Designing a Better Campaign: Why Hillary Clinton needs a “Designer in Chief”

Last week, my thirteen-year-old daughter and I saw Hillary Clinton speak at a local campaign event in California. Clinton exuded a strong leadership presence and confidence about the future and we both walked away with a renewed connection and commitment to her candidacy. Ever since, I’ve been reflecting on the contrast between the inspirational leader we experienced in person and the candidate we see in the press whose favorability ratings continue to plunge.

Pundits, experts, and political insiders call this election unprecedented in America’s political history. That Donald Trump has secured the Republican nomination for President of the United States isn’t just novel, in my opinion it’s terrifying. I’m worried about the future of serious discourse within and across our communities, of global relations with other countries, of national security and safety, and of the world my two daughters and their peers will face. As a practitioner and teacher of design, innovation, and leadership, I see an urgent need for the Clinton campaign to apply new and creative strategies to succeed and secure our nation’s future.

Here’s the problem. On paper, Clinton is by far the most qualified candidate. She brings vast political experience; she understands the importance of building global coalitions and diplomacy; she’s established relationships across all branches of government and party lines; and she’s demonstrated resilience, courage, fortitude and drive.

But her message isn’t resonating.

In part, that’s because Trump is not competing with the same political playbook. His strategy (if you can call it that) is closer to that of the disruptive innovators in Silicon Valley than the old guard in Washington DC. Trump heralds his lack of political experience and time in Washington as a core strength. He offers a fundamentally different value proposition to the American voters that isn’t tied to the old measures of success: slogans and sound bites; debating the issues; detailed policy plans; even raising the most money. Trump is engaging American voters in entirely new ways.

Clinton, on the other hand, is playing by the rules of the past — albeit rules by which she’s competed, and succeeded, for years. Her campaign appears oblivious to the signs of disruptive change — a political version of the blinders that sank companies such as Blockbuster, Kodak, and Borders. The underlying assumption of the Clinton campaign that “eventually the American people will come to their senses” suggests that they are waging a war of attrition, not of adaptive innovation. In disruptive markets where the game has changed, sticking to the rules of the past — no matter how effective they once were — is rarely a winning strategy.

With less than six months remaining before the general election, it’s time for Clinton to “pivot.”

It’s time to design a better campaign.

To start, she can take inspiration from one of the most influential disruptors and designers of our time, the late Steve Jobs, whose motto was Think Different. Jobs’ uncompromising view on design (and Apple’s revenues) proved that innovation isn’t just about using technology to deliver better utility, it’s about delivering an emotional experience. We don’t just acquire new iphones; we love them.

For Apple, and many of the other new companies that are successfully disrupting traditional markets (AirBnB, UBER, Tesla, to name a few), design isn’t just about making things look pretty, it’s a rigorous approach to solving complex problems and addressing user needs through creative and iterative cycles of ideation and testing. When done well, design informs solutions that don’t just meet our baseline requirements, but exceed them by delivering unexpected joy and delight. Great design seamlessly pulls us in to become rabid fans and empowered ambassadors.[1]

So what does this mean in the context of a political campaign?

As Clinton approaches the final months leading to the November election, she needs to transcend Job’s motto of “Think Different;” she needs to design experiences that are different for the American public.

Here’s what it will take.

1. Functional Utility: Start with a Better Why

To date, Clinton has been promoting her superior competencies for the job of President — experience, intelligence, qualifications — relative to her competition. Unfortunately, this rational argument is not rallying the troops.

First, there’s a “curse of knowledge” problem. The “utility” that Clinton’s been communicating sounds like it’s been crafted by political strategists and spin doctors who assume they know what American voters want. It’s the same trap startup entrepreneurs fall into when they pitch features and functions that sound cool and timely, but don’t communicate a compelling “why” behind their offering. This is depicted beautifully in the famous Techcrunch pitch scene from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” parody (Season 1): “We have a mobile, local, social strategy….no wait, we’ve pivoted. It’s actually local, mobile, social….or is it social, mobile, local?”[2]

If the Clinton team can craft a compelling “why” — from the voter’s perspective — people should vote for her, rather than focus on Clinton’s feature set, they will get much more traction.

2. Show, Don’t Just Tell.

Second, and equally important, there’s a translation problem. Clinton continues to rely on polished words and diplomatic phrases to make her key arguments. It can sound like the “wah, wah, wah” from the faceless teacher in the Charlie Brown comic strip. There’s no vivid resonance. There’s no form. There’s no picture.

In his seminal book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, author, design strategist and visual thinker Dan Roam provides compelling, scientific evidence that our brains are wired to learn from and remember pictures, not words. Roam argues that “the person with the best picture, wins.” Clinton needs to stop trying to out-argue her opponents rhetorically, and instead create a compelling visual (and not a fancier logo) that captures the essence of why she’s a superior alternative.

Clinton might choose to visually map the full context of the skills, knowledge, relationships and experience required to be President of the United States. She could visualize her vision for the future with an inspiring visual roadmap, not vague campaign slogan, that feels modern, future-focused and accessible. Remember how powerful then candidate Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster was in the 2008 Presidential campaign? Armed with vivid, compelling, understandable pictures, Clinton can rise above the reactive hand-to-hand campaign combat and literally solidify her vision in voter’s minds.

3. Emotional Engagement: Ignite Authentic Feeling

Building a positive emotional connection with voters is a huge opportunity for Clinton and, unless addressed urgently, it will become a critical liability. Recent opinion polls suggest that Clinton is able to evoke feelings — just not the right ones.

Trump and fellow Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders may have drastically different political views, but their unlikely successes demonstrate that they’ve ignited authentic feelings. For Trump, these are feelings of anger, fear, judgment and vulnerability, fueling “us vs. them” emotions. Sanders ignites feelings of inclusion, empowerment, and entitlement –emotions related to care and caretaking and “being seen and heard,” regardless of status or background.

Clinton may not like it, but social scientists and neurologists have repeatedly proved that emotions trump logic, particularly when we’re making big decisions.

Clinton needs to ignite the kind of feelings — hope, excitement, possibility, belonging — that authentically engage voters. Rather than looking for our sympathy by saying she’s “not a great candidate,” instead she must enlist the kind of experts who understand how to tap into and build authentic feeling.

Clinton doesn’t need more economists, foreign affairs advisors, and legislative policy wonks. Instead, recruit Pete Doctor, the creative director and writer of Pixar’s brilliant movie “Inside Out,” which brings to life the power and interconnectedness of our core emotions: sadness, fear, anger, disgust and joy. To create this groundbreaking film, Doctor spent years talking to neuroscientists, psychologists and researchers to understand the science behind emotion.[3] Doctor deeply understands emotion and narrative. Clinton needs help with both.

Hire Nancy Duarte, author of the book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences and, more recently, Illuminate: Ignite Change through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols. In addition to helping many influential business leaders tell their stories at TED and elsewhere, Duarte is widely credited with turning Al Gore’s scientific dissertation on climate change into Oscar nominated show stopper, An Inconvenient Truth.

Or, bring some celebrated comedic writers into that inside circle of advisors: Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, for example. Comedians are adept at making dry concepts and information surprisingly engaging. Seinfeld created one of the most successful television shows in history based on nothing — imagine what he could do with the material that Clinton has amassed over a lifetime of public service.

4. Designing around the Ultimate Constraint: Election Day

Every designer faces constraints: time, budget, talent, technology. The constraint in any campaign cycle is Election Day. That gives us approximately 150 days until November 8, 2016 — the ultimate, non-negotiable element that should inform every campaign decision.

Working backwards, those days can be divided into hundreds if not thousands of small touch points: fundraising events, talk show appearances, debates, mailers, tweets, advertisements, and even interactions between members of the campaign and potential voters. These are all experiences that can be designed to be meaningful experiences that promote dialog and engagement, not just one-way campaign “pushes.”

Clinton’s campaign should aggressively enlist talent from some of the boundary crossers who are igniting movements from unexpected places. Start with Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer, performer, hip-hop improv artist, educator, social media sensation, community builder, and, most recently Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright. Night after night, Miranda’s sensational Broadway show Hamilton delivers an informed, imaginative, genre-busting show that brings relevance, context, and meaning to our country’s earliest days.

Miranda made countless brave and bold choices: the diverse casting, the evocative words, the music book, the stage sets, the individual performances. Together they create an immersive experience that touches us at the most human level.[4] With “Hamilton,” Miranda has not only made history current, he has influenced our future. His passion and off-stage activities (e.g., his YouTube channel, Twitter following, partnerships with major philanthropic foundations), have ignited a variety of interdisciplinary efforts to redesign how we teach history, civic engagement, diversity and the arts. There is much to learn and emulate in his efforts.

Clinton’s campaign might also consult with Oprah to learn how she’s created an empire based on many touch points of authentic communication and relationship building. Or invite Taylor Swift out to dinner to discuss how she’s ignited a whole demographic of empowered young women. Or meet with Jay Z or Pharrell to explore how they’ve created production empires that support and celebrate young artists, not just themselves.

For the Clinton campaign, time is a constraint that can also become an opportunity if they move beyond a team of political event coordinators and enlist an army of creative producers and movement makers.

5. Building Trust: Focus on the Details

Great designers understand that their job is to curate the right choices that engage our hearts, minds and souls. They pay attention to every aspect of an experience and a relationship to create congruence between the promise and the execution. That is what builds trust and loyalty with customers, users, fans…and voters.

In executing great design, the details are the strategy. Not some of the time — all of the time.

Experiences where the words don’t match the feelings or when the audio says something different than the visual, create moments of distrust. The product, or person in this case, becomes vulnerable: loyalists feel confused, users feel wronged, believers feel disappointed, or even worse, become cynical.

That pretty much describes the broader U.S. political climate right now. The dissonance between what we see, hear, and feel today and what we think we’ll actually get after the election is too great and has produced an amplified and universal sense of distrust.

Politics is ripe to be disrupted by design. The time is now.
We are at a pivotal point in this election. We can’t afford to keep trying the same tactics and hoping for different results.

The most successful designers and disruptors understand that ideas are free. It’s the execution that counts. And execution today requires multiple, distinctly different perspectives and diverse talents. To quote a famous leader, “it takes a village,” but one that is also well designed.

Many thanks to Nancy Murphy, Aliza Gazek, Nathan Shedroff, Bonnie Kay and Denise Brosseau for helping design, edit and execute this article.

[1] More on the discipline, skills and tools of design can be found in my forthcoming book Design A Better Business with Patrick van der Pijl and Justin Lokitz.

[2] Cautionary tale of how not to pitch an idea: http://itsh.bo/1TU8eXd

[3] Learn more about Pete Doctor’s research: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-inside-out.html?_r=0

[4] See Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s stellar book “Hamilton: The Revolution” for details behind every design choice: http://amzn.to/25vyXxa