If experience is the mother of wisdom, then Jennifer Kinon, founding partner at creative consultancy OCD, is certainly wise beyond her years.
Kinon, who will be speaking at Adobe MAX Oct. 18 to 20, in Las Vegas, has worked at a number of agencies throughout her career and with many different brands. But what stands out the most is her work on the Hillary For America campaign in 2016.
In the interview below, Kinon described her path leading up to becoming design director for the Hillary Clinton campaign, the lessons she has picked up along the way, and the importance of design and creativity in today’s customer experience-obsessed digital landscape.
CMO.com: How did you get started in design?
Kinon: I kind of studied design as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. I would say I was more an athlete than an academic. I was a rower. Yes, I did get a design degree but not with the rigor that I wanted to have. So upon graduation, I went into consulting and then decided to go back to grad school for design.
I went to the School of Visual Arts design program, which was [longtime New York Times art director] Steve Heller’s first graduate program at SVA. He instilled in us a belief that the designer did not have to wait for a client to bring content, but the designer had the ability to create their own content and create their own product.
On my first day, I was seated next to this guy named Bobby Martin, and we both drank the Kool-Aid of the SVA graduate program. We very much got into the habit of working together, sharing our work, and challenging each other. When I was at Michigan, I also got a degree in English, so I came from more of a writing background, and he came from much more of a fine arts and illustration background. So we brought different things to the process that we came to rely on each other for. After SVA we started freelancing together but also very deliberately went different ways with our careers to learn from the people we admired.
CMO.com: What came next?
Kinon: After I graduated, I worked at Graphis Magazine, where I could see all this great work and also learn how to build a grid system. From there, I worked on New York City’s Olympic bid as design director and was able to build my own team and mount a massive campaign for New York City that was really exciting.
Following that, I worked with Michael Beirut at Pentagram, and that’s really where I did a lot of learning. It was helpful to have done the Olympic bid because that was an in-house design team, so I learned what it was like to work with someone else’s identity system and understand the politics of being a design firm inside of a larger organization that didn’t care at all about design…. At Pentagram, design is very much the product they are selling. For four years I was able to follow Michael around and watch how he worked with clients, work with him on the identity systems, and learn from the best of the best.
CMO.com: This brings us up to the point where you went into business with Martin, right?
Kinon: Yes. It was time for Bobby and I to start OCD. Steve had kind of built that thing in us: Find a way to do your own thing. The time was right. Six or seven years ago, we started OCD because we saw a great opportunity in the design field to build a firm that focused almost exclusively on systems building. We both really loved building big identity systems, and that’s where we’ve focused our time ever since.
I’d been at OCD for five or six years when the Clinton campaign launched. As everyone knows now, Michael created the logo for that campaign. When it came time for them to find a design director, they asked him if he had any suggestions, and he kindly submitted my name.
I will always be grateful that he did. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to.
CMO.com: What are your most significant takeaways from serving as the design director for Hillary for America?
Kinon: It was really interesting to return to an in-house design experience. Going back, Bobby gave me the advice that, “You’re going to go in and you’re going to build your own team. And when you get your people around you, everything is going to come together.” He was so right. The most important thing to me in that experience was my team of 16 designers. Working with them made me a better person and a better designer. Nothing good or effective would have been made without them. What we were able to do in 16 months just blew me away.
It was almost a rebrand. Her 2008 campaign was an entirely different identity. So we had to introduce Michael’s new identity, give that meaning, and get that out across the country in a very short amount of time. It was an incredible learning experience. You can never forget how important your team is when you take on big projects like that.
The experience is still so fresh. It’s almost been a year now, but I’m still processing it. There’s so many different things to take away--lessons about craft, about teamwork, about brand, about loss. And they will all bubble up at different times. I don’t know that I’m ready to identify the biggest or the most primary.
CMO.com: That sounds like a truly incredible 16 months.
Kinon: The story that I’ll always be able to tell with great authenticity and definitiveness is: Never be afraid. I’m sad and disappointed, and I feel great responsibility, but I don’t regret having done it and taking that risk.
CMO.com: Why, in an age of customer experience, do businesses need to be design-led? And what does that mean?
Kinon: I think precision of language is very important. Somehow “design thinking” has become this magical bucket of nonsense, where everybody uses the term, and not everyone has the same definition.
People who have come before me in the industry have fought hard to get design a seat at the table, and I do think that’s important. We process information differently, and it’s hard for people to ask for what they want from designers because they don’t know what design can do--just like it’s hard for me to ask for what I want from a mechanic because I don’t know how to make my car run the best that it can run. So I want to describe everything, and I want the mechanic to hear those descriptions and tell me how to fix it. In the same way, if you have a designer at the table, they hear all the problems, and they can process and come up with a solution.
I don’t know that every organization needs to necessarily be design-led. I wouldn’t say that the Hillary Clinton campaign was design-led, and I wouldn’t say that it was any better or worse for it. I think it was policy-led and led by the needs of our country. That’s what it should be.
CMO.com: What else do designer bring to the C-suite?
Kinon: Designers, I would argue, bring a methodology and empathy that put the customer or the end user first, where your process starts with the end user in mind. When a designer approaches a problem in that way, they will be delivering on the customer experience first. Now, that depends on the designer you’re working with. Some designers put craft first, some put outcome first, or efficiency first. But I do believe that when user-centered design is prioritized, then you end up with a more empathetic outcome and a happier customer. This is not just digital design--in our identity systems, we prioritize the audience and understanding where they are and who they are.
I think authenticity is another imprecise word. What baffles me is that someone can say authenticity is a style. I think every single person and organization is different, and you need to find that organization’s identity. So authenticity then becomes very singular. [Authenticity is] another tough word that has become a buzzword right now.
Be sure to check out this interview Kinon did with Adobe Create.