At 4.55pm on Monday the WhatsApp group of a collective of leftwing graphic designers started pinging excitedly after one member noticed something.
The chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, had given his speech to the Conservative party conference in front of a bright blue screen – almost a replica of screens used for computer-generated imagery (CGI).
By 5.23pm the group, Labor Party Graphic Designers, had tweeted a video of the chancellor, created by 22-year-old collective member Christian Walker, with news footage of the drop in the pound precipitated by his mini-budget rolling behind him.
On Tuesday the background had not changed, and the group tweeted a video of the home secretary, Suella Braverman, against the opening of the Star Wars film The Force Awakens, with the words: “Lessons learned by the Conservative party yesterday: 0”.
Convinced the screen would be changed for the prime minister’s speech, they held tight. But as Truss walked on stage on Wednesday – and stood in front of the same blue background – they got to work. “It was a race against time,” says Kevin Kennedy Ryan, who runs the group’s Twitter account. “We wanted to get it out as quickly as possible – I think we ended up posting just a couple of minutes after she finished.”
The video, which shows Truss opening her speech against a backdrop of eating food bank queues, sewage spewing into the sea, patients on trolleys in hospital corridors and graphs showing the increase in household bills and the falling pound, was accompanied by the words: “ Political tips! Don’t stand in front of a bluescreen if you’re in the middle of crashing the country.”
Viewed 1.5m times since, Kennedy Ryan says the group wanted to create mischief (“there’s a lot of nuances to political communications, but winding up the other side is just great”) but – like all political design – there was a serious message. “We wanted to juxtapose this incredibly managed and polished impression that they were trying to present with the stark reality of what’s actually happening in this country,” he says.
Sana Iqbal, a member of the group, says good graphic design is a powerful tool to help amplify a political message. “It’s a great vehicle to persuade people, influence people, emotionally touch their hearts and minds – but it can’t win an election. You need substance at the core,” she says.
Labor Party Graphic Designers are a collective of mainly young creatives who support the party, but are not officially affiliated with them – as Kennedy Ryan puts it: “We’re just a bunch of nerds who do this in our spare time.”
The set-up works for Labor because they get instant, memeworthy and shareable content without having to produce it – and the ability to distance themselves if content oversteps the line, argues Iqbal. But it works for the creatives too: “We don’t have to stick to any guidelines. Nobody’s going to tell us off.”
Powerful political graphic design is, of course, not the preserve of the left. One of the most impactful political images in history came from 1978, in anticipation of the general election the following year – when Saatchi & Saatchi created the poster Labor Isn’t Working, featuring a long queue for unemployment benefit.
As the former Saatchi & Saatchi art director Martyn Walsh recalled it, “every newspaper put it on their front page, every TV station had it on the news […] By the end of the first week, both the poster and the name Saatchi & Saatchi were known in every household in Britain.”
The poster linked the Conservative party with strong design, but imagery has always been a fundamental part of the labor movement, argues Chris Burgess, the head of exhibitions and public programs at Cambridge University library and an expert on political posters and imagery.
“Throughout its history, the Labor party has produced images creating a really strong identity,” he says, from the earliest images made for the labor movement such as Mothers Vote Labour, created by Gerald Spencer Pryse in 1919, to the upbeat image of Harold Wilson with a thumbs-up in 1964. “But while the party has often been at the forefront of political design, traditionally they just didn’t have as much money to put up as many posters.”
Kennedy Ryan argues this is still the case, but Labor-supporting creatives are capitalizing on the digital revolution to produce fast, cheap and instantly shareable political graphic design.
“They’ve got the cash, but we’ve got the culture,” he says. “We’re using the human resources and the creativity of the people who want to fight for a better world, where the Conservatives, you know, have to pay people to go to their birthday parties and stag dos and do their graphic design.”