Thinking Aesthetics in the Season of Election Art

Election Day is right around the corner--in case you hadn’t noticed—and with it comes an onslaught of political advertising. I swore off television news several years ago so am insulated from some of the noise generated by the current campaigning. However, I’m always amused when yard signs and posters start popping up. At the risk of getting myself into trouble, I will state up front that I think there is an excess of genuinely bad design inflicted on the public every election season. Or, to put it another way, there tend to be few examples of contemporary political advertising that cut through the visual clutter of campaign marketing.

The aesthetic quality of a campaign poster might seem secondary to getting a candidate’s name out into the public, a feat that even a poorly designed collateral piece can accomplish. At the same time, if clarity is the main objective, a strong concept and successfully executed design becomes a practical matter. This is where the line between “good” and “bad” starts to come into focus for designers and non-designers alike, and anything that gets in the way of a coherent message--or looks generic--fails in distinguishing one candidate from another, potentially leading to a missed opportunity to connect with voters.

Even within the limitations of a red, white and blue palette, which tends to be the trend with political campaign advertising, the way color is used can make a significant difference in how we identify with a candidate. (Think of Governor Romney’s identity system versus President Obama’s.)

Political ideology aside, President Obama’s 2008 campaign brand made an indelible cultural impact. But it was the poster designed for then-candidate Obama’s speech in Berlin that was (in my mind) particularly significant. Beyond simply promoting an event, the design drew a connection to the typographic design style that came out of The Bauhaus--which originated in Weimar, Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s--and continues to serve as a foundation for typographic design curricula. The Berlin poster, an example of a typographic, grid-based design, uses traditional design elements and references an historical context while making a visually distinct statement that sets it apart.

The lesson here is that creativity does not happen in a vacuum; everything “new” comes from something that has been done before. Far from being problematic, however, vintage campaign posters, buttons and signs have a thing or two to teach us about the timelessness of good design and finding new ways of articulating ideas that have some connection to the past.

As I was thinking about this blog post, I stumbled across an online piece referencing the book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art. What is striking about the examples shown is the extent to which they uniquely and specifically identify the candidates in question. Imagine if the official campaign materials currently being produced showed a similar range of ideas and concepts…

Though I’ve mentioned national campaigns that likely have more resources than local campaigns, it's important for me to add that good design does not have to be expensive. It is certainly not reserved for the elite. There are plenty of designers, myself included, who want to help develop campaign materials for candidates at every level for the sake of promoting good design (by example) and pushing the standards of visual communication that too frequently get lost in the cacophony of political discourse.