ABC Signs’ average political client spends about $550. But even at that level, Callahan tries to give customers an effective design based on his experience. “We go by their budget and their lead,” he says, “but we typically—seven times out of ten—we start from scratch. Even the guys who are old hands, we help them out.”
Callahan’s years of experience have led him to some unique principles of political design. To him, the controlling factor is the length of the name. His counterintuitive approach is that longer names should go on a smaller sign, and the shorter names should go on a larger sign. It has to do with the white space. “A typical sign is either a 12 by 24 inch or an 18 by 24 inch. But with a longer name, you can’t stretch it out too high, because it becomes this up-and-down thing and it looks like a bar code, a bunch of lines,” he explains. “So you go with a smaller sign, a 12 by 24 inch, which gives it a more proportional look.” He adds, “We even talk ourselves out of money in order to get the right proportion for the name. But with a short name—you put it on a bigger sign, corner to corner, and, man, that name is huge.”
Callahan’s primary interest is to print signs, lots and lots of signs. “It’s just putting ink on plastic,” he says.
Callahan reminds me who his clients are: “We deal with a lot of little guys,” he says, “the guys who need 100, 250 signs. There are just more of them out there.” And those numbers will ultimately have more power over design than any one man or movement. Callahan’s primary interest, after all, is to print signs, lots and lots of signs. If small-town politicians continue to flock to businesses like Callahan’s, it seems unlikely that in the near future, vernacular American political design will be transformed by abstract concepts like “narrative” and “brand.” As Callahan says, “It’s just putting ink on plastic.”
Fritz Swanson’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Christian Science Monitor, Esopus, and Mid-American Review. He lives in Manchester, Michigan, with his wife, Sara, and their children, Abigail and Oscar. Visit him at manchester-press.com.