Where are the great political posters?

This article was originally printed in the July issue of InPrint magazine


The political poster has played a significant role in political gatherings for the last two hundred years. They could be produced cheaply and plastered up quickly. Epic clashes of ideology fought it out in visually compelling posters that are easy to show in design and history books. To see some great example click here.

Political posters are conceptually easy to design. They just need a great image, a gripping headline and maybe a logo. There are no clicks or metrics or market share attached to them. However the very idea of a poster is under attack due to the dominance of TV/web as the main mediums for political messaging along with green issues of paper wastage. Is there still the kind of great clash of opposing ideologies that historically gave rise to all those great posters of previous eras? In this article I ask if the political poster is it now an out-of-date medium?


Posters can be stuck on anything such as this dune buggy in a local parade: Huffman won the seat

Plastic yard signs with prongs for insertion into the ground have sprouted up all over suburbia. These have largely replaced paper posters in the US as the main conveyor of political messages at the street level. This is where we passively form our opinion of a candidate as we go about our day-to-day life.

Other processes for mustering up the vote occur in the privacy of the home such as email, telemarketing, direct mail and websites/online banner ads. All of these can bring a more detailed message to specific households. However these messages are more likely to be lost in the daily mass of unsolicited spam, junk mail and the ever annoying telemarketing phone call.

TV remains the dominant medium for presidential or congressional election campaigns as it is the main chance for individuals to see the candidate in person (so to speak). Just like a brand the footage gives a general impression of how the candidate conducts themselves–more so than in other media.

However despite all this individuals still wave posters at the party conventions and carry them in parades. There is something about their size and manageability that keeps them in the human scale. The fact that anyone can now design them and get them printed adds to their universal allure. Click here to see CafePresse.com’s Obama and Romney pages and just as before they still remain the main artifact for a political campaign.


Large last names, stars and red/white/blue: the main ingredients of US political posters

So what goes onto these printed posters? There is definitely a very unique view of designing political campaigns in the US. There is a certain psychology at play and design for political posters process reflects this.

Firstly the biggest unique aspect of designing election posters in the US is the use of a candidate’s last name as the largest element. Sure the name appears on the ballot and it’s important to recognize it. However in Ireland and the UK political posters have pictures of the specific individuals on them as the largest element. The name appears big as well but it is a secondary element.

Next comes the use of variations on stars and stripes to convey how ‘all American’ the candidate and their values are. Smaller parties like the Greens or Libertarians don’t use the generic American look to present a non standard view of their policies. The concept of ‘Blue’ states (Democratic) and ‘Red’ states (Republican) emerged through TV’s portrayal of the vote counting. However red is not seen as a particularly American color on it’s own in politics. This is probably due to red’s association with communism and a general negative ‘stop’ or ‘danger’ connotation.

Thirdly I find the absence of party branding on these posters is very odd. Almost all candidates in presidential and congressional elections are members one of the two main parties yet they don’t use their logos. Obama made up his own logo and uses that. By contrast European political parties each have their own distinct color branding and party logo on everything. I think only the green party in the US has a distinctive brand color but with a name like that it would have to.


A selection of compellingly designed political posters

Not only does every good political poster have it’s own message but to be a great political poster there usually has to be a strong opposing viewpoint. Consider the iconic  ‘I Want You’ Uncle Sam poster from world war one or the equally iconic British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster originally to be pasted up if the Germans invaded during world war two. Both so captured a feeling of their era that has lived on beyond their origin. Check the links as the end of this article to see American, Communist and Nazi posters from world war 2.

While the clash of ideals provides a political viewpoint it also creates an impassioned group trying to use it to electrify or shock the public. If the group also comes from the fringes they may have less to lose. A great example of this is the Silence = Death poster created in reaction to President Reagan declaring AIDS “public health enemy number one” in 1987.

Now in this election year what is our vision of the future? Is there an epic clash of ideologies? During US elections the two main parties seem to mostly target the voters in the mid ground. These are the people who will sway an election rather than the dedicated party followers. As a result in deciding their messaging politicians in the US tend to play it safe. Currently Obama and Romney’s political platforms cover job creation, economic stimulus, the deficit, auto industry recovery, healthcare etc. The detail varies but in the run up to the election these differences will be expanded to appear like the epic ideological clashes of the mid 20th century.


Shepard Fairey with his famous Obama image in the National Portrait Gallery and some of it’s parodies

Against the backdrop of stars and stripes dominating political posters the Obama/Hope poster emerged to capture the imagination of the public in 2008. It seemed to capture Obama’s vision, whether real or imagined. It also encapsulated the public’s desire for change, something John Kerry was unable to do in 2004.

The artist Shepard Fairey designed the stencil style poster in a single day and then printed off 700 to sell on the streets of San Francisco. The original poster merely had the word ‘progress’ but Obama’s campaign people later asked if Fairly could do a version with ‘hope’ and even later on a version with ‘change’. The non specific message captured a feeling rather than a specific policy allowing anything to be read into it. It no doubt helped sway many of the undecided voters who needed a clear brand-like sense of what Obama stood for.

By October 2008, Fairey and Yosi Sergant, his publicist, claimed to have printed 300,000 posters (most given away) and 1,000,000 stickers. For a year after it’s creation the image and parodies of it appeared everywhere. In fact to make your own click here.

Despite a legal wrangle over the use of the an Associated Press photo the original hand finished collage now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. Unlike most of his predecessors, Fairey has shown the dramatic impact a single political poster can achieve.


Some AIGA entries for this year’s Get Out The Vote campaign (‘Every vote counts’ by Rick Byrne)

The urban myth that more people voted for American Idol than in a presidential election of 2008 is widely believed (although not true). As the amount of people casting their votes declines, the mobilization of the non-voters has become the key focus of the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. Rock concerts, college campus gatherings and posters target the 18-25 age group–the very people who most want to change the world yet often feel that they can’t change anything.

The narrowness of the margin in votes between the two presidential candidates in Florida 2000 caused an even larger GOTV drive in 2004 and 2008. As a result various GOTV campaigns in the US are populated with people with left wing/Democratic political views. My gut feeling is that groups with right wing/Republican views mobilize better as a voting block. It is ironic that while previously great political posters used to say who to vote for while now they are just asking people to vote.

The AIGA (the professional association for design) has organized a selection of print ready posters open to anyone use. To see the full range of magnificent posters click here. The project is a return to the vision that graphic posters can sway people to vote for something. In the last election approximately 100,000 of AIGA/GOTV posters were printed. There is still an epic clash of great ideals, but now the ideological clash is between democracy and apathy.


A less safe message that goes beyond the usual stars and stripes yet did not capture the zeitgeist

Websites are increasingly used as the main contact point for political campaigns. Unlike other media, online campaigns are a two way process, can be tracked for usage/clicks and are easily updated as policy changes–everything a poster is not. So with websites being a more effective tool for reaching the electorate than a poster should they still play it safe?

A disastrous political website appeared earlier this year in the form of the highly racist Bettie-spend-it-now campaign for Senator Pete Hoekstra. Aimed at his opponent Debbie Stabenow’s spending policy it has an Asian girl saying in pidgin English “Thank you Debbie SpendItNow. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get weak. Ours get very good. We get jobs. Thank you Debbie SpendItNow.” The website had Chinese fans, dragons and the red communist flag all around the video. Click here to see the video (which also played as a tv ad during the Superbowl).

It definitely cut through the masses of safe political messaging by having a more unique take on the issue and created a big media buzz. Pete Hoekstra discovered the fallacy of the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity and had a drop of 5% in support (comparing a poll in November 2011 to one in February 2012). It is surprising that the drop was only 5% and not more. The site was taken down due to so many complaints and original URL (debbiespenditnow.com) now directs to PeteSpendItNot.com. Hoekstra’s willingness to not play it safe could have created something great. After all it clearly changed many of the electorate’s minds–just not in the way Hoekstra had in mind.


The future equivalent of the poster may lie online

No longer the outsider, Obama cannot reuse the emotive ‘change’ theme of his first presidential campaign. Instead he has now gone for the safer middle ground. Web ads now present him more like an everyman figure with his wife and children being co-opted into them. There is even a reality TV-like online ad campaign where donators to the campaign can win a dinner with Obama himself. By contrast Romney’s message so far is mostly about jobs and economic growth. Gone is the iconic poster from the fringe declaring Hope, Change or Progress.

So how do you end up with a great political poster? Put simply it’s the combination of being at the right time and place to capture a zeitgeist of an epic clash of ideals, preferably in a new artistic style. It seems that without this epic clash there won’t be an epic poster. Maybe as the messaging changes from either side in the run-up to November 1st’s voting, a more diverse clash of ideals will emerge. Someone just as lucky as Fairey may yet capture the spirit of the time.






Some fantastic posters:

World war 2 American posters:

Soviet era posters:

Nazi posters:

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