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For California’s midterm Election Day Culture Report, Voice of San Diego spoke with an array of designers, art directors, political consultants and digital art teachers to round up their insights on political design, campaign mailers and (yes) yard signs.
Campaign art and design has transformed over the last decade, and in some ways, it has defined the decade. In those 10 years, the country has seen the entirety of the Obama administration, the election of Donald Trump, a continual war, repeated humanitarian crises and more. Also, those 10 years have also delivered a near-total equalization of technology, design and reach: It’s no longer just the most rich and powerful messengers who can get their designs into the public conversation.
“I think about the meme-ification of the world and how, for so many of us, memes are an introduction to political ideas,” said Australian visual artist and designer Matthew Revert. “Love them or hate them, memes have developed a level of visual communication that staggers me.”
Staggering, yes. But what makes political design good? Voice of San Diego heard from seven experts: an art director and cover designer for a local independent weekly, a designer from the opposite side of the world, several local political consultants and designers, an art director for a major national progressive publication and an art teacher.
“The power of having a good design is that it’s persuasive,” said San Diego CityBeat’s art director Carolyn Ramos. “It’s essentially packaging a candidate. Examples like the Obama “HOPE” poster, and the simplicity of a MAGA hat (clean serifs on red) really work because you feel them in style or efficiency, respectively.”
“I think it’s simple. First and foremost. It’s not busy. There’s some white space in it.” That’s Jen Tierney, a political consultant in San Diego. “Frankly, that’s always the biggest fight with candidates, because it’s personal. Everything you design has their name on it, and often their photo on it, so it’s very personal to them. And they often want to say as much about themselves as they can in one place, and that doesn’t always make for a great design.”
Digging into the efficacy of political design is, ultimately, a dismal task: “I can tell you there’s a big difference between ‘good’ and ‘effective,’” said Tom Sherard, former mayor of Del Mar and decorated political consultant. “Make sure it can be consumed and understood driving past it at 45 mph, in a 30-second television commercial or in the time it takes to carry a mailer from the mailbox to the trash can.”
Shepard Fairey’s iconic “HOPE” poster comes up often when discussing successful campaign design. Fairey’s piece, however, was essentially a work of fan art rather than the work of a staff of a campaign or publication. Graphic designers work to visually tell the story of a candidate (or in journalism, to support the ideas of the publication).
“My goal when I design for a political story is to reflect the stance of the writer or editor,” said CityBeat’s Ramos. “If the writer is challenging a reader, the art should do the same. If it’s something more general though, like one of our voter guides, I design for mass appeal.”
Adam Vieyra, digital art director at Mother Jones (and formerly a designer at the San Diego Union-Tribune) similarly approaches a project. He researches and digs to find the story before even beginning the ideation and drafting stage of a design.
“I definitely think a lot about the audience whenever I design something. In magazines and newspapers, that often means thinking about where the design will live,” he said.
Kelly Hamilton teaches high school digital art in San Diego. “I teach business identity, which is essentially what we’re looking at. They’re trying to communicate an identity — a feeling — with a sign,” Hamilton said. “In advertising you only have a split second to capture people’s attention, so the really bold colors, the clear, blocky letters. That’s what we see consistently.”
But political creative director Gary Thomas firmly believes in direct mail as the best method to reach voters. “First, I have to get your attention,” Thomas said of his design process. “I have a half a second to give you a headline or an image to make you want to read further. Second, I have to walk you through the messaging in a clear and simple way. This is where so many designers fail.”
What about the negative ads, though? When asked what design changes are made based on a campaign’s transformation as time progresses, Tierney lifts the veil a little on negative ad design. “I think the change that you make, graphically, is negative to positive, or positive to negative. You use different colors — different techniques — when you’re trying to make a positive point about a candidate than you do if you’re trying to make a negative point about an opponent. You might use a dark photo of the candidate, a shadowy photo. Thicker, heavier fonts.”
Psychologically, a negative design and the traditional positive design both rely on a mixture of color theory and patriotism, and sometimes subvert it. For example, the color red runs the gamut of sexualized, violent, powerful, biologically vital and deadly, according to a roundup of studies by Scientific American. But its use in political design is deeply ingrained. A candidate or measure challenging the patriotic spectrum has to nail it.
In San Diego, the SoccerCity (Measure E) vs. SDSU West (Measure G) yard sign war brings the design debate home. SDSU West follows the rules: a patriotic, color-theory observant red, mimicking the formal design of an academic institution and ample white space. The SoccerCity signs, however, seem to push the rules. They’re busier, with loud fonts, yellow accents and a soccer ball. Whether either will impact results remains to be seen, but both have established a feel for each campaign.
Vieyra points to New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s logo. “It’s clean and beautiful but also full of subtext. The inverted exclamation point, the speech bubble, the rising baseline, the colors — those are all smart decisions that help tell people who the candidate is and help tell her story.”
Which political designs stand out for you?