From punk rock to Barack Obama to Facebook, Josh Higgins has designed an extraordinary life.
DESIGNER / MUSICIAN
BARACKX OBAMA / FACEBOOK / GRAPHIC DESIGN / AR / VR / FLUF / PUNK ROCK / SAN DIEGO CITY COLLEGE / CANDICE LOPEZ / DOYALD YOUNG / SHEPARD FAIREY / PORTAL / MINOR THREAT / FUGAZI / DEFTONES / JAWBREAKER / WARPED TOUR / FLIPPER / BOSTON / RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS / PAULA SCHER / SURFING / ROBERT REDFORD
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, “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 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
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman