Democracy’s Design Fail
Mayoral campaign graphics could draw on their city’s rich visual resources, but they hardly ever do
By Michael Collett
(An earlier version of this article ran in AL DÍA)
On Thursday, January 15th, 2015, while on hold for 15 minutes with Healthcare.gov customer service, I sat on Twitter and watched Nelson Diaz, one of a number of popularly assumed, if not yet declared, Democratic candidates for Mayor of Philadelphia announce his intent to run, via
the Twitter account of AL DÍA, the city’s tweeting-est bilingual Latino news organization.
When I saw Candidate Diaz’s placard (above), executed in a typography so cliché as to be effectively invisible, I had to know what the other candidates for the highest office in the nation’s 5th largest city were (or weren't) doing about their communications.
But first, a little background.
I am not a native Philadelphian. I've lived here for 4 years and am still registered to vote in, carry a drivers license from, and fly the flag of the great state of California. Don’t get me wrong, I love Philly, but I’m just loyal.
That said, one of the things I particularly love about Philly is its home-grown typography, the best examples of which can be found on antique signs and hand-painted windows in unreconstructed parts of town:
Proud, strong type, whether in ink or steel, somehow utilitarian and refined at the same time. It’s as if the whole city was a butcher’s menu of entrails, written in a fat sans serif, in 18k gold, on glass.
Which is all to say, I don’t have a dog in this fight for mayor, and you can’t say I’m shitting on the city just to shit on the city.
Philly politicians, however, spurn the city’s (graphic) riches.
Philadelphia is a town where the voter turnout for the last Mayoral ballot dropped below 30%. In this post-Obama age, where we've seen just how potent a well thought-out and coordinated political campaign can be, one would think big-city mayoral candidates would have the foresight to pay their design some mind — or at least hire someone to pay attention. But as I quickly found out, this is not the case.
To wit, and in no particular order:
Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia’s former District Attorney, promises “to make our home the Next Great American City [sic].” This is right out of a Lifetime movie art drawer; the politician ur-template of Skyline + Small First Name + Big Last Name. Geared, no doubt, to the same crowd that shares her prehistoric views on cannabis.
Also, unless I'm mistaken, her campaign team have forgotten to include City Hall in their skyline, which is either a hilarious blunder or a sobering (albeit freudian) admission of where her priorities lie.
Now withdrawn, self-made man Ken Trujillo was going for the gentrifier vote. He'd managed to avoid doing the WHOLE skyline, opting instead for the out-of-scale-with-the-rest-of-the-neighborhood, 10-year-tax-abatement rowhome we can assume his now-abandoned constituency lives in.
The slab-serif surname has a strange, prefab militarism to it that only highlights his sharing it with the notorious Dominican dictator. The sloppy first name, spaced too wide and differently from “for mayor”; truly, the banality of hipness.
It’s fitting; like so much of the city’s new construction, it’s supposed to look big and strong, but it’s mostly fly-by-night.
Remind you of something? Does the name seem familiar? It should, Anthony H. Williams is the son of a politician. Ironically, for a guy who infamously bait-and-switched his way into office with his dad, it certainly seems like he’s been sold a bill of goods with his logo.
What galls me so much about the skyline trope is you just know someone did this in Image Trace and billed for 2 hours of drawing. I destroyed the fidelity of this pulling it off a PNG on the campaign site, but why go through the trouble of finding a font that is essentially Helvetica, but so obviously not Helvetica?
Nelson Diaz, the late entrant who set me down this sloppily-typeset rabbit hole, runs away with the Miss Congeniality award in this pageant. Talk about can't-be-bothered. It’s a shame, too.
As individual letterforms, there’s
a muscular economy to them,
and in the corner of the placards (cropped off here), there’s the union printers insignia, so at least the folks making it got a fair wage.
But there is just a strange resignation to the design and its implementation; the candidate hasn't posted it to his Twitter or website and even his parents seem kind of disappointed by their son’s resolute middle-of-the-road-ery.
Doug Oliver, who jumped from the Mayor’s Office to the privatized city gas company, and from the Republican to Democratic ticket to run for mayor, avoids some of the obvious politician logo pitfalls, and attempts something out of the ordinary. It suffers most obviously, though, from being clearly unfinished.
At best, it’s a 5-minute typography sketch, the kind a designer makes seven of to show a client early on in the process. There’s an idea here, maybe not a great one, and it’s far from polished. But as a final product? The sloppy William Penn silhouette, mashed-up 2015 and distracting, stretched-Didot ‘U’ all conspire to sweep this one into the bin.
City government veteran cum pro-business reform candidate Terry Gillen, like Candidate Oliver, has also managed to skirt the city skyline/bricks and mortar clichés of the rest of the field. That she didn't fall into quite the same holes, though, is all there really is to say for this one. The hierarchy of the names makes it read like “Gil ‘n Terry,” which sounds more like a country-rock shock jock morning show than a mayor.
Graphically, she comes to the proverbial knife fight armed with, well, PetSmart. I also can’t stop looking at the off-balance spacing of the dividing line and just like Candidate Williams, we’ve got another terminal case of sans-serif anonyma ill-advisus.
You see, the thing is, we live in the
most design-literate era in human history, hands down.
Never before have ordinary people had so much exposure to, and knowledge of, all different types of design, and never before have there been so many (goddamned) designers.
It’s generally great — unless you're trying to find a job — but what it means for politicians is that more and more people can read the fact that you don’t give a damn, especially when you literally put your name on it.
And let’s be clear, that’s exactly what each of these logos say.
The truism is true; actions speak louder than words.
For a politician, a brand, a social movement, or anyone that wants to move hearts and minds, the simplest, most powerful, and widest reaching action you can take is typesetting your name.
If you can't be bothered to bring a modicum of inspired thinking to something so important, what are you really saying other than:
You can “draw” your own conclusions.
Hit me with your slush fund: @workingmichael