What’s in a sign? The visuals of D.C.’s mayor’s race


Clockwise, Christian Carter, Jack Evans, Tommy Wells and Muriel Bowser’s official mayoral campaign signs.

Earlier this week, NBC4′s Tom Sherwood took a look at the number of campaign signs going up around the city. But when I look at signs, I see a lot more than just a name or a slogan. A sign is an indicator of the overall visual tone of a candidate’s campaign, and some work far better than others. There’s not necessarily any real political fallout from these signs, but we’re going to be forced to look at them for months, so let’s have some fun.

Mayor Vincent Gray’s approach to signage is not dissimilar to that of his campaign and leadership strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He didn’t move far from his approach from the 2010 run, which, depending on your outlook, might not be the best strategy. Wednesday night, an interview with WUSA-9′s Bruce Johnson aired in which Gray apologized for everything that happened regarding the alleged shadow campaign that helped him win the election. The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported in July 2012 that “the secret money bought about 10,000 yard signs,” among other swag.

It seems that design might then be something you want to move away from, to me. Those signs were initially designed by Kennedy Communications, a D.C. design firm. The current iterations have a slight tweak, done by campaign manager Chuck Thies, himself, and the new Twitter handle.

As for the originals, Andrew Kennedy, principal of Kennedy Communications said they weren’t particularly complicated. “No magic here. We like to keep yard signs simple clean and easy to read,” he said. “The less busy the better. I’d like to believe we achieved all three.”

Among Gray’s primary challengers, there is a lot of mediocrity to their signs.

Council member Vincent Orange, D-At-Large, can’t seem to get away from the fact that his last name also happens to be a color, even if to a lesser extent than usual. But, he does make it clear that the primary is what he’s trying to win first. The words ‘VOTE APRIL 1′ are splashed across the top, on a white background. The rest of the sign looks like something you’d see at a Syracuse University basketball game, with the underlined slogan ‘leaving no one behind’ at the bottom. Meh.

Council member Muriel Bowser, D-Ward 4, has gone the colloquial route. Instead of a tagline, or a mega informative, crowded presentation, it simply reads “Muriel for Mayor.” All along, she’s touted her origins as a D.C. native from North Michigan Park, and the primarily green with yellow highlights mix of wavy background colors provides a very folksy feel. If nothing else, these signs do well to send the message of what kind of person Bowser is presenting herself as.

One guy who has made a splash is Cristian Christian Carter. His look is what I like to call ‘full presidential.’ There’s no primary date, yet there are two separate logos on the same sign. Carter says he designed it himself. I’ll give him credit though, because he also included his Twitter handle. Heck, I followed.

Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurant/bookstore/venue chain, has kept it super simple. Using an earthier clay tone as his background, there’s no slogan and no date on his signage. This designs particular take on the D.C. flag is a sneaky one. The 3 stars sit casually between the large ‘ANDY’ type and the smaller words ‘for mayor’ underneath, while the two bars slink below like a wave in the ocean, moving outside of the outline drawn within the rectangle. Maybe this is a metaphor for the businessman’s desire to draw outside the lines if he gets in office.

Council member Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, has actually made some changes in 2014. The old yard signs featured a skyline designed to represent his image for a liveable, walkable city. The sky blue background and residential skyline was an image that if nothing else, didn’t look awful on the lawn.

Now, they’ve gone more direct. No D.C. flag, no primary dates, no nothing. Just his name, what he’s running for and his website. He’s also got limited edition scarves coming out, presumably to tackle the soccer fan demographic. “His name stands on its own and isn’t dependent on any other graphic/artwork context,” Communications Director Julia Robey Christian said about the new signs. “Essentially, the simplification of his visual identity is a means to more efficiently and effectively communicate the most important part of our message. … Less is more, if you will.”

But, somewhat shockingly, the Number One Stunna of them all comes from one of the most straight-laced guys on the ballot, Jack Evans. His bold red-background look has a very ‘look at me’ feel in a way that doesn’t read like screaming. And he’s deployed a half-dozen different signs, all with different hashtags highlighting issues that the Ward 2 Council member finds important: ethics, jobs, marriage equality, safe streets and schools. They were designed by intern Daniel Nussbaum.

Credit is due to the Evans campaign for understanding that hashtags aren’t just a Twitter thing, it’s now a broader term for simply spotlighting a something specific. Smart visual strategy.  “The colors and stars on our signs are an ode to the DC flag and represent the pride Jack Evans has for the District. The hash-tags are an innovative display of the issues Jack cares most about, that’s why most signs depict #jobs,” campaign spokesman Jermaine House said in an e-mail.

Overall, nobody has really moved outside of the box this year as far as campaign imagery is concerned. And while some believe that this kind of old-school advertising doesn’t matter at all, you never know. Unfortunately, as far as the District has tried to come in recent years in terms of dealing with corruption and reputation, perception is still reality.

Ironically, my favorite reply from a candidate about mayoral campaign artwork came from Carlos Allen. When asked about what he was using to visually represent himself, he offered up a response that coincidentally,  I think may apply to his chances to win as well.

“Don’t have any,” he said.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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