Randy Stearns was old enough to drive, but not old enough to vote, when he put up signs for Walter Mondale in the mostly Republican city of Mountain View, California, in the run-up to the 1984 presidential election. While studying printmaking at Northwestern, he says, he did a little volunteer work. In 1992, while working as a freelance graphic artist and temp, he called voters from Evanston on behalf of Bill Clinton. Politically involved? Sure. Influential? Not so much.
But today, as founder of Articulated Man, which specializes in Web design for progressive political candidates and causes, Stearns gets to be both. Though it has no physical office, the firm has seven full-time employees, including Stearns's wife and fellow Northwestern alum, Stacey Bashara. In just three years it's amassed 50-plus clients, including would-be presidents Bill Richardson and Joe Biden, incumbent senators Dick Durbin and Barbara Boxer, challengers Rick Noriega (Texas) and Jay Nixon (Missouri), and groups like VoteVets.org, which is famous as a target of Rush Limbaugh's abuse.
"When you volunteer, you have to volunteer where you are," says Stearns, reflecting on his earlier political involvement. "With the Internet you can make a difference wherever it will make a difference."
It took some time for Stearns to get where he is now. In 1993 he designed interactive CD-ROMs and Power Point presentations as the production manager at Gemini Consulting, where he learned about the Internet from colleagues. When his office closed, he joined a Web start-up called Extreme Fans that offered sports news, commentary, fantasy sports advice, and interactive features like contests and chat rooms. AOL bought the site, changed its name to Real Fans Sports Network, and sold it to CBS Sportsline. One of its founders, Hank Adams, went on to launch Ignite Sports Media, which provided up-to-the-minute sports stats and scores for various online portals. That company later merged with Sportvision, best known for the yellow first-down lines it projects on the field during football broadcasts. Stearns stuck it out until Sportvision dumped its Internet side in 2004 and his job ceased to exist. "I could move to New York—most sports stuff is not happening here in Chicago—or go to a big Internet firm like Sears.com," he says. Instead he decided to strike out on his own: "I knew how to design, I knew a lot of people, we'd see what opportunities came up."
Articulated Man was officially incorporated in June 2004 with two employees: Stearns and Brandon House, a designer who'd worked with Stearns at Sportvision. Their first clients were involved in auto racing, football, and the arts. (The company continues to take some nonpolitical work.) Eric Carbone, who'd been Stearns's boss at Extreme Fans and now puts together rapid-response and other Web sites to involve the public in the political process, was his first political client. Before the birth of Articulated Man, Stearns had helped Carbone build a site for Wesley Clark's presidential campaign. Once the firm was up and running, Carbone hired him for more projects. One of their earliest collaborations was zellout.com, which urged Georgia's nominally Democratic senator Zell Miller to switch parties after he gave a keynote speech at the 2004 Republican convention. Today Carbone runs Internet operations for Joe Biden's presidential campaign and continues to hire Stearns for projects. Articulated Man, he explains, "really listens to what you're trying to accomplish and then figures out the best way to a) make it look amazing and b) make it easy to use for your visitors. I never feel like I have to translate what I'm trying to do into techspeak with them. That is huge when you're trying to do something fast and online."
Another early client was the National Jewish Democratic Council, for which Articulated Man made four short episodes of "Bubbie vs. the GOP," a cartoon modeled on the popular parodies JibJab was doing. In one, a stereotypical Jewish grandmother extols her wonderful sons—a Hell's Angel and a porn star—but clams up about her third, a Republican. (You can still watch all four episodes at victoryfund.njdc.org/bubbie.)
The company's start-up year didn't end well for the Democrats, but John Kerry's presidential defeat fueled business for Web developers, Stearns says: "People were very angry, and they just wanted to do more. Everybody started up a company."
Articulated Man's first actual campaigning client was Antonio Villaraigosa, during his run for mayor in Los Angeles's 2005 election. His was the first political site to use dynamic Flash: instead of just rotating preset text and images, it allowed campaign staff to make updates in real time. "That feature became our calling card to a degree—people would ask for that," Stearns says. Villaraigosa went on to become the city's first Latino mayor since 1872.
In 2005 Articulated Man revamped the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee's Web site, which won a Silver Davey award for overall design and was a Webby honoree the following year. That connection continues to open doors.
Bashara, who's been with Stearns since graduating from Northwestern in '91, signed on as communications director in 2006, after 13 years in direct-response television advertising at A. Eicoff & Company. That year the company nearly doubled its client base and worked for successful candidates in several high-profile races, including Nick Lampson, who replaced Tom DeLay in Congress, and Ben Cardin, who filled Paul Sarbanes's U.S. Senate seat from Maryland. Some of Articulated Man's counterparts think their work turned certain close states, "like Virginia in 2006," Bashara says. But Stearns hesitates to give his company too much credit. Web sites, he says, merely lay the groundwork for a campaign, giving candidates "a way to communicate their message early and begin the organizing/fund-raising process."
But it is important that they be inviting and user-friendly. "Campaign sites used to be for wonks," says Bashara. "Now they're an important fund-raising tool. They can't just appeal to the netroots and the bloggers. They've got to appeal to Joe Constituent"—and to donors. "Every campaign has big donors who are early adopters," Stearns explains. "They'll say, 'Can't I just put my donation on your Web site instead of writing a check?' And since they'll be looking at the site, it had better look good on a big plasma monitor."
Articulated Man continues to work on rapid-response campaigns as well. A recent client, the advocacy group It's OUR Healthcare!, collected text messages urging California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger not to cut health-care funding and displayed them on a 9-by-12 mobile electronic billboard 150 feet from the capitol building in Sacramento. Articulated Man had to design a Flash application to display the hundreds of text messages in an engaging way in close to real time. (See mobileactive.org/update-california-health.)
The company also works on more light-hearted projects: one client is Dogs 4 Democrats, a Chicago-based e-commerce site that sells i bark for barack T-shirts and dog-poop bags that say mission accomplished. But there are some jobs the firm won't take. Bashara recalls a phone conversation with a potential client who was running for mayor of San Diego. "We'd been talking for maybe 15 minutes when he mentioned that he was a Republican. I said, 'We only work for progressives.' There was a long silence." But if a Republican with a liberal bent made a strong pitch, Stearns says, "we'd take them seriously enough to do some research and think about it."
Though he's chosen sides, Stearns remains critical of his own. "We're incredibly fortunate that George W. Bush was such a bad president. Otherwise the Republicans would have enjoyed the culmination of 30 years of trying to make good policies look bad, and solidified a long-term majority. The Democrats are skating by on pure luck. This is an important time to crystallize everything. They have to come up with a better message—a better way to talk about abortion, for instance," he says. "Sometimes Democrats seem emotionally bereft, lacking in passion. But they do [have passion], it just doesn't come out in public." Articulated Man does its part, sometimes simply by turning a series of wonky bullet points into an interactive photo feature.
"It's an exciting time to be in this business," says Bashara. "We come from agnostic businesses. Now we can believe, and believe out loud."v
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