November 6, 2018 marked a significant moment in history. Amid escalating tension and sporadic violence, two visions of the U.S. locked their horns with everything at stake.
And yet, take a look around you. Both sides look the same — literally.
The Center for American Politics and Design built an archive of every 2018 campaign logo, and its banality is disorienting. In a moment of such division and upheaval, how can the visual landscape remain so uniform?
You might notice that there are a few differences in the details. Democrats use slightly more purple, with a near monopoly from the women in the party. Democrats use a bit more blue, Republicans use a bit more red. Etc.
When you take a step back, the difference is a matter of degree. Some individual logos may obviously belong to one party or the other — especially if they use purple or green — but collectively, it’s a wash. After all, both sides are equally into serifs, and lord knows how much typography matters.
You might wonder if this relates to voter apathy. I do. Many people opt out of the political process because they don’t see a difference between the two major parties. Based on their visual identities, that’s an understandable reaction.
By contrast, we’re visually tuned into many other parts of life. We’re surrounded by logos and other symbols that help us define our preferences every time we shop. Some logos stand for who we are and who we want to be, even if the product itself is only a pair of shoes or a phone.
Many civic institutions also use visual patterns to great effect. New Mexico has exquisite license plates, for example. The national Great Seal is iconic, even if it’s not quite in step with the latest design trends. (Though you never know, flat design comes in cycles.)
It’s also ubiquitous in political movements around the world — old communist propaganda is still recognizable generations later, and the color yellow recently took center stage in Catalonia. A few recent American presidential campaigns have leaned on design as well. Obama’s visual language captured his message and encouraged millions of young to people care about politics for the first time (McCain’s didn’t even try).
Clinton’s campaign worked with a highly esteemed designer to develop a winsome, witty, and vaguely corporate logo. Trump used Times New Roman and ALL CAPS to convey his point of view and attitude.
Apparently you don’t need access to expensive professionals or publicity consultants to build a compelling visual language. All of this makes it even more striking that, as a whole, our political parties are not visually distinct.
Is it good or bad that the parties look so alike? I can’t say. People look for visual clues to make sense of the world, and these logos don’t offer much help. On the other hand, politicians aren’t luxury phones, and strong imagery can be used to fuel division. The commonalities also speak to a set of shared values, which are every bit as real as the points of divergence.
Take some time to explore the archive. It’s a fascinating resource, and filled with riddles about the moment you live in. What do you notice?