Designers get political: how graphics are disrupting voter apathy

obama-hope-poster-design-aiga-300In 2008, Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster unified the grassroots movement that would help secure the White House for Barack Obama. Fairey’s iconic image served as an inspiration for young voters, and became a symbol for the values and ideals of Obama’s campaign. The poster became an instant design classic, and in turn vaulted Fairey’s career from local graffiti artist to mainstream graphic designer.

This time around, the tones of the presidential campaigns are decidedly less idealistic. Frustration, tension, and fear dominate the political landscape, symbolically represented in the design of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat. Though in its own way, the headgear, like the “Hope” poster, immediately went viral and has since been repurposed 100 times over through memes and online image generators. 

With so much at stake in this election, designers are taking a stand in the language they speak best—graphics. A host of designers are even selling their own subversive versions of Trump’s ball cap, with editions ranging from “Make America Gay Again” to “Make Metallica Great Again” to “Make America Native Again”—the final one by Navajo designer Vanessa Bowen, who told ABC News she repurposed the phrase “as a way of starting a conversation about the problematic history behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, and to raise awareness for marginalized indigenous peoples in the U.S.”

Jessica Walsh, of Sagmeister & Walsh, was compelled to stage her own typographic intervention outside of Trump Tower with fellow designer Timothy Goodman. Together they protested Trump’s vow to both build a wall along the Mexican border and ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. “We wanted to do something that stood up to Trump’s intolerance, so we built a wall of kindness around Trump Tower with our message, ‘Build Kindness, Not Walls.’ We simply cannot shut out people based on religion, ethnicity, race, gender, or sex,” says Walsh. “Instead of building walls and creating fear, we need to build more kindness, love, and acceptance in our country.’’

Walsh has since developed several other satirical design strategies to combat Trump’s messages, while also disrupting the apathetic malaise that has overcome so many voters. The first project was a website called Trumpsults, which is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of Trump’s worst recorded insults. The second is the Pins Won’t Save the World campaign, particularly galvanizing young voters disillusioned by the two-party system.

pins-wont-save-the-world-640The team selected 10 artists and designers to contribute to the project, including Olimpia Zagnoli, RoAndCo Studio, and Juliette Mallet of CouCou Suzette. Within a day of launching the site, the merchandise was nearly sold out, with all the profits going to Amnesty International’s America I Believe In. Beyond posing as beautiful swag, Pins Won’t Save the World’s mission is to convince “like-minded liberal friends to vote for Hillary,” especially in a crucial swing state. As Walsh explains, “Millennials are the most liberal generation in the modern era, however only 26 percent of them voted in the 2012 election. That’s 48 million missed votes.”

Shepard Fairey has also gotten back into the fray, joining his wife Amanda. Rather than focusing on the specific agendas of either political candidate, the couple created a non-partisan voter initiative called Make America Smart Again, focusing on educating the public about voter registration and civic engagement.

The brand identity for #MASA was developed by Fairey’s team at Studio Number One, and includes a series of posters and web graphics highlighting issues that range from gun control to climate change. To promote the initiative, the #MASA team held several pop-up events, including a special outdoor screening of Idiocracy, a satirical film about a dystopian future America in which anti-intellectualism and greed has enveloped the country (with former pro-wrestler Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho as commander-in-chief).

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In addition to posters and other print ephemera, Fairey designed a #MASA lightbulb-shaped enamel pin to serve as a symbol and reminder that as Americans, we can all do better. We can be smart, informed, and have enough initiative to get out of bed or leave work early to head to the polling station and cast our votes this November.

Ultimately for designers, this election isn’t simply about critiquing current events. It’s about developing creative strategies to disrupt apathy, and provoke action among voters before it’s too late. As #MASA emphasizes, “Only you know what is important to you.”