Campaign Design: On this week’s episode of Track Changes Paul and Rich chat with political reporter Hunter Schwarz about political design trends. He breaks down the forms of visual design he’s seeing in political campaigns today and gives us an overview of the evolution of political design. He also tells us about how the Obama campaign in 2008 changed political visual branding and about the rise of grassroots political design.
- Tiny Month
- Harry Winston
- Mike Bloomberg
- Hunter Schwarz - Twitter
- Washington Post
- Joe Biden
- Tom Steyer
- Why Tom Steyer Wears a Tartan Tie
- The rise of the single-letter political logo - Washington Post
- Pete Buttigieg
- Shepard Fairey Obama “Hope” Poster
- Bloomberg spent millions of dollars on 2020 campaign ads - CNN
- Facebook Ad library
- Google Transparency Report
- Beto O'Rourke Twitter
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Twitter
- Stacey Abrams Twitter
- Elizabeth Warren
- Elizabeth Warren Merchandise
- The Strokes Bring the Bernie Sanders Revolution to New Hampshire - Rolling Stone
- 25-foot inflatable balloon of Warrens dog Bailey makes campaign appearance - The Hill
- Robyn Grace Kanner
- Amy Klobuchar
- Bernie Sanders
Paul Ford And it’s not like, you know, let’s talk about improving gas mileage—
Rich Ziade Yeah.
PF It’s literally, like, “Mm. Chocolate syrup.”
PF [Soft and low tone] That’s what America needs [music plays alone for 16 seconds, ramps down]. Rich, you know what season it is.
PF Political advertising spend season.
RZ We’ve touched on this subject cuz it’s a big one, it’s an important one. We talk about it in the context of Facebook.
PF Let’s tell people how we know that there are 270 days between now and the election. You know how I know? [Music fades out.]
PF I went to a website called tinymonth.com.
RZ What’s that?
PF [Chuckles] It’s another Labs Project that we’ve built and launched this session.
RZ We just keep dabblin’!
PF Every month or so we like to get something new out into the world that nobody’s ever seen before. What do you get when you go to tinymonth.com?
RZ It’s like the mat calendar you’d see on old desks.
PF [Crosstalking] Right, right, it’s got the whole year on it. Ah—
RZ [Crosstalking] All 12 months. You can see it in one view. Just glance.
PF It’s great to build little utilities. So, Tiny Month, if you go check it out, it lets you put in kind of timeframes—different timeframes and like your vacation or how long a project’s gonna take. It’s a way to literally sketch out your year. I put in how many days until the next election.
PF It’s 270—260 or so, I can’t remember exactly [yup] cuz it all blurs. That’s 260 days of relentless advertising. And we better get ready.
RZ It’s gonna get more and more intense as we get closer and closer, obviously.
PF You don’t have to answer this: do you have a Democrat you like?
RZ Love? No.
PF I didn’t say love.
RZ Modestly like.
PF Think about the branding that—I just don’t buy any of these Democrat brands.
RZ I think that’s—this is not when you take out the big guns.
PF Yeah, that’s true.
RZ I think you take out the big guns later. I gotta tell ya: I don’t understand any of this. They’re in Iowa, I don’t give much of a shit about Iowa. It almost feels like—you know the world’s biggest rubber band ball? [Laughing]
PF Yeah, but—
RZ It reminds me of that! I guess what I’m trying to say is: it’s good that we recognize that we’re federated as states but it’s all a little bizarre and—
PF Hold on, lemme tell you about the email we’re going to be getting about two hours after this.
RZ “I love Iowa” [chuckles].
PF “Hey guys, I’m a Product Manager here at (insert agribusiness giant).”
RZ [Laughin] “And I’ll never be reaching out to you.”
PF Yeah, it won’t be that—
RZ I said that wrong! Lemme take this—lemme walk this back a little bit. I guess what I’m trying to say is this is a long game [yeah, oof] and I think to really understand communication and design in the world of politics, it doesn’t really show itself at this stage, right? It shows itself when the gloves come off later on. The thing about Iowa is that everybody’s looking at Iowa. Obviously Iowa’s like—I don’t know—
PF Yeah, no, they had a bad app. That was rough.
RZ That was very rough and we’re not gonna get into that either [no, no] but everyone is looking at it. But we don’t see the ads yet. We’re not important yet. We don’t have skin in the game yet. Like, so, that’ll be later. I worry, frankly, I worry—
PF Also! New York State doesn’t matter.
RZ New York State does not matter. It is gonna—That’s true.
PF Whoever the Democratic whatever is.
RZ That’s true. But what I do think about—there was a day when you marketed in politics—there was an understanding of a certain level of decorum that had to be in place, almost it was like the whole brand had to be kind of protected to—I’ll give you an example: like a really expensive jewellery store isn’t gonna put a really greasy kind of cheesy advertisement out, right?
RZ They’re trying to protect the integrity of the—
PF [Deep tone] “Come on down to Tiffany’s!”
RZ Exactly, exactly. And I think what’s happened—this is just as a bystander observing is that—
PF [Deep and aggressive] “Harry Winston!”
RZ The Republicans in ‘16 said, “The hell with it.” Do you know what people want? They want—
PF Oh. Just red meat. Potatoes.
RZ They want—what do you call the big—what’s it called? The Grand Slam Breakfast.
RZ They want what they want.
PF Just to feel a lot of hate and eat a steak. That’s the—
RZ Exactly. And what I fear for Democrats is that—
PF Oh they always think it through.
RZ Well, no, they’re still in Tiffany’s.
PF They gotta stop thinking.
RZ [Laughs] Like people want The Grand Slam Breakfast and I hopefully, you know, whoever comes through gets that and—
PF No, it’s true.
RZ—I think, you know, without wading into messaging and politics and whatnot, I think that is where we are. I think it’s been accelerated through the internet and social media in a very big way. Such that, if you’ve only got a second to pitch, the big flashing going out of business inflatable guy is powerful. And that’s just our reality today.
PF Oh, like, the wavy, dancy guy?
RZ Yeah, like you got a second, right? I’m flippin’ through—I’m either gonna watch a minute of a really fast Taiwanese street food vendor [laughs] on Facebook.
PF That’s right.
RZ Or my mom—
PF Or that Turkish guy who takes the ice cream out of your hands.
RZ Yeah, or that.
PF Yeah, that’s a big one.
RZ So I’m zippin’ through, man, and if you’re gonna get my attention it’s not gonna work if you give me like a nice serif font with just saying, “Do you have it in you to do what’s right?”
PF “Don’t allow—” What’s—The Bloomberg campaign slogan is extraordinary.
RZ What is it?
PF “Being together for now, everyone!” I mean it’s really—
RZ Yeah, ok. Yeah, I think this is our new reality.
PF It was written by a neuralnet.
RZ But design and communication is a huge, huge part of this and it’s fascinating to see how it’s taken hold.
PF I mean, you know what matters?
PF The big red button. You know what the big red button says?
PF Donate. What’s the point of political advertising? It’s to allow people to buy more political advertising.
RZ Yes. Yes.
PF That’s really what it’s all about, right?
PF So we should talk—there’s someone who makes this their life’s mission to understand. Let’s talk to this person.
RZ We have Hunter Schwartz.
PF Hunter, welcome to Track Changes.
Hunter Schwartz Hi, thank you. Thanks for having me.
PF Hunter, where are you in the world?
HS Right now, I’m in Phoenix. All my stuff’s out in DC but I’ve kind of been travelling a lot for work. I was just in Iowa this past weekend for the caucus.
RZ Oh! That’s a clue!
PF [Sings suspenseful melody like] Dun dun dahhh!
RZ This is a clue!
PF Alright, tell us about what you do.
HS So I’m a political reporter. I’ve worked at outlets like CNN and The Washington Post but most recently I started my own publication called Yello. Y-E-L-L-O. And Yello, I kind of describe it as it’s politics for your eyes. I write about the culture branding and visual rhetoric of politics. So like visual rhetoric that encompasses art, design, fashion, campaign staging, campaign ads—just like anything that is visual about the way we talk about politics.
PF Let’s drill in a little bit, right? Let’s focus on advertising for a second. When you’re talking about the visual rhetoric or advertising, like what are you seeing in Iowa? What’s it look like now?
HS Well, it was really interesting to see—I looked a lot at digital ads and the way that campaigns expressed themselves online. So it’s interesting to go into the campaign field and just see what that means, you know, at rallies and stuff. And the way supporters use that. Like it’s really interesting to see just kind of the way they take these elements from their logos and kind of extrapolate them. Like, Joe Biden, like his logo has—he kind of uses those three stripes, kind of an American flag.
PF Yeah, it’s a little rough.
HS Well, and so he uses it—like, you know, he uses it both in Biden and Joe for the ‘e’ and there was also one he used it—The Caucus was on February 3rd and so they used that stripe there. And so they kind of use it to pull it out for some other examples. I didn’t see this one in person but Tom Steyer uses that plaid look that he uses in his tie. They use that sometimes in rallies. And so yeah there’s just a lot of different ways that campaigns are using design to kind of brand themselves and market their campaign.
PF Well it’s worth noting, I don’t know if people think about this very much but every major campaign, you know, primaries on up has a pretty serious branding guide.
HS Yeah and that’s something that is fairly new. Like I think campaigns take design a lot more seriously than they did like 20 years ago. So I started writing about campaign design back in 2015 and I had a lot of friends who were designers so that kind of informed the way that I thought about it. Like, I think most coverage of design and politics, it starts and ends with an article about the logo. It’s like the primaries start and then they do an article that’s like kind of ranking the logos. But I had a lot of friends who worked in design and kind of saw that you could expand upon it; there was a lot more that you could write about. And so I cover—in 2015, I wrote about the rise of the single letter campaign logo—how just like the Obama ‘O’ had inspired campaigns to kind of go for this like single letter look, whether it was the Romney ‘R’, of course the Hillary ‘H’. And so we kind of saw that and in 2020 that trend is gone. Like most campaigns are not using single letters, it’s all about kind of the word mark for the name.
You see these design trends in politics and I think there’s two things that influence campaign design. The first is just design trends at large. Like if something is happening in corporate America and you see these trends that always influences politics cuz, of course, politics doesn’t exist in a bubble. But then I think the second thing that influences political design is campaigns that win. If you were a presidential campaign and you have like this design that really stands out, like you can be sure that other campaigns are gonna kinda copy that or copy elements of that.
RZ I get allergic to pol—I have a reaction after a while. Like I’ll watch it for a while. I’m like, “This is important, this is politics and these are our leaders.” But I just get exhausted. So I kind of bail but what happens is you end up seeing the visuals, even if you’re not really paying attention to a lot of the news and the reporting that’s coming out of it. And it’s all pretty bad. It’s all pretty generic and ba—And I’m applying—For a moment, applying the same standard as I would apply to like, you know, the brand of a soda can.
PF [Crosstalking] You got three colors you can work with here.
RZ Is that true? Do you have to work with those three—Let’s talk about that. I call it the Top Gun effect. Everything looks like Top Gun. There’s a star and it’s kind of big, strong block letters and—
PF No but Mayor Pete looks like a very modern Texas barbecue.
RZ [Laughs] Sauce [laughs].
RZ I mean—First off, how important is it? Let’s start there. Does this matter?
HS First off, logos don’t win presidential elections. But I do think design is part of a larger piece of a campaign’s brand. So, it’s less about is this logo good or bad? And it’s more about what message is this logo and design system—what message is that sending? And does that match the message of the candidate? Is it honest? Is it true to the campaign? Like you kinda go through American history and you see at different points we elect different types of presidents. Like early on in America, it was all about presidents with diplomatic backgrounds. Like we were a newbie country; voters wanted someone who could interact with world leaders, who had that experience. And then post Watergate, it’s like people saw Washington as really bad and they wanted governors who were kind of outside of Washington but still had this executive experience. So we elected a string of governors. I mean, we’re still kind of early into this but it feels like we’re in this new era where somebody who hasn’t been around for a while, who doesn’t have a lot of experience—if they have a strong brand and a strong message, they can really break through. Cuz it’s like you look at Barack Obama, he hadn’t even been in the Senate a full term. Donald Trump: no political experience, no elected office or military experience before he took office. And so I think kind of in this digital age you’re able to build this brand that can break through and I think design is a major component of that.
RZ You know, I’ve looked at the different logos of the Democratic candidates that are out there today and it’s just they’re all pretty forgettable. I mean honestly I can’t imagine—to me, when I think about Obama, I don’t think about the ‘O’ and the—You know what I think about? I think about that artwork: Shepard Fairey, that resonated in a different way than [robotically] name of candidate, in big font [chuckles].
PF It was less brand-y, right?
RZ Yeah. And so I guess, speak to that a little bit. I mean I know we don’t wanna over index on this stuff and hyper-analyze it but I think capturing imagination and getting people to connect to a vision is meaningful, more than it is, “Hey. It’s me, Pete. Look: it says ‘Pete’ on my bus.”
HS Yeah. I don’t think we would be here talking about this if it wasn’t for Obama 2008 cuz that campaign really revolutionized the way we think about visual culture in politics. Part of it was just like his campaign was very well-branded from the colors, the fonts, the logo—like they kinda had a very distinct look but I think another big part of that was Shard Fairey’s “Hope” poster. So it’s like you had this campaign that had a very corporate mindset when it came to branding and being very disciplined about that but then you kinda had this street art cred that came with that. And I think that kind of—it was like all of those together—like a logo in and of itself is not a brand. But you kinda put all of these pieces together—and for the Obama campaign it was all of those pieces together along with this message and digital strategy and a lot of different things that kind of created this. I do agree, like, when you set all of the Democratic logos next to each other, like a lot of them look the same. It’s just this sans serif typeface that sets the name in. And so I think the ones that really do stand out to me are the ones that do it a little bit differently.
RZ Yeah, yeah, I mean—
PF No, right now the Democrats look like a food court in a nice urban area, right? Like just kind of, [Rich laughs] “Oh I’m gonna get to Warren and get myself one of those grilled cheese sandwiches they make with olive oil.” Let’s talk about advertising for a sec, right? Cuz—first of all, can you give people a sense of the scope and the scale? I just know there’s a lot of money getting spent but I don’t know how big this space is. Is there anything that we can use to kind of understand?
HS I mean, if you’re gonna look at advertising in 2020 so far compared to 2016, we would be about at the same level of money spent if it wasn’t for the billionaires in the race. The Bloomberg and the Steyer campaign are spending a lot of money that makes 2020 just—it blows it out of the water in terms of how much money is spent.
PF Where does Steyer’s money come from? I can’t remember.
RZ How did he make it, you mean?
PF Yeah. I can’t remember—I don’t know anything about him. He’s just a blur. Ok, but there’s billions of dollars and then—so it’d be normal if you didn’t have two people with unlimited pocket books.
HS Yeah, so there’s just like a lot more being spent. I think one reason why there’s so much more focus on design in politics today is because like it’s no longer about just a bumper sticker and just a button and just a TV ad. Like you have so many digital properties, you have social media properties, and so campaigns are really developing this whole design system that can be utilized across different platforms. You know, Facebook has an ad library where you go through and look at how much the candidates are spending and what their ads look like. Google has one. And so it’s just there’s so much content and advertising that’s being produced. And so that’s why there’s such a focus on it. Just so you can have a coherent visual message across all the platforms.
PF Is video getting bigger and bigger? Is it like—what is the goal of these political ads?
HS I mean a lot of them are to drive people to websites to give up their information. Like a lot of what you see from the Trump campaign is like, “Fill out this survey. Trump wants to hear from you.” And then you go, you fill out this survey, you answer questions, and then at the end they’re like, “Give your name, address, and phone number.” So like a lot of it is list building.
RZ I’m not gonna get into where I sit. Ok? [Paul chuckles] All I know—you know, politically.
PF Yeah, yeah.
RZ I’m not gonna get into that. But! I do wanna say this: the Democrats are gettin’ their lunch eaten. And, of course I roll my eyes when I see an eagle land on the top—on the shoulder of a soldier and there is just the sunrise in the background and it says ‘Donald Trump’ cuz it looks insane and ridiculous but this is connecting for a huge population of people. Right? I mean this is a very big country. I mean, everybody talks about why Hillary lost cuz she didn’t go to the diners in the middle of America, right? So, I’m not seeing that! I mean I know that this is—ultimately you’re trying to win, right? And it all looks a little ridiculous on the Trump side. Everything looks like a trailer to an action movie but it’s working. So, are people waking up to that on the Democrat side? And saying, “This is obviously meaningful to people. These kinds of signals are meaningful to people. It’s not gonna be enough,” like, is that in the mindset at all?
HS Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, you look through Trump’s entire career and he’s always very straightforward with his branding. Like when he worked in business, communicating his message of luxury. There was no doubt what message he was trying to communicate. And then he gets into politics and like Trump is not experimenting with color. Like, he is doing the red, white, and blue, it’s very bold, it’s very big. But then on the Democratic side, you’re seeing a lot more experimentation. This is something—it actually started back in 2018, in the midterms, was where you started to see campaigns try different things out. You know, the 2018 midterms were—you had a very diverse slate of candidates, you had a lot of female candidates, and so I think you could see a lot of experimentation cuz people were trying to present themselves in different ways. In Texas you had Beto O’Rourke who was using this black and white; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was going with purple and yellow; in Georgia, Stacy Abrams kinda had this peach thing going. You know, kinda going with Georgia peaches, she had some purple, she had some turquoise. So you had all this experimentation with color, once the presidential campaigns started, you still started to see that. But I also think like whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is, no matter what colors they’re playing with now, you’re gonna see them move toward a more traditional approach in the general election. Like, you look at the Warren campaign, she uses kind of this deep, almost purple, blue and this mint green, they call it Liberty Green. But then you kinda look at her campaign merchandise and they have some stuff that’s a little more traditional. And so I can really imagine that whoever the nominee is, once we get to the general election, you’ll see branding that’s a little more traditional, a little more going towards what we expect out of politics.
RZ Right, that makes sense. I guess—you know, I think I’m conflating messaging and visuals here.
PF Well, do the campaigns feel that they own certain colors?
HS The Warren campaign definitely does with Liberty Green.
PF Liberty Green!
RZ Hold on, I need to look this up. Hold on.
PF Ok, so Liberty Green is their color, they’re gonna apply it broadly.
RZ Oh it’s like a mint.
PF Oh, it’s very nice. Rich is showing it to me. It’s like mint chocolate chip ice cream. The one I’ve seen go the furthest afield is Sanders, right? He’s got like The Strokes is doing a Sanders concert. Like there’s more visual play around him than I see from others. Or are there other ones who are kind of branching out?
HS I mean, the ones I see that kind of play with it the most, they have a lot of supporters kind of doing different things. And so, like, Sanders and Warren, they have a lot of supporters who are designers, who kind of make their own stuff.
PF Well who gets recontextualized the most in memes?
HS Probably Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side.
PF I mean that’s my instinct too except for when Elizabeth Warren had that enormous inflatable dog and everyone started chanting. Can you explain that dog?
RZ It’s her dog. Isn’t it like a large version—
PF But it’s got two pennies around its neck and they kept chanting, “Big, structural Bailey.”
HS I think one they’re really thinking is like if Elizabeth Warren’s gonna run against a president who doesn’t have a first pet, like they’re like, “Hey, if I’m elected we’ll have a dog in the White House again.” Everybody loves a dog.
RZ Rich just moved further to the center. I didn’t know that was possible. [Rich laughs] Alright, so that makes sense.
RZ So you were in Iowa this week? To clarify for everyone cuz this may air in a few weeks. We are just on the other side of the Iowa—
PF Yeah which just went fantastic—
RZ [Laughs] Just a gleaming example of technology and what it can do [laughs].
PF Well, actually, let’s—let’s not start with the disaster of the caucuses first but you’re there and how—obviously everyone is just saturation bombing every eyeball with messaging. Who was standing out and where were the signals coming from? What’s it like to stand in the middle of that sort of vortex of advertising?
HS I mean, I had—like I was watching so much TV just cuz I wanted to see all the TV ads that were playing. And, I mean, it was ridiculous. Like, after like an hour I feel like I had seen every ad multiple times. There was one group that was running this ad that was just like anti-Bernie Sanders. It was just like, “Bernie Sanders can’t win. He had a heart attack. Americans won’t elect a socialist.” Like it was very much kinda going after like, “He is not the electable candidate.”
RZ Wait, who—
PF Is that a candidate or a super pac or?
RZ Who is that? Who is behind that?
HS It was a super pac that was running that ad. You had a lot of other messaging. Like the number one messaging across all the candidates that I saw was, “Candidate X beats Trump.” There was a Biden ad that literally just had like all of these poles up on the screen, that was like, “Biden beats Trump in this state, in this state, in this state, in this state. These are all the states we have to win.” And then the Warren campaign they had this ad that was—they had three different people who had caucused for different candidates in 2016. One of ‘em caucused for Hillary Clinton, one for Bernie Sanders, and then one for Donald Trump. And they had the Trump guy just being like, “Hey, if a guy like me who supported Trump can support Elizabeth Warren, like she’s our candidate.” So, like, very much the message they were trying to get out is like, “I am the candidate that can beat Trump.”
PF They always love that. They get that one conversion experience and they’re like, “It’s gonna work. Don’t worry.”
PF How many American flags appeared in these commercials?
HS Oooh! I mean it wasn’t an overwhelming amount. But, like, right now is really—it’s like setting yourself apart. Like, there are so many Democratic candidates that like a lot of voters still don’t even know who they all are. So, I think the role that design plays now is just like setting the candidates apart from each other.
PF And now, digital advertising, right? What are your broad ob—What are your predictions for what we’re gonna see. . .over the next couple of months? We have 260 days or so until the election. That’s a lot of days. What’s coming? What should we be looking for?
HS A big thing is like Facebook is still letting politicians lie in Facebook ads. So, a politician could put something out that’s not true and Facebook is just like, “Oh, well that’s for the voters and the media to kind of decipher.” Like, one thing I can say cuz some of my reporting—Like, whenever there’s like something in the news and a campaign like starts to fundraise off it, I like to kinda go through and look at all of their ads and be like, “These are the overwhelming messages; these are the things that are happening.” But the problem is there’s just so many ads. Like when I go on the Facebook ad library, my browser crashes sometimes when I’m trying to look through them all. Just because there are so many. They run a bunch of different variations. So you’ll see, like, when the Trump campaign first rolled out its ‘Keep America great’ hat, they had like a handful of different images they used but then they’re using different copy to go with the ads. Or like they used different color buttons on the ads. Or they zoom in on something or they say like, “Shop now!” Or they just—there’s so many variations and they’re just kind of A-B testing everything to see what works with what demographics.
I think the big trend is gonna be just the sheer number of ads and the sheer amount of variation to find the ads that are the most effective.
PF Well, they’ll just automatically A-B test until they see which gets the most funding, right? They’ll just go into the system. So this’ll be the first Salesforce election.
HS [Chuckles] Yeah, yeah, definitely. We’re gonna see a lot—a lot of that. And I’m just glad that Facebook and Google have these ad libraries, like it’s a great resource for journalists. But like it’s almost too big. For me, just being an independent journalist, looking at one thing on my own, like it’s overwhelming. And it’s just like I think they need to improve their tools even more so we can see how these ads are being tailored and targeted and who they’re reaching. It’s just like in the olden days, everyone saw the same campaign ad. A campaign had to put out the same message knowing that everyone was gonna see it on TV. But we’re now at this place where they can show it to a very select group of people. I mean, you look at the ad library and it’s like some ads target just like men of a certain age in one state.
RZ Well aren’t they also auto-generating. . .like certain messages based on—or is that—have they put a stop to that?
HS I don’t know how much of it is auto-generated. You can go into Facebook and just kinda set your different audiences.
PF It could be like the Facebook t-shirt where it’s like, “Who’s an Aries with diabetes who loves Trump?” Right? [Rich laughs] Like it’s, “You’re lookin’ at ‘em!”
RZ No, but this was a huge part of Trump’s strategy—
RZ—in the last election, is they were studying you and you were into X and Y and they would push a particular headline just for you.
PF Hunter, what are these ad libraries? I don’t know if people know what they are.
HS Yeah, so, you go into it. It’s just like this page that Facebook sets up. And then you can search a candidate. So you type in ‘Donald Trump’, then you click on his name and you have this page that shows how much money the campaign has spent overall. And then you can kinda break down the ads between ads that are active, ads that are inactive, whether they run on Facebook or Instagram. You can search certain keywords. So like when I was doing research for their ‘Keep America great’ hat marketing. I just typed that in to kind of see what it is, and so it just shows all the ads and it scrolls and you go down forever. Like, it’s so big and after a while your browser just can’t handle it. But it just—it’s a library of all the ads that the campaign is running or has run on the platform.
RZ Let’s shift a little bit to sort of this world of the design, in terms of the creators around this stuff. Where is this stuff getting done? I imagine that, you know, Pete and Warren and Joe don’t have a team of designers churning out art.
HS Yeah a lot of the campaigns they have designers on staff who are making their stuff.
RZ Interesting. See, I always imagined it would—
PF No, remember Robyn Canner when she was on the show? She was the Beto O’Rourke, one of the designers for—
RZ Yeah, and there’s a creative director? Is there someone the equivalent of a creative designer? He’s like, “Ughhh that’s—the way you’re capitalizing there is—”
PF You kind of have an on-the-ground agency that works with you.
RZ Ok, so it’s designer’s on staff, an agency is giving guidance on messaging and things like that?
PF You gotta respond, you gotta make the t-shirts really fast, and make ‘em for sale. It’s very real-time now.
HS Yeah, for a lot of the campaigns they start out working with an outside agency, like an outside agency creates the initial brand and then they hand it over to the campaign to use.
PF That makes sense. So every major candidate out there has their branding guide, has their sort of framework, and they are, essentially, little agencies on wheels that are running sort of behind the bus to support whatever messaging needs to be created in that moment.
HS Yeah, and they just pop off stuff in real-time. It’s like you’re watching a debate and if a candidate has a zinger that really breaks through, by the end of the debate, they have a t-shirt ready to go. It’s very reactive.
RZ It’s interesting, I find that the visuals that stay with us out of these campaigns don’t come from some of your basic—you know, to me, I think of the red hat, the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. I think of the ‘Hope’ poster. I don’t have one in mind for Hillary. I don’t have one in mind for—
PF You know what’s with Hillary is the opposition was able to set the visual agenda a lot of the time like, “Here she is sick,” and, “Here she is this—”
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF So, she was never able to fully own her own visual narrative in comparison to how the Trump campaign owned it for her.
RZ Yeah, and I’m not—it’s early days here, so I don’t think—we don’t have a presidential race yet but it feels very muddled today. Like, I don’t see anybody—I wish the Democrats would shit on each other a little bit more, this way you could see who’s really ready for a fight, you know?
PF Well and I think Pete is a living PowerPoint, right? Like you’re just gonna get a good flow graphics about America. That’s gonna be exciting.
RZ I don’t think Pete’s real. He was created by Unity, which is a 3D rendering platform.
PF Warren, for me, is always gonna be the giant, inflatable dog and I don’t know what’s happening. And then I think for me, Sanders is just a guy saying, “You don’t need to take penicillin.”
RZ I just don’t imagine design reaching for that. Like who’s yelling at design saying, “We have to create an image that’s gonna burn into people’s minds.” Is that the mindset or do you just stumble on that? If I’m not mistaken, the ‘Hope’ poster, that wasn’ even from the cam—It was just a fan, right?
HS Yes, Shepard Fairey, he was an Obama fan. He wanted to make a poster. It was unauthorized but he did reach out to the campaign kind of through an intermediary. He just like made sure it was ok. Cuz he’s like, “Does the campaign—are they cool with like a street artist who gets arrested for vandalism?” It’s like, “Yeah, we’re cool with it.” I think if you can have moments that are not directly from the campaign, I think those can really break through.
PF You know, he got in trouble. I think he got sued because the photo was copyrighted.
RZ Oh, right, it’s like a Getty Images photo or something.
HS But I think you kind of see the way that design can be a form of grassroot support. Like the Buttigieg campaign, they had their style guide—they put it up on their website. So you can go on their website and download high res images of the logo, they have all the colors there, they have all the typefaces they use.
PF Oh, does it have the page that tells you how you can’t use the logo? That’s my favorite page [Rich chuckles].
HS They should. But then that almost invites, like, trolls.
PF It really does and everyone will simply do that.
HS Well, like, the Warren campaign, they don’t have that but I talked to some Warren supporters and this artist for Warren Group and like they made their own. They made their own unauthorized Warren style guide that was like, “These are the colors they use,” and they even had some alternatives for the typefaces because Warren, she uses a typeface called Ringside and it’s expensive. So I think that there’s this movement with creators to use design as a form of grassroots support and making your own images that still kind of fall in line with the candidates brand. You know, we’ll see how effective that is but there’s definitely a movement with that.
PF And then share them out digitally on social media or t-shirts or what are they doing to distribute the imagery?
HS It’s digital, it’s merch, it’s kind of whatever. Or if there’s gonna be campaign events they make their own stuff. But, yeah, there’s kind of this unauthorized but supportive—you know, supporters making their own stuff.
PF It’s like The Grateful Dead being cool with bootlegs.
RZ Sometimes, you know, designers wanna get involved and put their talent towards a candidate they believe in or a cause they believe in. What’s a good entry point? Like how do people go about going in that direction?
HS I think it’s tapping into the community. Like if you are a designer and you wanna make stuff for a candidate, I think you might find the pre-existing community online. And it’s kind of like once you get plugged in with them, you have greater distribution. Like they like sharing your stuff. You know, they might share their own unauthorized campaign style guide with you. But, yeah, I think it’s finding supporters. And some of that might be through candidates. There are some groups that are more based around other campaigns [music fades in], so it’s not specific to candidates but yeah, I think it’s finding the pre-existing community.
PF Hunter, tell us about your newsletter and how people can get in touch.
HS Yeah, so, it’s on Substack. You can subscribe at yello.substack.com. That’s Y-E-L-L-O, no ‘w’. And I have a free newsletter that comes out every week. I try to cover culture and branding, visual rhetoric, and politics, and then I publish other stories occasionally about that kinda stuff.
PF Great. What’s your favorite logo?
HS I mean, I like the ones that really stand out and are just like a little bit different. Like, one that really stands out is Amy Klobuchar cuz she uses this big serif font called McKay, and so it’s just like you see that and you’re like, “That is not—” Like you won’t mistake that for any other candidate. You know, Bernie Sanders uses Jabila, like a slab-serif. Joe Biden uses Brother 1816 which is this really sharp font like the ‘a’s and ‘w’s and ‘m’s are really sharp. I like ones that even from far away I can see it and I know what candidate that is. Like it doesn’t look like anyone else’s [Rich chuckles].
PF Alright, great, well, Hunter, thank you so much for coming on Track Changes.
HS Yeah, thanks Paul, thanks Rich [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].