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The Presidential election year is a
special time in American politics when the public sees just how
ineffectual graphic design can be. Regardless of who the candidate is,
there appears to be bipartisan consensus that a limited color
palette–red, white, and blue–and very few symbols–stars and stripes–are
the best way to signal a candidates’ Americanism. Add a toothy portrait
to that mix and the banality is complete. Although typefaces might
alternate between serif and sans, the overall message is the same, when
it comes to the buttons, posters, banners, and bumper stickers the
platform is clear: Don’t rock the vote.
Political campaigns should be an occasion for raucous pageantry not
dreary mediocrity and the graphics should not be mundane. Maybe they are
not as drab as North Korean elections, but in the United States “offend
no-one” is nonetheless the credo of political graphic discourse.
Consider the two upcoming national conventions: Whether Democrat or
Republican these were once the most boisterous political raves short a
Times Square New Years Eve. Over the past couple of decades, however,
they have become increasingly more scripted. Since this year’s
presumptive Democratic candidate was selected six months before the
convention, the drama is removed from the event, and the only mystery
hanging over the Republican convention is why the organizers thought it
was really such a good idea to have it in New York City (the capital of
the blue zone). Of course, conventioneers are always primed to party,
but for the rest of us the excruciatingly long primary season saps much
of the energy by convention time.
There is no excuse for following the same unwritten rules of appropriate
graphics that have been perpetuated since the turn of the century.
Although there are no official manuals spelling out design dos and
don’ts, an overarching aesthetic insipidness exists whenever
election-time rolls around. Like “appetite appeal,” the food packaging
industry’s decree about which graphic elements will an will not attract
consumers’ eyes and stomachs (i.e. never use the color blue, always show
fruit with mist), a similarly fatuous “candidate appeal” pervades
advertising and PR agencies that produce election design. In knee-jerk
fashion few deviations from the tried-and-true conceits listed above are
tolerated lest a vote or two is lost.
Some variations exist within the prescribed color spectrum and ornament
palette. I still have my Adlai Stevenson reticulated photo buttons that
reveal a smiling candidate when viewed from one angle and a slogan from
the other. Also, one of the most elegant buttons I’ve ever seen was a
simple setting of Garamond dropped out of a blue background with the
words “President Ford.” This simple “brand name” established the
un-elected (remember Ford assumed the job after Richard Nixon resigned)
President’s credibility more efficiently than any other slogan.
Similarly, a button with a condensed gothic setting, “McGovern,”
exploited that part of the anti-Vietnam war candidate’s last name that
was mnemonic – “govern.” Sure, Stevenson, Ford, and McGovern lost, so
maybe clever or elegant design doesn’t work? But blaming it on the
button is like saying the dog ate my ballot.
Offending the populace is a huge concern, and being too clever is a
double-edged sword; I remember a short-lived button in 1972 showing a
drawing of a rat committing suicide over the slogan “Four More Years” a
reference to Nixon’s slogan for his second term election bid, which was
pulled almost as quickly as it appeared. Nonetheless, the prevailing
universal graphic language applied to political campaigns does not serve
the candidates either. Whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or
conservative, and hawk or dove are rendered as graphically
indistinguishable as the punch-holes in the Florida ballot.
Buttons, bumper stickers, and posters are not going to swing votes –
they are but reminders and signs of affiliation. The really hardball
words and images are reserved for TV commercials. Yet to ignore the
cumulative of all the media impact is to miss a significant
communications opportunity. Perhaps graphic design is not high on the
election committees’ lists of priorities, and when campaign dollars are
limited the safest design is minimal. Still, the graphic monotony from
campaign to campaign is indicative of the kind of short-sightedness that
undermines the American electoral process. The Presidential election is
the most special American event, and I believe the graphics should
reflect that. Or shall we take a vote?
Is design inherently unreasonable? Momus goes looking for the answer in a capital of culture.
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