Earlier this week I published four examples of great political design, from the iconic Obama “Hope” poster to the infamous Vote Leave bus (coach).
I was immediately reminded of two things — firstly, that not all political design is good; secondly, by my friend James, that good design doesn’t always deliver a successful campaign. By that measure, bad design doesn’t always result in loss (as evidenced by the fact Manchester United still managed to win the 1992–3 Premier League while wearing this abomination.)
So I’ve put together the opposite number to my article on great design — four examples of terrible political design, with a little analysis thrown in.
For more bad football kits take a look at Shortlist’s full rundown here. For bad political design — read on.
Yvette for Labour, 2016
In many ways, Yvette Cooper’s unsuccessful bid to be leader of the Labour Party after Ed Miliband quit in 2015 was well-crafted. The logo for her campaign cleverly combined a voting tick with the first letter of her name; the graphics combined classical typography with modern, and good photography with bold statements; the videography was slick and professional.
So why does this deserve to be in a list of terrible political design? Largely, this particular graphic:
As Jonny Will Chambers, the source of this graphic, bluntly states — “As a designer I would never recommend putting the word “Rubbish” very large right next to your candidates [sic] face…”
The turning point in Cooper’s campaign was when Jeremy Corbyn, eventual winner of the contest and current leader of the Labour Party, began to gain ground over his opponents with a campaign that focused on him as a principled, anti-austerity campaigner. Cooper’s rebuttal, highlighted poorly in this particular graphic, focuses on the opposition rather than her own merits. It’s a trap many other failed campaigns have fallen into, from the sinister “New Labour, New Danger” campaign the Conservative Party ran in 1997 (that the Tories are, surprisingly, still selling) to the so-called “Project Fear” Remain campaign during the 2016 EU referendum.
Even if this hadn’t signalled the beginning of the end for Cooper’s leadership hopes, it surely couldn’t have escaped her team that the optics of such a word beside their candidate looked, well, rubbish.
Jeb!, 1994, 1998, 2002, er, 2015
Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and brother and son of former Presidents. Although now best-known outside the US for his campaign to be the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate for the 2016 elections, he first ran unsuccessfully for Governor in Florida in 1994 with branding that seemed to be a device to distance himself from the family name.
Using the phrase “Jeb!” — as if the exclamation mark was necessary to try and inject some life into what would have otherwise been an incredibly dull campaign name — he lost the election and stood again, this time successfully, four years later with fresh, updated graphics that…wait, no he didn't. Every time Jeb Bush has stood for public office, he has used some variation of “Jeb!”, largely unchanged.
Now, one could say it was dedication to a personal brand he had cultivated over the years, but you could also say — it’s ugly. The exclamation mark looks incidental rather than playful, the serif font dated, and in later elections the brand echoed the unease with which Jeb handled his brother’s Presidency and its legacy.
By the time of the 2016 elections, the Bush brand was still recovering eight years after George W. had stepped away from the White House, and Jeb’s decision not to tackle the issue head on was reflected in his lacklustre (but expensive) campaign, the most excitable part of which was his awful logo.
“Lewisham Talk” — Lib Dems, 2018/“You & Your Family” — Tories, 2017
Before Janet Daby became the MP for Lewisham East in June, the by-election she fought was seen as a mini-referendum on everything from local government to Brexit. Because of this, and despite Daby’s clear pro-Europe stance, the Liberal Democrats took to the streets to campaign hard for their candidate, Lucy Salek.
I campaigned twice for Daby in the run-up to polling day and came across a wide array of Lib Dem literature, often featuring this somewhat resounding endorsement from Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges: “it will be interesting to see how the Lib Dems do”. Highlight of the literature bonanza, however, was a faux entertainment magazine, Lewisham Talk. Styled as an alternative to OK! magazine, the leaflet featured an interview with Salek and a political barometer that predictably put the Lib Dems as “hot” and Labour as “not”.
With a distinct absence of Lib Dem branding and an *incredibly small* imprint (the text legally required to identify literature as political), it could be suggested that the point of these leaflets was to mislead rather than inform. The use of gaudy colours alongside bold, sans serif fonts intends to echo a Heat magazine-style publication; indeed any quick Google search for “Heat magazine” brings up hundreds of examples of covers almost identical to the Lewisham leaflet. The literature was also anecdotally compared to a similar-looking local publication, Lewisham Life, and had the potential to sway undecided voters looking for a trusted, impartial voice away from the traditional political fighting talk.
Similarly, during the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives had delivered leaflets entitled “You & Your Family”, campaign literature in the style of so-called Women’s magazines, as shown below.
Esquire called it “farcical”, while the IBTimes highlighted their disappointment at the targeting of women voters with the literature; male voters in the same household instead received a serious-looking letter from Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May.
According to Statista, magazines like OK! and Heat have anywhere between half a million to two million readers, but I would still be hesitant to suggest these leaflets would be effective. In fact, I would go further and say the deception tactic used here fuels a post-truth society we should be striving to beat one way or another and these leaflets, with their colourful mish-mash of typography and rectangles, are insulting to the intelligence of the electorate and the last resort of a campaign with no better way of communicating to the everyday voter. They are as far from good political campaign design as you can get.
Strong and Stable, 2017
Yes, the Conservative Party won the 2017 General Election, but was it down to a well-run campaign?
Not according to Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who directly criticised the Tories’ campaign and his place in it. From the now-infamous “fields of wheat” confession to the launch of a manifesto containing a so-called “Dementia Tax”, Theresa May’s Conservatives couldn’t have looked more out of place in modern Britain if they had tried to introduce the penny-farthing as a means of public transport. The Tories ultimately suffered at the hands of the electorate, losing their slim majority in a snap election their leader promised was never going to happen.
So, was this bad campaign due to bad design? Not graphically, at least. I hate myself for saying it but Conservative campaign material wasn’t actually too bad. Using the sans-serif font Proxima Nova (supposedly the world’s most popular font) for the main campaign material against a series of solid, blue backgrounds, the designs were more devoid of substance than they were style.
The key campaign goal, from the off, was to leverage May’s personal support among a diverse electorate to increase the Tory majority. The word “Conservatives” was absent from much of the initial material used, replaced by variations of “Theresa May and her team”. It forced the election campaigns to follow a more US-style Presidential format, focusing on the central candidate rather than the party and policies they represent. The concept works when the candidate is as charismatic as Barack Obama, or as bombastic as Donald Trump (or even as self-assured as Tony Blair). It doesn’t work, however, when your candidate hates the spotlight.
By framing the campaign, entitled “Strong and Stable”, as a personality contest when that personality subsequently performs a series of U-turns and missteps, the damage becomes concentrated on the figure central to that campaign. It made the opposition argument, that the Tories and their leader were actually “weak and wobbly”, only too easy, and forced them into a desperate, graphic default — negative campaigning.
Jeremy Corbyn transformed his image throughout the election campaign and, more importantly, kept on-message. Labour’s campaign was consistently positive and aided by a strong official and unofficial social media game. Once it became clear the Presidential-style approach wasn’t as effective as they had hoped, the Tories’ focus increasingly became damage limitation through designs such as the below.
It’s hard to measure the power of positive and negative campaigns, though many have tried. Scientific American quotes a study in the Journal of Politics, suggesting “negative ads [tend] to be more memorable than positive ones but…they [do] not affect voter choice.” The debate largely centres around the efficacy of the negative, and whether it’s worth sacrificing something that is good for something that is effective.
In the case of the Tories, negative general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 were ineffective and similarly the largely-negative Remain campaign failed to produce the intended result. With the final weeks of the 2017 general election campaign a chaotic affair for them, it’s clear the negative campaigning on Corbyn’s personality had become as ineffective as the tactics deployed on Blair. While the Tories gained their largest share of the vote in a general election since 1983, so too did Labour since 2001, due in part to the collapse of support for “third” parties but almost certainly also due to a poorly co-ordinated campaign.
Ultimately, the message of strength and stability was systematically broken down by the Tories themselves. One organiser explained to the Guardian’s Andy Beckett the embarrassment of having to deliver leaflets with the words “Strong and Stable” printed on them, despite it being unpopular on the doorstep. Good design is about making your message look pretty; effective design is about making your message resonate.