katharine gets political (part two): campaign design

Look, I know you’re tired of politics. I’m tired of it. We’re all tired of it. We’re experiencing political fatigue. There’s been non-stop campaigning for what feels like 10 years but has really only been about five. The Republicans have been working tirelessly to boot President Obama out of office since he took the oath. The speculation about who’d replace Bush Jr. began sometime in 2006, if not sooner. The campaigns for 2016 will begin in August 2012. Perhaps by 2016 the existing political structure will implode on itself and the United States will have no more need for a president. But I’m not in the mood to discuss the state of the union, political affiliations, the merits of specific candidates or policies or beliefs or who’s right and who’s wrong. This is about branding and visual identity. This is about advertising.

For funsies, let’s take a look at the presidential campaign logos from the last 25-ish years. Okay, there’s not a lot of real fun to be had because none of these “designs” are fun. Or engaging. Or memorable. In 2004, the insightful and prolific design writer Steven Heller wrote about the The Dreary Art of Presidential Elections. He wrote:

“Regardless of who the candidate is, there appears to be bipartisan consensus that a limited color palette-red, white, and blue-and very few symbols-stars and stripes-are the best way to signal a candidates’ Americanism … when it comes to the buttons, posters, banners, and bumper stickers the platform is clear: Don’t rock the vote.”

Advertising is such a predominate feature in our environment. It is so pervasive and persistent that brand and their agencies are constantly looking new ways to capture our attention, to engage us, and ultimately persuade us buy their products. Products are always changing their package design or trying to tell their brand story in a fresh voice. And it works. We are seduced by the new packaging, we are convinced that these products will improve our lives. (It’s all lies, we come to find out. But c’est la vie.) When it comes to political advertising, the packaging remains the same and the story is always told in the same voice: “Candidate X says he wants nice things for you but here’s a headline from 13 years ago that says he supports baby cannibals and he’s okay with hoodlums setting your house on fire. Do you really want to vote for someone who like baby cannibals and arsonists?” Voters are served the same thing in every election—boring design paired with ludicrous attack ads.

Heller also says THIS:

“…the graphic monotony from campaign to campaign is indicative of the kind of short-sightedness that undermines the American electoral process.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign made a strong visual impact. Regardless of whether the common man understands or will admit to the influence of design, Obama’s logo indicated a fresh approach and a willingness to break out from the same ol’ business as usual design. It was inspired and inspiring. The surrounding typography wasn’t perfect and there were criticisms. (Yes, I can see you squirming in your chair, bursting with rants about broken wha-wha’s and disappointing flibbertigibbets. Put that aside for now.) But baby steps were taken and barriers were broken down.

Mitt Romney’s 2008 logo, with its swooshy striped eagle, gives off that financial institution vibe. He moved away from that for the 2012 election cycle, but, um… I suppose those are people in the R? It’s a weak and non-committal design. The rest of the 2012 players stepped up their design game a smidge, learning from Obama and previous campaigns. Ron Paul opts for a more mature palette but trades the star ‘n’ stripe to Gingrich in favour of some random swoop stroke. Which is still more tasteful than Bachmann’s bacon toothpaste swoosh, but doesn’t mean anything. Adweek gave the GOP candidates’ logos some necessary critique in November 2011.

Wha’ happened, GOP? Why’d you get all John Kerry typography-wise? It’s like you don’t want to win.

Let’s look at the Bush dynasty:

Texas-style slab serif. Boom. Bold sans serif. Boom. Boom. Boom. It’s all “Fuck yeah, Team America. Yee-haw.” It’s bold, it punches you in the face, it’s effective. (Shh. “Airport announcements are still at ‘Threat Level Orange.'” I know. “More like ‘punched America in the face.'” What did I tell you?!) They didn’t mess around with swoops and shooting stars and delicate serifs.

Wait…let’s look at the mish-mash surrounding the Clintons and Gore’s campaigns:

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things beat a Bush. Clinton saw Bush Sr.’s slab serif and raised him a waving flag. Boom. They phoned it in for the 1996 campaign, but everyone else was pretty uninspired that year as well. Hillary tried with the wavy flag but she really needed a sans serif Rodham Clinton punch to secure the win.

Did we just hit on the magical winning design combination for presidential elections?

Bold sans serif + wavy flag graphic = POTUS FTW!

Maybe we’ll find out in 2014. Or maybe design doesn’t influence us as voters as much as it influences us as consumers.

Try thinking of it this way:
Voters = consumers. Politician = product. Votes = dollars. (Note: Dollars are not votes. Corporations are not voters.)

Everybody’s been clamoring for something different for four years. The Tea Baggers (Hey, they started that one.) captured the media’s attention. The Occupiers made some noise. To this point, no one really knows what they want except that something needs to change. And no one really knows how to effectively put change into action. Political campaign advertising seems like a small thing to change, but political campaigns do lead to politicians being elected into a position that could change something. Maybe change is as simple as teaching a campaign volunteer how to use Gimpshop or donating the full font family of Gotham to your favourite candidate. Hoefler + Frere-Jones 2016!


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