Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Rodneydangerfieldization of Graphic Design: Part I

Here in America, we have entered the home stretch of the campaign season. With a critical Presidential election only weeks away, the country is awash in partisan controversies, testy editorials and even testier debates, all of it fueled by the kind of rant and hyperbole that seem unavoidable as the political drama persists.

It never fails to amaze me that in a territory as heated as politics, graphic design does so little to make a difference. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Sure, we make posters and participate in the odd rally, celebrating our citizenship and congratulating ourselves for our bravery, our activism. But to the degree that design has proven itself a compelling agent of change, isn't this all rather weak and dispassionate?

Let me qualify. In the remote part of New England where we live, civilians pierce their lawns with red, white and blue posters advocating their candidate of choice. Like billboards, they are angled so that motorists can see them and — hard to imagine — be duly swayed once they enter the voting booth in November. And swayed by what, exactly? How about the fact that the Bush/Cheney posters offer the same patriotic color palette as the Kerry/Edwards posters? Why has no smart graphic designer come along to remedy this?

What's additionally troubling is the notion that design participation so often positions itself as art (bear with me, here) which further removes it from its more critical role as a catalyst for change. A current exhibition in New York offers "visionary" solutions for the actual voting apparatus: perhaps, because it was reviewed in yesterday's New York Times — the newspaper of record — such prototypes will be taken seriously. Then again, perhaps they're not meant to be taken seriously. And what, at the end of the day, does this say about designers? Does this exhibit's esteemed roster of participants — including Milton Glaser and our own Michael Bierut — take such initiatives seriously?

An editorial several weeks ago in The Guardian suggested that this is "a world election, in which the world has no vote." And indeed, an election of such international consequence and scope is everyone's business: it has become everyone's war. (By way of disclaimer, we are keenly aware of our international readership here on Design Observer, and while I initially hedged about writing this piece, the Guardian essay convinced me otherwise.) Similarly, the seriousness with which graphic design perceives itself connecting to a broader world lies at the core of the problem: I call this The Rodneydangerfieldization of Graphic Design. Dangerfield, the American sad-sack comic who died this week at the age of 82, will long be remembered for his trademark lament, "I don't get no respect." That he parlayed such self-deprecation into a bankable standup act is laudable, if laughable — and indeed, Dangerfield's shtick was clown-like in the sense that people laughed at rather than with him.

I am often reminded of Dangerfield's signature line when I hear students apologizing for their opinions; when I see advertising sloganeers restricting the conceptual reach of a design idea; and when I look at those goofy little cheerleading posters planted in peoples' lawns. And I think to myself: designers get no respect. And why? Do we position ourselves as followers, instead of as leaders? Do we assume that our role begins with a client's phone call, and ends at the studio door? Does design play a role in the genesis of ideas, or merely in its dissemination? To the extent that the majority of Americans receive their information televisually, why make posters at all?

Dangerfield had a sense of humor about himself, and it would be wise to take note. (To those readers infuriated by my critique, I fully intend to lighten up in Part II of this post.) On the other hand, it would be easy to surmise that our politicians have a tendency to take themselves too seriously. Yet surely there is something in the middle: something between our blind acceptance of design's legacy and our inflated notions of design's future — a future which is unlikely to result in any demonstrative change so long as we refuse to submit ourselves to a more ruthless evaluation of who we are and what we do and how our real participation can make a difference. We need to listen to people besides designers. We need to get in those boardrooms, those war rooms, those bastions of decision-making where no designer has ever been before. We need new legacies, better policies, richer histories for the next generation of graphic designers.

Maybe then we'll get the respect we crave. And even deserve.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [55]

I think my Bush/Cheney bumper sticker looks just fine. And trust me, I see my fair share of campaign banners, yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers on a daily basis. Graphic design is making a difference and people are talking.
Jesse Courtemanche

First off, I want to thank you for this comment :
What's additionally troubling is the notion that design participation so often positions itself as art (bear with me, here) which further removes it from its more critical role as a catalyst for change.
I think that positioning design as being seperate from art is something people in general do not like to do - especially a lot of younger designers my age (early-mid twenties). Design can be seperate form art. i think that is OK.

Anyways, this discussion hit me today because I was thinking about my senior thesis I have recently completed on my way to work today (probably because my thesis was so self motivated and politically driven that it has taken me a bit to settle down and do "work"). My friend Matt and I had sort of teamed up and worked on our thesis projects together. We both had politically motivated inentions with our projects. The best part about our teaming up was we rarely, if ever, talked about aesthetics. Matt never even touched a computer to do his. Mine was rooted in the ideas of Daniel Quinn, mainly the issues brought up in Ishmael and Story of B(if it interests you, i have some images of this project up on my portfolio site at http://www.industrial-organic.net). Matthews was a sort of abstract view of a persons position within the "marketplace", which was an all encompassing word for American/western culture.

I feel like I am in a weird place in my life right now - I just left school this year (after about 20 years total) and I need to assert my position within this "marketplace".

What is important to me in a lot of ways, and what I got most out of my thesis working with Matt, is that I need to find my place within society first and foremost. In my opinion being a designer isn't giving me any power. Just living in this society is giving me a position to have to make choices about what I want to contribute to "the greater good". And right now, I couldn't be more confused about my next step.

For me, Daniel Quinn was a saving grace. Maybe some of his ideas are corny, and maybe some of his goals are far-fetched. What it does, is it gives me hope that as a human being I have every choice in the world to live the way I want to live. I want to make those life choices directly affect the way that I work as a graphic designer, not the other way around. i don't have to spend my entire life building a pyramid for soemone else, hauling stones on my back, up and down, up and down, my whole life for the benefit of those lucky enough to be at the top of the economic food chain. I can build my own pyramid - or I can choose to abandon the pyramid scheme all together. I don't want respect as a graphic designer, i want respect as a human being with individual thoughts and intentions.

I may not know what to do next, but at this point it is empowering enough to me to know I have the ability to make that choice.
justin kay

How about the fact that the Bush/Cheney posters offer the same patriotic color palette as the Kerry/Edwards posters? Why has no smart graphic designer come along to remedy this?

Perhaps because it would be a cardinal sin in the USA - at least for a "serious" candidate - to be seen as not 150% patriotic. Unfortunately, patriotism is often confused with nationalism, and subsequently national symbols like flags have to be seen flying. Over here in a country that started 2 major wars and still feels the consequences and sees the scars, a candidate who would use our national colours (and yes, black, red and gold add up to brown) would be perceived as appealing to the far right.

Redwhiteandblue is used in such an inflationary way from Bush to Burger King and from Washington to Wall Mart that it has become a default, not a symbol. But as the 2 remaining mainstream candidates (do you realize that there is actually a list of 7 of them?) are falling over themselves to be past and future war heroes, they have to keep the RWB flag flying here.
erik spiekermann

Judging from a distance across the sea I think it's kinda funny the way present US political graphics are edging closer and closer to the kind of graphics and posters you could pick up in Moscow before glasnost, even down to the rise of wearing lapel pins and especially the copywriting.

BTW Have you noticed your pics above- Kerry is a Serif man. Bush is a sans serif man. Now what does that say? And Bush is all caps while Kerry is mainly lowercase.

What typeface does Bush use on his posters by the way? Could upset quite a few Bush voters if they find out he's using a limey german or french typeface! Drat! can't have that now can we? Never mind freedom fries, it'll be freedom fonts!

I recently did a radio piece about the sameness of political candidates' graphic design approaches that for Studio 360 that you can download here.

There are many "defaults," to use Erik's word, to which all candidates succumb. Using red, white and blue is one. Being a God-fearing churchgoer is another. Candidates are so controlled by their handlers that it's impossible for graphic design to gain much of a purchase in the process: I wouldn't be surprised if many of the most ubiquitous lawn signs were "designed" by the printer as a gift with purchase.

I must disagree with Jessica's basic premise, however. The lawn signs aside, in the last four years graphic design and politics have become truly intertwined. Sometimes the relationship has been negative or comically tangental: butterfly ballots or proportional letterspacing. Sometimes the relationship lives at the grassroots level, whether it's t-shirts or downloadable posters.

Do t-shirts, posters or clever art projects elect the candidate? No, voters elect the candidate.

So what influences voters? Graphic design can seem like a feeble tool for so monumental a task. But when you consider the kind of things that can sway the electorate -- in debate season, we know it can be things as trivial as grimaces, sighs, and glances at watches -- who's to say that graphic design is as impotent as we fear?

Judging our efficacy from the hapless quality of lawn posters, lapel buttons and bumper stickers may be a red herring. What deserves respect is the act of engagement -- and I see a lot of it.

Michael Bierut

Design does make a difference in a political campaign and season.

I've participated as a local campaign designer in Seattle Washington this year, and I've learned from those who've been through the process that yard-signs in key locations win votes. I was initially surprised at the amount of value the campaign advisor placed on these pieces, but as November approaches it's clear 10 signs at the busiest corners in town = a lot of recognition.

The design I've done for the campaign is easily some of the worst work I've ever done. Pro bono work during the evenings and weekends is tough. That said, it's also some of the most appreciated and important work I've ever done and I've learned a lot in the process.

Obviously the quality of most campaign materials is homogenous and often just plain bad, and unfortunately I didn't solve that problem this time around. What I did do was educate the team about what a designer can bring to the table, and hopefully I've also won the profession some respect in the process.
Matt Dente

One of the Editors of Critique Magazine 1992-1993, I think it was Nancy Bernard, maybe Marty Neumeier, or Steve Heller wrote a Feature on Political Campaign Design.

Uncle Milti, was interviewed. Glaser talked about the Strategy Sessions. And the Ideation Process. In a matter of fact tome; Glaser said Politicians Love Grandios Ideas.
They often get Killed by Process of Committee.

Campaign Managers would rather play it safe and be dull or mundane. Than be trendy or flashy.

My personal assessment,Instead of Presidential Political Candidates buying the Best Money Can Buy; e.g. walking into Neiman Marcus and purchasing the $ 500.00 Luigi Borrelli, shirt and $ 500.00 MISSONI,Shirt. . They settle for Bargan Basement. In reference to Print Design.

Graphic Designer(s) working with Advertising Agencies on Political Campaigns is akin to mixing Oil and Water.

Generally, Politicians hire Ad Agencies with a track record in Political Campaigns to handle all Print work and Media Relations.

Thus, you see the sameness in Design.

Very doubtful, if Designer(s) of the Pedigree of Michael Bierut and Uncle, Bill Drenttel are lending their considerable talent, expertise and time to Presidential Strategy Sessions.

How different Presidential Campaigns would be
if Legitimate Design Genius sat at the Table.

Okay. Let's start from the start. Political rhetoric is strategic and tactical. If it is poetic that is only to support strategy.

Strategically, the right has claimed the position of the sole patriots. Those little flag pins that people wore to show they supported the Vietnam War were part of it. The anti-Vietnam War folk like me not doing the same thing ceded them the point. We've been paying for it since.

The claim is, of course, not just visual. When the Bushies said that Kerry didn't back the American troops they were making a tactical effort to support the patriot strategy. Had Kerry responded by having a news conference at NATO headquarters or in front of the UN, declaring his love of the American troops and strong international alliances he would have been ceding the point.

"How about the fact that the Bush/Cheney posters offer the same patriotic color palette as the Kerry/Edwards posters? Why has no smart graphic designer come along to remedy this?"

A soft green sign might imply support for the environment and reach out to that all-important [insert catch phrase here] demographic. Because the campaigners aren't complete fools. They would no more allow it than they would hire a speechwriter to respond to the charge that they didn't "back the troops" with a poetic description the relative value of preserving migrating birds. Bush is advancing the strategy. Kerry is countering it.

Why do the candidates show up for debates in dark, almost generic suits? So the whole thing doesn't become a debate on sartorial standards and so the other guy can't dismiss them as twits who are overly concerned with fashion.

The old joke about how many designers it takes to change a light bulb—"Why does it always have to be a light bulb?"—seems to apply. The news is that most people don't care if graphic designers show that they are smart. They don't care. And they shouldn't care (much if at all.)

"We need to listen to people besides designers," indeed.
Gunnar Swanson

The trains not only run on time, but look at this wonderful and clear railroad time table.

Oh how beautiful design can be.
Mr. Kahn

look at this

Look at what? Should that be a link?
erik spiekermann

Each of the candidates already has formed his support base in the rightish/leftish wings of society, so both are now attempting to target the so-called swing vote. I think that's the primary reason their graphics are so similar. They're both running for president of Missouri, Michigan, Florida, Ohio.

If Kerry had a real threat from Nader this election and Bush had a credible threat from a conservative or independent candidate, then we might see some different signs in the yard. In the end, there is little difference between the two candidates' appearance, graphic design, campaign speeches, even though their decisions have been quite different. Both are fudging on their real values to try to draw the "moderate" vote.

I think in this case the graphic design reflects the political climate. Maybe that should say something for the need of a third or fourth option. Look for Nader/Camejo, or Cobb/LaMarche, or Badnarik/Campagna signs if you want some different design. Of course the establishment ticket will have the same graphic design as always.
Seth White

graphic design does so little to make a difference

Well, the graphic design of the ballot in Palm Beach County determined the entire presidential election in 2000.

I'm partial to the concept that us designers are trained from the outset to be followers to other's desires, and leaders within our own fields. During my graphical upbringing here at Central Michigan, we are run through program after program, things you can/cannot say to clients, things you should be doing for research for clients. But I have not heard one comment on "leading". Not in reference to clients. All I've heard is that the client gets what they want. But when it comes to the question of your own work, you can go willy-nilly on your own amounts of self-expression. Just remember when you get into the "real world" (A term many professors like to throw at you of an imaginary place full of death and fire), your style goes out the window for the needs of the client. We are not told that we have the ability to lead, so we do not. We are not told that we have both the capacity and the right to understand better than those we create for, so we do not take it as our right.

And with no training in the field, why bother? (This is not even touching those students who believe graphic design is learning design programs).

And, in reference to the political posters and lawn decorations, the client does not want anything fancy for possible fear of being seen as "artsy". What has evolved with these stickers, pins, and lawn ornaments seems to be simple, unengaging logoism. None of these bumper stickers that come from the candidate are extremely simple and do not accomplish anything this side of branding. Some offer humor, but none inform to the level that many would desire to make a good choice.
Kevin Wilson

In today's OP-ED in The New York Times, Scott Dadich, creative director of Texas Monthly magazine, alongside an illustration by Paula Scher (who happens to be my instructor-maybe she will fail me for writing this!), deeply scrutinize both the Bush/Cheney & Kerry/Edwards logos. I guess you could say I'm 'flip-flopping' while trying to decide as to whether or not I agree with much of the article. For instance, in Scher's illustration breaking apart the logos piece-by-piece, I find it very difficult to believe that loose letter spacing between the 'K' and 'e' communicates inexperience. The general public is not going to look at the word 'Kerry,' notice the uneven letter spacing and quickly change the choice on their absentee ballot. Now, stop thinking to yourself, "this is just another design student that doesn't appreciate the details of typography and how they contribute to the larger gesture." That's not the case. I completely understand that little nuances certainly convey different ideas when looked at as a whole, usually on a subconscious level. But to say that John Kerry is inexperienced based on letter spacing is a bit outrageous. Though I must say, I find it quite humorous when the Democratic Party is asked if they could not afford a graphic designer.
Here's where my flip-flopping comes in to play; Dadich makes a reference to Bush's 'W' logo usually found on bumper stickers, which I agree is quite brilliant. He explains, Americans are conditioned to equate visual brevity with success and power. One need only look at the landscape of corporate America for confirmation: the Nike swoosh, the CBS eye, Target's bull's-eye and McDonald's golden arches." As much as politics relies on big business, it has become a big business itself. How long before politicians come out with their own clothes line and perfume scent? "Smell the power of the Republican party."
Lenny Naar

"the client does not want anything fancy for possible fear of being seen as 'artsy'."

Bingo, Kevin. I think the main reason us graphic designers don't get no respect is because of what we call ourselves. Of course, "graphic" means with pictorial, but I can't tell you how many times people have used the term graphic design as an equivalent to "photoshop expertise" or "computer graphics." To the general public, design is like putting lipstick to a gorilla. Call yourself a graphic designer and you're identified as an artsy computer geek being hired to spice up a document with your wizardly technical skill. Understanding the 'artsy' side of our field is far from necessary for small low-risk businesses. That creativity is just an unnecessary risk. How can they see the value of design?

Wouldn't it would be more respectable and appropriate to call ourselves something like "image developers?" That way, we can keep at least some of the creative tinge to our title with the word "image", but at the same time appear more in tune with the business world and finally be more respectable. Thankfully, it'll be harder to imagine a "Work at home! Become an image developer without any prior experience required" ad. If graphic design so obviously is swayed by the times, then why not evolve our title to fit our current needs?

The word "image" deals with a lot more than just pictures-- it evokes the meaning abstracted from a picture, dimensional space, identity system, and anything else we design. Developer offers a glimpse into the process. Our "graphic design" work is developed from research, understanding function, achieving flawless form, and the client's marketing goals- not just drawn once and tweaked on the computer. As an image developer maybe we'll even be trusted with a greater responsibility of content weeding, presentation, and control. We'd still be doing graphic design, but it probably will appear more respectable when presented as image development. Isn't that what graphic design is about, anyway? Only then will we be closer to answering a call to influence votes.
Kosal Sen

Don't look for "good" design in the two big camps. They are carefully positioned not to offend anyone - a sign of very controlled design environment. Instead, think what Howard Dean's campaign did, using the graphic of the baseball bat to raise money - and money they raised. Design works well when it's tied to information, not just colors and shapes for no reason. Another example is MoveOn.org videos released every week until the election. I consider these to be amazing design work - the bigger camps will follow and learn, eventually.

I used to wish a candidate would print signs that weren't using the same old red white and blue colors. Until I saw a local candidate here in Athens Ga do that. I suddenly realized that those colors are an instant signifier that THIS PERSON IS RUNNING FOR OFFICE. If you do not use those colors, you have done a disservice to your candidate.
Designing this stuff is a little like making a tangram. Everyone is basically given the same elemements to use, and it's up to you to do something good with them. Given that, it's a great exercise in design.
anthony barkdoll

We are not told that we have the ability to lead, so we do not.

If people have to have leadership suggested to them as part of their college majors then it is already too late.
Gunnar Swanson

Is design a profession (trade, the term used here is even in debate at this point) that attracts people interested in service?

Or, is design a profession attracting individuals interested in a professional life with the promise of creative expression and style?

To pose this as a binary is to invite the obvious answer that some come to serve, while others to express, or, perhaps the one serves the other, or, both and (__________). earn a decent wage?

Mrs. Drentel, when I last saw you at CCA for a discussion on design criticism you mentioned that the profession had ?ghettoized? itself. I wonder now if this is a function of design appealing to too narrow a focus of interest?

Ok now to make a point.

When design establishes avenues for those who would otherwise find themselves in the helping professions: doctors, lawyers, academics, it will establish a body of work which touches the inner life of society in more concrete ways (this is not to say that the art of design does not do so now, only that society sees the ?style in life? which design provides, differently). What stands in the way of this could be too strong an emphasis on the ?graphic? part of design preventing those who do not see themselves as artistic from trying design on.

creativity is just an unnecessary risk

The political climate is a lot like that of family reunions. When you go to family reunions, what you wear and what you say gets watered down for the sake of appealing to everyone. If you show up in ripped jeans and a Megadeth t-shirt, you are going to upset 80-year old Aunt Betty. So you put on khakis and your sweater-vest. You crank up the Kenny G and Norah Jones. You chit-chat about the weather.

At family reunions, everyone is a candidate for political office. Creativity is an unnecessary risk.
Ryan Nee

Concerning this morning's Op-Ed

It seems obvious to me that Paula and Scott are citing the emotional responses that these typographic solutions evoke. We certainly don't expect Joe Voter to scream, "Look at the kerning!! My eyes my eyes! Must..vote..for..Bush!" Rather it seems a strong argument for the subtle typographic power of political signage. Although I suppose one could argue the other side of the coin though: Bush's sticker can be seen as a typical exemplar of his "ride 'em cowboy" demeanor. In your face, interrupting any moderator that gits in his way and ill-disguised imperialism. Kerry's serifs draw the intellectual, elegant and sophisticated while creating room to think about the issues at hand and taking the vote seriously.

And it's a legitamte concern you have Jessica...a cursory interview of the 6 people at my apartment this evening (taken, I admit, largely in an effort to prove that I'm not being antisocial) revealed the assumption that the candidates had nothing to do with the design of their signage at all. "They have to be red, white and blue." "The name is there, innocuous fonts, visibility - as long as you can read it man." "You think the designer's ever met Kerry let alone had a conversation about the visual communication of his platform?!"

We must think critically about what it will take to put the designer in a venue like Capitol Hill. A good friend of mine from school works for Frank Luntz, the premier wordsmith for all things politic in DC. Verbal language or, "message development" is pivileged and we are but a small outpost on the frontier that understands the powerful relevance of visual communication in society today. What do you think it take to get us there Jessica? I hope Part II addresses this question and follows up on the heartfelt encouragement of your closing remarks.
Andrew Breitenberg

Why will election graphics never change? Tradition. The leaders that guide those campaigns and decide the final look and feel would be skeptical about creating anything other than the current image. A blue field, white type, and red accent is hot stuff. It unites them with the powers that came before them. God Bless America! Get me into that big monolithic building to lead you and your country. UNITE!!! Unless the candidate is a plant, we'll always be looking at our flag's colors used in political graphics.

It's really no different than checking into a Holiday Inn or eating at an IHOP when traveling. Those two things provide sameness, assurance, and comfort. Americans want that in a candidate. They want to be assured. As a result, political imaging looks the same, whether it's the suit they wear or the color scheme used on buttons, banners, bursts, and commercials.

Evoking change can happen by getting into the boardrooms. You've got to make your moves from the inside, as any mole or CIA agent will attest. And while design staking a place in our Nation's activities is an interesting notion, I apologize for my own skepticism. After years of decision makers on Capitol Hill directing the look and feel of our National image (long after they've gotten into office with white type on a blue field), and with all of the talented, innovative, and passionate designers in our country, why does our money still look like crap? Why haven't the two minds met at some juncture? Why not do something about our money, which looks like the most unconsidered piece of design in the Western Hemisphere?!

Our money is engineered, not designed; political campaigns are engineered, not designed. A million engineers can't be wrong: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Tradition will never be screwed with.
Jason Tselentis

Our money is engineered, not designed; political campaigns are engineered, not designed.

Picture if a design shop like Tomato designed our money and political campaign signs. I would love it, but would everyone else? As the people on here talk about the need for good design in Washington, I can't help but wonder, what would you do differently? Campaign signs are specifically engineered/designed to have universal appeal. Maybe the question should be this -- can good design have universal appeal?

If you look in other industries, like music for example, you will see that good music does not have universal appeal. Engineered music, on the other hand, seems to have the most appeal universally. Why would design act any differently?
Ryan Nee

While I agree that both campaigns have a visual strategy that makes me want to hurl, I think this discussion has a short shelf life. Why you ask? This campaign has been marked more by style over substance than any other in my lifetime, and the candidates desire to have it both ways (on abortion, gun control, stem cell research, etc.) demonstrates their ability to water down the message, or change the subject to reflect a delusional reality. The yard signs simply reflect this flaccid approach.

I personally opted for a homemade sans serif "W" with a slash through it prominently placed on my hatchback. I have also found that wearing my November 2 t-shirt has prompted far more meaningful (not to mention fun) exchanges with people in banal settings. Perhaps its non partisan position is less threatening, but wearing a sign is far more compelling than hanging one in your yard. Yard + window signs always seem like a dog pissing on territory if you ask me, they don't really engage people in a meaningful conversation.

a future which is unlikely to result in any demonstrative change so long as we refuse to submit ourselves to a more ruthless evaluation of who we are and what we do and how our real participation can make a difference.

Coming full circle to Ms. Helfand's call to arms - this season I decided to be more involved in actually shaping political discourse by getting involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. indyvoter.org. They have not only researched local issues in many states, but also invited voters to join a Voting Bloc, which can hopefully enable us to hold our elected officials responsible, and create a clear way of tracking their participants' contributions. I donated my services to make their voter guide a lot more appealing, so that when San Francisco folks go the polls, they will not only have some great typography in their pocket, but also be more informed and aware citizens. Posters, buttons and t-shirts are all fine, but my hope is that designers will feel the need to help communicate the people's message, to pressure the media to ask harder questions and strive for higher ethical standards, because if WE don't do these things then we have lost any shred of democracy.

Over here in France, there's an official rule forbidding the use of the blue/white/red flag in polotical posters : the national flag is believed to be the propriety of the whole French nation, and therefore musn't be "kidnapped" by one particular political party or another for its own use. To add to Mr. Spiekermann's first remark, the emphasis put in the USA on patriotism, with the use of the national colours, would easily qualify in France for nationalism.
Among the presidential candidates in the ill-fated 2003 campaign, Lionel Jospin appeared on a dark red/purple background, while Jacques Chirac used green. The racist extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, who ultimately qualified for the second round in 2003, uses a blue and yellow combination, with Futura Extra Bold splashing all over his posters.
Political communication campaigns are usually handled by advertising consultancies, whose graphic choices tend to use semantic codes appealling to particular segments of the French population (hence the Le Pen posters looking like supermarket sales leaflets, in order to appear as "popular" and "down to earth" as possible).
The most astonishing thing being that we have scores of politically-active (or politically-minded) graphic designers, whose skills are NEVER used in French political communication.
Stéphane Darricau

Stephane, I find this fascinating. (Funny, too: i grew up in France but came back to the States as a teenager and as a result, all my visual references are sort of locked into things like candy shops and the best places to roller skate.) The French rule forbidding the use of the flag's colors is the opposite of what we have in America.

I hope more readers will consider posting here with additional observations about how such color wars manifest themselves, particularly with regard to political communication, in other parts of the world.
Jessica Helfand

I would like to go back to something in the original post (which has one of those amazing titles that are Ms. Helfand's tradmark) -- the issue of respect. The problem with Rodney Dangerfieldization as I see it, is that designers are constantly trying to get respect for graphic design as a profession. I question the wisdom of this effort in general but what I find more troubling is that in this quest for respect people grasp desperately at the notion that graphic design has a social responsibility or a social function. Now, first off, one need only consider the plummeting regard with which Americans hold journalists and politicians to realize that social function does not offer a clear path to respect. But putting that aside for a moment, "value to society" is simply not a scale on which graphic design can or should be evaluated. The fact is, graphic design doesn't have a social function -- graphic designers do.
I have spent the last few months working almost exclusively on graphic design projects that are meant to effect the upcoming election. These projects have ranged from the high profile (Al Franken's liberal radio show and Robert Altman's political satire "Tanner on Tanner") to the pithy (a brochure for teenagers explaining ten ways that they can get involved in electoral politics). I consider this respectable behaviour but I have no illusions that in terms of social function my efforts are any more valuable than those of the guy in marketting who buys advertising space, or the deli-owner who donates sandwiches for volunteers working a phone bank. There are respectable graphic designers and then there are those other people. If you want respect, be respectable; but don't imagine that it has anything to do with the status of your profession.

That is a great analysis of the campaign logos from the NY Times. Since the first time I went looking to purchase some Kerry stickers, I have been thinking most of the design there looks like it was done by someone in Word. The stickers, buttons, etc. are so disppointing to me and hard to look at. I think this weak design is losing some sub-conscious mindshare for Kerry/Edwards.

Thanks, Dmitri. I also thought the conflation of social change with professional self-respect was a bit bizarre. I don't do my activist work to make "Design" more respectable, or even to make myself more respectable. I do it because I feel strongly about the issues and my design skills are a way for me to help make a difference.

It's just a personal preference, but I'm also less interested in persuasion and propaganda than in using design to empower individuals and organizations. I prefer to clarify rather than mislead. I lean towards information design more than branding. I don't think you can change someone's mind with a poster. The lawn signs make one's position visible. And in some places, (planting a Kerry poster in Dallas, or a Bush poster in Berkely) public dissent may encourage others who feel the same way.

I've had a look at the NY Times Op-Ed page, and I'm struck by the fact that this annalysis seems to exist in some sort of "Gestalt vacuum" where typographic forms possess an inner meaning (the "hole" in Kerry's name, for instance) regardless of any cultural consideration. Perhaps it's because I'm French (as I've written in my previous post, political communication here uses semantic codes a lot), but couldn't there be something significant in the difference between the "populist" sans serif type (Wal-Mart style ?) of the Bush/Cheney logo and the "literary" serif typeface ("Ivy League" style ?) used in the Kerry/Edwards one ?
Stéphane Darricau

This is not for posting; just a question:
Is it possible to subscribe to Design Observer?
Thank you!
Erena Rae

> particularly with regard to political communication, in other parts of the world.

Here is a sampling of Mexico's political parties. As you can see, only one, the PRI, uses Mexico's flag colors (green, white and red); it also happens to be the party that had a stronghold on the presidential post for over 70 years until the last election when the PAN's Vicente Fox (who boasts a good relationship with GW - it must be a ranch thing) managed to beat the odds and take the presidency. Given that the PRI usually has the largest budget (and controls most of the city's public spaces), the preponderance of green, white and red graphics come election time in the city can become as overwhelming as the US' red, white and blue. I think it was a smart choice - whoever made it - that each party has their own distinctive, and contrasting from the gwr combo, color palette.

When I first saw the Bush campaign's sub-brands I was more than a little stunned. It was one of those "be careful what you wish for moments..." but there they were. W as John Deere - for the heartland farming folks, W as Kenneth Cole/DKNY for the urbanites, W as Interstate Sign - for open-roaders chasing the American Dream and W as Americana Icon - for remembering when America was "better". In turns I was amused, excited and horrified. I found myself wondering exactly what was being communicated with these things? Were they defining the unique qualities of the candidate? Were they trying to use those brands as appropriated advocates, as in "if you like John Deere you'll love W."? Was it pandering? Was it deceptive? Was it honest? I guess the answer to these questions depends on what you think of the candidate. For me these things are a little spooky. If this is the alternative my vote goes to sticking with the plain old "political" campaign signs, buttons and stickers.

These political signs are like any other collateral created for a well known industry. The audience has a long experience with the standard design language. Presenting something too far outside of the expected is a risk. Without a really good chance of success the presidency is way too big a prize to lose because the campaign used "new and different" signs. Even though the Bush campaign made these alternative product lines they still hedged their bets and mainly seem to be pushing the old reliable.

(In the spirit of limited disclosure I became aware of these Bush campaign gear from a reference to them in an earlier DO post.)
Christoper Andreola

I have followed the letters to the editor and discussion here regarding Scott Daidich's OP-ED article with great interest. Since neither visual expression of the campaigns has a concept we are inevitably drawn into more detailed discussions of typography, color and flag designs.

One pragmatic aspect that seems to have been overlooked is that the Kerry Edwards logo is more legible and easier to read from a distance or a moving vehicle than the BUSH CHENEY logo.

As a frame of reference I looked at the typographic expressions (ignoring symbols) of a selection of corporations, brands and organizations.


The typographic expression of the Kerry Edwards logo - upper/lower case, serif typeface - is used by American Heart Association, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google, Heinz, Smith Hawken, Time Warner, United Nations, Wyeth and Yale University.

It appears that the typography in the BUSH CHENEY logo may be more typical of large corporations - especially in defense, energy and resource extraction industries. It comes across as certain and loud. The typography in Kerry Edwards logo may be more typical of smaller corporations, new technology, educational institutions, international organizations and ketchup companies. It appears more refined and humanistic. Clearly there are exceptions to this premise.

Regarding the use of red, white and blue, we should consider the relatively recent trend to identify the Republican Party states with red and the Democratic Party states with blue. In the future we may end up with blue Democratic bumper stickers with a touch of red and vice versa.

The right leaning BUSH CHENEY flag with 20 stars, 7 stripes has had some liberties taken with it, appearing to be bent and severed. The left leaning Kerry Edwards flag is a truer depiction of our flag.

While neither design is reasonable from an aesthetic perspective, both avoid the major flaw of the 2000 Gore Lieberman logo with a swoosh and star that moved upward, crested and began falling to earth. I think it cost them the election, design matters.
Jerry Kuyper

Like it or not Paula Scher was correct in her assessment of the campaign logos: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/09/opinion/09dadich.html

John Kramer and I are team teaching a class at the Art Institute of Boston and decided to test her assessment. I mocked up the designs with nonsensical dummy text and presented them to the class as design options for a generic political campaign sign. The results fell in line almost exactly with Paula's comments. The "generic" Bush logo generated comments like strong, dynamic, bold, to-the-point, trustworthy, professional, symbolic. Kerry's generic sign met with comments like soft, traditional, fragile, feminine, less professional. Overall, as one student put it, "that one (refering to generic Bush) is more like a national campaign while the other is more like a selectman's race." As pathetic as the current designs are, the impact is still substantial. It was very interesting to see the reaction to the actual logos after the discussion. The students seemed a little wounded by their own assessments after they connected it to Kerry (all but one were Kerry supporters).
Paul Montie

Here we are, divagatin' over the fact that Kerry wears a blue tie and Bush a red one. In Uganda, everyone tries to copy President Museveni's Movement
Party yellow, but who cares?
Nowhere in this discussion do I see a glimmer of insight about Helfand's most interesting proposal, the need to get outside our solopsistic professional selves and listen to others. But where she counsels boardrooms and warrooms, I recommend some close encounters with the average-man-on-the-street, preferably a street in Kabul, or Jakarta, or Nairobi. Then maybe we'll understand just how small-minded a profession we really are.
david stairs

Perhaps because Helfland's proposal seems so disingenuous. I do not protest to "celebrate my own activism." I protest the thousands of U.S. troops that have been killed or injured for the lies of this administration. I protest the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that have been killed for Halliburton's bottom line. I protest because my best friend's brother has completed his second tour of duty, and can not come home to his wife and family.

Anita, I apologize if my initial post sounded disingenuous as nothing could have been further from my intention. In the United States, protest remains an inalienable right, protected by the Constitution, supported by freedom of speech, advocated by those who believe in the power of the individual to make a difference. Such freedom is not now, not ever to be taken for granted, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise.

But I do wonder about the relative power of graphic protest. Is it doing enough? Are we?
Jessica Helfand

The power of graphic protest is very hard to determine, based on the fact that many such items never see the light of day. It's very difficult to answer the question of whether it is doing enough without first answering the question of whether we are doing enough. The reaches of graphic protest will only extend as far as our media driven society will allow. Even if radical ideas break the surface, it is hard to say how long they will last before being shut down or ignored by the powers that be. As far as experimentation within the promotional schemes for the would be presidential candidates go, I don't see anything drastic happening anytime soon, especially since we are engaged in our "war on terror". It seems that both candidates, regardless of their point of view (and differing font representations in their posters) are so closely engaged in competition, that straying from the norm of the ol' red white and blue would be political suicide at this point, and could be a determining factor conciously or subconciously to the american people in their presidential selection.
Josh Perlinski

If you're frustrated by not knowing if solitary "graphic protest" makes a difference, and I know I am, how about something a little more obvious. Like, say, helping arrange for an airplane to pull a haul a banner up and down the Florida coastline until election day?

It sounds too, well...obvious to be true, but that's exactly what graphic designer Mirco Ilic is doing. From a recent email:

Dear Friends,

With less than three weeks before election day. With Florida still in the balance. With Nadar threatening to whittle away votes from John Kerry. It is time to take to the skies.

Please contribute to the Fix The Mistake Aerial Initiative begun by Dan Young and I with generous support from Stefan Sagmeister, as well as contributions from Louise Fili, Adam Tihany, etc .

We will fly a banner that reads FIX THE MISTAKE - VOTE! from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and back along the coast. So far we have the airplane for eight hours a day on October 30, 31 and most of November 1st.

We have raised money to cover the $275 per hour fee for these three days, and are trying to raise enough to cover November 2, the day of election day and possibly October 29th, 28th and so on backwards to cover as many days as we can.

Please join us in our airborne display of displeasure. Please contribute by calling
Aerial Banners
tel: 954-893-0099

Ask for Dana, and give her the name of the banner, she will tell you how to proceed."

Thank you.
Mirko Ilic

Michael Bierut

Anything called "The Airborne Display of Displeasure" certainly gets my vote!
Jessica Helfand

I admire your faith in people

i wish Tibor was with us now. telling us how to do it.

I guess we'll have to make do with Stefan

"What you really need to know is what kind of typeface they like in Ohio." Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style weighs in on political campaign graphics.
Michael Bierut

The debate, minus the "arcane details," seems to be over serif vs sans-serif. That's not really the issue that first came to mind for me. It was more that Kerry's serif is not executed strongly and is not used consistently. NYT analysis used one of the better examples. Just look at the melange of stuff on Kerrygear.com to see how bad it really gets. It's a branding train wreck.

Forgetting typography (exciting though it is) and assuming people are still reading this blog what did you think about Operation Clark County? The newspaper takeover of your electoral system


Everyone seems to be talking about it here so I was wondering what you guys felt about it

I would just like to say, I am a brit I am fascinated by America. Mainly, i love everything about your country. I was over a couple of times this year, at an awards ceremony in the spring and met so many of you wonderful people (mostly designers who know how to party) and with friends in California. I had such a superb, life changing time, I still dream about the streets of New York and the redwood forests of Humboldt county. I even love your faults (The Scissor Sisters spring to mind). I'm not anti-american lets just say

So, anyway,

though the conversation is about type. what do you think?

Mirco Ilic understands that typography is only as good as the content it conveys and content is only conveyed when published (made public). The fastest way for designers to get some respect is to create urgent messages, not just design them. This means initiating, writing, designing and publishing (with collaborators as needed). That's how Benjamin Franklin did it. We may not own our own newspaper as he did, but we have the rest of the technology on our desktops. Aerial messaging is one effective way to make messages public if you have something useful to say, as Ilic does. Go Mirco!
Thomas Starr

Unless I skimmed right past, nobody has mentioned Michael's analysis of the Presidential graphics that appears in the November Metrolpolis. Although not completely dissimilar to the New York Times article, it is worth a look.
Gunnar Swanson

i say many creative ads don't sell (they can be use to win awards). those ads that sell must go thought lots and lots of reserch and they ususlly look nothing near creativite.

same thing happending here, people have seen too many creative posters saying bad thing's about bush or kerry. this is not gonna make a difference. a lot of people will stick to their party even daffy duck is their candidate.

designers can do nothing about it or at lease not like this.

who can argue with me or have a better idea to make a noise :(
q i a n LEI

I choose to protest graphically by wearing this t-shirt that was designed by a friend of mine. http://clothing.infktion.com/wpsychobush.php Does it make a difference in which candidate people will vote for? maybe not. But its semi-thought-provoking and makes my friend a nice little chunk of money.

I do agree with many of the points made in this article, I have to disagree that designers are doing nothing to make a difference. I recently went to Cedar Point in Ohio and was ammased when I saw this RV tatooed with anti-BUSH stickers. It was a breath of fresh air to see the out of the ordinary TRY BUSH FOR WAR CRIMES sticker as opposed to Vote Bush/Cheney 2004. I just need to see more of this sort of bumper grafitti, it puts a smile on my face.....
Ross Ciaramitaro

Well, what if those stickers said bush is great in a creative way, will those put a smile on your face...

i think you will be like :(
q i a n LEI

I like when I read something and it makes me look at things a bit differently for a day or two. DesignObserver got me to take a bit of mind-time from my daily commute to really look at all of the political yard signs around us. I realized that I am conditioned to ignore the red/white/blue color combination, political energy aside. If somebody were to make their sign in neon-green, as an extreme example, it certainly would garner more attention than the paint by numbers litter on most people's yards. Of course I guess some people are planting these iron shrubs in their yard more as a declaration than as a persuasion. If that is the case, I guess inside voices are more appropriate.
Ethan Danstrom

is the movie 'fahrenheit 911' making a difference.
by difference i mean making people think rather than making some people happy and some people angry.
i say posters, movies and signs in the yards are no good, at lease not like this:(:(

Today's New York Times lead editorial may be a first: advocating the critical importance of real design with regard to making or breaking the US presidential election, now a mere five days away. I can't recall ever reading such language ("Graphic artists ... know how to make ballots that are simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, our election system leaves ballot design to the whims of local officials, who often make bad choices.") in anything but the design press. Maybe the tide has turned after all. If this doesn't mean respect, what does?
Jessica Helfand

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