioned that you quit your job and your husband stayed behind on the West Coast, to work on the campaign. That’s a big deal. Can you tell me more about how it all transpired?

ED: It was a big decision. I had a good friend who was working in the campaign as one of the digital organizers. He posted some job listings. At that point, I didn’t realize that the campaign was still hiring. It hadn’t really occurred to me. That was coming at a point where I was really worried about the outcome of the election. Donald Trump seemed to be gaining speed and that really worried me.

I took a leap and put in an application and got a call from Jennifer [Kinon, the design director) the next day. She was like, “You would be crazy to do this, but do you want to?” I was like, “Yes, I think I do.” It felt totally crazy, but I felt like so many of the things I was working towards at 18F [the company I was working for] were really in jeopardy. While it felt kind of crazy to quit my job and go to the campaign, it also felt like I was doing it to protect all those things.

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JC: One of the biggest takeaways from the evening for me was how much hope everyone still had, despite the outcome. As a coach for creative professionals, one of the things I feel people really struggle with is bouncing back when they’ve poured their heart and soul into something that hasn’t worked out. I thought it would be an interesting angle for an article to inspire people to keep going; because even when you’re playing in the big leagues, set-backs are going to happen, right?

ED: It’s definitely been a big challenge for all of us to cope with the results of the election and figure out what our purpose is afterwards.

JC: Let’s start there, with your sense of purpose. Could you share a little more about what that means to be a product and experience designer and how that aligns with your purpose and mission to create an impact?

ED: Sure. I’ve been a product and experience designer for about the past nine or 10 years now. I came into the campaign having worked for federal government with a group called 18F, which works with different government agencies to help improve their digital services. That was one of the first experiences I had as a designer where I felt like the work I was doing had a huge impact for large numbers of people who were really struggling to use products. I felt like we had these big, juicy challenges. Design was a very important part of the solution.

I was working on things like making the immigration application process a little bit easier and more user-friendly, working on web design standards to create a design system that was applicable and accessible to groups across government, and some other types of projects like that. I think that really hits the core of how I see product design making an impact. Making services accessible to lots of different people and solving these tough problems and building trust with users.

On the campaign, I was more involved in brand design. Obviously, it felt like very impactful, very important work to be doing as well. Afterwards, I think I had to redefine what it means to be a product designer trying to make an impact. Working with 18F was one iteration of trying that out; the campaign was another. I had to figure out what my next path was going to be. I knew I wanted to try something a little bit different than government. I wanted to try moving into the private sector, working within an organization that was in the process of scaling while thinking about impact and re-shaping some of the social institutions that could impact other users.

I ended up working for this finance-tech company called Earnest, which is not something that I would have defined as impactful work a few years ago. But after trying these different career paths it felt like great fit for me because there are so many things that need to be improved upon in finance. Earnest has a mission of expanding access to great financial services to much broader audience, which I find interesting. This is part three of exploring different ways that product design can make an impact in the lives of many people.

JC: What role do you think design and communications have in politics and social change?

ED: I think there are lots of different roles it can play. In the campaign, I think we became Hillary’s voice. We were not creating any of the messages of the campaign, but we were taking these messages and amplifying and spreading them around the world so they could be seen and be understood. Just having great ideas doesn’t mean that your campaign or idea is going to succeed or be heard by people. I saw that our job was to make people excited by the ideas that excited us so much.

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JC: I love that because one of the challenges, on a way smaller scale, obviously, that creative entrepreneurs often struggled with is they just want to be discovered. They have all this great talent and they have all this great work, but there’s this feeling that, “Well, if the work is good enough, it will speak for itself.” My argument is always “No, it won’t; it’s your responsibility to get it out there and into the hands of the people who need it, because they don’t know that you exist”. There’s that whole feeling on a personal level that people don’t like marketing, because they don’t want to be salesy and they just want to be creative. I love that what we’re really talking about is taking great ideas that people just don’t know about and getting them out there.

One of the things that struck me during the event was the sheer output of work a 16-person team was producing. Clearly there must have been a strategy, because the output was so tight. How did you guys walk that line between strategy and the enormous volume of work? Maintaining that consistency, maintaining that integrity, not having Jennifer [the design lead] be the bottle neck. What processes and systems did you have in place?

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ED: That was one of the really exciting things about coming into the team, because I felt like it was a machine. They had this crazy system and we are churning out work like crazy. One of the things that helped us churn out that amount of work was that the team had already established a really, incredibly solid design system. They had already thought through all these different scenarios, so that when we got a request for something, we could just immediately churn it out. All of us could create, using these templates, and make things in our sleep. That was one part of it was just re-using things in smart ways across the campaign.

The way the requests came in was also interesting, because we were one, unified design team who was serving all the outlets of the campaign across the country. We’d have organizers in all the battle ground states sending in requests that would be divided amongst the team every morning and we’d hit our 20 or 30 or 40 different things we had to do. Every single day, there was this constant stream of work that we were doing.
On top of it, we had these peaks of strategic work, when we were thinking about more long-term design strategy. Many sub-brands that were specific to a battle ground state, a policy initiative or event we were designing something special for. Or a particular group of people or coalition we wanted to reach out to. In those cases, we had small groups of people from the team who were responsible for coordinating with all the key stakeholders across the campaign to understand what are all those special moments. Who are the people that we need to engage? What are the tactics that other parts of the campaign are using to engage people digitally? What are the important messages that we need to get out?

The digital organizing team that we were working with very closely had a huge amount of knowledge about what messages are effective with people, what’s worked in past campaigns, what hasn’t. At that point in the campaign, we also had a lot of data about what had worked and not worked so well in our own campaign.

JC: I love the real-time nature of that process. It’s so easy to get stuck on a solution, but your process and team had perfected the art of testing ideas and doing more of what worked.

ED: Yes, although some of it wasn’t strategic. At first, it was just throwing out a bunch of things and seeing what sticks. We took the things that stuck and worked with them and try to plant them and nurture them.

JC: Could you share an examples?

ED: Sure. I can think of two that I was involved in personally at the end of the campaign. One was an effort to better engage with Millennials, which was interesting for me. We took the Love Trumps Hate slogan because it had already gained speed and we knew that repetition works. We started putting it in different styles, making all these handmade graphics and putting them out into the world. People started making their own. The goal is really to help spread this message and encourage people to put it in their own voice and to make it their own.

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ED: The other was the Get Out and Vote campaign where we created all these different arrows in different styles. It was timed around all the key Get Out and Vote dates. In every single battle ground state, there are different deadlines for people to register to vote, to go early vote by mail, in person, and then on Election Day. We made big pushes in all those states around those dates. We came up with a strategy to use these arrows and put them in motion and put them on all the Get Out and Vote materials.

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JC: Switching gears slightly, on a personal level, you were all working insane hours, right? How long was a typical day?

ED: It varied. Our days usually began promptly at 10 a.m. with a daily check-in meeting. We left, I don’t know, maybe a typical day we would leave around eight p.m. Sometimes it would be much later depending on what was happening that day.

JC: It was seven days a week, right?

ED: It was seven days a week. That’s right. Those last few months, I think, we got one day off every three weeks.

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JC: How did you avoid physical and emotional burnout? Or did you?

ED: It was really tough. I think we were all struggling with that a little bit. I don’t know. We all had our different coping mechanisms. In the event, Meg talked about how she’d wake up at six a.m. to go to the gym. I found myself doing that kind of thing too. I would wake up early and go to yoga because that helped me feel more in control and more like myself. The magical thing about working seven days a week is that when you are doing that, when you finally get a day off, it feels like the longest, best day of your life.

JC: It’s like when you’re sick and you start to feel well again, you’re like, “This is awesome!”

ED: It’s actually magical. It’s ridiculous how that works. I think those two days off that I had in my three months on the campaign, each felt like this incredible vacation.
Justine Clay: What did you do on those days?

My husband was in town visiting both days, so one day we rented a car and drove out to Storm King and spent the day outdoors. I forget the other one we were just maybe bumming around the city.

JC: That’s great. As an extension to that question, because I know for creativity and thinking in general, we need breaks. We need rest so we can refill the well. How did that work, because clearly there wasn’t any time? It was just output, output, output. Did you draw from the energy and ideas of other people? Or was it just a sprint? I know for some people they were on the campaign for a lot longer, right?

ED: Yeah. For me, it was like, “It’s only three months. I can do anything for three months.” But it did feel like I was sprinting for that whole time. I think that we all had our ways of getting through the day of stopping and taking a little walk or something. For the most part, a lot of the work that you’re doing is just the challenges and the volume of it. You’re at it all day. You don’t notice the days go by. I have so much respect for my colleagues who were working on the campaign for a year or more. I am not sure how they kept up the pace for so long.

JC: It’s amazing. When I was listening to it, I was simultaneously inspired and horrified. It was just thinking, it sounds amazing, but awful at the same time. Just that pace, the demands of it.

Did you get to meet Hillary Clinton?

ED: I did not sadly. I think almost everyone else did, but the first time I saw her in person was at her huge rally in Philadelphia the night before the election, which was actually the best day I had on the campaign. We spent the day knocking on doors and ended the day with this huge rally. There were hundreds and thousands of people who were out to cheer for her. We felt so much energy. Everybody was so excited. We were in the front row. It was pretty amazing.

JC: Like a rock concert!

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ED: It was literally a rock concert because Bon Jovi performed! Chelsea spoke and then Michelle spoke. Then, Bill spoke. Then, Barack spoke. Then, he got out a little step stool and put it behind the podium and helped Hillary up onto it.

JC: I can’t stand it!

ED: It was just the most exciting, most wonderful night. That’s the first time I saw her in person. Then, we saw her again the day after the election, when she gave her concession speech. Then, after that speech, she came and spoke to the folks who had been working on the campaign. She was so incredibly thankful and sweet. I was very, very honored to be able to work with somebody who is so thoughtful.

JC: How would you say the experience changed you professionally and personally?

ED: Well, I’m still figuring it out I think. I can definitely say it was the hardest job I’ve ever had. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Both because I made this huge life change and the difficulty of the work. Also, just the emotional aspect of it. You put so much into the campaign. You believe in it so much. I think I felt that a little bit at 18F also. It’s incredibly gratifying feeling when you’re working with a group of people who have a common purpose and common belief and you’re doing the most good. That’s how it felt on the campaign but just magnified, because there is this insane urgency to it. We all believed so deeply in what we were doing. We believed so deeply in our candidate. It was really, even though the days were so hard, it was so energizing being part of this team trying to carry our candidate over the finish line.

I think one of the challenges is that has kind of spoiled me for future work experiences. I think that’s maybe why people get addicted to working on campaigns. It’s really this crazy high.

JC: I can imagine!

ED: Also, being able to do that with and thoughtful group of people. In the campaign, it was just a given that we were living and breathing these ideals. It’s been interesting going back and realizing that not every workplace is like that, not every job is like that. It’s made it feel like we have a higher burden of responsibility to make those kinds of changes in other places.

I think I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that feeling. I think a lot of us are feeling like, “Okay, we put everything into this campaign. We were giving it everything we have. After this, we will have done our duty. Everything will be fine. We can go live our lives and do whatever we want.” The fact that we lost meant that we still feel like we have to keep on fighting and doing even more than what we were doing before.

I think to be frank, everybody’s been grieving and finding our own ways to work through that. I think we all are carrying around this sense that there’s so much that we personally need to do. For me, I’m still trying to figure out how to do that in my own life.

I think on a similar note, the design team was probably the most talented group of people I’ve ever worked with. We had the most efficient process. We had the best system. Working in that kind of environment, it’s amazing to realize that working really quickly and efficiently, you don’t have to sacrifice quality. We were putting out really great work even though we were working ourselves crazy. I think there’s a lot that I learned from working on that group about resiliency that I want to take with me as I continue my career.

JC: From my experience, most creative professionals are driven by a desire to do meaningful work that makes a positive impact in the world. Do you have any advice on building resiliency and continuing to do the most good you can, despite set-backs and failures?

ED: That’s a great question. I’m not sure I have the perfect answer for it.

JC: It doesn’t have to be a perfect answer.

ED: I think, for me, the campaign was almost waging a war on a very high, ideological level. It was very disheartening that we lost, because it felt like this huge loss for America. It felt like the future is less hopeful and less bright. Going home and getting back into life, I realized that having lost that war doesn’t change any of the other needs that are still all around me. I think the work that I am doing now, I am a product designer. I see myself as an advocate for users, making sure that we build products that will help people in other ways. I think just realizing or finding the areas in your own life where you can make an impact. That can be in a big way or it can be a small way. Finding those opportunities and then actually acting on them in whatever way you can gives you back that feeling of agency that I felt like I lost after the election.

Just finding those small ways to help mentor somebody else who is earlier in their career. Or help volunteer for an organization. Or design a flier that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Or go to a soup kitchen and feed somebody. Or just whatever small way. I think there’s not one way to make an impact and bringing those types of things into your life helps.

JC: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us.

ED: Oh, you’re welcome.

I hope this interview inspired you as much as it did me to build a business around your values, purpose and mission to make a positive impact in the lives of others. What you do doesn’t have to be on the scale of a presidential campaign, it can be your version of doing the most good you can. If you’d like help figuring out how to build a purpose-driven, profitable and impactful business, I’m here to help. Click here for your free creative business assessment call and we’ll talk about your big ideas, your challenges, and the next steps to making the impact you were born to make!

4 thoughts on “Interview: The Hillary for America design team; a story of purpose, hope, and bouncing back

  1. Fabulous interview! Both your questions Justine and Erica’s answers. It broke my heart a little to read this, I’m still grieving the loss:) Lots of great insight here!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Alyssa. It was so inspiring on so many levels to speak with Erica and get an inside view on the experience!

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