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Elizabeth Warren’s campaign branding was influenced by Spider-Man, Nike, and Yoko Ono

Blue State, the firm behind the Warren campaign, shares the story behind the brand for the first time.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign branding was influenced by Spider-Man, Nike, and Yoko Ono
[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]
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In case you missed it, Senator Elizabeth Warren is not our nation’s president. She didn’t even manage to secure the Democratic nomination. But there’s no questioning that her red, white, and green brand marked a new approach to presidential politics. And now that the 2020 race is sorted, as Democrats won the election, the team behind the Warren brand is sharing the methodology behind it for the first time.

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It’s a brand that pulled from from civil rights, superheroes, and the Statue of Liberty herself.

[Image: Warren for President]
While Warren lost, “it wasn’t because of the logo,” laughs Matt Ipcar, executive creative director at Blue State, the firm that created her brand. (Warren’s own campaign design team, led by Raquel Breternitz, was responsible for realizing campaign materials in day-to-day operations.) Ipcar worked on President Obama’s historic 2008 and 2012 campaigns. And on January 19, 2019, Ipcar’s team met with Warren on Zoom, just weeks before the campaign kicked off, to share the fresh new brand they’d created for her.

As Ipcar explains, Warren’s existing branding before 2019, looked like that of a senator’s. It used a mix of dark blue/light blue, featuring her name in a big script. That approach didn’t feel presidential. And it didn’t necessarily capture the nuance of Warren’s personality, either. So the team needed to remake her brand to elevate Warren to a presidential figure.

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
“Your brief is different if you are creating a brand for a product than a person,” says Ipcar. “In the old days it would be cigarettes, or dish soaps—all of the products are the same, so you’re completely creating the brand. Whereas a person like Obama and Warren, they have a brand already—they might not have a logo, but they have a brand.”

For Blue State, defining what made Warren’s messaging so powerful to begin with was key. They created a list of words including clarity, purpose, urgency, democracy, and openness, which captured the sharp tenor of Warren’s arguments.

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From there, they dug into history, finding inspiration in mid-century social movements. Yoko Ono’s famous “War is Over!” made the shortlist mood board, as did the “I Am A Man” poster carried by Black Americans during the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. They also loved the “Vote Straight Democratic” messaging used by FDR in the 1934 election.

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
These pieces inspired the direction for Warren’s core logo and brand. “For the Warren logo itself, we didn’t want to do the Obama rising sun, or a Hillary ‘H’. We felt like this was not the time for people getting caught up in design,” says Ipcar. “We wanted something well designed, expandable, beautiful…but something that underlined these very real issues about what people had to do.”

What Blue State created was a striking presentation of Warren. The name is written in a mix of Hoefler&Co.’s modernist Ringside and Verlag typefaces using the tight, compressed permutation, which gives the name a sharp intensity on the page—though when you look closer, you’ll note that the letterform edges have been rounded off, providing the name an approachability. It’s underlined to enhance its punch, and serve as an homage to “I Am A Man.” Ipcar admits these historical references are lost on most people, but that’s okay because they still have intrinsic meaning, while the visual techniques themselves stand the test of time. Plus, he still views the study of historical social movements as something that galvanizes the design team itself to create focused work.

[Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images]
Were there any concerns about the logo? Yes. “One thing we were worried about…was we were always really careful you wouldn’t just read ‘war’ on some of these [signs],” says Ipcar. The events team in particular was on its toes to ensure signs weren’t obstructed to associate Warren with war, which could become an instant meme. “We were careful not to make that mistake, to ever have [‘war’] appear around some corner a photojournalist would get it.” The team even positioned the Warren logo and name vertically, sometimes, to avoid just this issue.

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
The other question behind the logo and larger brand was that of colors. Red and blue were shoo-ins since they’re so American. But the team wanted a color that would be Warren’s own. “What is that third color that doesn’t quite mean unity—it’s not like purple mixing red and blue here. What is that color that means democracy? What is the color that America stands for?” Ipcar muses. “What is the secondary narrative you can convey without saying anything really?”

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The answer to that question was found in the front yard of Joe Rospars’ home, founder and CEO of Blue State, who also served as Warren’s chief strategist.

“Some time after the Trump election and the Women’s March, on his stoop in Brooklyn, he erected a Statue of Liberty out of chicken wire and fairy lights. And if you went to his house, you’d say, ‘it’s the one with the weird Statue of Liberty on the stoop’,” says Ipcar. That image stuck in Ipcar’s head as he and Rospars were figuring out a third color. “We were talking about the Statue of Liberty, and those ideals. I said, ‘maybe this minty, dentist-office green…do you think it’d work?'”

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
Ipcar tried to figure out the exact green of the Statue of Liberty for Warren’s campaign. It was harder than he imagined. The New Yorker had run a story on the topic years ago, but the leads he followed ran dry—not helped by the fact that, of course the statue is not just one green but many greens. Eventually, he simply visited the statue with Pantone swatches in hand to find a few promising hues. Then he brought them back to the studio to try them out.

“One reason I knew it would work is it’s the same brightness as the light blue we’d used for Obama,” says Ipcar. “It’s like a stand-in highlight color you can use in place of white from the flag. You can put dark text on it and have the contrast be enough to read.”

But would it be garish? Ipcar overcame this concern when he came across a pair of vintage Nikes that featured a minty green and a red swoosh. “I was like okay, if they did it, and it looked cool, it’ll definitely work here,” says Ipcar. “Then it’s a matter of opening Illustrator and Figma and testing exactly what works and doesn’t.”

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[Image: courtesy Blue State]
Eventually, the team landed on its particular green. It wasn’t mint. It wasn’t sage. It was America. They dubbed the color Liberty Green.

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
The final question was that of the overall look of Warren’s branding. How would text and images combine for posters and ads? Again, the team looked to history. Warren, who often framed the challenges facing our country as a battle, led the team to look into superheroes and America’s historic war-time efforts. Comic book halftones, like those of Wonder Woman, left an impression.

[Image: courtesy Blue State]
“[Designer] Andy Babb and I had just seen Into the Spider-Verse,” recalls Ipcar, noting the uniquely layered and remixed comic book styling of the movie. “There was this kind of stuff in our minds. It’s not going to be this colorful, but how can we add some of that breaking apart into halftones? Is anyone going to know that [superhero association]? Not really, but it still looks great and has that energy, and even if it’s subconscious, people will pick it up.”

The final posters were a mix of comic halftones, bold texts, and layered graphics. Warren’s “we will” mantra was scribed by her own hand. And if you look very closely, you’ll notice Warren’s important reference back to FDR: “Vote democratic” was printed on every rally sign during her campaign. That message points to the ultimate success of the Warren presidential bid. Even though she lost her own battle for the White House, the Democrats won the presidency, the House, and the Senate.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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