How colorful, luscious gradients took over political design
Since Biden's presidential campaign, colorful gradients have popped up across politics
President Joe Biden’s approval rating is underwater, and his Build Back Better bill doesn’t have enough votes, but the visual hallmark of his late digital campaign — the colorful, ~luscious~ gradient — is more popular than ever, popping up in graphics for both parties and on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gradients showed up in politics in 2008, when former President Barack Obama’s campaign used a blue-to-white one, but Obama’s gradient seems conservative and tame compared to his former vice president’s. Biden’s gradients broke from the corporate Democratic branding of the Obama years, pulsating with purples, pinks, yellows, and blues that blurred in a mesh. They looked like they tasted like candy, and they gave an aesthetic rooted in popular culture to the campaign for the oldest man ever elected president.
By December 2020, colorful gradients started appearing elsewhere. In Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff race, Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign started using them on social media. When he and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock won, giving Democrats control of the evenly divided Senate, it seemed we had officially arrived in a new Biden era of Democratic political design.
The impetus for Biden’s gradients was the serenity of the sunrise. Former Biden senior creative advisor Robyn Kanner said she was inspired in part by “the most insane sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life,” in El Paso, Texas, when she was working on former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign.
“This calmness of a new day, that story really resonated with me, and this idea of a sunrise being a brand new day I thought was a feeling the country needed,” she said.
Since Biden’s win, gradients have shown up in former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign, as well as on the Democratic National Committee’s “Build Back Better” bus tour to promote Democrats’ agenda earlier this year. The boldest use of gradients, though, was Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Dianne Morales, whose Instagram-esque yellow, orange, and purple gradient stood out in a crowded primary.
“I look at it as an aura,” former Morales campaign creative director Jiar Zeman said on the campaign’s blog. “The political world is very traditional and conservative in its design. People don’t take risks and it’s very repetitive. My intention was, ‘We’re not gonna do any of those things, we’re gonna be as fun as possible, because we have a lot of time ahead of us for campaigning and we want the branding to keep looking fresh.’”
I remarked at the time that Morales’ campaign branding checked off a lot of progressive design boxes, with condensed type, a well-lit portrait of the candidate looking off into the distance, and non-traditional colors. Colorful gradients read liberal, and Morales, a former public school teacher and social services nonprofit executive, was a progressive’s progressive whose campaign staff literally went on strike.
The look has even already crossed the Atlantic, where the U.K.’s Labour Party has deployed a soft red-to-turquoise gradient in digital ads and social media posts this fall and winter.
Republican gradients show up too, but less frequently. On Jan. 5, the day that would become Insurrection Eve, the @SenateGOP account added a gradient to its Twitter avatar, and in March, it changed again to a darker, grainer gradient. The @gop Instagram account has posted one gradient since March, a watercolor graphic for Women’s History Month, and Sen. Todd Young’s (R-Ind.) campaign ran a digital ad with a blue-to-yellow gradient that was seen by up to 60,000 Indiana voters.
Making a good gradient takes software and skills, but web developer Clara Beyer made an online tool earlier this year to more easily create multi-colored, noisy gradients, at noiseandgradient.com.
“It’s not a complicated task if you know what you’re trying to do, it’s just its a lot of steps,” Beyer said. “It took a bunch of steps and a bunch of software.”
Her site lets users pop out unlimited variations on a color scheme for free after entering the hex code (the cover image on this story was made using it), and a paid pro version allows for larger images and more customization. After her site went live, I noticed a number of political social media power users curiously up their tweet screenshot game on Instagram, and Beyer said organizations including the progressive group Indivisible purchased a paid account.
Biden still uses gradients as president, though they’ve been toned down since 2020. The color palette is more formal for the @whitehouse account than it was for Biden’s campaign, gradients for governing instead of GOTV.
How long this era of political gradients lasts is anyone’s guess. Though Biden’s campaign kicked down the door to allow pop gradients into politics, they were already such a part of popular culture that their future use isn’t necessarily tied to him.
“Nobody owns gradients,” Kanner, the former Biden senior creative advisor, said. “It’s just a visual element that worked well for us on the campaign.”
She called gradients “fashion of a time” and named the creative agency she started with fellow Biden alumni Studio Gradients. Since the 2020 campaign, though, “different stories need different type of fashion, different types of fabric, different styles.”
When asked how frequently Studio Gradients uses gradients in their work, Kanner said, “very rarely.”