10 Anti-Buttons: Lessons in Design

Since the dawn of electioneering, dirty tricks and negative advertising have been accepted strategies in many presidential campaigns (indeed few candidates were harder hit with mud than young Abe Lincoln). However, this year, the ubiquitous yet often innocuously designed lapel buttons, lawn signs, and bumper stickers, which have been emblems of allegiance, are now bludgeons. The benign smiling candidate’s face with catchy slogan was once the norm but now the slap-in-the-face is common. Bushbashing and Chaneychiding is so widespread, especially in the so-called blue states, that satisfying the popular urge to oppose the incumbent has become a veritable industry that includes the design, fabrication, and sales of everything from anti-Bush T-shirts, sticker books, inflatable toys (like Bushocio, a long nosed rubber product inspired by Pinocchio), and, of course, buttons.

Official and unofficial campaign buttons are as challenging to design as postage stamps. An idea must be conveyed in such a limited space that effective type and image composition is essential to achieving the desired impact.

Like a poster, the message must read from at least five feet away, which implies that the tenets of simplicity and economy come into play. Although ephemeral, these buttons must nonetheless conform to time-honored design principles. A clever slogan may have resonance but it alone is not a well-designed button. Today with the widespread accessibility of desktop button-making programs, amateur design is rampant and flagrant. So, in the spirit of design criticism, the following analysis may serve as a menu of do’s and don’ts for the design of buttons. The specimens here were purchased from three separate, independent vendors (not affiliated with either political party) in Manhattan’s Union Square—a traditional hotbed of political protest and demonstrations.

Redefeat Bush button

ReDefeat Bush: This was one of the earliest anti-incumbent buttons issued back before the major primaries. It follows the conventional campaign model of red, white and blue color fields, and employs an added patriotic accent – the star in the bowl of the R. The standarized professional look of the design is meant to be ironic, and yet the name Bush in all caps may be a little too deceptive. Also, since the Re is separated from Defeat by the color bar, the button’s intent is confusing, at least at first glance. A wearer recently cited the following incident: At Barnes and Noble a sales clerk said to her “I was wondering who in this town would support Bush, but now I see what the button really says. Clever.”

No Bush button

No Bush (I): This button was also an early entry in the campaign flux and has become ubiquitous around New York. It is not, however, perfect. Despite the recognizable international NO symbol a modicum of ambiguity exists in part because the slab-serif, inline/outline type overpowers the familiar icon. The red white and blue BUSH lettering virtually negates the comparatively week circle with diagonal line, and so this too has been mistaken at first glance for a pro-incumbent message.

No Bush II button

No Bush (II) and No Bush (III): There are at least three versions of buttons with Mr. Bush’s face and the overprinted NO symbol (two feature smiling halftone photographs) but this high-contrast iteration is the bestseller in Union Square (and is also used on T-shirts). The NO symbol commands more authority than the specimen above, but the high contrast presidential visage is by no means the best rendering of him (note the cheek line). Of course, context is everything, and since the portrait neither looks like Messrs. Kerry or Nader by a process of elimination we’re left with Mr Bush. Indeed, what is a logo or trademark but a simplification that becomes commonly recognized? At this advanced stage in the campaign, this button is unmistakable yet, if it were rendered with more verisimilitude, it might have been more effective.

No W button

No W: FDR, JFK, LBJ, and now W; the single letter is more effective than GWB (which could be mistaken in New York for the George Washington Bridge). The initial is a startling way to convey the candidate’s positive aura with minimal means. Yet it is also easily co-opted by protesters because NO W is extremely concise and unambiguous. Nonetheless this button is not perfect design. The red circle border around the black circle containing the white W is way too thick. The diagonal line is also out of proportion while the red overpowers the central image. This is perhaps a minor complaint since the button effectively telegraphs its message—and from almost ten feet away.

Weapons of Mass Deception button

Weapons of Mass Deception: This is an example of excessive design. The cliché-ridden NO symbol is unnecessarily submerged under an otherwise clever slogan. But even the slogan is clumsily typeset. The designer should have settled on one idea or the other, but not both; the slogan already implies NO, so redundancy reigns. It may be satisfying to convey the dual message, but it results in cluttered design.

When Bush comes to shove button

When Bush Comes to Shove: Scary as the concept, slogan and image may be, this idea is better suited for a poster than a button. While it makes the point clearly and without ambiguity, the idea would have been best served in this small space with a more abstract design. The literalism of this rendering reminds one of bad sci-fi fantasy rather than sophisticated visual statement.

BUllSHit button

BullSHit: This somewhat droll wordplay was coined during the Bush inauguration and appeared as a poster. It was more effective in that form, too. As a button, however, it is overpowered by the graphic elements. The word BUSH dominates, as do the stars and bars. The joke is lost amidst this visual noise. Better, perhaps, to put the BU and SH on two lines.

Replant a Bush in Texas button

Save the Environment: Replant A Bush In Texas: This button requires investing a few seconds to get the joke, and the result is not exactly worth the investment. In fact, the idea is much too wordy. “Replant a Bush In Texas” would suffice and would have allowed the designer to go larger with the type.

Asses of Evil button

Asses of Evil: Here the slogan is amusing, but the fundamental relationship of type to image is not. The two lines should not have been separated to frame the image. If the slogan was on two connected lines and the faces were slightly smaller underneath, the button would have more graphic impact and be more of a combined unit.

Bush Lied button

Bush Lied: Simple is not always better, but with this button it is sublime. Buttons demand brevity. The gothic type dropped out against a field of black is eloquent and eye catching. No need for embellishment of any kind, this button conveys its message without distraction.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com