How Joe Biden’s Team Used Blush to Win Back America
Robyn Kanner, Creative Director of Biden's campaign, tells us the crucial part her team played in helping win back the soul of the nation.
2020 turned the world upside down, and it’s going to be a year no one will forget. Life has changed, and what we consider the “new normal” for both leisure and work almost seems like science fiction. We’ve all had to adjust, but few of us can comprehend the sheer heaviness of what Robyn Kanner and her team went through last year.
Meet Robyn Kanner, the person assigned to create a visually inspiring message for Joe Biden’s historic presidential run.
We had the privilege to sit down with Robyn to discuss her work during the campaign, and how Blush was able to help her and her talented team of creatives shape a message of hope for tens-of-millions of Americans.
The last three elections were historical, and each had a message to inspire the American people. What message were you aiming to project with your creative direction during the campaign?
In 2008 and 2012, we saw a lot of hope messages from Barack Obama. They were inspiring, and in 2008 specifically, what happened [Barack Obama being elected] was truly remarkable. In ’16, the message was more about defeating Donald Trump and breaking the “glass ceiling.”
For our team in 2020, it was a battle for the soul of the nation. At its core, that's what we were in; America was going in one of two different directions. One was with Joe Biden, restoring the soul of the nation, and figuring out what we needed to do to bring America back into the right place it needed to be. The other direction was Trump's America, which was pretty bleak if you consider everything that’s happened. Our team's focus was showing America that we can unify together and rebuild this country back and make it better.
How important would you say visual elements and illustrations are in today’s political world?
I mean, they're huge. I think that it's the essence of storytelling in campaigns; it’s the visual identity. Because of circumstances with COVID-19, working remotely added pressure for digital visuals to be really strong.
The logo was about presenting a unified, strong America with Biden-Harris, putting them in lockstep with each other, and unifying their names. The gradients were about adding warmth for a difficult time when the country was alone in their homes and apartments, not being allowed to go outside. Illustrations were about bringing familiarity and a sense of humanity to the campaign.
The reality is, post-primary, we didn't really have a ton of photography to work with because our candidate was following the safety protocols of COVID-19. Thus, illustrations became that much more critical; they were a way to communicate with America that we're in it together, and that there still is a unified community. Photographs just weren't an option like they usually are, so illustrations became a large piece of our brand identity.
Plus like everything else, it's never just one thing. We hear a lot in design that you're not supposed to put a ton of personal views in the project. It's supposed to be about the client, and I do a very bad job at that because I tend to infuse a lot of myself into the work. The gradients were very much like that.
A couple of years ago, when I was working on getting sober, I was in a meeting where a person was shared a moment about finding serenity.One morning this person woke up early, and he went down to the ocean, and they watched the sunrise over the Atlantic. This was their moment of total serenity.
The way I direct design is through feeling, sound, and emotion. It's not about design that's focused on swipes or clicks, and I talked with the team about this feeling of total serenity and this spiritual experience with the sun rising. It's a very new day that’s alive and vibrant and warm, and the sunrise in that person’s story helped me develop that feeling so that we could help deliver this type of message to folks, and a sunrise at its core is a gradient.
Before being on the Biden-Harris campaign, I was in El Paso. If you look at sunrises and sunsets in El Paso, they’re the most beautiful things in the world. Like nothing touches it.
While I was working for the campaign, there were so many times I would leave headquarters, and the sun was setting, and I would see the most vibrant gradient in the world, and I noticed that it added warmth to any moment. I wanted to create that feeling for the campaign, and with COVID-19 and with a lot of people stuck at home, I just felt like a flat color wouldn't do it. We needed something more luscious, and gradients gave us that.
There's just so much beauty in gradients and we frequently didn’t use many. Our gradients were all about measures and finding many natural elements for them. I never wanted it to be about mathematics so we blended many colors and created this exciting message.
As a Creative Director, your workflow must have been daunting. What were some hacks you and your team used to get stuff done?
Practice. It sounds insane to think about design practice, but actual practice was huge. We ran speed trials essentially to watch previous debates and run rapid response on them. We watched Pence's gubernatorial debate from Indiana in 2012. We ran rapid practice sessions on it, and the way that goes is I have one ear on the debate, another ear on the team talking, and then a screen that's reading the interactions of the approval process. We practiced doing that at a rapid pace to be able to create speed and efficiency, and we did that for about five debates: previous Biden debates, previous Trump debates, and Pence debates.
That gave us the ability to know what was coming during a debate and it also gave us the ability to move with speed and iron out the kinks. For example, I could be talking to Julian about something with opposition design, flip over to someone else I need in production; go to Eric quickly to see how they're doing; see where Christian was in animation; go to Abbey on illustration and coordinate with Carahna and Aja on everything else.
Carahna would vouch for this, but I do things at a very high level, and Carahna is a detail-oriented person, which made our working relationship really strong. I would say something doesn't feel right, and then Carahna would be there with a couple of tweaks to get that detail perfect.
Aja, would be in the project management process getting it all through. The way that we mastered that was just through pure practice. After all those practices, we were able to produce 40 pieces of content within an hour and a half of debate, and in high fidelity at that. That's why the flyswatter is always really funny to me because people were like, how'd you pull it off? Well, it only took five minutes because we practiced for an entire week leading up to that moment. So, we knew exactly what to do when the time came. If there was a specific moment that we wanted to call out, we could pull off animations where it was needed.
We were also able to pull off merch drops, whether it was a shirt or a flyswatter. Anything can happen during the debate, so you have to have all of the pieces ready to go.
There’s also Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the importance of exporting in different sizes and making sure it's all moving in the right way. We had a two-minute rule, so specific things like drafts had to be ready in two minutes, for example.
It was a pretty surreal process for me. It feels like you're in an orchestra and you're trying to conduct the band, and everybody who's in the band is the best player at their instrument. It took us about three practice debates to get everything into position and understand how to talk to each other during intense moments. By the fourth and the fifth practice, we were a game ready. It’s training, like in Rocky 3! That was a huge film for me throughout the campaign cycle. We watched that film together as a team over Google Hangouts and I’d be pausing every five minutes to say, “you see how he's handling this right here? This strategy! We need that sort of mentality into our work to make this work.
Could you tell us what your favorite thing about working with Blush is?
The primary campaign was predominantly done on Adobe products and everybody was working in-person together. That made it really easy for Carahna to go from desk to desk and ensure a system was in place. Once we went remote, everything changed because we needed to build a team that was three people into 25 people, build a brand system in the middle of that, and have it be high-quality which presents a massive challenge to solve. So, the first thing that we did was we flipped over to Figma and we started working with each other in a very ‘Google docs’ version of design, and we started to build a system together.
Abbey, who is this unbelievable illustrator, I remember calling her and saying “how much time are you spending on illustrations per social post?” She told me that some of the illustrations took her half the day. I'm thinking to myself, “half of a day and how many votes is that? What does that equal out to?” It becomes a very time-based problem, which was in June or July of the campaign. Once we got into September and October, I knew there was no way Abbey was going to be able to spend six hours on an illustration; it wouldn't have equated to enough votes that we needed to get.
That was right around the time that you (Pablo Stanley) started pushing Blush, and I was really fascinated about the work you were doing. I played around with it, and I thought that if I could get this to be bound in illustrations, we could really scale up in a pretty remarkable way. Putting you in touch with Abbey and seeing how this shaped up was awesome.
It went from taking half a day to produce a solid graphic to being able to make hundreds in a day, and we needed that. We also didn't want to sacrifice quality, and where Blush really helped us out was it enabled us to have high quality for everything that we did, but in a way that didn't take six hours. On debate nights, it let us pull out graphics in 60 seconds. We were using the Blush plugin, and it was just like drop it and go.
It was really great with the livestream events as well. Teagen was producing dozens of live stream events a day, and that's a full brand package of assets. Blush was huge in dropping illustrations into those flows and building a crowd and sites.
For example, if it was a crowd we were designing and we wanted a character holding a cardboard sign, we could change the text on it and drop in campaign messaging. It gave us the ability to fire on all cylinders, which incredibly streamlined our work.
It was also really interesting working with all the figures. We have a flag illustration, and we could go from an American flag to a pride flag. We could also do things like flip signs, switch out hair color and glasses, and create this group of people with representation. Again, because of COVID, we just didn't have photography, and we needed something to show people, or it was going to feel isolating. Blush gives us the ability to produce that high fidelity content that photography just couldn't.
Predominantly, it also saved us time, which enabled us to duplicate the amount of work that we could produce in any given hour. There are strict deadlines in our campaigns, and you have until this specific hour, and then it's over. There is no time to double-check your thoughts. You have to be ready to go, and Blush was just amazing for us to know something was there and that we could move on it.
Diversity and inclusion seemed like essential values in the campaign. How were you able to portray that in your designs?
It's just about seeing yourself at work. We had a remarkable team made up of a bunch of people with different backgrounds. If I heard someone say they didn’t see themselves there, then the question became, how do we get them in here?
It was a combination of the team being their unique selves, knowing what the country looks like, and knowing what we looked like. It’s work, but it was also just knowing who we were.
We did this shirt with Joe Perez, who worked with Donda and Kanye for almost a decade, and we talked about how to do something in an authentic way that didn't feel like pandering or like it was trying to come up on culture.
I remember sending this email to Joe when we first started working on it, and I sat down and wrote this 20-paragraph email about how we can't make this project a joke. It has to be authentic or we're going to get killed for it. And rightfully so! You can't come into a culture and try to mark it. If you want to touch it, then let's make it an authentic art piece. But you can't mess with authenticity. So, yeah, there were a lot of pieces there where it was just about understanding the work that you were doing, who it’s impacted by it, who is seeing it, and in meeting that moment.
For us, we never had to force the conversation about diversity because it was already there.
As a creative superstar: what’s your advice to designers about working in politics or public service?
I definitely don't consider myself a creative superstar. I think that I'm just a person who likes to make things. It's really simple. In the past, when I've tried to blow it up to be something bigger, it would get to my head which has never been good for me or anybody around me. So the biggest thing is just to check your ego. I live in a studio apartment and that's my life. It's not like I'm living in a mansion right now.
My advice for people is to have your ownb self figured out before going out and helping other people. For me, that included getting sober and doing work on myself, just to make sure that I was like a proper member of society, and that's really a big piece of this advice: you can't help other people until you help yourself. Everything kind of collapses if you don't do that so that's number one.
Number two is finding what the right story is for you to tell and take things from there. At the beginning of the cycle, I was very invested in the story of the campaign, and one of the reasons was it was a very American story. A campaign is fundamentally about shaping a country's vision and asking if somebody wants to live in it, and it's a very romantic problem to solve. There is this romance in America that I've always been blessed with and that was the story that I wanted to tell; It’s the story that we told visually.
If the story were around space shuttles, I would've gone for NASA. If it were around Christmas lights, I would design a Macy's day celebration. It's really about understanding the story and then figuring out the best role for you in that story and taking things from there.
Design Played a Big Role in Winning Back the Soul of the Nation
Doodles were on the front line of this battle, and when the stakes are this high for the creative director of the next President of the United States, Robyn shows us that illustrations are a critical part of winning people's trust.
With Blush's help, Robyn and her team were able to deliver a historical vision that spoke to record numbers of Americans. With illustrations and Blush features at hand, we all have the chance to shape the world and create a better tomorrow.