From The Archives: Battling billboards
Late 2016 Michael Smythe explored the inescapable electoral design of street hoardings.
Written by Michael Smythe
What? Who? Why? Our eyeballs are assaulted. Our streetscapes are cluttered. There must be an election in the offing. For many potential voters the proliferation of political placards is the clearest indication that a democratic process is underway. So …
IF YOU ARE NOT ON THE ELECTORAL ROLL DO IT HERE NOW !! Nobody’s vote is more valuable than yours. Local body election voting closes at 12 noon on 8 October. If you enrolled after 12 August you will have to ask your local council for special voting papers.
The freedom to vote was hard-won (the struggle for universal suffrage, the fight against fascism, etc, etc) so the least we can do is participate. But how do we choose? Does the art of billboard design make a blind bit of difference? While they may not attract extra votes, not being visible will lose votes. Do candidates have good designers on board? Is there any sign of creativity and innovation? Have any demonstrated an awareness that design matters?
This critical review focusses on Auckland — apologies to the rest of New Zealand. The samples chosen are worthy of comment, for one reason or another. Most campaigns were asked to identify their designers. Some responded. What follows are my views and not necessarily those of the publisher, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Note: The presentation of examples below is unapologetically prosaic (by Design Assembly standards). Beautiful photography would not accurately reflect the ungainly experience.
THE MAYORAL CANDIDATES:
There are 18 contenders but only four have erected a significant number of hoardings.
Vic Crone appears to be pitching for access to the cocktail circuit rather than the mayoral office. While the white suit seems vaguely evangelical, and the wafting hair evokes an Enya backing track, the brand is built strongly on ‘Vic’ and the call to action. It’s all about the who (but Vic is not the name they want you to tick on the ballot paper — it will be CRONE, Victoria). We have to look hard to see that the what is ‘for mayor’. The why is whispered: ‘strong leadership, fresh ideas, real results’. The bold orange ‘prize’ ribbon catches the eye which moves on easily to the full proposition. Rather than name the designer the press/comms person told me:
We use a variety of independent contractors to assist with our creative and design requirements. Many have fed into the final design with all sorts of elements picked up and changed as we moved through the campaign.
Phil Goff emphasises the what – MAYOR – with a strength that claims ownership of the title. The who and why messages build around that. The bold simplicity of the (Auckland, not National Party) colouring and layout makes it stand out in the crowded field. Phil is presented as a relaxed, friendly but business like fellow. His three priority issues are stated one at a time rather than bundled together. By saying ‘Let’s sort out our transport’ or ‘Let’s get council spending under control’ or ‘Let’s sort out housing’ he implies collaborative rather than authoritarian leadership. The no-nonsense, workmanlike design came from the Image Centre team led by Mike Hutcheson.
Both the Crone and Goff billboards benefit from a clear hierarchy of communication. Once drawn to the dominant statement the eye flows easily to the other messages. The next two suggest that nobody could decide the priority proposition so, in a misguided application of democracy, they were each given pretty much equal power.
Mark Thomas wants us to vote for the future yesterday tomorrow — oh wait — are we to understand that strange creature on the left represents yesterday while young Mark is the face of tomorrow? It is puzzlement rather than good layout that draws us in. What is that toothless terracotta smudge? Apparently it is a degraded image of a somewhat excited Phil Goff. Big mistake Mark! Never promote your opponent — especially when you make him look energetic alongside your static self. It just makes you seem mean-spirited and childish. ‘An Auckland that works’ is not a bad slogan. A generosity of the white space, beloved of graphic designers, is not effective when it takes centre stage. I am told that ‘the hoardings were designed by an experienced in house design team’ and there are second and third generation versions being rolled out.
John Palino is the most evangelical. Not only is he smoothly presented with the tie, the silver hair and the super-white smile — he has the book! Salvation is assured for those who surrender to his leadership because ‘MY PLAN includes YOU’. That’s all the why you are going to get unless you go online, download and inwardly digest his free epistle. One is left with an abiding question: Would you buy a used car from this man?
Some candidates for council seats (where the real power lies) align themselves to a brand which indicates their political colours. Others attempt neutrality in the hope of appealing to voters across the spectrum. Simple name recognition works for those with an existing profile but all need to find a way of appealing to the uninformed voter who takes a fleeting interest.
C&R is the dominant message on their 80s retro billboards. The fact that these are candidates for council is reasonably clear but the names are not prominent. Presumably they expect conservative National Party supporters to recognise their brand and vote accordingly.
Auckland Future, the alternative National Party brand, sports a marginally less retro logo. The who and what are clearly stated but the why — ‘make it happen’ — is more meaningless than most. There was no response to requests for the name of their designer.
Bill Ralston’s designer loves white space and close encounters of the tiny type. Those who can read blurb will discover he is a centre right candidate for council, but what’s with the megalomaniac ‘just’ vote me? He has yet to learn the trick of standing upright at Cox’s Bay.
City Vision honestly aligns itself with the Labour and Green parties. They must think the cheerful portraits, names and brands are enough of an attraction because we are not told what they are standing for or why we should vote for them.
Greg Presland embeds himself in the local landscape with an assurance that he is ‘standing with you’. You must read the small print to discover it is for council and the local board but the prominent website url will lead to the detail. His designer, Vic Jack, has fully embraced the potential of digital print to reflect the character of her client’s community. I am told she has remedied the poor tonal contrast on later printings and made the name white. Logos for both Labour and Future West show up as endorsements rather than the brand to vote for.
Penny Hulse is well known enough to be her own brand. Paradigm Associates are her designers. Reinforced name recognition, a catchy slogan, a friendly face and website address are arguably enough to consolidate support.
Richard Hills projects youthful enthusiasm that aligns with his positive slogan. The fresh colours and bold clarity are the work of designer Todd Atticus.
Chris Darby looks more earnest while taking the prize for the most direct communication. The who, what and why are clearly stated with the where embedded in the slogan. Quite what the tribal stripes are intended to communicate is unclear but they do have a whiff of the wing commander. Dominik Raymond Freelance Design did the honours.
LOCAL BOARD CANDIDATES
Local Boards are your elected representatives on the ground in your community. The proliferation of candidate names become overwhelming so the brand matters. The aim will be to present a cohesive team in the hope that we tick off a job lot. This selection of billboards is set out from worst to best.
Community First obviously puts design last. Enough said.
WestWards is a clever brand name and the illustration is cute but the heavy-handed clumsy clutter of names fails to communicate.
Labour candidates standing for the Whau Local Board present a lighter, brighter cross-cultural team but the brand they want you to tick plays third fiddle to the what and the parochial flag-waving why.
Shore Action builds the why into its brand and promotes both local board and council candidates on one billboard. The choice of purple, to avoid perceptions of political alignment, is cold and funereal. I suspect the logo was designed by a draughtsman.
Future West leads with the instruction to VOTE. The prominent logo, with its koru and/or Leunig curly-top reference, should appeal to the target market. The casual candidates seem both in and of the community they seek to serve. Melanie Tuscia was the designer.
Kaipātiki Voice has the most clearly stated call to action. Their solution to non-aligned colours is bright and cheerful as are the candidate photos by Sophie Hills. The designer was Todd Atticus. As Kaipātiki only shows up as a local board name it is not necessary to spell out what they are standing for. The claim that they are ‘the team that delivers’ can be investigated with a Google search that leads to a lively and informative Facebook page.
These examples are competent at best. They do not reflect the rise of a design-led city. Optimistic, and eagle-eyed readers of the small print, will hang their hope on Phil Goff’s commitment to ‘Making Auckland a city where talent and enterprise can thrive’. Recently a glimmer of hope emerged when news that a billboard in Matakana, at the far north of Auckland City, was popular enough to be ‘souvenired’ by an admirer. The story generated free publicity in newspapers, on Seven Sharp and in social media.
Tessa Berger, a 22 year old candidate for the Rodney Local Board, is proof that not all millennials are apathetic about politics. Her Warkworth-based photographer was Brijana Cato and the self-taught Tessa did her own graphic design — as she has for her fledgling business The Merchandise Collective.
Readers in other parts of New Zealand (or Auckland) are invited to present evidence that others are doing a better, or worse, job of promoting candidates. Please send your photos and thoughts to Design Assembly by 19 September.
WHAT ABOUT BIG BUDGET CAMPAIGNS?
When we have got over the exhilarating business of electing Mayors, Councils, Local Boards, District Health Boards and Liquor Licensing Authorities, we will be gripped by the (possibly more critical to our survival) matter of who will be voted President of the United States.
Graphic design played a key role in Barack Obama’s 2008 election when street artist and activist Shepard Fairey created the now iconic HOPE poster. It has generated many variations on the theme. There is even an OBAMA-ME online generator.
Given the huge budgets, we should expect world-leading design to emanate from the official presidential campaigns. Don’t hold your breath. The dispiriting evidence suggests that good graphic design is not as valued as we think it should be.
Republican primary candidate Dr Rand Paul used the old eye chart trick to hook people into focusing on his message. Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders became a strong visual brand that reinforced his media and physical presence. But the successful nominees and their running mates have demonstrated that their strategy is not design-driven.
Proof that elegantly simple graphics can be very effective came in the form of a no-budget spoof that went viral on social media. London art director Stephen O’Neill engaged in an in-house competition for a topical spec ad at his agency AML. O’Neill’s Photoshop mock-up won the prize — a 12-year-old bottle of sherry which was soon consumed with colleagues. He blogged about it and got on with his real job. Within hours his concept was being shared with a global audience.
The Adweek article was complementary but then stated: ‘What’ll decide this election is money — lots of money …’ But writing in The Drum O’Neill said, ‘A simple idea, powerfully expressed — even a “ghost” without any media budget at all — now has the power to influence opinion around the world.’ Maybe this will inspire our graphic designers to take the initiative and demonstrate what is possible to the powers that wannabe.
Michael Smythe was among a group that was described by aspiring politician Tim Shadbolt as trendy-lefty, arty-farty, culture-vulture, muesli-munchers. (It was 33 years ago and he was living in Titirangi.) He still accepts the label and recognises that it shapes his political leanings — as does being a designer dedicated to continuous improvement.