After earning a degree in graphic design, most graduates find entry-level designer positions—Harrison Mills had other ideas. In 2012, fresh out of Western Washington University (WWU), Mills and classmate Clayton Knight started ODESZA, a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated electronic duo. Fans recognize ODESZA by its lush, warm, refined visuals… little do they know, the man on stage designed those visuals.
Mills, who grew up in a quiet Seattle suburb, aspired to be an illustrator and animator. Those plans changed when he received a scholarship to WWU, contingent upon his switch from fine arts to design. “They told me I had a ‘knack for design,’ based on my portfolio, which was made in PowerPoint and was terrible. If I wanted to go to school, I had to do design.” Mills, who had applied to only one school, took the opportunity and quickly “fell in love with design.”
Though his music career began taking off while still a student, Mills, then going by the moniker Catacombkid, wanted to be thought of as a designer first and foremost. His college professor, Kent Smith, recalled catching an embarrassed Mills at WWU’s recording studio: “He was always very bashful about his music; he would just say it was a hobby.”
Drawing inspiration from his favorite films, Drive (2011) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) among others, Mills wanted to link visuals, movement, and sound. After a few years of general design courses, Mills entered the media design program, where he learned design across various forms: “live visuals, motion graphics, videography, and others.”
The program taught more than just design principles, though, as Mills explained: “I was learning about spacing, the rule of thirds, how type works, and how things are weighted and affect each other in space… that’s all how music works. I was learning lessons that helped beyond design.”
Fellow media design student Sean Kusanagi, who directs ODESZA’s videos and plays guitar for the group, introduced Mills to Clayton Knight, then going by the name BeachesBeaches. The duo bonded over their similar musical tastes and production processes. Soon, they were releasing tracks under the joint project ODESZA.
Like many musicians today, Mills and Knight used a platform called SoundCloud to distribute their work; moreover, SoundCloud, like a YouTube for music, places a strong emphasis on the small, thumbnail artwork that accompanies each upload. This visual aspect fueled Mills’s interest and propelled ODESZA’s success: “A lot of people don’t realize that before people listen to the music, they see the image first, and they need to click on it. Those first impressions are really important.”
Even in the early days of ODESZA’s meteoric rise, Mills leveraged the music to pursue a career in design: “When we first started, I was doing all the design hoping to get a job out of it,” said Mills, “It was a portfolio piece: merch, posters, an album cover, and so on.”
When opportunity came to work at a firm, Mills turned it down in favor of ODESZA’s first tour, but he made sure never to let the design slip, adding “I didn’t want the design to be filler while I made music. I took a lot of pride in it, and I wanted it to make sense with everything we were doing.”
Over the years since, the ODESZA visuals have reflected the evolution of Mills’s and Knight’s music: layered samples, analog effects, and warm tones gave way to clear vocals, larger builds, and traditional instruments (their live shows often feature horns, drumlines, strings, and singers—all rare for an electronic show). “The design language has always included overlays, washy elements, and explosions of color.
As our sound has refined over time, you can see in A Moment Apart, there are bursts of light, but everything is a little crisper and a little more in-focus. All of that is on purpose. Everything should be there for a reason—you don’t just make something because it looks cool.”
To accomplish a cohesive brand across all ODESZA’s visuals, Mills leads a small cohort of WWU graduates: Sean Kusanagi, mentioned earlier, directs their branded videos; Gilbert Van Citters has helped with merchandise; Luke Tanaka designs their stage animations; and Michelle Gadeken, Mills’s girlfriend, helps with the typography. “We have a giant whiteboard with a thousand different ideas. ‘Maybe this visual goes here, maybe it goes there. I like this idea, but the lighting doesn’t work for it.’ It’s a snail’s pace, but it’s very collaborative.”
Though the work is a group effort, Mills plays the role of a hands-on creative director. He designs their album artwork, he creates their perfectly symmetrical stage layout, and he goes on every photoshoot—often “moving objects and giving live feedback on lighting and framing.”
Mills says it is all in the name of producing an authentic counterpart for the music: “I have a vision in my head every time we design something, and executing that vision can take many slow, grueling hours of standing next to someone, just giving them slight details.”
When Mills is not working on ODESZA’s music and visuals, he helps other young musicians and visual artists through his label, Foreign Family Collective, which uses branding he and Van-Citters designed as a class project at WWU. Leveraging his design skills and music-industry experience, Mills works with these artists to develop their logos, visual identities, live shows, websites, and so on. “We’re finding all these musicians on SoundCloud, and some are seventeen; they don’t know what they’re getting into, so we’re there to help.”
To Mills, design and music coexist: what started as a hobby and portfolio piece turned into an award-winning musical juggernaut, which in turn provided the means to find and support other artists. “ODESZA was always about collaging all these different ideas, and chopping up all these different elements, to create one thing that makes sense—to create a colorful palette of sound.”