tomorrow is purple

Insights from the “meta data” of 96 portraits of people on Election Night 2012 in downtown LA. 

I was standing in the middle of Grand Park in downtown LA with a pile of fabric in my arms. Ten thousand or more people were there to watch results come in on Election Night 2012.

I was about to ask these people to each tell a visual story about the what the word #tomorrow meant to them while our team snapped a portrait. There were no props, except for some carefully crafted pieces of colorful fabric art.

The fabric, poses and expressions that everyday people chose that night tell colorful stories about dreams, identities, politics and the transcendence of love. When you zoom out, so to speak, and look at all 96 portraits, a hidden truth is revealed.

The truth is: collectively, we believe that #tomorrow is purple.

Or — at least — that’s one way to look at it. And I really like that way.

I believe there is a lesson or two to learn about people, politics and culture in that insight. And, agree or not, there are some good stories along the way.

Why is tomorrow purple?

It’s a conclusion evidenced by data analysis of 96 published portraits by The COLORBOX Project. In 42% of these portraits, people used red & blue together. Purple.

In each portrait there is, of course, a story.

Below, I’ve curated a few of those stories, filling in the details from my personal experience as the producer and creative director for the portrait setup. While they waited their turn, I spoke with each of these people for a few minutes. What I saw in them was beautiful. A tomorrow rich with laughter, aspiration, dreams coming true and, of course, superpowers.

When you look at all the portraits from a “meta data” — story data — perspective, what you quite clearly see is that #tomorrow is purple. While I can’t prove it, I’d like to suggest that, these data reveal something deeper than aesthetic choices. That, contrary to the mainstream dialog, we are all actually more purple than we are just red or just blue.

This piece is written by Sean McDonald, founder of The COLORBOX Project, which is a collaboration of a big team of artists.

Our first story deals with a little superhero.

#tomorrow my dads will make me a superhero

This little boy stood in the middle of ten thousand people in downtown LA on election night 2012 on a night important to his family’s future.

The country was at a potential inflection point in the national debate about gay rights. The two presidential candidates would likely implement steps towards two very different legislative paths for his gay parents.

We snapped this portrait soon after President Obama won his re-election.

There, amidst, people supporting both Red and Blue, a little boy used both colors to represent his tomorrow in his two different portraits. He first posed with our red fabric art. He knew the prompt was “tomorrow” and seemed to understand. Evidently, tomorrow he will be a real life superhero.

He chose red because “duh superheroes wear red capes.” He didn’t associate the color with a political context. But then, when his fathers were going to join him in the next portrait, one of them took a look at the red and asked to trade it in for blue. He said something like, “tonight is a blue cape kind of night.”

#tomorrow, some of us will be sore winners

We started shooting as the sun set, with a couple hours to go until the results would be declared. At least — fortunately, the election was called fairly early and we got a lot of good shots after the results. This, of course, brought out some partisanship in people. At least they were creative.

#tomorrow, we’ll respectfully collaborate

There is a partisan culture that is reflected in people’s use of the symbolic red & blue. But, for as much as we hear about what divides us, during this shoot we saw a lot of what unites people — and how they use the colors to show collaboration, “shaking hands across the aisle” and a transcendent love and respect for one another.

Many couples and groups of friends differed in their politics, yet still showed respect and collaboration. In talking to them, it was intentional. I would ask if their differences meant the couldn’t get along and they would say things like “no of course not.”

Our story data is likely biased because people who are angry or bitter don’t like to be on camera or social media. Still — I’d like to think, at the least, that these stories of collaboration and connection across political affiliations represent the best in us. Our inner purple.

Bi-partisan marriages are sexy. We don’t track the color of people’s clothes yet, but I’m pretty sure this guy is the only person actually wearing purple in the whole shoot.

Let’s sneak a peak behind the portraits — let’s look at the story data.

#tomorrow is purple

That night, we offered 6 colors to choose from: Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, White, Black. But people almost exclusively chose red and blue. This highlights the strength of the correlation between an event / holiday taking place and the way people choose colors

Percentage of portraits featuring each color of fabric art. 96 portraits were indexed; 55% of portraits contained multiple colors of fabric; 44% contained blue and red together.

As you can see — green and yellow were not even selected once and, together, red and blue were the only colors used in 74% of portraits. This two color phenomenon was unique to this event — in our six other shoots we have always seen all colors represented in at least a few portraits.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting: when we stack all these portraits on top of one another — what I call a synthesis visualization— what you see is that, as all the reds and blues mix, a distinctive hybrid is formed. That new color is, of course, purple.

96 portraits of people embodying #tomorrow all super-imposed on top of one another to reveal purple more than any other color

Of course, there are some strong blues in there too, but if you look at the full set of portraits you’ll see most people are mostly center frame. Some of the blue you see on the outside is from the night sky. (But I do wonder, if Republicans had won the White House, would the edges be red? Doubt it.)

The technique used here superimposes the pictures on top of each other like you see here in this example from a shoot we did at Stanford’s

For the Election Night shoot, I stacked the 96 original images and superimposed them. There is some photoshopping, but not overt color adjustments. It was purple to begin with, just darker purple that would be harder to see in detail on low res web images, cell phones, etc.

Tomorrow is Red & Blue

My good friend and occasional collaborator, Alex Hornbake — who has been pretty successful both as a musician and as a hacker, so he gets both the world of art and the world of data — has made the rebuttal that “tomorrow is not purple, it’s just red and blue.”

He is right, in a way. All of those people chose red or blue. We didn’t even have purple fabric there. (We will at the next political shoot, if we do one.) So a more nuanced way to look at it is that our “meta color” as a nation is purple, even if we define ourselves as red team or blue team.

My hope is that seeing ourselves this way helps us behave that way in our discourse, in our culture and, maybe — just maybe — in our government.

Conclusions about #tomorrow

Our findings were both surprising and familiar to me. Surprising in that the partisanship being expressed on the TV stations, whose trucks flanked us on both sides, was not nearly so strong when real people express themselves. And familiar in that, almost a decade ago, my mother (who is deeply involved in Blue politics) gave a speech about how we are all actually purple. It was not until I wrote this post I thought of it again, but, as all sons ought to sometimes admit when they’re older, “you were right, mom.”

There are many more points to explore in this data set and our other shoots, but the point of this piece is this: tomorrow is different to everyone in this country, but we’re all Americans and when we mix together, we’re both Red and Blue but we’re also purple. At least when we talk about tomorrow.

It’s a tomorrow I would like to see come true in our political reality.

Sean McDonald,
Founder, The COLORBOX Project

AND NOW…MORE STORIES! When we analyze data we count each “scene” one time. Sometimes it takes 10 shots to get the one we publish and we don’t want to that to count as 10x of whatever color(s) people choose to use. But that doesn’t limit our team from assembling some more complex stories with the participants. So, for some fun, here are those stories:

This group of friends teamed up to spell “OBAMA.”


We don’t track race / ethnicity (at least not yet) but there is certainly a story about #tomorrow being brown.

portrait interrupted by their candidate of choice winning


It takes a lot of work to make all this possible. First, I’d like to thank my fellow artists on The COLORBOX Project:

  • Royce Gorsuch — principal photographer
  • Elysa Fenenbock — fabric artist
  • Dick Whitney — installation artist / hacker
  • Colin Arndt — photographer
  • Joel Lavold — photographer on Election Night shoot
  • Kasey Mohsen — data analyst

and all of the people who have helped us along the way.

Also, thanks to the people who have edited this piece and, in doing so, added a bit of their own voice to it:

  • James & Linda McDonald
  • Courtney Klein
  • Elke Govertsen
  • Alex Hornbake

Big huge thanks to our host Grand Park LA and all of the hosts of all the shoots we’ve done. You’re the best.

Also, a big thanks to my family: you help pursue my dreams and it means the world to me. Thank you.

Our team that night: Royce Gorsuch, Dick Whitney, Sean McDonald, Joel Lavold, Colin Arndt.