News & Views

Election design 2020: Shaking up the visual status quo

A major election season is usually fertile ground for high-visibility branding, design, and messaging. The parties, the candidates, and their supporters all want to cut through the morass of ads, posts, and texts to make meaningful connections with voters.

But this year, we’re also seeing a large contingent of new-breed candidates bring their energy to this election cycle — younger, female, of color, LGBTQ, social-justice oriented, and more social media savvy than the old (and not so old) guard they’re challenging.

Whether it’s national and high profile, or local and grass roots, candidates and organizations are trying new strategies (and reinvigorating some old ones) to get their message through — and using design to do it in interesting ways. The Thinkso design team weighs in with their observations and analysis.

From colors of the past, hope for the future

Political design has a long and rich history, and some of today’s most effective and forward-thinking political designs use ideas and motifs from the past in imaginative — and empowering — ways.

A grid of campaign design examples, including contemporary material from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush, and a vintage shot of a group of Suffragists with a banner on an urban cobblestone street.

Emily Wack, Designer: “Purple was one of the key colors used in the early women’s suffrage movement, along with gold and white, and you can see these colors being used consciously in campaigns by women and other progressives. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was refreshing her branding, using purple was a must. Her campaign had been born out of the organization Brand New Congress, which is associated with that color, and she wanted to continue to pay tribute to that early support.

“Another organization that uses this kind of palette really effectively, and that has had a lot of design influence this election cycle, is the climate-focused Sunrise Movement. Their use of protest imagery is also keenly resonant in these times — the way they use arresting yellow and black type in combination with the red-to-yellow gradient creates a powerful feeling of alarm.

“This design style is growing into a broader signifier. Thanks to AOC, Sunrise, and other left organizations, purple and yellow have quickly become shorthand for candidates that are running as upstart challengers to the status quo — just like the suffragists were over a century ago.”

Memorable, shareable, powerful.

Alongside the parties, campaigns, candidates, more grass-roots groups are joining that political fray than ever. Designers and artists are a core part of this community of activists, putting their talents to use primarily to support progressive agendas.

Six colorful examples of Rise Up, Show Up, Unite artwork by different illustrators in variety of styles.

Shelley Batuyong, Senior Design Director:Rise Up. Show Up. Unite! was started by designers Jessica Hische and Adé Hogue. They put together a large and growing group of artists and designers to create free downloadable images that can be easily shared on social media, or easily printed as posters and yard signs.

“For Rise Up, recruiting artists and designers with large online followings was the first step. The goal was to unite a wider range of left-leaning voters behind the mainstream presidential ticket, and to help people “turn up the volume” and enthusiasm on their social feeds with accessible, fun, and positive illustrations.”

Olive Miller, Senior Digital Designer:The overall brief is to foreground the rise up, show up, unite message, so most of the submissions focus on (and have a lot of fun with) typography. What’s interesting about the submissions is the range of mediums artists chose to create the message. From graffiti to sidewalk chalk, watercolor to embroidery styles, each artist offers a unique voice and point of view to support the cause. Displayed side by side with other submissions in the organizations Instagram feed, the works collectively form a “revolutionary quilt” that illustrates the meaning of strength in numbers and the power in diversity.”

Out of the (red, white, and) blue.

When it comes to design and branding, major candidates typically choose the safe path — some mixture of patriotic red, white and blue and simple, mostly heroic-looking logotypes. This year, we saw more campaigns break out of that mold to signal that they were a different kind of candidate and widen their appeal to voters looking for an alternative to politics as usual.

A green white and blue Amy for America logo, a pink and white Marianne 2020 logo, and a blue and purple Hickenlooper 2020 logo.

Chris Riely, Design Director: “The large group of hopefuls for this year’s Democratic nomination found candidates looking to distinguish themselves from the pack. This led to some interesting departures from traditional color, type, and overall design approaches.

Examples of Pete Buttigieg campaign artwork, including individual state flyer, his logotype, and illustrated portraits.

“The Pete Buttigieg campaign took an approach to candidate marketing built to appeal to both a younger, millennial audience and no-nonsense Midwest democrats. Design firm Hyperakt’s gentle and pleasing palette of Heartland Yellow, Stratos Blue, Claeys Cream, and River Blue stood in contrast to traditional campaign colors, but also signalled a certain calm and resolve, underscoring Buttigieg’s grassroots appeal and his decidedly new-fashioned, all-American approach.

Campaign material for Marianne Williamson, including a roughly stenciled poster, her Join the evolution slogan, and a heavily stylized brushed portrait.

“Marianne Williamsom nearly dropped the formalities high-profile candidacy altogether. Like several other female candidates, she used her first name for her campaign logo, immediately personalizing her relationship to voters. And she didn’t downplay her feminine side, seeking to attract women and out-of-the-mainstream voters with striking pink and purple campaign theme colors. The gritty type, used in her logo and on other campaign visuals, projected vitality, strength, and an activist point of view, while a brush drawn portrait has more in common with fashion illustration than traditional candidate photography.

Three Kamala Harris campaign designs: her For the People slogan and portrait, the campaign's purple, yellow, and red logotype, bumper stickers, and a tote bag.

“Kamala Harris, while definitely more part of the mainstream than Williamson, also chose a more unconventional and personal approach. For her primary campaign, she softened her tough prosecutor’s persona with a palette of yellow, warm red, and violet — a blend that immediately stood out. The yellow is said to be a nod to Senator Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign, while the purple, a symbolic blend of blue and red, subtly signalled her center-Democrat position.”