The Democratic National Convention is coming up August 17 in Milwaukee, but with COVID-19 still in full swing in the United States, the live event will be much smaller than it has been in previous years. The Wisconsin governor has already limited attendance to 225 people, and the main attraction, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, isn’t even planning to show up. He’ll accept the nomination from his home state of Delaware.
Donald Trump trails Biden in polls, but he’s proving more resilient than statisticians had thought even just a few weeks ago. Biden needs the DNC to be a hit—to energize his base into the election and defeat Trump. Though there are scant details about how the convention will look, the largely virtual format is the perfect opportunity for the Democrats to shake things up and try something new. So we reached out to a handful of designers to get their wildest ideas: How should the DNC work this year to drum up excitement? Here are their best concepts.
Build a town hall with screens
Our first three concepts are all from Local Projects, the exhibition and media design firm known for projects like the highly immersive 9/11 museum. The first of the firm’s concepts is called By and For the People. It imagines Biden placed onstage alone, but surrounded by several screens with life-size streams of voters.
“In a powerful show of humility, and acknowledging the realities of a socially distant convention, the convention could feature ordinary people onstage alongside every speaker,” the brief explains. “The candidate himself could answer questions and converse with virtual attendees who are streamed live at 1:1 scale.”
Turn the event into an interactive tribute to George Floyd
Alternatively, Local Projects was pondering how to fill the large, empty space of the Wisconsin Center where the DNC is still being held. Its ballroom has a capacity of more than 3,000 people—more than 10 times the number of people who can legally attend. Local Projects’ idea? Turn it into a tribute of people explaining “Why I Protest” in response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.
“We think showcasing the stories and experiences of protesters from the last six months alongside those of earlier generations could acknowledge the spiritual and philosophical kinship the vast majority of Democrats feel with the current peaceful protest movement, even where some may disagree on a particular policy pillar or tactic,” the designers write. “With fewer people on the convention floor, there could be plenty of room for an exhibit featuring accounts from protestors, whose images would appear slightly larger-than-life and raised above the floor.”
Make it a big outdoor party
The first two ideas by Local Projects would drive discourse and dialog. But what about just generating some excitement? For this, the designers imagine something simple but compelling: Outdoor parties held across America. By streaming the convention into our park system and other open spaces, people could gather, distanced and with masks, to celebrate their candidate collectively, with the sort of energy that can only be generated by many human bodies sharing a space.
Local Projects takes the idea one step further by embracing city pride. “They could feature regionally specific foods and sports—we could imagine viewers shooting goals in ice hockey rinks in Wisconsin or feasting on Philly cheesesteaks in Pennsylvania,” the firm writes. “The DNC could even invite different marching bands, socially distanced, to take part in a coordinated, countrywide parade featured at interstitial moments throughout the convention.”
Make it an auditory experience
One idea, from the experience design firm ICRAVE, would be to host the DNC in an online audio space, like the platform High Fidelity. It would allow people to have the casual conversations, gossip, and caucuses that will likely be lost with limited in-person attendance. (ICRAVE’s CEO Lionel Ohayon doesn’t have any formal business affiliation with the company; he’s a friend and a fan who’d tested it in the past.)
I tried using High Fidelity through my browser, and it felt like being in a 2D version of the Clue mansion. As people around me spoke, I heard their voices, intimately and positionally, in my headphones.
The company dubs these rooms “online audio spaces for virtual gatherings.” Dragging your avatar through the space allows you to jump in and out of conversations, much like in real life. Through this lens, High Fidelity is a convincing stand-in for real-life networking, which is so crucial in politics. You can tour a space, eavesdropping and jumping in and out of conversations. Such a platform would allow fundraisers, activists, and politicians to hobnob just as they do IRL.
High Fidelity is audio only, yes. So why not host the DNC in, say, Fortnite instead, which would give people 3D avatars? It’s not a bad idea, but as Philip Rosedale, cofounder and CEO of High Fidelity points out, Fortnite can’t actually scale. “Computers still aren’t fast enough. You hear about Fortnite music events, and that’s 100 people or less, with people divided up randomly on a server. It can be closer to 30 people . . . or even 10-20 that you can see at any time,” says Rosedale. On the other hand, High Fidelity can scale to include hundreds of people across miles of space (the company hosted a party on a virtual Burning Man playa in the past). And in the coming months, the platform plans to expand to support thousands of people.
Put Biden on Twitch
The final idea comes from Mike Swartz, founder of the digital design and branding firm Upstatement. He thinks that if an in-person event is going to be so poorly attended that it will feel empty, the DNC should lean fully into the digital side, and leverage the energy of social network platforms instead.
“It seems like there’s a big opportunity,” Swartz says of the DNC. “They’d be smart about thinking of it as a more participatory activity . . . not getting your butt into Milwaukee, but how it would do as a more Twitch-style experience. I could see how that could go off the rails, but that would democratize this.”
Swartz believes the DNC speeches, including Biden’s, should happen on Twitch. Twitch is a platform known for live-streaming video games. But what makes it different from YouTube is viewer participation. A feed of comments is built so intrinsically into Twitch’s design that the viewer is a participant who can affect the flow of the broadcast.
“Commenting steers the ship a bit. It reaches a crescendo and you can’t ignore it,” says Swartz. “You can have a hostile audience in Twitch, which is something other platforms have mitigated, which is a good thing in the spirit of democracy.”
Could Biden get trolled by an army of alt-righters? Definitely—although one could think of seeding invites to supporters to offset some of that risk. But as Swartz argues, that conversation and back-and-forth debate is what democracy is supposed to be founded upon. And the ease and fluidity of digital platforms could help bring more voices into the fold.
“I think you could ironically have more real conversations, if you weren’t kissing babies and gladhanding, and were talking to voters who can push you on issues instead,” says Swartz. “I think this is all about access to be honest. And the traditions we have, like the DNC, are more inspired by 18th- and 19th-century politics than what we’ll see in the future.”
Keep Biden at home
This last idea is from Senongo Akpem, design director at the government services software company Nava. His suggestion for the DNC is dead simple: Just have Biden and other speakers participate from their homes on Zoom, or whatever simple streaming service they like.
As he explained, we’re “pretty much primed” at this point for the low-fi, super casual Zoom aesthetic. And if the DNC can avoid the pitfalls in which celebrities hole up in their mansions while singing Imagine, the strategy could do a lot to humanize the Democratic Party. After all, we’ve all seen the inside of our boss’s home at this point. Why not spend the evening in Biden’s?