The United States is in the midst of the 2016 presidential election cycle. How do we know? Basic knowledge of American politics and not living under a rock (although you might want to).
But it also has a lot to do with what we see. Bombarded by political pundits, email blasts, polls and pollsters, and targeted TV and online ads—as voters, distilling what each candidate’s policies and motives are so we can confidently check that box come November, can be difficult if not downright confusing.
To offer some much needed clarity in this year’s election cycle, AIGA has relaunched its Get out the Vote campaign, which asks designers to help motivate Americans to not only register to vote but also to actually turn out to vote in the 2016 general election. Yes, posters are involved.
Which got me wondering, in the midst of all of this presidential campaign noise, how relevant is the humble political poster in 2016, really?
Back in 1972, Democrats commissioned Andy Warhol to create a poster in support of candidate George McGovern’s presidential bid. With glowing orange eyes, a green pallor, and lime-colored lips, the poster was a sickly rendering of an otherwise media-approved portrait of McGovern’s opponent, incumbent candidate Richard Nixon. Visually confronted by this prospect of the alternative, one could only be compelled to do what the poster insisted—“Vote McGovern.” McGovern still lost—but the image became iconic. (Smithsonian)
Flash forward to 2008, when Shepard Fairey created the “Hope” Obama poster. While not a commissioned piece, it too achieved relevancy. Why?
“Artists have a way of instantly communicating essence,” says AIGA Medalist Emory Douglas, former minister of culture for the Black Panthers. “Things are made clear, almost like a language, and so art is a powerful tool to communicate with the community.” With its powerful choice of image and clever use of color, the “Hope” poster conveyed a hard-to-define feeling many Americans could now readily express in a time of great change, simply by printing out a copy. (This year Fairey is keeping a low profile about his endorsement for Bernie Sanders, perhaps in response to his 2009 lawsuit with The Associated Press).
But for a physical poster to attain that level of notoriety in the emerging era of 24-hour cable news and social media feeds, is, frankly, kind of incredible. According to Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA design department at SVA and former art director of the New York Times, the value of a poster is that it provides “the opportunity to see things more iconically.”
Since 2008, however, the media landscape has shifted its focus to digital. Back then, Twitter had one million users and only one in six Americans had a smart phone. “Today, Twitter has more than three hundred million users, and two out of three Americans own smartphones,” wrote Jill Lepore in a recent article in The New Yorker.
Compared to previous election cycles, “the presidential campaign is becoming just another social media stream, its swift and shallow current intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices,” said Nicholas Carr in Politico. So how does the poster survive in a world where we look down at a screen for information instead of up?
“Relevance is a tricky word,” says Heller. “The value of a poster is situational. Posters are an immediate response to a particular event. They’re portable, displayable… and they show allegiance. A poster says, ‘We support you’ to the candidate and ‘we support this candidate’ to the media.” In an era where visibility and shareability are of the upmost importance to a candidate’s success, that can’t be undersold.
One person who has successfully bridged digital and physical spaces to give the poster a newfound notoriety this year is an artist known as Hansky. While I’ll refrain from comment on Hanksy’s depiction of Trump himself, the artist has a clear mission, and his/her work has successfully gained momentum.
Trump protesters have adopted the anti-Trump art, which is made available (perhaps following the populist sentiments of this year) free to download, for use on placards at rallies. Even Trump has noticed them. You’ll find it on Instagram and Twitter, too, extending what once appeared on a single wall in New York City across the country and online around the world.
The political poster is thriving in this presidential election cycle by allowing its definition (according to Heller, something large and visible from a distance) to be a bit more malleable and by playing nice with today’s forms of communication—gaining not just notice, but notoriety by harnessing the viral nature of social media.
These days, a poster doesn’t need to be wheat-pasted or commissioned from above to be shared by all, and I don’t have to physically step into a rally to #feelthebern or #makeamericagreatagain, either.
A physical poster that you raise up in two hands still plays a vital role and creates an undeniable impact. Today, though, if it’s going to be most relevant, it just also happens to be back-lit.