More Than Just Red, White, and Blue: Graphic Design and Elections – Does It Work?

Magie Brennan

I dove into California elections much more than I probably should have this past year. For one, I’m not even a resident Californian. I have a Georgia driver’s license, was formerly registered to vote in Minnesota (which I did diligently until I moved to California in 2009), and a member of the Eau Claire County Republican Party in Wisconsin. So, as you can tell, I didn’t vote in the California mid-term elections – was heavily involved – but didn’t vote.

I received a degree in Graphic Design from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and I always wondered if design influenced voters. How effective or ineffective is it?

Of elections past, regardless of who the candidate was, there appeared to be an overall consensus that a limited color palette–red, white, and blue (shocking!)–and very few symbols–stars and stripes (shocking again!)–are the best way to signal a candidates’ “Americanism”.1 Everything faded into the background and the people were tired of boring, mundane “Red for Republican” and “Blue for Democrat”. Add buttons, signs, posters, and stickers that did not match anything, and the message was clear… don’t rock the vote.

Enter 2008. Enter Barack Obama.

It was the way the campaign had transformed the man and the message and the speeches into a systemic branding effort. Reinforced with a coherent, comprehensive program of fonts (Gotham), logos (Pepsi-esque “O”), slogans (hope, change, and other garbage) and web design (modern, streamline, and… blue), Obama was the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand.2 Granted, every presidential campaign since Nixon in ’68 was actively “marketed” to the American public. But never before have we seen such a comprehensive and cohesive design strategy in election history. And for citizens who didn’t necessarily need Democratic social programs–upscale voters, young people–I feel that the novel comfort of that brand affiliation contributed (albeit subconsciously) to his appeal.3 He made it cool to own Obama paraphernalia, and almost everyone had it.

McCain ran with a very dominant military theme. Navy (go figure) and gold, with nautical stars. It was sharp, professional, and slightly aggressive. Given his past career in the Navy, it seemed fitting to use it. However, considering the climate in 2008 towards our stays in Iraq and Afghanistan, I believe that’s where the designer(s) went wrong. Military-influenced design probably wasn’t the best way to grab voters.

In this sense, design prevailed. Obama won, and has branding to last him the rest of his political career (however long or short that may be).

Jump to 2010. California elections. Republicans (limited to Whitman and Fiorina) tried to join the innovative design bandwagon. Fiorina’s campaign chose a modified Futura, a geometric sans-serif typeface and a color palette of red, white, and… orange? I didn’t understand the orange whatsoever. Warm? Fun? The color of an L.A. smoggy sunset? I don’t know. The red/white/orange combination bugged your eyes. I understand the font, but whoever designed it botched it up. It’s not balanced. Her website was shouting with red and orange.

Whitman’s design: poppies, hills, greens, oranges, and organic typeface. It looked like she was selling organic plants or food rather than promoting herself. I felt her designs were all over the place. Some things showed the poppies, some things showed the hills and farmlands. The bumper stickers were all different. There was no consistency, no cohesion. Her website, surprisingly, was boring. Considering the money she put into her campaign, I expected more. I was wrong.

As we know, they lost.

Don’t even get me started on the more local candidates in and around San Diego. In a nutshell, I would have re-designed everything. However, San Diego Republicans were very successful this time around. So, it goes to show that design did not have an influence in local elections. And that’s a relief, because it was bad.

What does this all say? I guess it depends on the person. Obama was “young” and a minority, so he needed to project “cool” and be an “outsider and underdog.” He very successfully did that. Whitman and Fiorina tried to break a mold of their own, but didn’t quite make it.

I’m not saying that a lawn sign is going to convince a bystander to stop and say “Wow, that’s a nice sign. I’ll vote for them.” In fact, some say lawn signs are completely ineffective except to bug your neighbors, be urinated on by dogs, and prime targets for the “occasional kleptomaniac”. However, I firmly believe the design sets the tone for the entire campaign, and therefore needs to be carefully, skillfully, and respectfully strategized – not put on the back burner and thrown together.

Candidates need to remember they’re designing for their constituents, not for themselves. Obama designed to reflect the voter, McCain designed to reflect himself. That’s the rule in the graphic design field: design for your client’s consumers, not for your client. It needs to be the same for politics.

Magie Brennan is a guest contributor to the California Review, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire in May 2010. She is an honorary staff member and freelance graphic designer.

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