As a politically active American, I can tell you that there’s nothing more fascinating than watching political design at work. The intrigue, the backstabbing, the speeches full of promise: it’s what all storytellers hope for when they create a new film or show.
If you’re thinking this is about the hit show House of Cards, I’m sorry to say you’re wrong, although I am a fan of Frank Underwood.
No, I’m talking about elections, specifically the 2016 US Presidential election.
It was a media circus that lasted for months and was more Shakespearean than a well-produced BBC show. You couldn’t ask for a better cast: a reality show host and a well-seasoned former First Lady of the United States running for the country’s most powerful position. There was drama, scandals, gaffes, and televised debates that brought in around 72 million viewers.
But during the political process, I began to wonder how design influences politics, if it indeed does. The answer I came up with? It may not be the deciding factor to the results, but it can definitely be an influence.
How does design affect the political process?
Politics exploits design – especially logos and slogans – to help persuade people to vote from an emotional standpoint, not a rational one. Many of the slogans and logos that make the rounds on social media focus on either bringing together a group of people or frightening them into voting one way or another.
Politics exploits design – especially logos and slogans – to help persuade people to vote from an emotional standpoint.
Because slogans and logos are short and visual, they have an impact on politics, especially in the social media, 140-characters, Snapchat world of today. If, as a politician, you can’t fit your political message into a tweet or a clever logo, it’s going to be harder to reach younger voters.
The surprise victory of Donald Trump
Donald Trump’s victory was surprising. He had never held public office, was a lifelong Democrat who ran as a Republican, is known for his obsessive compulsion for lying, and has no background or education on government, legislation, or diplomacy.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a lawyer, a former First Lady of the United States, a New York senator, and Secretary of State under President Obama.
So why did Clinton lose to a political newcomer who lost the popular vote by, at last count, over 2.9 million voters?
Whatever the reason, it seems plausible that brand and design positioning could have been a factor in the results; Clinton and her aides chose a positive, upbeat message that was overshadowed by the fierce, frightening, “law-and-order” populist campaign designed by the Trump campaign.
Logos are the most visible part of any political campaign’s design materials. As we saw with Barack Obama and his now-famous poster designed by Shepard Fairey for the presidency in 2008, a well-designed logo can either make or break the visual presence of a campaign.
In the 2016 presidential election, logos were less important than slogans, especially as the election cycle moved from the primaries towards the general campaign. This could be for a number of reasons, but having Twitter accessible by both candidates made it easier for both to get their messages out without having to rely so much on adverts and other traditional campaign measures.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign tested over 85 different logos before settling on the “H” design with an arrow pointing right that incorporated the colours blue and red. This was meant to signal a campaign about bringing people together, hence the inclusion of both parties’ colours within the design.
Donald Trump went a more traditional route with his logo: it is his last name with his slogan, “Make America Great Again!” written underneath. The logo was designed to hone in on Republicans who were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and wanted to return to the heyday of “American exceptionalism.”
Slogans matter for two reasons: they are easy to remember and they can be used as hashtags.
Slogans were critical to the American election last year. Nothing — not the debates, the town hall, the adverts, the logos or the interviews — mattered more than the soundbites that each candidate and their supporters came up with.
Slogans matter for two reasons: they are easy to remember and they can be used as hashtags. Thousands of tweets have been shared on social media with the hashtags #ImWithHer and #MAGA, the abbreviation of Trump’s slogan, were used during the election.
“Make America Great Again”
Trump’s use of “Make America Great Again” was popular among conservative voters; it signalled Trump’s promise to return America back towards exceptionalism.
The slogan hit home with disenfranchised voters who were overwhelmingly from the middle of the country and felt out of step with the progressive and globalist view of the previous president. The slogan became so successful that Trump’s campaign store was filled with products that listed the entire slogan; the slogan was later cut down to MAGA.
“I’m With Her”
The official slogan for Hillary Clinton’s campaign resonated with women and liberal voters; Clinton was the first woman from a dominant political party to run for president.
Fascinated by how design affects political discourse? Us to! Subscribe and join our community.
The slogan worked for some Democrats, but not all; Clinton won just 47% of the white women vote and 54% of women overall, signalling that while being a woman candidate for president is breaking a glass ceiling, actually becoming President is a lot tougher.
Social media moves quickly and outpaces traditional news outlets. This has led to supporters of all parties to conceive new slogans and terminology to guide the political message. The fact that both candidates are both on social media and know how to use it also makes it easier to be flexible in changing campaign messages in real time, leading to a new modular way of thinking of political design.
“Drain the Swamp”
Trump’s supporters came together around the promise Trump made early on in the campaign to “drain the swamp,” a promise to get rid of political elites and long-time politicians in order to bring a fresh perspective to Washington. The slogan, which Trump repeated several times, was a clarion call from his supporters who demanded that Washington move to a more populist agenda.
“Drain the swamp” was axed after the campaign ended because, arguably, some of Trump’s cabinet nominees were actually additions to the swamp.
It was widely used until after the campaign ended, when it became clear that Trump’s nominees to several positions, including Betsy DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman, as Secretary of Education and Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, as Secretary of State, were arguably additions to the swamp.
Clinton’s campaign supporters came up with the slogan of “Stronger Together,” which was meant to showcase that Clinton had experience crossing political lines to get work done. As a politician, it is true that Clinton crossed the aisle several times to work with Republicans, and so the slogan inspired hope that with her in the White House, America could continue forward as a united country.
The slogan was lambasted by Trump supporters, who claimed that Clinton was an elitist. It didn’t help matters that Clinton was caught on tape calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” a comment for which she later apologised.
Social media and its influence on politics
Social Media has an influence on politics; platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allow both the candidates and their supporters to try out slogans, logos and talking points, to sway the election. Hashtags like #MAGA, #ImWithHer, #Deplorables, #MSM — which stands for “mainstream media” and is considered derogatory by Trump supporters — and #LockHerUp all made the rounds during the election.
Fake news was widespread, especially on Twitter and Facebook, the latter of which has now taken action to rectify the problem on its platform.
It was a decisive factor in the American election, because along with social media and politics comes “fake news”, an umbrella term that is defined as propaganda or false information aimed at a person or an issue that is dressed up to look like credible journalism. Fake news was widespread, especially on Twitter and Facebook, the latter of which has now taken action to rectify the problem on its platform.
The difference design makes
The design of words and images to go with a political campaign is critical in having a strong design strategy heading into an election. The results showed that the American public is discovering how easily swayed they are by fake news, social media engagement, and the emotional nature of design.
Whether a politician runs an emotional, populist campaign like Donald Trump or focuses on unity like Hillary Clinton, how a campaign is designed and presented is as important – if not more so – than the candidate and their policies.
The major lesson from the American election is that design and technology is growing in influence, that it is being used to craft political messaging, and can be used in a multitude of ways to sway an electorate during general elections. This is especially true during turbulent times — the referendum on the UK’s exit of the European Union, the American election, and the French election are all examples of how design thinking can make all the difference.