Case Study: They Don't Work For You
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.
On April 17, 2013, 45 U.S. Senators voted to block the Manchin-Toomey bill to enact common sense gun control legislation that was supported by 90% of American voters. Outraged, we created TheyDontWorkForYou.org, a tool for digital activism.
We began by distilling a very noisy conversation into its core truth: these senators voted the way they did because they don't work for the American people, they work for the NRA, which works for the gun industry whose sole purpose is to sell more guns. We made it easy to share this simple, provocative message for the millions of people who felt the same way we did. We wanted our voices heard.
Within two days of launching the site had 30,000 unique visitors and by the end of the week, more than 80,000. We were featured on AdWeek, Fast Company, MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry and were interviewed live on Current TV’s The War Room. We watched in real time as tens of thousands of people scrolled through all 45 slides and tweeted to every single senator, sometimes multiple times. People took to Facebook, posting the website on their senators’ pages, asking them why they weren't working for them. This was our measure of success.
The project brief was to distill a very noisy, emotional conversation about gun violence and legislation down to a clear piece of communication that allowed people to take action.
Following the Manchin-Toomey vote we received a very angry email from a colleague, a 70 year-old grandmother. She was outraged and wanted to do something that let these senators know that they were going to be held accountable for misrepresenting her and the 90% of Americans who backed the bill. Wanting to communicate her fury and disappointment over the situation, she suggested we create buttons that had a picture of each senator and the words “Child Killer” on them since buttons and posters were the last political tools she had used.
We asked ourselves what does activism look like in 2013? What does a digital, interactive political poster look like? How do we take the political buttons of the 60’s and 70’s and translate the action of wearing your beliefs on your jacket to a digital era? What is the social media equivalent of a political button? And how do we make the politicians who claim to work for the people accountable for their actions?
The goal of this project was to build a digital tool for Americans who were not being represented by the senators for whom they voted. Our audience was as broad as possible—the American public—and they were furious. 90% of voting Americans supported basic background checks for gun purchases. This included not just liberals but conservatives, hunters and many members of the NRA.
When we created this piece a year ago, digital activism relied primarily on online petitions, long-winded websites or videos –often created by large organizations such as CREDO and MoveOn.org. These forums are important, but we felt we needed to disrupt the existing conventions in order to get our message across.
Development and production/execution budget: Pro bono
Our electoral system is based on the belief that the people we elect are working in our best interests. So it’s deeply unsettling to learn that the people you’ve elected aren’t working for you, but for the special interest groups that fund their election campaigns and keep them in office. The Manchin-Toomey vote made this abundantly clear and we wanted to expose this core truth.
This realization informed how we approached the project and how we crafted the communication, pairing simple images with a clear message for a powerful interactive experience designed to capitalize on social media behavior.
This project deliberately played outside the bounds of market research, so no formal research in the form of user, quantitative or qualitative testing was conducted.
However, research in the form of content creation did play a huge part in what drove us to design, produce and launch this project. Researching the content for this site was absolutely heart-wrenching. We spent hours reading stories about the kids of Sandy Hook, as well as many other kids affected by gun violence. We looked at these kids’ faces on our screens and said to ourselves: This shouldn’t have happened. We can do better. When we put the six images of the teachers from Sandy Hook together we looked at them and said: “They’re all women. And half of them are our age.” We read stories about teachers who hid their kids in closets and whispered: "I love you." We read stories about kids found wrapped in the arms of the teachers who literally lost their lives trying to shield their students with their bodies. In this moment where they undoubtedly feared for their own lives, they were still thinking about how to protect their kids. And we thought – fuck. This is why we're doing this. THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. This has to change.
We were frustrated and furious and we responded in the way that we know how, through visual communication and storytelling. What’s interesting to us as designers is that we’re not using any of the usual tropes of activism or web language. There are no pictures of guns and we don’t even say that guns have killed these kids. You have to click on their names and go to an external site to find out what happened to them. There are no shiny big buttons to click and the site is long. You have to scroll to the bottom to get to the crux of our argument: that senators don’t work for you because they work for the NRA and the gun industry. When we launched we watched on Twitter in real time as people scrolled through the site and tweeted to all 45 senators.
We distilled the conversation down into one succinct message, and then paired each senator who voted no with a child victim of gun violence in the last year. The pairings were very deliberate: many mirror each other in little ways. Some of the kids look like they could be the senators’ children or grandchildren. The use of repetition further strengthened our message.
All of our design choices were purposeful including the choice to making a statement about gun violence without showing a single gun.
In addition to the obvious political conversation, we were hoping to engage the design community in conversation around “What is the interactive equivalent of a provocative political poster?”
The research phase of this project was the most challenging. We attempted to research every child who was killed by gun violence in the previous year. We started with the Sandy Hook children because it was such a high profile incident, but our nation's epidemic is so much larger. Every single day children and adults die in this country due to gun violence.
We had a very specific set of criteria for the children who had died: each must have been killed in the last year and it must have been from an incident where stricter gun control laws would have helped to prevent his or her murder. (These criteria excluded a staggering number of children accidentally shot by other children).
We had a simple idea, we executed it quickly, and it made a difference. We helped many different people from very different walks of life use our tool to make their voices heard. For individuals, They Don't Work For You was a platform to voice concerns, frustrations and disappointments, and to demand action. Digital teams within CREDO and MoveOn.org reached out to us and said, “Wow, why haven’t we done something like this yet?” The project also gave the media a reason to keep the gun control debate in the news cycle. For us, it was an opportunity to use design for change.
This project far exceeded our expectations. The site had more than 80,000 unique visitors within the first week (to date there have been more than 110,000 unique visitors), was featured on three national television shows and was shared across the entire world. We watched on Twitter in real time as thousands of people scrolled through the site and clicked on every single one of the senators’ Twitter pages. Senator Kelly Ayotte and other senators saw dramatic drops in approval ratings in the wake of the vote, in part because we had given a form and a voice to many very frustrated Americans. It was an incredibly humbling and eye-opening experience.
The most profound outcome of this project was the realization that individuals truly can make a difference. Design is an incredibly powerful tool and, when wielded properly, can affect great change. Although this is a common maxim, we experienced it firsthand through creating They Don't Work For You.
Comments from the Jury
“I was struck with how upfront, gutsy and guerrilla this campaign was. For citizens in today’s politically charged media setting, it’s nearly impossible to get your voice heard. This effort confronted a complex topic and deployed design and technology to directly target the issue. In this case, the audience is U.S. Senators and the message is clearly aimed at taking action around gun control legislation.” —Dana Arnett
“In a time when many of us struggle with emotions with regards to gun control and the gun violence in our country, few of us take action at scale. The designers are to be commended for developing a solution quickly that makes a bold statement at a broader level and brings the issue down a level with detailed information about our leaders and the victims. While I admire what they’ve done, I question the effectiveness of the call to action. Honestly, it was hard to judge this piece without being clouded by my own emotions on the topic. But I do appreciate the quick and bold action these designers took.” —Kate Aronowitz
“It is frustrating that politicians aren’t standing up to the NRA or gun manufacturers to address gun violence. They Don’t Work for You was a provocative visual engagement illustrating what politicians aren’t doing in support of common sense gun law legislation.” —Cameron Campbell
“We talked a lot about this one. Ultimately we rewarded the creators for stepping up and taking action in a short window of time around an important issue.” —Joe Gebbia
“They Don't Work for You was among the most debated pieces in the competition. It is a quick shot at Senators who accept money from the NRA. The design is appropriate but not paradigm breaking. The approach is shocking but ultimately one-off. The jury, however, wanted to honor the effectiveness of designers who empower themselves to be activists on a shoestring budget and on a moment’s notice.” —Jennifer Kinon
“This project generated a great deal of debate among the jury. Fast and arresting, the campaign works by suggesting a causal relationship between a group of conservative senators and a group of gun violence victims. Where it’s true that there is a relationship, the campaign deliberately makes that relationship appear to be a direct one, in order to generate outrage, and then, hopefully, action. The device is perhaps more hype then effective catalyst for awareness; however, the fact that the project draws attention to the under-represented side of an unbelievably broken national debate, justifies the tactic.” —Jeremy Mende
“I admire the designer-as-activist mindset. We need more of that. I’m also impressed by how quickly the site was produced and with how few resources. But for me, this solution also raises many unanswered questions. Without a doubt, the project generated tremendous media attention, but is ‘buzz’ a valid goal if it doesn’t bring about the change it seeks to promote? If the site is a tool, shouldn’t it be easy to look up your specific senator, rather than scrolling through alphabetically ordered slides? Are there ethical considerations about using the names and images of minors to make a political point without their parents’ consent? In some instances the children portrayed were slain by illegally obtained guns—a tragedy beyond the influence of the bill (which I support) and the senators voting against it (whom I do not). I’m sympathetic to the impulse and the cause, but am ultimately left wanting a more resolved and effective solution.” —Christopher Simmons