Over my 19 years in professional political campaigning, a lot of things have bothered me. But as we’re just embarking on a season of campaign launches for 2019 and 2020, I feel like it’s a good time to sit down, pour a drink, and vent my spleen about one particular frustration: The general lack of preparation and investment in good visual design by political campaigns.
For nearly all of my career, I’ve worked in digital politics. And, thankfully, that has meant that I’ve been lucky to work with new campaigns early in the cycle — sometimes even before they launch. It took a while for this to become the standard, but thankfully no serious candidate launches without some sort of online presence.
Unfortunately, however, that typically means that campaigns tend to treat their visual identities with the same dismissiveness they used to (and some still) show towards digital. If a campaign has a visual identity pre-launch, it’s typically just some colors and whatever logo they’ve been using for a long time. Worse, it’s probably just their name, in blue for Ds or red for Rs, and probably a flag, state outline, or a freaking star in there somewhere.
If they DON’T have a logo, but have (wisely) brought a digital consulting firm on to get them off the ground, chances are pretty good that the digital firm will simply toss in the logo along with everything else, the way that Best Buy used to sell compact discs at a loss just to get you in their stores.
On the plus side, there are plenty of GREAT designers working at the digital consulting firms, but they tend to (through lack of process and buy-in from their team and the campaigns that just need a website — and need it fast) to just design something that looks good. There’s rarely a proper process to develop the brand for the campaign, then translate those decisions into a functional visual identity.
We’re just going to agree to ignore Trump here, except to note that his ugly design was at least functional.
So, what SHOULD we be doing? Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts.
1. Stop confusing your “Brand” with your logo or message, and figure that out FIRST. Then you should work on developing your visual identity.
People in politics (particularly us consultants) LOVE to toss the word brand around to make us seem like we work in the corporate world, but most of the time they are just trying to sound smart, and really referring to “message”. Less often, they’re referring to a logo or visual identity.
A brand really is the core of what your campaign means. It’s what supporters are saying about themselves when they choose to support you. It’s not the words candidates use, policies they support or what their ads look like. All of those things should be driven by the fundamental decisions (or circumstances) of each candidate — so making a logo before you’ve thought those things through is backwards.
While it’s time-consuming and costly to work through a full corporate-style branding process, by simply thinking about this at the outset of a campaign, you’ve made a huge step forward. And, if you ask, a lot of good designers can guide you through a stripped-down and more speedy process as time and money are precious.
Heck, a few of us non-designers can, too.
2. The best logo may not be the prettiest — and you’re not the audience.
“Your name is the first word in your story about who you are and why you matter.” — Eli Altman
Obviously, your candidate’s name isn’t really up for debate, but the concept also applies your visual identity. A lot of voters are going to be introduced to you first with an email, ad, website, or piece of printed material. That being the case, you should make sure it properly evokes the feelings you want it to in your supporters.
Too many visual identities are developed by going with typical colors, a candidates’ favorite color, and their favorite typeface. Or, worse, the favorites of a sleep-deprived, underpaid designer in a web firm somewhere who’s running out of time.
The results may not be YOUR favorite — but you should select the thing that works best for your audience(s), not the thing you think is prettiest. And for you designers out there, please remember this is a craft, not an art.
3. Invest in a design system, and require your consultants to deliver a brand guide that covers not just the logo, colors, and fonts, but voice, style, and more.
The good news here is that most seasoned political folks have either good instincts about what is on message and what isn’t, or have learned it over time.
But don’t make your staff guess — especially if you’re running a larger race where you’re going to rely on mid-level and junior staff to pick photos for the web or social posts, whip up flyers, send emails, make GIFs, Instagram Stories and more.
So, first, make sure the people you’ve hired to design for you are thinking ahead and design some additional creative for you to cover all the things a modern campaign needs (social profiles, icons, web navigation items, social media image templates, etc.). If you don’t, you’re going to have to make it up on the fly, and that’s not ideal. There’s going to be plenty of (excuse the phrase) “unknown unknowns” so the more “known unknowns” you can nail before you even launch, the faster and more nimble your digital campaign will be.
And, when your design team is thinking ahead, make sure they work with you to develop (and codify in writing) design and voice standards so you everyone working with design and writing on your campaign can sing from the same hymnal. Compare the brand guides you got from your last designer to this from the ACLU, this from (I know, I know, but this is a great example)Walmart. You don’t need something as extensive as these, but it’s probably better to get more than you’ve got now — if you have anything at all.
In the end, it just comes down to making smart branding decisions early, and committing to pulling together some consensus about how the campaign presents itself to the world. And this should be a process that involves MORE people, not fewer. Don’t send your designer off to a cave to deliver the logo. It needs input from the pollster, the mail firm, the TV consultant, the fundraising people, and — of course — the candidate.
Without the above steps, a critical portion of your campaign is just people guessing. And probably not even the right people. But if you take just a little time to think about these questions in advance, and make good branding and visual identity priorities for the campaign, everything else will go more smoothly.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
I’d love to you hear your thoughts. You can find me tweeting about advertising, digital politics, whisk(e)y, giant fighting robots and cephalopods at @SteveOlson — and if you liked this post, I’d appreciate you clicking the “clap” button below. Thanks!