Last week’s Democratic debate in Atlanta saw candidates—from Pete Buttigieg to Kamala Harris, Joe Biden to Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker to Tulsi Gabbard—speaking to each other, and their audiences, in real time. This form of direct address is, of course, a matter of tradition and an opportunity for citizens to get to know the personalities and values behind a name. But outside of these debates, which are peppered strategically throughout presidential campaigns, candidates are turning to creatively designed graphics to give voters a sense of their identity.
“Design is a tool; it can be used effectively or ineffectively to convey a candidate’s brand, their message, and it can [say] something about the larger context of the time things are created,” says Susan Merriam, cofounder of The Center for American Politics and Design. “I think we’re now in an era where candidates at different levels see how much focus there is on design and the role it can play. We’re going from the phase [where political design] is something we can talk about, to how can I use design as a tool to brand myself? How can I create a narrative? Engage with a different audience?”
Today, we’re seeing design—in the form of logos and campaign stickers—provide an additional opportunity to get publicity and appeal to a generation of voters more rooted in the digital space. “A logo is a more engaging way to talk about a candidate,” Merriam says, than facts and figures are, for instance. “I think it’s fair to say that in general there’s more focus on design, especially in the Democratic primary.”
For instance, Bernie Sanders’s stickers and merchandise are fairly straightforward (mirroring the way many people view his politics), featuring slogans like “Bernie 2020,” and “Medicare For All,” all written in a legible font, surrounded by red, white, and blue. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is marked by vibrant colors, quirky hand lettering, and designs from local artists. According to Merriam, these choices speak to the personality of their campaigns.
Tenbeete Solomon, also known as Trap Bob, is a visual artist, illustrator, and animator, who was tapped by Warren’s team to help create her visual identity. Solomon designed three Giphy stickers for Warren’s nomination campaign: one of Warren waving her arms, one of her taking a selfie with supporters, and another one depicting a pinky promise she made to a young girl in real life.
“I’ve done a lot of pieces that deal with equality and minorities that send the message of supporting and doing what’s best for everybody, and not just a few select people,” Solomon explains. She had just released a “Girls in Power” series of illustrations celebrating different women of color across different industries, like Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes, and others. Solomon says the Warren team loved that series, so they asked her to join the team as a graphic designer; she declined because she enjoyed freelancing. “We ended up doing the three-sticker pack and I was actually their first artist collaborator,” Solomon says. “They were comfortable with me doing things in my style. They just wanted to celebrate different things about Warren herself—they wanted to be able to capture her energy.”
According to Solomon, she’s noticed that simplicity and illustrative styles are two big elements in political design right now, along with bold statements and typefaces, clean lines, and a restricted three- or four-hue color palette. These consistent design themes allow a recognizable style to become synonymous with a candidate’s brand, which helps voters develop greater familiarity with a candidate’s platform as well.
“This shift we’re having where politicians are utilizing social media helps to reach an audience . . . especially people who may not have felt as comfortable,” Solomon says. “Even like me as an artist, I didn’t necessarily feel I had a place in politics, but design is such a welcoming way to be able to bring in people’s opinions instead of them feeling alienated from the subject. It’s such a great way to educate without telling people what to do.”
These days, social media is filled with different visual cues that represent candidates and what they stand for. Warren supporters include green backgrounds on their Facebook profile pictures, and Kamala Harris’s supporters have a hashtag on Twitter: #KHive. These similar yet distinct approaches to campaign design are an important tool to set oneself apart.
“The nature of the Democratic party, because of the large number of people running for president, in a way forces people to differentiate themselves,” Merriam says. “A lot of the presidential candidates that kind of look similar or maybe have branded themselves similarly in the past ended up being in the group of candidates that haven’t gone past 1% in the polls.”
Solomon finds that campaign stickers, like the Giphy ones she designed, are becoming more and more important for candidates to have, precisely because of the power of the internet. “Well-designed, colorful, moving animation not only adds some fun to your social media content, but it’s also spreading the word to your followers and friends, which makes people feel like [they’re] a part of the conversation,” Solomon says. “You’re bringing it into their world, it’s fitting into their everyday life and how they share their world with people, so it’s way more organic.”