One evening this past October, around 150 people — a standing-room-only crowd — crammed into a pop-up event space in Northeast Washington. The occasion: a pre-midterms panel discussion on graphic design in politics. "Political design is this relatively obscure sector of design and of the creative universe," Bruce Willen explained to the room. (His Baltimore design agency, Post Typography, hosted the event. Despite the name, the company has no relationship to The Washington Post, although they have previously done some work for us.) "But at the same time, it's work that's really important, and has the power to shape politics, our cities, nations, the places we live and our policies."
Indeed, the smallest details can influence public perception of a candidate. Signs for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, for instance, eschewed the word “for” and instead read: “Stacey Abrams Governor.” The simplicity of the message highlighted the transformational aspect of her candidacy: A win would have made her the nation’s first black female governor. “It’s her image that’s the key image of the campaign, not the logo,” Ben Ostrower, one of the panelists, explained to me later. His D.C.-based firm, Wide Eye, designed the sign.
The history of political design isn’t, at least from a designer’s point of view, particularly impressive. “Historically, you look at campaign materials, and it was probably created at the local print shop,” Willen told me. Graphic design and branding, he explained, was always more of an afterthought in campaigns — a box to be checked rather than a strategy to be pursued.
Ostrower agrees. The reason, he speculated, is that “a lot of that decision-making is driven by consultants, campaign managers and the candidate,” who are “afraid of being assertive on the way they’re perceived, so they fall back on the conventional.” And by conventional he means: red, white and blue. A star and maybe some stripes (especially for military-veteran candidates). The outline of the state where the politician is running. In short: generic and interchangeable.
“There’s so much really bad design in politics,” Erik Wooten, another panelist and creative director at the Stoneridge Group, told me. “So many people that are saying the same thing in the same way.” Wooten’s Georgia-based firm works primarily with Republican candidates, who he finds are particularly sensitive to deviating from the norm and will ask him to “dial back” a design because it might be a little too edgy or too modern. “The thing we run into the most is: I like that option, but can I see it in red?” he noted.
Graphic design in campaigns had a watershed year in 2008 with Barack Obama’s stylish logo and consistent brand aesthetic across his posters, signage and websites. But instead of inspiring originality, the Obama look continues to inspire endless copycats, down to the font. Said Ostrower: “I think it’s done without that much thought: We’re going to use the Gotham typeface because we’re forward-looking and change-y.”
Amid a landscape of often-derivative design, however, the panel participants saw some major bright spots in 2018. One prominent example: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the political newcomer who scored an upset primary victory over the longtime incumbent in New York’s 14th Congressional District and went on to win the general election. Her branding bucked nearly every trend seen in typical campaigns: Designed by the New York studio Tandem, her posters were adventurously multicolored, with a dynamic upward slant to the typeface and — in a nod to both her energy and her Hispanic heritage — an inverted exclamation mark.
Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only candidate to experiment with unusual color schemes. Take Beto O’Rourke’s jet-black “BETO” signs, Texas congressional candidate Veronica Escobar’s hot-pink branding, and political outsider Cori Bush’s purple look for her Missouri congressional campaign.
“People are fed up with the status quo and the established leaders of both parties,” panel member Anjelica Triola, who co-founded the group Creative Caucus, which links graphic designers with campaigns, told me. “A visual identity that challenges that and shows you’re coming in with a new attitude is really important.”
And yet, for all the talk of cool political design work — perhaps catching the eyes of a new generation of voters reared on the polished aesthetics of Apple — there was one huge, bright-red elephant in the room: President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat. The MAGA hat seems to represent the opposite of good design. It’s stodgy, amateurish and — even a bipartisan consensus would admit — ugly. Even so, there hasn’t been a more ubiquitous piece of campaign design in modern history.
“The MAGA hat is brilliant,” said Willen. “It’s terrible, but it’s also brilliant.” Experts cite a number of reasons it worked. For one, it was participatory: Putting on that hat signaled a tangible allegiance to the candidate, much like a sports fan wearing his or her team’s colors. There was also the open-endedness of the slogan, allowing people to arrive at their own interpretation: “What does ‘Make America Great Again’ really mean?” asked Wooten. “It could mean anything to anybody.”
But maybe the clearest way to see its power is by contrasting the hat with the logo of Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton: a clean, bold “H” cleverly layered with an arrow pointing forward. It was creative and evocative; at the time, one headline proclaimed, “It’s official: Hillary Clinton’s logo is actually perfect.” “Hillary’s stuff was immaculate, and her branding was exquisite,” said Wooten. “But it might have just helped highlight the perception that people have of her of being fabricated. Part of the system.”
Trump “created this image of himself as an outsider,” Willen explained, “and having this kind of cheap hat that’s no-bulls--- dovetailed so well with what he was doing as a candidate.” The MAGA hat, in other words, may not be a beautiful piece of design, but it sure was on-brand. “As a designer,” said Willen, “I think sometimes the greatest design is un-design.”
Michael J. Gaynor is a writer in Washington.