JOSH HIGGINS

EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR VIRTUAL AND AR PRODUCTS AND HARDWARE AT FACEBOOK.

Josh Higgins is the executive creative director for virtual and augmented reality products and hardware at Facebook. Before that, 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 punk rock musician. For over a decade, he performed and recorded with the band fluf. In other words, Josh is a Renaissance man, and a very interesting guy. We talked about designing to change the world, judging records by their covers, and the importance of good mentors and good manners.

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.

Josh:
That’s true. Facebook affords the employees many wonderful perks. I took my laundry in once, thinking I was doing my wife a favor, and I actually offended her. So I don’t do that anymore, although they do dry cleaning as well and that’s okay. That’s within her limits.

Debbie:
Good. You grew up in Southern California. Your whole family surfed and you, too, started surfing by the time you were seven. I understand that your first career aspiration was to be a professional surfer.

Josh:
It was. 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. Your dad was one of the first two actors that Howard Hughes signed for his production company.

Josh:
Wow. Yes, he was.

Debbie:
Tell us about him, and his career, and how that impacted you.

Josh:
The story I’ve been told is that my mom was a model at Saks Fifth Avenue, and my parents’ first date was on John Wayne’s plane, to a party here in New York. My dad had retired by the time I could understand what it was he did, but he does have photos of me on Robert Redford’s lap as a child. There is one picture where Robert Redford is in the bushes, a little bit inebriated, and I am sitting on him.

Debbie:
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 manners were. He was very adamant about being a gentleman. I saw what sort of reaction people had when you were a gentleman, and it was great positive feedback.

Debbie:
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 it was because you were sad that your parents weren’t together anymore. Did that anger play out as you were growing up?

Josh:
I never realized why I was so angry until I began going to therapy. I started putting it all together that punk rock was another outlet for that—when I was introduced to punk rock, what drew me to it was the energy, and angst, and anger that you could release. It helped me to heal, and I found this community of people that were either from a similar background, or who had something else in their lives that made them angry.

Debbie:
One of the first albums you ever purchased was a Minor Threat record. Can you talk about that? You’re smiling, so there must be a story there.

Josh:
I love these questions. A friend of mine, Jim Brown, came back from England. It was the very early ’80s, and when he left the US, he was this normal surfer like myself. When he came back he had spiked hair, he had these shoes called Creepers on, he had a safety pin in his ear, and I thought, “What the hell happened?” He was the one who turned me on to punk rock. He said, “We need to take you record shopping.” So I went into this record store in San Diego, and I saw the Minor Threat record. It’s a very simple black-and-white-record, with a picture of a bunch of sheep on the front. One of the sheep is black and walking away from the flock, and it says, “Out of Step.” I thought, “Wow!” I related to it. So I bought it for the cover, and they’re still one of my favorite bands to this day.

Debbie:
In middle school, you began playing in bands. 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:
In bands, everyone takes on an unspoken role. In the early days, I took on the role of manager, so I would set up the gigs and tours, and that also meant promoting. I would emulate the flyers that I’d seen from my punk rock days, that I had in my bedroom. Looking back at some of those flyers, they are horrendous. I was mixing type like crazy.

Debbie:
That was the visual language of the time. That was the Southern California punk scene explosion.

Josh:
It was. Now it hurts, but it was a lot of fun at the time. I remember thinking, “These two look good together” while using rubdown type.

Debbie:
So that it looked like ransom letters?

Josh:
It absolutely looked like ransom letters.

Debbie:
You went to community college for a year, but dropped out. Instead, in the early ’80s, you formed your band fluf. Why the name fluf, in all lower case?

Josh:
The band had been going a couple years prior to me joining, but the story of the name is that there were a lot of bands out there at the time that had these heady one-word names.

Debbie:
Nirvana?

Josh:
Yeah. They wanted a name that was the opposite of what the band was, so they picked fluf.

Debbie:
Over the years you recorded several albums and 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. In ’94, you signed with a major label, MCA at Universal. 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. Did you feel like a rock star?

Josh:
Yes. I was so thankful for everything that was happening. But then it was during our first or second Warped tour that I had my first panic attack. The enormity of everything hit me all at once. I remember it being about 5am, and we were going through Wyoming, and no one was awake. There’s this little seat right next to the bus driver, and I went up there and sat with him, and we didn’t talk. We just looked out at the beautiful mountains. There was a little bit of snow on them. All of a sudden, I felt my throat start to close. I thought, “What? I'm gonna die. What is going on with me?” It wasn’t until probably a year later that I realized it was because of everything that had happened so fast. I think back on it as the best and worst times because it was like a dream coming true, but now there was the pressure of having to sell our music to make a record company happy.

Debbie: Despite all the success, you decided you didn’t want to live the life of a full-time musician. What made you decide to leave?

Josh:
It was a combination of things. I was getting older, and I was getting tired of traveling. I still love music to this day, but I knew it was going to be a very hard career if I was to continue for the foreseeable future. I realized how fragile it all is. You’re in a small business with two other guys—whom I love to death—but at any moment it could end, and then your career is done. That was what I kept thinking about.

Debbie:
You decided to go back to school, and you enrolled at San Diego City College to study graphic design. Why on Earth did you pick graphic design?

Josh:
Otis, my bandmate, designed all our first records, and I was always enamored with him and his skills. He was such a great designer. He’s a photographer too. He’s truly a renaissance man, and that piqued my interest. 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.” She told me I had to meet this woman who ran the department there, Candice Lopez, and I did, and Candice changed my life.

Debbie:
She recalls you being very talented right from the start, but you didn’t have the same confidence that she did in you.

Josh:
I was unsure about what the industry even was. I wasn’t sure where it would go. I thought it would be very service-orientated, where someone gives you a task and you do that task. She taught me that before you put anything down on paper, you have to have a good idea and it has to have substance to it. That broadened what I thought about design, and from there I grew—but I wasn’t sure that was the type of thinker I was. I had never explored that part of my brain.

Debbie:
The following framed note has sat on your desk ever since you first received it in the late ’90s: “Dear Josh, I truly enjoyed meeting you. Your interest in typography, logo design, and beautiful manners impressed me. You are particularly thoughtful. Candice 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. I understand he went on to become a mentor to you.

Josh:
He was.

Debbie:
Interviewing him many years ago was one of the highlights of my career. He was one of the greatest typographers to have lived in the 20th century.

Josh:
And one of the greatest humans. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized just how amazing Doyald was as a typographer. I met Doyald when Candice invited him down to City College to critique. She had been friends with him for a long time. He came to our logo class, and it was a class of 30 students, so you had to put your name in a hat. He was going to choose three people that would get one-on-one time with him. My name got pulled, and I received that note after our meeting. I remember I spent a whole weekend, at least 20 hours, on a logo for that meeting.

Debbie:
What was the logo for?

Josh:
It was a fake hotel called King Plaza. I knew that Doyald had done a lot of work for hotels. I spent 20 hours lettering this thing, and I had piles and piles of tissue paper. I brought it in, and he sat down with me, and in the first four minutes he goes, “This is very good, Josh, but had you maybe of thought about this?” Within 30 seconds he drew something more beautiful than I—

Debbie:
Freehand, right?

Josh:
Freehand.

Debbie:
God, he could do that well.

Josh:
That’s where our relationship started. He was always open for feedback, but I’ve often said that the thing that I learned most from him was manners.

Debbie:
He was such a gentleman.

Josh:
Such a gentleman, and so giving.

Debbie:
You’ve said that you used to call bullshit in your mind when your professors said design could change lives, but then you designed a poster for the Hurricane Poster Project, following Hurricane Katrina. Your poster ended up bringing in more money than you could have donated on your own, and that’s when you realized that design could help change the world. You decided at that point that you would always allocate a percentage of your time to designing for causes that you care about. Do you still do this today?

Josh:
Absolutely.

Debbie:
You worked on a project to benefit Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and you daydreamed about working full-time for a cause you believed in. A poster of yours went viral, and shortly thereafter you got an email that changed your life. What happened?

Josh:
I received an email that said, “Come work for the president.”

Debbie:
You thought it was spam, right?

Josh:
I thought it was bullshit, but I had a friend of mine trace it because I did want to see what server it was coming from. My response was, “This is a great punk.” He said, “That’s coming from the Obama servers.” I was still suspicious, so I replied with, “Sounds interesting.” A couple hours later I got another email for a conference call.

Debbie:
After an intense round of interviews and background checks, you got the call offering you the gig while you were napping on a beach. You asked if you could call them back. Were you an Obama fan at the time?

Josh:
I was a very big Obama fan at the time. Shepard Fairey got me interested in Obama in 2007. I was swept up with the whole wave, and I did a poster for that campaign.

Debbie:
After you accepted the job, you spent four days driving to Chicago, which you said was the worst thing you could have done. You suddenly had a lot of misgivings. Why?

Josh:
I had a lot of time to think during those four days. I started thinking of all the questions I should have asked before I accepted the job. What does the team look like? What if I meet the president and he’s not who I think he is?

Debbie:
Did that happen?

Josh:
He’s definitely the human you think he is. He’s a wonderful man.

Debbie:
What was it like to be taking design direction from the president?

Josh:
I didn’t talk to him directly about design, although he would send emails. When his site went up, he was very excited about how it looked, and he sent an email saying, “Congratulations. This is great.”

Debbie:
You updated the Obama logo and you redesigned virtually everything under the sun to represent that campaign. Your time there was intense: You worked seven days a week, 16-hour sprints every day. What were one or two peak moments during that time?

Josh:
When the president stated his position on gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the energy was amazing. Another moment was the end of the war in Iraq. We spoke with the White House every morning at 10:00 a.m. on a call, and I remember hearing that the war in Iraq was going to be wound down, and I thought, “Wow.” A third was when Candice Lopez came to visit me, and I was able to show her the campaign. That was very special for me.

Debbie:
After President Obama’s victory, you went home from Chicago and got a call from Facebook. Everyone seems to have an opinion now about Facebook. 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. When they first called, I had no idea what I would do at Facebook.

Debbie:
You joined and led a team responsible for Facebook’s identity design, marketing pages, environmental design, films, company culture. What was it like taking design direction from Mark Zuckerberg?

Josh:
It’s awesome. 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 and asked some great, intricate questions. He also gave some great feedback.

Debbie:
You went on to help build The Factory at Facebook—described as a team 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 work you were doing on that team? You had something to do with the birthday videos, right?

Josh:
One of the first things that we worked on was the personalized video program. We also redesigned the Facebook logo and identities for other teams. It was a wide range of brand and marketing projects for Facebook “Incorporated,” and then we did a lot of work for the products as well.

Debbie:
Today you’re the executive creative director for virtual reality and augmented reality at Facebook. Why the move to VR and AR, and what kind of future do you see for humans having these different kinds of realities?

Josh:
I love challenges, and I love being in uncomfortable places. I like being put into 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:
Let’s talk about Portal, which allows Facebook users to communicate face-to-face on a standalone video platform. It has a smart wide-angle camera so that as the user moves, it zooms, pans, and tracks them automatically, which feels like magic. It can also play music through connected apps, or stream video, and Facebook has said it makes for a more natural video-chat environment since the smart camera does all the work. How did you know there was a gap in the market for this?

Josh:
If you’ve ever done video chat, it’s very difficult. The other day, I was video chatting with my sister-in-law, and she said, “Is there anyone in the room?” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m over here.” Portal helps to make it feel like you’re in the same room.

Debbie:
How do you think about the pace at which you introduce more innovative technology? How do you know when the culture is ready for something?

Josh:
You never know. You do a lot of research, you talk with a lot with folks, and ultimately you go with your gut. A hardware veteran on the team told me that some of the best things he’s worked on didn’t do well, and then other ones that he thought were just so-so did very well.

Debbie:
In terms of political design, how would you feel if Donald Trump was as big a Facebook power user as he is with Twitter?

Josh:
I’d be disappointed, but the platform is for all voices. That’s the beauty of Facebook. It’s there for everyone.

JOSH HIGGINS TALKS WITH DEBBIE MILLMAN

I LOVE CHALLENGES, AND I LOVE BEING IN UNCOMFORTABLE PLACES. I LIKE BEING PUT INTO THINGS THAT I HAVE TO FIGURE OUT, AND THAT SEEMED LIKE ONE I DIDN’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT.