“Moments matter”: Biden’s opposition brand designer on creating rapid-response campaigns
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Julian Williams led the team attacking Trump. Here, he talks us through how he designed at pace and with tensions running high.
- Julian Williams
- 10 March 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
When Robyn Kanner, senior creative advisor for Joe Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign, approached me asking how I might feel about designing content attacking the sitting President of the United States, I couldn’t help but laugh. Not only did I feel more than comfortable creating that kind of work, but I had been doing so for years. I was ready to show personal designs responding to the President’s actions, to prove that I could do it not only confidently, but quickly too.
I, like many designers the world over, have been creating reactive content for a while. Historical and political events have compelled creatives to produce informative and eye-catching visuals. With the growth of platforms like Instagram, the ability and desire to share this kind of work has grown as well. What is especially interesting is the speed with which we can now share our visual reactions to the events that impact our lives. I would go so far as to say that there is a practical and creative incentive towards being aware of the temporality of this content, of the need to create quickly.
So much happens and so much information is available to us today, that by the time we start to react emotionally to one event, two more life-altering things have happened. If we want to enact some kind of change, it is in our best interest to react to events quickly when we still have the public’s attention.
I believe that there is something to be said for designing when emotions are running high. Our personal feelings towards historical and political events can light a creative fire within us. One example of this kind of work is an illustration created by Jean Jullien the same day as the 2015 Paris attacks. The image, combining a peace symbol and the Eiffel Tower, went viral and struck a chord with me in its quickness, simplicity, message and emotion.
When events affect us on a personal level, there's an emotional incentive behind the work we are creating. This is something I felt as a Queer, Black American throughout the entirety of the Trump Administration; a longing to impact the public narrative about how we should react, feel and position ourselves when confronted with an everyday reality that puts the perception of ourselves in constant tension. Design is able to do that.
As a designer on a presidential campaign, you can create real world impact when tapping into your emotions during a moment. Moments matter. Understanding emotions was critical when designing for the election. Creating the visual direction for the Biden Campaign’s opposition branding, our team discussed previous ways that Trump had been presented visually. I was told our goal was to “take away his power,” which resulted in a system of greys, intense noise and scaled images to reflect the melancholy Americans were experiencing under a Trump presidency.
Thinking about my own feelings towards the administration helped with this. All year I had heard stories of families losing loved ones to Covid while the President did nothing. It was not difficult for me to highlight the President’s failure when it was announced that 200,000 Americans had died from the virus under the Trump Administration.
Time was also of the essence during the election. This sometimes emerged in surprising ways, like when our team created a flyswatter as merchandise the night of the Vice-Presidential debate. That flyswatter was designed and ready within five minutes of the fly landing on Vice President Pence’s head. And while many people may see that as a joke or meme, I recognised that it was an opportunity for rapid-response design to make important sales for our campaign. Sure enough, we sold 35,000 of them within hours of the debate.
Because of the nature of social media and the ability to share information with increased speed, it was necessary to not only create content quickly, but to make sure that our audience connected deeply with the visuals. Sometimes, these connections were memes, which some may dismiss as low-brow, but are now an essential part of navigating the internet and dissecting the world around us. Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976, referring to something that is repeatedly imitated within culture carrying symbolic meaning about a specific topic.
In a post-election world, there is still plenty of content to respond to from a creative standpoint. The insurrection at the United States Capitol was unprecedented, and even though I was no longer working for President-Elect Biden, the sight of men scaling the Capitol Building walls and threatening American lives drove me to create this image, which was shared across Facebook and Instagram. Old habits die hard.
We should strive to embrace the emotions that the world and visuals give us. And while often shock, despair and anger may be powerful and inspiring emotions, so too can humour, glee and empathy guide the visuals we produce to expand on our collective understanding of the events that unfold in our lifetime. Sometimes this may be as simple and hilarious as an image of a cold gentleman from Vermont sitting and wearing mittens. And occasionally, something that simply leads to the sale of a sweater that earns $1.8 million in funds for charity. Moments matter.
Courtesy Julian Williams
About the Author
Julian Williams is an American-German graphic designer and art director based in the Netherlands. He was the lead opposition brand designer for Joe Biden's presidential campaign, and has worked at &Walsh and Nike. His greatest dream is to make good things with good people.