Once you start noticing the backgrounds of things, it can be hard to stop.

Bringing the background to the foreground

Once you start noticing the backgrounds of things, it can be hard to stop.

There’s this wonderfully strange scene in the 90s rom-com Meet Joe Black, where the doe-eyed leading couple profess to liking each other before walking in opposite directions down a busy New York City sidewalk. Over the course of an agonizing minute and a half, they exchange a series of ill-timed parting glances, the camera repeatedly panning back-and-forth between the two, capturing each moment of anguish. It’s so over-the-top, the film briefly dips its toes into complete absurdity. I’ll avoid any spoilers, but it’s worth watching to the end to see how things turn out for our young lovers.

What I love about this scene is, in its repetition and subversion from standard pacing, what would normally go unnoticed suddenly steals the show. Your eye wanders to the neon pizza sign, the ambulance, the extras. Wait, did that guy in the pink shirt just walk by twice? Is Brad walking while the sign says “Don’t Walk”? The background asserts itself and takes over. And really, any background can be a foreground if you just give it a chance.

Yes, that same extra walks by twice.

But, of course, if you knew my background, you’d expect me to say that. See, I make backgrounds for a living. Although my official title at WeTransfer is “Frontend Developer,” with my job, the party’s in the back.

The most well-known of our bunch of beautiful creative tools is wetransfer.com. Where you can go to effortlessly share big files while a series of big, bold backgrounds dazzle your screen. We call these backgrounds “wallpapers” and they’re a mix of works by artists we like, musicians we collaborate with, ads to keep the lights on, and causes we support.

When we make wallpapers, the goal is to find that sweet spot between a background that won’t take a user out of their flow, leaving the door open for engagement. A good example is one I recently worked on for Adidas. The campaign was focused on the Nite Jogger, a revival of a classic sneaker from the 80s designed for–you guessed it–jogging at night, with reflective surfaces for visibility. The updated shoes are modern but not-too-flashy, that is until you shine a light on them and they shine right back. Background shoes, ready to step up.

We built a few interactive wallpapers for the Nite Jogger campaign, including the “Beat Box.” Got some files you need to send? No sweat, the transfer-window is in the foreground. But, if you’ve got a minute, the wallpaper lets you use that time to compose a beat (if you’ve still got love for street, still). Go ahead, give it a try.

Another one we’re really proud of is the wallpaper we built for the Klabu Foundation. Klabu is a non-profit aimed at bringing sports to refugee camps, with the first being in Kalobeyei, Kenya. Launched this year, the first Klabu is already 8000-members strong, giving refugees from all different backgrounds the tools to connect and move forward. Klabu’s business model, rather than simply seeking donations, is based on selling sports apparel, with beautiful designs by The Kennedys, the creative accelerator of Wieden + Kennedy. 

For this campaign, we wanted to widen the boundaries of what a normal wallpaper might look like. But how?

Combining the incredible photos W+K compiled (shot by former Kennedy Coco Olakunle), a documentary film, and the actual story of Klabu, we created a multi-faceted feature that still lives in the background of a standard WeTransfer window. 

And it paid off. Users from all over the globe decided to take a break from their transfers and enter the world of Kalobeyei. Many even decided to support the cause and bought their own apparel, further proof to us that this background/foreground thing can be pretty powerful.

Dutch musician Pip Blom recently described her method of song-writing to Clash magazine: “I’ll watch a documentary while playing my guitar. My idea behind that is by focusing on something else, I just start to play stuff. When I play something on my guitar that stands out more than the documentary does, then that becomes something I should use.” 

Or, in other words, when a background comes to the fore, that’s when the real magic happens.