Can design help win an election? Experts duke it out

Jennifer Kinon and Scott Starrett, alums from the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and AOC, debate whether design can make a difference in politics.

Can design help win an election? Experts duke it out
[Source Image: iStock]

Much of the world was surprised by the results of the 2016 presidential election, and designers were no exception. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a cleaner, more cogent design, with the polish, strategy, and experience of some of the biggest names in the design world. Yet Donald Trump, and his particular brand of acrimonious chaos and convoluted aesthetic, still won. Those retina-piercing red hats seared into the design community’s collective memory a reminder of design’s power—and limitations.


The question of whether design can help win elections is a tricky one—with significant consequences. So we asked two experts to weigh in. Jennifer Kinon, founding partner of Champions Design, grappled with these issues firsthand as the design director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Scott Starrett, the cofounder and creative director of design agency Tandem NYC, was the creative director behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 congressional campaign branding, which other progressives have since taken inspiration from. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

[Images: Clinton 2016, JohnMcGrawPhotography/iStock (photo)]
Jennifer Kinon: It would really let me off the hook to say, “No. Nope. Design doesn’t have that kind of power.” But it’s just not true.

Making information accessible is the most basic argument for design’s critical role in a campaign. Making ideas persuasive is the most powerful.


A brand gets its meaning from what it represents. A successful brand brings your candidate’s particular personality, sincerity, urgency, clarity, care, vision, energy, and enthusiasm to each campaign communication.

Your candidate does not get the opportunity to meet every voter, but design touches every message and—hopefully—every heart.

Scott Starrett: I can’t take issue with the big-picture assessment you’ve made, but I will push back a bit on the premise itself.


It would also be convenient for me to say, “Of course design shapes the outcome of an election! Good design has the power to open minds.” But it really depends on what we mean when we use the term design and, more important, the conditions of the race itself.

As an industry, I think we’re often cavalier with the word design. Political design as a concept is fairly young. The skill set an architect and industrial designer bring to the table might not be directly applicable to a campaign design team, but someone advocating on behalf of a humanistic approach to complex information might be the perfect next step in design’s involvement in politics and civic engagement. Sometimes politicians are open to deep branding exercises, but many campaigns are still applying design principles as an afterthought to their communications systems, not an integral component to the organization’s fundamental strategy.

[In some campaigns], we’ve acted as full service consultants providing direction on campaign strategy, technology, messaging/copywriting, digital, print, and direct mail in addition to the “branding” efforts our studio is most recognized for. We call these collective design efforts “communication design.” Each of these components are ultimately linked by design, and when we gain the full trust of whomever we work with, I truly believe good honest design will help any organization run more smoothly.


So to your point, Jennifer, I agree that a solid communication system that exudes “sincerity, urgency, clarity, care, vision, energy, and enthusiasm” can help win an election, but can it really tip the scales on its own? Can it even have a quantifiable impact? I think it’s certainly possible, but it depends entirely on the conditions of the election, and a little luck is always involved. Sometimes the stars align and the conditions are just right. On the other hand, extreme weather conditions can make a substantial difference in a race by making it difficult for all of the single parents in a district to balance voting, work, and child care. That storm could hypothetically make the difference in a presidential race lost by a few thousand votes.

Money and exposure matter a great deal in politics, but perhaps there’s also a saturation point at which communication deployed by the campaign is negligible in the face of public opinion and the media narrative? We can contribute to that narrative via design, but someone who has been in the public eye for years is actively designing their public persona, and the choices they make could present an insurmountable challenge.

That’s the exciting part about politics, it’s ultimately up to the people, and anybody who says they know the secret to winning an election doesn’t have enough experience yet.


JK: In so closely parsing the definition of design and the conditions of a particular race, you’ve gone a long way toward a solid appraisal of the American political process itself. The acknowledgment that something as fluky as a bad storm can suppress the voter turnout of single parents with no child care and thereby change the outcome of an entire election is everything. Isn’t it?

I agree that a “humanistic approach to complex information” is absolutely the best next step for political design. No one reads policy pages, but everyone worries about who they would get a beer with. A breakthrough will come when we deliver policy that voters want to get a beer with. (Hat tip Warren.)

But even more important than that is a commitment to what you call “good honest design.” In a 2017 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Naomi Klein said, “The rules of branding are really simple: Be true to your brand. The problem with Donald Trump is that he went and designed a brand that is entirely amoral.”


My question is: What is politics, if not morality? A campaign should not be won with divisiveness and fear. It should be driven by ideas. Running for something is different from running against something. It requires more creativity, more vulnerability, and more optimism. Anyone can point and say “not that.” What requires some bravery and know-how is to say “how about this?”

As designers, we can make visible that which has only been imagined. We can expand our shared vision for this country. And, I believe, we can help win elections. Then it’s up to each of us as citizens to vote. (Vote! Please, vote.)

Fast Company: Jennifer, has your opinion—that design can help win elections—evolved since the 2016 presidential campaign? The fact that Trump still won, although Hillary Clinton’s campaign had objectively better design, seemed to cause a reckoning within the design community as to the difference they can make in politics.


JK: I still believe firmly in both the power of design and the qualifications of my candidate. I believe in my team. I believe in the work we did. And I encourage anyone tough enough to get in the arena to go for it. As Scott said, design for politics is still young. We’re still figuring it out. It’ll break your heart, but it’s worth it.

[Image: Tandem Design NYC]
SS: I would agree that politics is about morality for those of us operating in good faith; for others, it might just represent an opportunity for personal gain, but let’s ignore that second group for the sake of discussion.

I worry we run the risk of moralizing design when we talk casually about good and bad design. I realize the irony of what I’m saying, considering I brought up “good, honest design,” earlier in the discussion, but I think there’s a distinction between subjectively “good” design and effective design. There’s also a distinction between the process and the final product. Perhaps if we more often tried to consider design as a process that is either effective or ineffective, it would help reduce some of the pretension that sometimes surrounds our industry. In the case of Hillary’s campaign, I’d say securing nearly 55% of the major-party popular vote was an effective outcome in spite of the zero-sum nature of politics.


When I say “good, honest design can help any organization run more smoothly,” I mean to imply that well-intentioned design can be effective design. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exclude disingenuous and intentionally manipulative designers from achieving their goals.

This is an obviously taboo topic, and it should go without saying that I’m not being complimentary here, but the Nazis were effective in their use of design and it played a major role in Hitler’s rise to power. People might be quick to say, “but that’s propaganda.” To which I would ask sincerely for someone to show me the objective distinction between design and propaganda in real time without the influence of self-interest.

Perception is everything, literally. And to echo your sentiment, Jennifer, I do believe design can play a huge role as an instigator of change to the status quo, and I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not enough just to fight against charlatans, demagogues, and grand wizards. We have to design for a better tomorrow using all of the tools at our disposal and every definition of design and designer along the way.


I tend to refer to the challenge faced in political communications as the difference between selling cotton candy and broccoli. We all know the long-term effects of each, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell cotton candy at a rally. But if anything can convince folks to eat their greens, it’s an effective communications campaign, and some flashy packaging never hurts.

JK: There is no distinction between design and propaganda, but to believe that “perception is everything” is to have lost to these bad actors before we’ve begun. We are publicly debating whether or not design can help win elections, so what are we doing if not moralizing good and bad design? There is nothing casual about it. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Agreed that there’s a distinction between subjectively “good” design, let’s call it craft, and effective design. Agreed that there is a distinction between process and final product. But it would be a great loss to our industry if we reduce design to a process that is either effective or ineffective. That suggests all work be measurable and all outcomes be knowable. What happens to creativity? Where is the imagination? How do we take an accounting of emotion? Craft has no doubt been colonized. That’s where we get pretension, but let’s not confuse the practice of craft with the process of creativity. We need to decolonize craft and keep creativity.


How do we do that? We moralize. We hold ourselves and our industry responsible for inclusive practices that prioritize fair and equitable hiring that leads to more designers bringing more and different lived experiences to the process. And when that fails (or even when it succeeds), we turn to our institutions. It’s up to design media to uncover stories of process, design critics to synthesize craft, and academics to contextualize outcome and effect.

That’s why we can’t ignore the group for whom politics represents an opportunity for personal gain. We need to obsess over them. We need to build systems and bolster institutions to hold them accountable. To get really hyperbolic about it, that’s how the country was founded and we’re lucky it was because it gave us November 3. November 3 is our one last chance for our institutions to save us. For us to save ourselves. For us to vote out the fascist autocrats.

We can’t let them make us feel like we need to sell broccoli like cotton candy. We’ve got to lift up broccoli and lay cotton candy plain. As Jen O’Malley Dillon [tells her team], “We can do hard things.” Design can help win elections.


SS: I certainly agree that people who use politics for personal gain must be held accountable. Their lies should be exposed and we should continue to remind people that our most elaborate dalliances with concepts like supply-side, Laffer Curve, or trickle-down economics are promoted by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy. These experiments have not paid for themselves but have made the rich much richer. I don’t think “good design” can convince Steven Mnuchin that enriching his friends through a tax cut paid for by future generations was, in fact, bad for the middle class even if it put a few short-term dollars in their pocket. . . . I think he knows that. I don’t think “good design” is going to convince Steven Miller to give up his addiction to bigotry and consider the value of the immigrant to our country either.

The angle I’ve tried to take on our discussion “Can design help win an election?” is, of course it can! Everything is ultimately a product of design. But I firmly believe we are limiting ourselves when we give too much credit to too narrow a definition of “design.”

If our discussion has turned toward the question, “does good design always conquer bad design in an election?” I think that relationship begins with an extensive education that takes place long before the design we’re referring to makes its first touchpoint. If 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were raised from childhood to believe that a woman simply isn’t capable of becoming an effective leader, no matter how shortsighted I find that belief, I’m not sure the design of a single campaign can change that.


I am interested to know if you think having a different, or additional approach to your efforts could have changed enough minds or invited enough disenfranchised voters into the process to secure the 80,000 votes your team needed to win? With all due respect to the individuals working hard on behalf of his campaign, I personally believe Hillary Clinton placed a more serious focus on design than Joe Biden has in this election. How will we, as the design community, account for that if he wins this election? What will it mean to you?

I don’t think design is going to convince people it’s more fun to eat broccoli than cotton candy. I think, like convincing the public that smoking is a health risk or seat belts save lives, it takes time and information and a variety of different approaches to get the job done. Style, good craft, and even embellishment are part of the effort but they alone aren’t the effort. I’m making an argument on behalf of a generalist’s approach to problem-solving and against the pedestal we so often put specialists upon. I unequivocally believe that design is omnipresent in our institutions, not to mention the framework of human society. Design’s influence is boundless, but I will maintain that we run the risk of being reductionists when we focus too narrowly on the mainstream application of the concept of “design.”

JK: This has been a wild and crazy ride. In all our bluster, I only hope we’ve made a strong case for why more designers should get into politics.

Where I see us agree is that “yes” design can help win elections, that “yes” this is difficult and heartbreaking work that’s vulnerable to the weather and maybe a little luck, and “yes” there is a need to expand our vision of what both design and our country can be.

Right now, all we know about the Biden campaign’s focus on design is the craft and the content. They will share their process in time, and the effectiveness will find its way into the history books on November 3. That’s not enough for me to feel anything but supportive, hopeful, optimistic, and proud of their work. They are implementing “good, honest design.” They are making information accessible and ideas persuasive.

I will vote for Biden-Harris. And that’s it. That’s everything.

[Image: Biden 2020]
SS: This has been a lot of fun, and I feel comfortable taking responsibility for the majority of the bluster. As you said, I hope conversations like these invite more designers into the arena of civic engagement.

I should qualify my previous statement about Hillary placing a more serious focus on design in her campaign. I’ve fallen into a habit I promoted as problematic. It would have been more thoughtful to say Hillary Clinton appeared to put a stronger focus on “an eclectic approach” to her campaign’s visual design, which doesn’t exclude Joe Biden and his team from a carefully considered design strategy. As I mentioned in a previous Fast Company article, the Biden team’s approach appears to me to be risk averse, or put another way, perhaps Biden is trying to provide the country with a sense of familiar calm amid the current chaos, and I think that’s smart. All available information points to this election coming down to the Rust Belt states again. Taking that into consideration has to be part of any effective design strategy.

And with that, I second the notion: I will be voting as early as possible for Biden-Harris, and that is everything. It’s been a pleasure.


About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.