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Pentagram rebrands voting for the 21st century

NYC Votes builds a design system as unique as New York itself.

Pentagram rebrands voting for the 21st century
[Image: courtesy Pentagram]

Voting used to feel like a joyful American right. But following the 2020 election, with its partisan attacks on the legitimacy of the ballot, it’s become charged. New Yorkers are in the midst of a highly consequential mayoral race—all while learning how to rank their vote for the first time, which means citizens are carrying an extra heavy burden on their shoulders.

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But NYC Votes—New York’s nonpartisan voting board that ensures a fair election—is reading the room with an energetic new branding campaign led by Pentagram partner Eddie Opara. It launched as part of a new site on May 17. From its logo to its color scheme, NYC Votes welcomes voters by reflecting the unique energy of the city itself.

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
As Opara explains, most state voting sites really are what you might imagine. They’re red, white, and blue, and they use the same old visual trope—a check mark in a box. It’s a dated approach that signals backward thinking instead of the forward momentum of democracy.

“The ballot box doesn’t look like that!” Opara laughs. “The tick mark is not a tick mark. It’s a circle! In a really stupid way, it’s incorrect. . . . So let’s move away from that and look at the truth here.”

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
Now, truth is a slippery idea in both politics and branding. But Opara homed in on a simple idea. “We’re trying to declare that everybody has a voice and wants to be heard,” he says.

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
So instead of a voting check mark, the visual anchor of NYC Votes is a speech bubble. It’s built to contain words and images, and the bubble is rendered in all sorts of eclectic ways. Sometimes it has a smooth border, sometimes its edges look like a pixelated 8-bit video game, and sometimes it’s even shaped with the actual border lines of one of the five boroughs across New York City. The terminal, or bottom, of these bubbles is a V for “Vote.”

“The idea is that everything stems from the V,” Opara says. “So in that sense, your vote and your voice are incredibly important.”

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The typography alternates between Whyte and Whyte ink trap typefaces. It’s round and friendly—the sort of typeface that doesn’t convey “governmental institution” at all. With its ink trap variant, Whyte is designed to be legible when small, and so it features cutouts to catch excess ink around joints in the letters (these are the ink traps). But Pentagram isn’t using these ink traps to be legible when small for this branding system. Designers put the ink traps there for their personality.

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
When you look more closely at the type, you may notice that possessive pronouns like “your” are rendered slightly differently—sometimes with an ink trap variant, other times with boldface. The effect gives subtle emphasis to certain words, and pulls you deeper into the messaging.

The logo itself is made from a custom type. It makes liberal use of deep notches that plunge their way into the letters like skinny valleys. Yet at the same time the notches are carving out white space inside the letters, the letters eliminate white space by cramming together so tightly that they touch in symbolic unity.

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
These deep white spaces and touching letters are a visual contradiction that gives the NYC Votes logo an ever-so-arresting look , a sort of surprise that it’s tough to wrap your head around—by design.

“It’s different, it’s distinct,” Opara says. “People might say it’s not regular, but I’d say, ‘Have you ever seen a regular New Yorker?'”

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
As for the colors of NYC Votes, they are anything but the normal red, white, and blue of the American flag. But they are actually inspired by flags. The blue and orange of the New York state flag became the purple and eye-popping orange you see in the brand system. Other colors were lifted from the flags of the boroughs and put through a similar vibrancy filter, ranging from stone (Staten Island) to sunshine yellow (the Bronx).

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
“No one would know this, but we wanted to make sure everything is sourced from New York,” Opara says. “The rationale behind this is, we wanted it to be unbiased [with a] very distinct color palette structure.”

Ultimately, the brand adds up to feel like something trustworthy but quirky, open but organized, and optimistic but neutral. Most of all, it successfully leverages graphic design to bridge the gap between a city and its active citizens.

“I think the idea [is] that voting really needs to be shaken up. It’s so authoritarian. . . . Why is that?” Opara muses. “Let’s break out of that. Democracy is more than that.”

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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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