Robyn Kanner doesn’t think of herself as a designer in the traditional sense; instead, you could call her a storyteller, with design being one of the avenues through which she creates.
“I got into storytelling from watching films and reading, and just sort of by big directors and great artists that I really admired,” she said. “And I just kind of wanted to make work like them.”
Recently, Robyn established her own studio, Studio Gradients, but before that, she (and her Studio Gradients team) worked on the Biden-Harris campaign. “The campaign itself was a story of America,” Robyn explained. “Similarly, the inauguration was about communicating a story around unity. I’m an American and find myself highly invested in this country’s direction, and to be able to indicate a vision of that was certainly a thrill.”
Having a hand in the successful election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was an opportunity that Robyn got simply by sending a text message. She’d worked with Rob Flaherty on the Beto for America campaign in El Paso, Texas, so when she heard he’d gone to Philadelphia for the primary, Robyn reached out.
“I texted him saying that I was around and I’d be happy to come up to Philadelphia,” she said. After taking the Amtrak up, she met with some of the team. “We just spent a few days with each other, talking about the country, talking about the work, and talking about how it should sound, how it should feel, and how it should look.”
The type, for instance, was something Robyn felt especially proud of. During the primary, the campaign used Brother 1816, but Robyn felt that lacked the seriousness they needed during the general election. She connected with Jonathan Hoefler, who had made Gotham for Obama’s campaign, and told him her vision—that she wanted to be able to write a song.
“I wanted sort of small, light minor chords, and I wanted one loud major chord,” Robyn explained. They selected Decimal as their major chord font and Mercury as the minor chord, and that gave the team a quick and easily discernable language to talk about the work. “That way, every graphic could be a song, and I could say, ‘The song needs to be louder,’ ‘The song needs to be a little quieter,’ or ‘These chords are working.’ I could talk about type, in the same way, I would talk about a song.”
From graphics and shirts and posters to creative directing the stage design for Lady Gaga, Robyn kept busy during the campaign. But after Biden was sworn into office on January 20th, 2021, she wanted to find a way to have that same feeling again—that feeling of having ten widely different tasks to tackle each day.
“Starting a studio felt natural,” she said. To start Studio Gradients, Robyn joined forces with folks that worked on the Biden-Harris team—Aja Nuzzi, Anna Impson, and Eric Ziminsky. “The studio gives us the ability to collaborate with a bunch of people at once, which was sort of the excitement of the campaign, but it also gives us the ability to harness our own voice and really define who we are.”
Having just launched in February of 2021, Robyn can’t yet share the exciting projects that she and the team have been working on. Admitting that she’s a bit protective of her work, she feels more excited to present the vision when it’s fully ready for somebody to experience. “I feel like art is only yours until you let it go, and then it’s somebody else’s,” she said.
Even just the process
of getting Studio Gradients started was enjoyable, though, and they brought it to life on their site as a kind of mashup between the 1990s internet with the 2020s internet. Robyn has long admired directors like Gus Van Sant and François Truffaut and artists like Jenny Holzer, so in a way, it was her chance to discover her voice by blending her world with her favorite artistic influences.
And now, Robyn admitted, comes the fun part for the studio: doing the work. Not only does she get to do that, but she gets to do it with people she’s excited to partner with. “We’re just artists who really like working with each other,” she said.
“I’m very lucky in the sense that I wake up and make art, and then I do that until I fall asleep, and that’s my life.”