What I Learned In A Year Mixing Politics And Design

Like many progressives, designer Willem Van Lancker felt helpless after Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss last year. Then he decided to channel his energy–and his skill set–into local politics.

What I Learned In A Year Mixing Politics And Design
[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

A little over a year ago, friends and I went home from what was supposed to be a night of celebration: for a candidate, a set of ideals, and our own volunteer work. I had traveled to Florida, taken bus rides to Philadelphia, and helped with a last-minute get-out-the-vote push in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But that night we were left sad, angry, and confused.


This isn’t a requiem for that night. It’s about what happened in the year that followed and how I, a designer and tech entrepreneur who has never been particularly outwardly political, tried to channel the negative energy into design work that effects change. In doing so, I was able to (again) see the goodness that government and politics can bring.

It started with a few small efforts and projects. Then this fall, nearly a year later, I found myself in the BBQ joint down the street from my new home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, surrounded by my neighbors, celebrating my small role in a somewhat unlikely political victory–one that gave me a bit more hope for our political institutions and a reminder that there are some very good people out there fighting for them.

[Photo: John Moore/Getty Images]

Lend Your Skills in Small Ways

My involvement first started in the middle of last year, out of an urgent need from a friend and her organization, the New York Immigration Coalition. Not only did their mission to support and protect immigrants suddenly seem more important than ever as the Trump administration moved aggressively against immigrant rights, they also needed some posters–and fast. I offered to help out on a quick and dirty effort ahead of a big rally. One thing led to another (I have trouble saying no) and that project became a bigger series of more than 20 posters and banners for a range of events, rallies, and marches.

Through a combination of chance and the excellent organizing of the NYIC, the posters have become some of the most recognizable imagery of the powerful movement to stand up for immigrants–responding to everything from the Muslim and refugee ban to the end of DACA. While it wasn’t a remarkable set of work by my typical design standards, it was pragmatic, clear, and useful–and achieved the most important goal: It was delivered in time for a major event.

You might not feel like you have a unique skill to add to a movement. But I’ve found that any experience in graphic design, branding, social media, and the web are huge value adds to local organizations that may have never seen someone with your skills. You’d be amazed how much you can add with what seems like small contributions.

This work connected me to a more involved volunteer project, one that had been somewhat selfishly a design “bucket list” item for me: creating a brand, visual language, and digital strategy for a political campaign.

The candidate: Carlos Menchaca leading protesters at JFK after Donald Trump’s first Muslim ban. [Photo: courtesy of the author]

Local Elections Matter

While there were few national elections in 2017, this fall (like every year) was a pivotal one for state and local elections. Last year, I got introduced to Carlos Menchaca, a young and energetic city council member representing my area, Red Hook, and several other south Brooklyn neighborhoods. Elected in 2013, Carlos is the city’s first Mexican-American council member and Brooklyn’s first LGBTQ member. He has proven to be a tireless advocate for immigrant and worker rights, early and adult education, and a more progressive New York. He has an infectious passion for his work and is naturally charismatic. In short, he’s the type of politician we want.

This year, he was up for reelection in what was billed as a very tough reelection race and was one of only a handful of candidates endorsed by the Times and the Daily News. In the Democratic primary he was challenged by a veteran sitting state assembly member, the district’s former council member (his opponent in 2013), and two other Democrats. Carlos has been a big part of New York’s resistance to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, chairing the City Council Immigration Committee and cosponsoring programs like the city’s successful municipal ID program (IDNYC). Additionally, on a local level Carlos has been critical to the revitalization of Brooklyn’s waterfront while maintaining a balanced approach to gentrification and rising cost of living.

I started work early on his reelection campaign, months before the primary, and quickly got to know him, his platform, and the community he represents.

Local governments play a big role in the health and quality of life in our communities–you’d be amazed by the responsibilities of your local officials and direct impact they can have on zoning, education, and new development. And oftentimes they’re without the support of design teams or communications firms you see in bigger races and offices.

The Red Hook waterfront. [Photo: courtesy of the author]

Keep it Simple

As I learned about the requirements and needs for our campaign materials,  I quickly decided that a “good enough” approach was going to win the day. Because of its rapid pace and limited resources, this wasn’t a perfectionist’s project. The resulting system was meant to be loose, adaptable, and very simple.

District 38, which Carlos represents, is a diverse and sprawling collection of communities. At the north end is Red Hook, with its public houses and waterfront community, and at the south is Sunset Park, where some of Brooklyn’s last industrial neighborhoods still operate. The district is home to New York City’s largest Mexican community, Brooklyn’s fast-growing Chinatown, a section of the Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood, and large Puerto Rican, white, and African-American communities.


[Image: courtesy of the author]
When designing the logo, I wanted to evoke one of the area’s most notable vistas–the beautiful sunsets and panoramic views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. It came together in a simple three stripes and a vibrant color palette.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
In typesetting the mark, I emphasized Carlos’s first name–to reflect and reinforce his approachability and affable personality. The chosen typeface, Grilli Type’s Walsheim, had a midcentury and subtle art deco friendliness that again reflected Carlos’s personality and even some of his fashion sensibility.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
The only carryover from his 2013 campaign was the inclusion of a checkmark in the logo–a sign that Carlos gets things done and a subtle reminder to “check the box” for Carlos.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
All in all the goal was to create a visual identity that reflected the candidate:

  • Friendly–Carlos is an energetic, upbeat voice in the community; this personality needed to shine through in all of the writing and visual design.
  • Memorable–We were creating a lot of materials: print mailers, window signs, digital ads, emails, T-shirts, and stickers. Because these materials are going to be seen alongside competitor mailers and spread throughout the neighborhood, it’s critical that it all feels a part of the same family and system.
  • Authentic–This is a local race and should feel reflective of the community and the people behind the campaign. Homes and businesses should proudly put the signs in their window.

The simplicity of this system was deliberate so others could create designs throughout the campaign–without a deep brand style guide that would have been too intensive to create. And primarily being a volunteer group, we had a lot of shared responsibility. Brooklyn-based designer Ramon Thompson did a lot of the design work on early print work, a local architect created giant window displays on the day of the election, and communications firm Red Horse drove nearly all the primary mailers.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
If you find yourself in a similar place, I would suggest spending a good amount of time ahead of the project to map out exactly what you (or another volunteer) will need to deliver throughout the campaign or project and make sure to set up simple, straightforward guidelines–and most importantly, a common link for everyone to access design files and assets. Finally, much like in designing for a startup, you’ll have to let go a bit and be happy with “good enough.”


Thrive on Constraints

Whether or not anyone saw the details in the logo was icing on the cake. What mattered was we had a few key visual devices and stuck to them–a sunset-like stripe motif, a straightforward color system, and a single recognizable typeface.

Reflecting on this work, I realize that I’ve never been involved in a design project that required me to be able to let go as much as this one, which if you know designers can be a tough ask. I had to be okay with most materials going out without my final check, with requirements changing on the fly, and with completely immoveable deadlines. Unlike a product launch, no one can push out an election date.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
These constraints can actually improve efficiency and forced us to make decisions quickly. None of this meant we shouldn’t have the best design or most appealing brand of any campaign out there. But by setting up the details and few variables early, we were able to tie everything together fairly elegantly. The most important piece was that the system was consistent in everything we made, whether it was the campaign’s website (built on Squarespace), emails (MailChimp), signs, or print mailers (a local union printer).

Good Design, Better Candidate

At the end of the day, the most important point was that the design consistently reminded viewers it was coming from Carlos. It let the candidate and his message shine. His communications team built clear messages that hit on his strengths around immigration advocacy, primary education, and his track record of working for the community–whether it was organizing recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy in 2013 or a plan and investment to build several new schools in the district.

The results showed. Carlos won his primary race by nearly a 20-point margin and earned victory in the general election this week by securing over 80% of the vote–kicking off his second city council term. My work with Carlos didn’t just include design–by leveraging Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MailChimp, and even experimenting a bit with WeChat, we reached out and connected Carlos closer to his constituents, whether it was in English, Spanish, or Chinese. On top of that, he has now built one of the larger social followings of N.Y.C. elected officials allowing him to communicate his message and vision to a wider audience as he enters his second term. This part was one of the more telling for me–even if it seems like a very basic skill (like website building in Squarespace!), it can be a big add to a campaign or movement.

Some of Carlos’s young volunteers on election day. [Photo: courtesy of the author]

A Year Later

While it felt (very) good to celebrate a political victory, I don’t have to look far to realize our national politics continue to feel as fractured and divisive as ever. And while it can seem very dark, I still believe in these institutions and their ability to bring positive change to people’s lives. And with that, I believe, now more than ever, in the power design within our political discourse (for good and bad). The worlds of design and politics rarely overlap, but I believe design can have an outsized impact–especially in local races and organizations.


By getting off the sidelines and getting involved, I found myself inspired and energized–even if my contributions (on the scale of things) were very small. I feel more connected to my neighbors, my community, and feel I have a stake in affecting what is happening.

No matter how insignificant it may seem to design something as simple as a flyer, go find an organization, person, or movement you believe in and offer your help–it’s good for you and better for the movement.

Willem Van Lancker is a designer and tech entrepreneur. In 2012, he founded Oyster, the first Netflix-for-books service, delivering unlimited access to more than 1 million books for less than $10 a month. In late 2015, Google bought Oyster to kick-start books product innovation and business growth. Previously Willem designed products and brands at Google Maps, Ideo, and Apple. He lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn.