New U? Unions have an Image Problem

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , branding , Voice

Righteous whiners. Desperate losers. Defensive liberals. Those who call for social justice are often made to sound like shrill complainers. Consider unions. Say, “union,” and a young person today imagines a white, middle-aged, pot-bellied factory worker, a stereotype representing a blue-collar middle class, diminishing in size and strength every year. The future of unions depends on the service industry, on, essentially, the likes of these young people who regard unions as dead. Unions have a serious graphic image problem.

Unions seek social justice for the worker, and social justice depends on compassion for those left out. The movements for the civil rights of women and minorities rallied supporters by asserting the value of compassion. Today’s social causes have to persuade supporters to be compassionate, but they also have to recruit members by getting people to admit they need help. To seek strength in your union, you have to admit weakness in yourself. People don’t like doing this. Maybe people don’t admit to being in the working class because they hope to escape it.

How do unions present themselves today?

COLOR. Blue rules. The colors of the American flag are as omnipresent as they are in political-campaign literature, but a quick survey of the printed materials and websites of several unions (AFL-CIO, UAW, Teamsters, National Writers Union, Graphic Artists Guild, even the ACLU for good measure) reveals that blue is the color of choice. Are unions consciously using blue to represent democratic “blue states?” It’s possible, but it’s more likely that the blue mood predates the red/blue divide. Sticking with red, white and blue, unions reject too much red (evocative of Communism) and up the blue (more conservative, literally). A sample of website headers can be seen in Fig. 1.

TYPE. Sans serif, brothers and sisters, all the way. Futura is no-nonsense, modernist, industrial. Helvetica is a workhorse. Universal ain’t no Ivy League sissy. Unions take pride in their gritty urban origins. Nostalgia for their hard-knock tradition is sustained in simple, clean, thick, stand-up type. A sample of magazine and newsletter covers can be seen in Fig. 2. These particular periodicals are distributed internally to members. You can download PDFs of many of these online (see links to the right).

DESIGN. Union design, thy name is Grid. Concerned not with looking good but with working straight, union design relies on grids, columns, boxes of blue and blocks of quotes, anything to fill up the space. Union magazines are like newsletters. Their straightforward, dull aspect promises solid information, not corporate candy and PR puff pieces. Anything artsy is suspect. If it looks too good, it’s either lying, selling something or trying to make people feel stupid. The layouts in Fig. 3 typify the look of most union periodicals.

PHOTOGRAPHY. Respect the worker. The purpose of union photography is to feature people, not products. Union photography promotes solidarity among all workers by depicting portraits of diversity: black, white, Hispanic, old, young, male, female, etc. Diverse people cut out and arranged against backdrops of patriotic colors attempt to sustain America’s vision of itself as a melting pot of all peoples. A recent cover of Solidarity, a UAW magazine (Fig. 4), features one white male, one black male, one white female, one black female.

Unions have so much going for them. They have people, stories, a cause. They’re underdogs battling bad guys in the Bush Administration. Their leaders are democratically elected representatives accountable to their constituents. They have American authenticity in a way that corporate marketing departments can never concoct.

So why does the union look feel outdated, untouched by popular culture? Its stodgy and desperately sincere look may reinforce the distance young people see between life on an assembly line and life on aisle three. Compare unions with companies, and unions appear to lack a sophisticated up-to-date visual language capable of rising to the rhetorical challenge. Many union leaders admit their message fails to register with younger generations, but they also admit they don’t know why. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) uses purple and gold to achieve a younger, more approachable look (Fig. 5), but it relies on the same tropes of photography and design as the industrial unions. Unions date themselves by walking and talking like grumpy grandparents. Young people think, “Yes, but what does this have to do with me?”

I’ve done writing and design work for unions for nine years, and while I’ve had a good view from the sidelines, I don’t have a grand remedy. (On that note, let me make my own work available for potshots; Fig. 6 includes three magazine spreads done for UAW-Ford, a nonprofit joint program that distributes a periodical internally.) The fiercely adversarial relationship between unions and companies has long since been replaced by a joining of interests (profit-sharing, for one, and job security tied to keeping the company competitive). In the old days, hard-hitting cartoons and caricatures were as common as actual hard hitting. Today, many unions are in a bind, and it shows in their restraint (graphically and thematically).

Unions could decide to do what companies do, that is, take more design cues from popular magazines, movies and television programs in an attempt to reach the younger Wal-Mart/Target/Starbucks demographic. As for content, the examples of the satirical newspaper, The Onion, the satirical cable programs The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and even viral videos provide lessons on how to connect with your audience by making fun of the enemies of common sense and the Constitution. Jon Stewart presumes you share his point of view and leaps to expose the witlessness of those in power. Stephen Colbert satirizes neoconservative attitudes by pushing them to extremes. They do what Democrats and unionists and Michael Moore have not been able to do: make Republicans and corporate apologists look like old pot-bellied, humorless has-beens—that is, like parents.

If you want people to join your team, you can make it uncool to be on the other team. You can turn economic weakness into cultural strength. You can turn compassion into outrage, and outrage into laughter. The question remains whether unions can turn individual laughter into collective action. Do they need a hip new magazine called, simply, U? Ads on TV, radio, and billboards that make joining a union seem as cool as playing in a punk band and as adventurous as joining the Marines? New logos, jackets, slogans—in short, a complete overhaul? They could make the other team look uncool, but they still have to make their team the one to join.

About the Author: David Barringer is the author of There’s Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), as well as American Home Life and American Mutt Barks in the Yard. The recipient of the 2008 Winterhouse Writing Award for Design Writing & Criticism, Barringer is currently a visiting faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and teaches design at Winthrop University.