The Dreary Art of Presidential Elections

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?

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.