How US election campaigns are designed

Image: iStock

Tom Grant of Fiasco Design traces the graphic design of US election campaigns from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump back to Hoover via Bush and Obama.

American elections inevitably attract attention from across the world, and this year’s intoxicating and occasionally offensive juggernaut has finally reached its dramatic conclusion. It feels as if the collective political anxiety of the world is concentrated on a few hours and one, potentially world changing announcement.

But, we all know that a successful election campaign, whether you like or agree with the candidates, has to be carefully and meticulously planned with as consistent a message as possible, and a clear brand and visual identity to fall into line with voters’ expectations. When America goes to the polls it’s a big occasion, no matter the circumstances, but there are countless years hard work that has led up to this event, and getting the branding right is a major part of this.

Here are Clinton and Trump’s campaigns as a starting point:

Clinton’s logo denotes progress and forward thinking, retaining conventional democratic colour, with the arrow echoing the sweeping stripes of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 election victories and providing a sense of much needed dynamism and movement. It has been said from many quarters that this logo is hardly inspiring or interesting – but it’s made for a new digital age, where brand identities have to be shifted, repurposed, resized for social media and fit into a number of different conventions with ease.

In addition to this, the design of the site is contemporary, using blocks and feature images to such an extent that it wouldn’t look amiss on most current lifestyle, news or current affairs blogs.

In contrast, Donald Trump’s campaign is, as you’d expect, more upper case, more bold, more shouty and utilises the American banner as the core symbol of its logo.

In terms of the look and feel of the campaign’s site, it’s also more conservative, with serif fonts and a textured background echoing traditional letter writing paper.

Of course, there is more to election design than just the visual identity of presidential campaigns themselves. There are countless other posters, pieces of memorabilia and other paraphernalia created, both legitimately and illegitimately, all adopting their own style and tone with their own motives and ideas behind the election itself.

Sometimes, as with the Obama ‘Hope’ poster made by Shepard Fairey (see right) that accompanied the 2008 election, it’s just the right design at the right time, capturing a need for optimism and hopefulness.

As Mimi Launder pointed out back in July:

‘Persuasion is a design fundamental: designers convince people to drive more safely, eat (even more) McDonald’s and even vote for a certain political party.’

If we take the AIGA’s series called Get out the Vote as an example, we see a very specific motive, to get the American public to vote, encouraging communities and local organisation to print out the user-generated content for free and share publicly to spread the message. In this sense, the design of the election is nonpartisan, democratic and ambitious – it aims to speak to all people and isn’t motivated by political gains, using design and artwork as a common language.

See some more of the best work here.

The elections of yesteryear

It would be wrong to suggest that branding US Presidential elections is a new thing. In fact, it has been going on for years, with each campaign adopting the predominant look and feel of the decade.

These designs all have strength in common. Bold graphics, the selling of the American dream and often an accompanying slogan. They also however can be dramatic and minimal – almost cinematic – as we see from George W Bush’s re-election campaign poster below.

User Generated Content & Design

For as long as election campaigns have been producing their own design identities, there has been user generated retaliation and comment, most notably in the form of the caricatures that have adorned newspapers for centuries.

More recently, the current election has provided ample opportunity to develop the designs and personalities of these caricatures, especially with Donald Trump being perfect cartoon fodder.

As this example from Karen Todd published on Clinton’s website shows however, there has also been a huge surge of digital user generated content on social media – with varying interpretations of the campaign providing strong messages of support for the candidates – making this the most ‘online’ election ever.

User generated design, like the posters above from AIGA, can have a democratic, encouraging and motivational reason behind them, but used in the right way art and design around an election provides a great backdrop to satire, personal expression and comment.

View more excellent political cartoons by Joe Heller on his site.

A clear brand & a clear message

Fundamentally, it becomes clear that small design details can help support, or undermine for that matter, a presidential campaign. From the posters you see around town to the billboards that span highways, everything has been thought about to an extreme level – this is design and branding at its most personal and high-profile level.

What is also clear from this current election is the need for campaign branding in the modern era to be flexible, interchangeable and ready to be used across many different platforms instantly. It needs to fit into social media profile boxes and be able to be recognised immediately when scrolling through your smartphone, as well as have enough confidence and definition to be visually compelling in the streets or on the aforementioned billboards.

This election may be one of the most bitter ever contested, with opinions ever more divided. What’s also clear from the design and branding of this election is that it is perhaps one of the most conservative in terms of style and form, with many conventions strongly upholding the values of the party it belongs to.

This feature was originally published on Fiasco Design's blog. Repbublished with permission. Follow Fiasco Design on Twitter at @FiascoDesign.

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