The environs around a visitor to the Midwest in winter can command a certain bleak outlook. Overcast skies, bare trees, and, if you aren’t lucky enough to be there when snow has fallen, bare earth, all give the impression of lives lived in quiet grayscale. But when the Hyperakt team made the trek from their home base of Brooklyn, New York, to South Bend, Indiana, they were on a mission to take those everyday objects, artifacts, and infrastructure and thaw them out: In each was a potential piece of evidence that could tell them more about their new client, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
This initial research phase is standard procedure when building a design system, no matter who the client is. The Hyperakt team locked down the brand identity within a few weeks of visiting South Bend and meeting the Buttigieg team. The system, which launched to the public on April 14, is both comprehensive and indicative of overall trends developing in the political branding space. Many Democratic presidential primary candidates have moved away from prescriptive and party-affiliated red or blue and have adopted new color palettes that speak to their political history, a practice that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign branding had foreshadowed in 2018. The system Hyperakt developed currently has nine colors, from “rust belt” to “heartland yellow;” a slew of graphics representative of varying places and coalitions; and brand type and logos that are similarly inspired by Buttigieg’s background.
But after the brand identity was finalized on March 11, the Hyperakt team found themselves with about a month lead time before the campaign officially launched. Extra time is not something you’ll hear a design team working on a political campaign mention very often. So what do you do with that luxury when you get it?
According to Hyperakt’s principal and creative director, Deroy Peraza, you take your core idea—the brand—and experiment with new ways to push its boundaries. At the time, Hyperakt was developing digital brand guidelines so Buttigieg’s team could easily access the graphic assets they needed. While doing so, they referenced the design systems of previous cycles, as well as the documentation that those teams made public after the election (including the 2016 Hillary Clinton identity and Mina Markhom’s UX/UI pattern library, Pantsuit; they also took looked toward Sol Sender’s work for Barack Obama). They began to ask, “How much of this can we just make public?”
After consulting with the Buttigieg team, Hyperakt iterated on the transparency of the design teams they were inspired by and decided it was more of a win to give their suite of assets to supporters upfront rather than after the election process is over. This access to the thinking behind the system and elements of branding would expedite the ability of supporters to create assets representative of their various affiliations and identities, without necessarily having to wait for deliverables to be made for them. So they made a design toolkit, which includes guidelines, inspiration, and assets, available for download on the Pete Buttigieg site. Its intent was to provide a modular starter kit that supporters could easily use and modify to plug in and participate. It’s this component—Hyperakt’s extreme effort to establish a brand of adaptable relatability, with the conception of a public-facing branding system—that has made the Buttigieg brand stand out in a crowded field.
Releasing the toolkit was also an opportunity to share the candidate’s story, which defies easy profiling. The main political message the Hyperakt team wanted to communicate was that Buttigieg’s multi-faceted background—gay, military veteran, millennial, from modest means, former consultant, and Harvard grad, current South Bend mayor—makes him a bridge builder. The team took that conceptual story behind the brand, and anchored the visual of the main logo on the Jefferson Boulevard Bridge in South Bend, thereby marrying a metaphor for Buttigieg’s politics with an actual representation of the impact that he’s had on his hometown. (Sorry, design Twitter, it’s not a riff on the Levi’s logo.)
The release of this toolkit has not been without its criticism. Some, like art director of The Baffler Lindsay Ballant, consider it a faux-grassroots approach to opensource distribution; that by instituting guidelines, it only allows supporters to participate in the design process on the design team’s terms. And the timing of the toolkit, which was released before specific policy information was published, has also been critiqued by those eager to hear more about Buttigieg’s stance on the issues. (An issues page has since been added to the site.)
Peraza feels critics need to look at the toolkit differently; in his view, it’s not as prescriptive as an internal brand guide might be. In other words, it’s not there to tell users what they can and can’t do; rather, the toolkit is meant to give supporters a jumpstart. The point is to enable people who don’t have either the design skills, the time, or the need to create their own assets. “That’s who we’re trying to help,” says Peraza. “For those who do have the design skills; who are the people who traditionally use brand guides, they will make their own [assets] if they want to.”
According to Peraza, between April 14 and May 2, the toolkit had 205,000 unique views and 45,000 downloads. Although Peraza notes that making the branding “populist” wasn’t an initial goal, he feels the design toolkit has become an equalizing mechanism for Buttigieg supporters to participate and to find a way to relate to the campaign, whatever their design ability.
“We wanted the brand to feel both familiar and inclusive,” says Peraza. “It’s about tapping into a vernacular that’s already there; that surrounds people, and giving it back to people to use and engage with.”