The surge of first-time candidates on the ballot for the November 6 midterm elections has injected this campaign season with fresh ideas that are bound to shake things up at the Capitol. It’s also translated into more adventurous design decisions in the frequently ho-hum sphere of campaign marketing. The most striking example comes from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the trailblazing 28-year-old Democratic candidate for New York’s 14th congressional district. Her iconic campaign poster shuns fusty conventions of traditional political messaging for bold choices in color, typography, and copy. The result is a rich visual message that feels modern and forward-looking while referencing potent political imagery from the past.
Campaign posters have been an important tool of persuasion in American politics for centuries, though their form and function has shifted over time. As beautifully demonstrated in the 2012 collection Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art by the Library of Congress, campaign posters once held a more prominent place in educating constituents on candidate platforms and even, at times, recapping speeches. As channels for communication have proliferated, the purpose of the campaign poster has coalesced into a more strategically focused (and visually simple) exercise in branding. Today we’ll take at some of the most exciting campaign posters of recent years along with some of the most iconic posters from yesteryear, and explore why they win our vote for effective design.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 2018
Much has already been said about this fine design by New York creative firm Tandem. The first element that sets it apart is the use of yellow, a bold and energizing color that politicians typically skip over in favor of the traditional red, white, and blue palette. They also created versions in unifying purple and Democrat-approved blue. Her upward gaze paired with the upward slant of the text creates movement and connotes optimism (her bold new direction is up!). The speech bubbles add visual intrigue and suggest a word-of-mouth enthusiasm that reminds us of her activist roots and conveys a digital-first savviness, while also differentiating between the English and Spanish copy, which are given equal space.
The key design elements in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign poster were integrated across all of her campaign materials (samples shown below), creating a cohesive and polished brand experience and high-impact visual identity that works on all platforms.
Barack Obama, 2008
This now-ubiquitous poster was created by artist Shepard Fairey days before Super Tuesday in the 2008 election season. The simplified stencil aesthetic is characteristic of Fairey’s other work as a street artist, and lends the stately image of the candidate a youthful accessibility. The color scheme brilliantly joins the blue background on the left and the red background on the right in his facial features, painting him as a unifying figure who transcends ideological and racial differences by appealing to one tremendously powerful ideal: hope.
President Obama’s campaigns were notable for their embrace of brand strategy and marketing tactics. Social media was still young during his first campaign, but he and his team were ahead of the pack in understanding the value of comprehensive digital strategy that prioritized a consistent and cohesive visual identity across all touchpoints. The sans-serif typeface Gotham, which The Guardian described as “assured, elegant, and plain-speaking – just like Obama, or so he’d have us believe,” became a brand signature, and the clean roundel logo, the “O” frame with fields and sunrise, became visual shorthand for the candidate and his vision of progress.
Ronald Reagan, 1984
This campaign poster from Ronald Reagan’s second run for the White House is notable for its distinct visual style. The Rockwellian aesthetic hits a nostalgic note that departs from the more modern approaches of other candidates at the time, and perfectly aligns with the nostalgia-stirring copy “Bringing America Back!”
Eugene McCarthy, 1968
Eugene McCarthy did not secure the Democratic nomination in 1968, but his candidacy was historically significant. He was the most staunchly antiwar candidate during Vietnam, and his platform found widespread support among young voters prompting a youth GOTV movement called “Clean for Gene.” This poster by renowned artist Ben Shahn, whose portrait of Martin Luther King was on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, captures the rising anti-establishment sentiment of the day, and helped cement McCarthy’s legacy as the Senate dove.
Richard Nixon, 1968
Likely in an effort to appeal to the youth, many of whom had found their champions in antiwar candidates Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, the self-styled “law-and-order” candidate went for high-contrast color, lots of swirls, and implied support from prominent athletes, celebrities, and even protesters in this action-packed mural. We’ve gotta give his campaign team credit for not over-reaching with the slogan “Nixon’s the One!” In an election year when two inspiring progressive leaders had been assassinated, and when the Democratic incumbent chose not to run again, this lackluster slogan might have just felt like a dreary inevitability: Nixon’s the one, for better or worse.
John F. Kennedy, 1960
This poster may not look groundbreaking on first glance, but its familiarity is a testament to its impact. It helped define and cement some of the visual conventions that persist today: clean, uncluttered color blocking in red, white, and blue, a modern sans-serif typeface, with a slogan and an evocative photo of a photogenic subject looking off into the distance. The balanced and simple composition conveys a clear confidence and dignified ease that were associated with JFK’s persona. The style builds on the famous “I Like Ike” color-blocked branding of the Eisenhower campaigns, and is a precursor to the stripped-down, color-blocked lawn signs that are ubiquitous today.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944
This beautiful campaign poster was made by James Montgomery Flagg, the artist who had drawn the original “I want YOU” poster in 1917 for WWI Army recruitment. Repurposing that imagery as a promotional tool for FDR in 1944, when WWII was raging and the candidate was vying for his fourth term in office, was an inspired and utterly logical move. The imagery taps into visual associations that had already been cemented in the public consciousness, and lends the message an air of apolitical moral authority. Before photography gained widespread popularity in marketing materials in the mid-1900s, elaborate illustrations reproduced by lithograph were the standard. In this example, the intricate artwork is nicely balanced by bold simple lettering.
William Howard Taft, 1908
Similar to Eisenhower’s campaigns, Taft’s campaign relied heavily on a his inherent likability and benevolent character. This artfully designed poster gives us a stately image of the candidate while reminding us that he’s a “good times” kind of guy. The open-ended phrase may be interpreted as a comment on his character or as a campaign promise for what’s to come. Although perhaps a little awkward conceptually, the “good times” label is a strong early example cheeky branding and the interplay between serious imagery and playful text makes this a memorable visual. The vertical columns of color help distribute visual weight for a nicely balanced composition.