It’s hard to escape the upcoming presidential election as slogans, hashtags, and sound bites continue to remind us that America will have a new Commander-in-Chief come November. While some of the 2016 campaigns may appear alien, the way they’re designed remains marketable. “Candidates aren’t worrying too much about their graphic look,” says author Steven Heller, co-chair of SVA MFA Design. “On Christmas you expect to see green, red, and white, and in US politics, you expect to see red, white, and blue.”
Much like anyone, a voter’s first impression of a candidate is visual. If designed well, images or a catchy trademark can embody ideological values or altruistic meaning—directly or subliminally—allowing a nominee to be represented no matter where they are. But in a digital age of constant engagement, some say political design has become boring, demonstrating yet another example of America’s obsession with corporate branding.
“From the 20s to 60s, buttons, banners, and clappers were really in their prime and you didn’t see the candidates that much,” says Heller. “Design was important then because reaching the public was so important and there weren’t that many outlets in which you could do that through. There weren’t commercials on television or commercials on radio so the way your reached the public was through personal appearances and posters. A lot more was riding on design.”
With millions of dollars being poured into campaigns, political marketing—where television ads this election will reap in an estimated total of $5.8 billion—is certainly important but standout design is few and far between. After campaigns launched last year, the internet became buzzing with critiques of each presidential hopeful’s visual identity, whether it was Jeb Bush’s exclamation point or Donald Trump’s mobile banner attempt.
“They seem to be following the same design traditions each election cycle with a few standouts,” says Heller. He explains that slight changes in design are more likely to occur when a candidate falls outside the political norm, one example being the look behind President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the creation of a distinct brand that many of this year’s contenders—like Bernie Sanders—have taken cues from.
Obama’s light blue logo meant something symbolically,” Heller tells The Creators Project. “It felt like the sky. Sky blue suggests a new beginning or a new tomorrow. It suggests that we can reach for the stars or look towards a brighter day.”
Although none of this year’s candidates project the same sentiments as Obama’s style, one who’s still managing to successfully communicate values through a brand is Hillary Clinton. “From a design perspective, I think Hillary’s logo is inspired,” says Jo Barnard, co-founder of London-based design studio morrama. “The bold use of the H without reference to her name was brave but paid off. It’s left her with such an adaptable shape that even when made into a chicken it’s still recognizable. Her visual identity is slick and carries successfully across all her print and digital platforms. None of the other candidates come even close.”
Like it or not, Trump’s extreme comments and use of celebrity makes his brand equally memorable. “This is branding,” explains Barnard, indicating the doctoring of photos or popular posters that Trump cunningly uses to his benefit. “Not in the way we would normally assume, but he is still aiming, and I think succeeding, to convey the message of, ‘I am not going to follow the rules.’” Clinton has easily spent the most on her campaign and the result is visual communication spread unanimous throughout multiple platforms—an achievement difficult for even the largest corporation. But as Trump has proven with his low-funded ad space, there may be a more to a brand’s success than a sleek design team.
“Hillary has poured time and money into a meticulously prepared campaign that has the risk of feeling sterile and rehearsed,” says Barnard. “Bernie on the other hand can win hearts with his words and appears closer to his voters because he doesn't stand behind a wall of brand guidelines. He also hasn't spent anywhere near as much money so I guess you will know whether expensive brand management wins the election when the results come through.”
What do you think of the design this election cycle? Let us know @CreatorsProject or in the comments below.