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Political Signs: the Bold and the Baffling

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In the next few weeks we’re all going to see an awful lot of political signs. Every candidate has them, from the lowliest office to the highest in the land, and based on the variety of designs there’s no absolute consensus on what makes one effective.

I’ve thought about this before. I’ve even designed quite a few fonts specifically for use in political advertising. I’m also not the only person putting some thought into the topic. There were quite a few articles written about it during the 2008 election, particularly relating to some of the images and poster designs used by the Obama campaign. I was recently brought back to thinking about this subject by a call from a reporter for a major newspaper looking for some expert input on the use of fonts in political campaigns.

A lot of what it takes to market a candidate comes down to branding, and visual representations are key to that, especially in how the candidate’s name and message are converted from raw information to visual form, usually through the use of well-chosen fonts in an appealing layout.

Campaign signs are particularly tricky, because you have to walk a very fine line. The design needs to be original enough to be remembered, but it still has to fit within some familiar parameters do voters can relate to it. A sign has to convey information about the candidate and a feel for the type of candidate he or she is, but can’t bee too crowded or cluttered or it becomes overwhelming and the information gets lost in the clutter.  It needs to be readable at a distance and emphasize the name which will be on the ballot in an unambiguous way.   It’s also good to avoid putting anything unnecessary on the sign which can distract from its impact.

In 2008 we saw campaign marketing influenced by high-end advertising design style and slick candidate packaging with a movement away from traditional style towards a more modern symbolism. In the Obama campaign the logo became more important than the name, and image became more important than message. You ended up with a single letter turned into a symbol as the campaign identifier.  This year we’re seeing a dramatic move in the opposite direction, with designs and marketing themes influenced by the tea party movement and the new radicalism of the right, evoking earlier times and traditional values going back to the 1950s and 1960s and even all the way to the days of the founding fathers.

The result of the political climate bouncing back and forth so quickly is a year with a bizarre mix of campaign styles and strategies which is chronicled in the signage lining our roadways and decorating our front yards.  Everyone is trying to make their mark in the public eye, sometimes with good results and sometimes with results which are pretty awful.

One clear trend is a back to basics motif found on the posters of many candidates this year, probably an influence of the Tea Party movement.  There’s a real effort to harken back to an earlier era, as demonstrated by the very effective traditional posters for Carl Paladino and Mary Lou Serafine shown above.  They have simple, clear sans serif fonts in a stark two color contrast.  The fonts look like Aventine and Myriad which are specifically designed for high readability in large sizes at a distance.  They look like letterpress printed posters virtually indistinguishable from what you might have seen in a campaign in the 1950s or 1960s.  There’s a deliberate avoidance of the full color technology and modern graphic complexity which characterized so many designs in 2008.  I also rather like Paladino’s choice of orange, a common color on letterpress show posters from the 1960s, but not used much today.  He’s also got a pretty strong slogan.

Another interesting example of this retro trend is the poster shown to the right from Carly Fiorina’s campaign for Senate in California.  Fiorina has gone with a 1970s look for her poster and to some degree for her entire campaign.  She even dresses rather like a 1970s fashion icon.  The use of lower case and an extremely thin font on a solid background with elements of the design off center is straight out of a 1970s fashion layout.  It is clearly inspired by the same design trends which made the <a href=”http://www.mediabistro.com/unbeige/the-grandest-hoax-of-all-time-or-of-this-week_b1502″>Rene Chalet</a> font hoax so believable.  It’s great branding and effective as a logo.  It doesn’t work as well as a yard sign or poster because of the poor contrast for everything except the candidate name and the low readability of the sign at any kind of distance.

Then there are the posters where various factors have gone horribly wrong.  I found quite a few which were awful for one reason or another, but settled on three which really stand out and exemplify everything I would put on a poster design “don’t” list.  A good sign needs to have the candidate name and the office he’s running for on it.  Beyond that you should avoid adding more than one other item.  The best to include are either a slogan or a website address, and nothing too long because that means the type will get too small and hard to read.  That’s it.  Anything beyond that is a distraction and distractions kill the effectiveness of the poster.  Remember that your audience is often people driving by in a car and take that into consideration.  Lawson’s poster is also notable for confusing voters by looking like the label for a new herbal supplement (possibly deliberate marketing to California neohippies) and having a long, boring and unreadable slogan.

Some common design choices are particularly bad.  Poorly rendered photographs of the candidate are a major mistake.  Is the candidate’s face going to be on the ballot?  If not, then why put it out there except to gratify their ego and give critics something to draw a moustache on.  Look at the poster for Kristina Lawson.  If that’s the best facial expression you can come up with for your poster, then better to leave your face off.  Another common problem is picking the wrong fonts.  Complex script fonts which overlap are hard to read.  Even worse when you add shadows or outlines or special effects or decorations to them.  It also doesnt help to have text in a color that fades into the background, or to have too many different fonts.  Look at Jay Ramras’ poster from this year’s Alaska primaries.  he makes pretty much all these mistakes.  A number of critics are convinced he lost the election because no one could read his poster or voters were looking for Trey Rampas on the ballot. 

Perhaps most of all, don’t put things on your poster which people can use to make fun of you.  That’s not the kind of publicity you want.  Tea Party populism has led to a lot of people producing amateurish posters where they take themselves too seriously, but the prize has to go to Hawaii’s Ed Justus with his ful-color poster which features a horrifying photo cartoon where he appears with a giant head, plus an unreadable font, a kitschy slogan in a type size too small to read from more than  a couple of feed away and a layout which has everything spaced wrong.  His sign is so annoying I want to get some just so that I can take them out in the back yard and use them for target practice.  Maybe looking like a tourist is a good strategy when you’re running for County Council in Kaua’i, but I can’t believe the local community doesn’t find the cartoonish approach to the campaign somewhat insulting.  We’ll see in a couple of week if the “lovable goofball” campaign strategy works out or if he has to go back to just being the owner of the westernmost bookstore in the United States.

A lot of marketing is about branding, and that’s true in politics as much as anything else.  You want to stand out and you want to be remembered, but you want it to be in a positive way, not because your signs were weird or ridiculous.  The tried and true answer is to go for an image which is strong and visually striking but simple and  traditional.  Stick with clear, readable fonts, strong contrasts and avoid including extraneous material.  Make your sign something people can take in thoroughly in a few seconds while driving by texting on their phone and eating a burrito in their SUV full of noisy children.

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About Dave Nalle