Ink on Plastic

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By Fritz Swanson

Small-town politics wrestles with the branding revolution ushered in by the Obama campaign.

Vote Trajan for governor

In 2008 the political class of this country spent $5.3 billion on campaigns. One billion dollars of that went to the presidential contest alone. These are huge, industrial-scale investments, and at that level, the graphic design is as slick and corporate as the financing. The Obama campaign in particular was widely lauded for translating its campaign into a coherent and evocative exercise in national branding.1

But politics in America, and, therefore, American political design, are not defined by one man, one campaign, or one level of contest. When all of the big-money players are counted—candidates for the House and Senate, would-be governors—you come up with around 2,000 names. But there are half a million elected officials in the United States.2 If we are going to talk about political graphic design in a serious way, we have to include this massive group of politicians in the discussion.

The spending at the state and local level ($3.5 billion in 2010) is much greater than that of the presidential election but also, obviously, much more dispersed. It’s difficult to generalize about the money spent in these campaigns, but Congressional Quarterly has reported that the average state-house race in South Carolina, for example, raises just $29,000, while the median state-senate race in Arkansas costs $58,000. Even the largest of these survive on a modest budget, much of which is spent on renting temporary office space. If they have any real money, a big chunk of it likely goes to a radio spot or two, which can cover the whole district, and the rest to rubber-chicken dinners and phone banks. These campaigns barely can cover the cost of every leaflet printed, let alone employ a team of design consultants to make sure that those leaflets coming out of the campaign press office are consistently set in the same proprietary typeface.

Vote Angled Baselines for mayor

While the national races spend outsize sums and make a huge claim on our visual space during campaign years, the sheer number of races at the local level means the broader world of political design is much more complex and diverse. This is the design we live with day in and day out but rarely if ever reflect on: sheriff races, school-board races, races for city council and county commission. These are the campaigns that number in the hundreds of thousands, all across the country.3

Garrison Everest, of Denver, is a design firm that is struggling to bring state-level candidates around to the new realities of political design in the Obama age. When you Google “conservative political design,” Garrison Everest is the top hit.

Joshua Claflin is the president and creative director of Garrison Everest, and after nine years in the business, he finds himself doing more and more comprehensive designs for political clients. A designer all his life, Claflin studied graphic design and marketing at the University of Wyoming. His firm typically works with local and state candidates but has also been brought in by national campaigns. Most recently, Garrison Everest was in talks to do work for Newt Gingrich’s 21st Century Contract with America initiative.

“The real story,” Claflin says, “is that the Obama campaign turned the political design industry upside down. Any candidate who is serious about winning has to take his approach. Politics is no different from business, and those same best practices need to be considered. Develop your brand, your narrative, and a creative platform.”

But this message has been hard to get out. Before Obama, very few political clients came in looking for help. And even post-2008, when Garrison Everest’s traffic tripled, it was still only working for a handful of actual clients: four regular ones right now, and only about ten total over the last three or four years.

Gradients for U.S senate

“Conservative Republicans are just starting to wake up to the power of design,” Claflin says. Even though many politicians come just for a yard sign, he sets out to show them that a strong web presence and an integrated design package (including a WordPress-based content-management system, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a business card and letterhead) are what every serious candidate needs these days. “If a candidate stands for something, they need to communicate it through all of their touch points,” Claflin says. He explains to prospective pols that they should have a typeface or an insignia. They need to do something that introduces the politician as a person, something that cuts through the clutter. They need to become a brand.

“The brand has to stand for something, has to be unique, and has to tell a story,” Claflin says. “It is not enough to have a product and a service—you have to have more. There are ten to twenty of everything, including political candidates.”

For his conservative clients, he suggests a corporate color palette: dark blues and dark reds. “Nothing green, nothing pink,” he says. He steers them toward angles rather than curves. He prefers sans-serif typefaces, masculine forms. And he really likes the work. “The best part,” he says, “is seeing the exposure of the design in the public, especially when your candidate is elected.” Claflin’s satisfaction is sharpened by civic pride, a sense that he is helping to clarify and communicate issues of substance. “It’s more satisfying than working on, like, a regular lawn-mower service,” he says.

The key draw of political work for graphic designers, Claflin thinks, is inspiration: “These candidates are inspiring. It carries over into the design. When you talk to a candidate, you get excited by their stances and their values, and it is inspirational.”

Even though Claflin can make the case that clients need good design, and even though he has the insight and the passion to give conservatives a design ethos that is right for them, the political work is still only about 5 percent of his total business. The main reason Claflin can’t convert contacts into clients is budget. According to the Institute on Money in State Politics, the average total budget for a state-house race in Colorado is $36,334. The average price for one of Garrison Everest’s integrated design packages is between $5,000 and $8,000. “It’s very hard to find someone who will go all the way and really do it right,” Claflin says. “They are hesitant to make the investment.”

And it’s not just small, hand-to-mouth candidates. I asked him if he ever got the job designing Gingrich’s Contract with America. “No,” he said. “They just didn’t have the budget.”

Vote drop shadows for U.S senate

“The Obama campaign turned the political design industry upside down,” Claflin says. “Any candidate who is serious about winning has to take his approach.”

Dawn Steele and her hus
band, Denny, own and operate Steelegrafix in the town where I live, Manchester, Michigan. The Steeles are not graphic designers by training; Dawn’s bachelor’s degree, from Michigan State University, is in telecommunications, and she worked for 12 years designing advertisements for newspapers. When she and her husband decided to open a small-town printing business and design shop, Denny was still working at the Ford plant driving the hi-lo.They have a small operation, working out of a Main Street office that’s about the size of a bedroom, and they are representative of the thousands of small printers who serve low-level political candidates around the country. While Claflin tries to bring graphic design down from the Olympian heights of presidential politics, Dawn Steele and her contemporaries are reacting to the political and economic realities at the base of the political world.

Unlike Claflin, Steele is reticent to embrace the idea that she is a political designer. The bulk of her campaign work has been designing and printing small runs of yard signs and campaign posters, a few direct-mail pieces, and some flyers. But it is exactly the small scale of the endeavor that makes the Steele firm the right match for these local candidates. “These people tend to be like us,” Dawn says, indicating herself and her husband. “Most of them are paying out of their pocket. They are very small-scale. They want to be a part of the community. They want to make a difference. They are not having benefits and raising money. It’s not that type of thing.” The average expenditure on the ten or more campaigns they have worked on in the last five years is between $100 and $200, Dawn says. And the design work that comes into play at that scale? “It’s very limited,” she confesses. “We do their name and, you know, ‘Elect Me’—that sort of stuff.” The monetary and aesthetic transactions are very modest. But in part, this is because the design goals are extremely utilitarian. “You know, you only have about three seconds to really see a yard sign,” she says, “so I just try to get a feel for them, a feel for their colors, a feel for the message they want to communicate.”

Vote! for the most stars

So what will continue to shape American political design if it’s not going to be brought down like Promethean fire from a major design school? In part, we will live with the thousands of little choices made by designers like Dawn Steele, choices defined by time, money, form, and training. But if we are to see any kind of large-scale changes in small-scale American political design, it will probably come from people like Greg Callahan, the 40-year-old owner of ABC Signs, in Theodore, Alabama, on the outskirts of Mobile. ABC Signs is a small-town print shop grown big on internet steroids and the ambitions of its founder.

Callahan graduated from the University of South Alabama with a degree in business administration. He has never thought of himself as a designer. But last year his firm, which specializes in designing and printing yard signs, handled more than 3,000 clients, 550 of those politicians. (That share was down 20 percent from 2010 because of the political cycle.)

Callahan’s family has always been in politics; Greg has run for local office several times. ABC Signs grew out of those races. By 2001, when Callahan ran for city council in Mobile, he was handling his own campaign, dozens of other campaigns, and running his advertising business, Callahan and Callahan. He calculated that, over the year, he had farmed out the printing of more than 350,000 yard signs. He then wondered what kind of money he could make if he handled it himself.

It was this realization, and not a special love of design, or even a passion for political advocacy, that led Callahan to pick up a screen-printing squeegee. He had never received any training in printmaking of any kind, had never even printed for fun, when he was hired by a Georgia man running for sheriff to print a thousand yard signs. “I had bought all the equipment and rented the building and everything,” Callahan says, amazed by his own hubris. “It’s like someone who wants to open a mechanic shop—he rents the space and buys all the tools, but he’s never fixed a car!” By 2009 Callahan’s business grew enough that he built a 23,000-square-foot facility.

Callahan sees himself as a one-stop shop for all of the little campaigns out there across America. “Whatever their political views,” he says, “they are typically good people. And we like to guide ’em, because they are usually new to this.”

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.”

Pick the tick

Callahan’s primary interest is to print signs, lots and lots of signs. “It’s just putting ink on plastic,” he says.

A similarly utilitarian attitude informs his choices when it comes to type. For newcomers who need their name out there, Callahan chooses sans-serif fonts, which he calls “impact fonts” on the theory that they are easier to read and “stretch well.”

“But for a guy that’s running for Congress,” Callahan opines, “that guy is probably well-known, so his name doesn’t have to jump out quite as much.” For a candidate like that, Callahan goes with a roman face, a Garamond or something similar. Even though he thinks that face is less readable from a passing car, it lends the candidate an air of formal authority commensurate with his status.

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.”

Callahan’s self-identification as a printer rather than a designer is the key to understanding the aesthetic of his work. While printers like Callahan and Dawn Steele offer design services, they primarily act as conduits for the raw market forces flowing through their offices. And while it’s hard to really know how such a huge market will evolve over time, given the scale of Cal
lahan’s business, I thought it would be worth asking him where he thought it was headed. His answer was as old as Gutenberg. “Technology is changing the industry,” he told me. “We have a 98-inch-wide, full-color, flatbed printer. And now we can put these full-color pictures on these big signs. Six hundred dpi—bam! You are done.”

Callahan, with this printer, is helping to create a future in which small-town candidates can individually customize signs with full-color photography, printed at large sizes and available fast. A key product that Callahan highlights is a 4-by-8–foot sign. Such a sign, in full color, used to cost $300 and take all day to produce, but now he can make one for $55 in less than six minutes. He can give a client six of them, and each one can be completely different.

“People are used to red sign, Bob Smith, blah,” Callahan said, “But now you have drop shadows and stuff. Little guys can run for little offices, and they can get these big signs for cheap. And this guy can put his dog, his family, on the sign!”

The key to this kind of sign, Callahan insists, is visibility for the candidate. In the old days, if a candidate held an event at the fair or in the mall, he only ever really connected with the people whose hands he shook. If a candidate is unknown, thousands of people might walk right past him.

But with full-color signs around a district, candidates for even the smallest office can go to an event and people will recognize them. “People feel like they met the guy,” Callahan enthuses, “even though all they did was see him on the other side of the mall. These are showstoppers, and this small-quantity stuff is taking over the industry. So now, all of a sudden, this little-bitty guy in a little-bitty race comes out looking like a movie star!”

Callahan asks candidates to stand outside in the sun and have a friend snap their photo and e-mail it to him. He and his staff use simple Photoshop tricks to cut out junk from the background and paste the candidate in front of a local landmark or national icon. Then they click Print, and, as Callahan would say—“Bam! He looks amazing!”

1 Among other things, the Obama campaign’s consistent use of Tobias Frere-Jones’s typeface Gotham foregrounded the power of graphic design in his appeal.

2 The U.S. Census last did a report on this in 1992. At that point, there were 513,200 elected officials in the United States. We can presume there are more now.

3 According to the Department of Education, for example, there are more than 11,400 school districts in the U.S. If they average five members per board, that’s almost 60,000 school-board members nationwide!

Illustrations by Dina Ravvin and Cheryl Yau

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