Kamala Harris announced her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination with a balance of strong messaging and loaded symbolism. The California senator, the second African American woman to be elected to the upper chamber of Congress, announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and 47 years to the week of when Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, formally entered the 1972 race for presidency.
The design approach of Harris’ campaign also pays tribute to Chisholm, in particular the red and yellow of the pin badges worn by her supporters. It sidesteps the traditional red, white, and blue of political campaigns, and defines its own territory, not sitting firmly in either the establishment or anti-establishment approach. The choice of colors, the use of capital letters, and the tight, stepped-up design evoke the cut-up, screen-printed posters of 1960s protest movements.
Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, whose team designed the logo for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, says of Harris’ approach: “The most distinctive thing so far about [the] campaign graphics is the color scheme. It’s really remarkable how difficult it is for American candidates to stray from red, white, and blue… I do see the use of typography and color evoking the activism and optimism we designers associate with Corita Kent. Most regular people will just think it looks surprising and fresh.”
They also encourage the potential of a DIY response from supporters, balancing a sense of urgency with openness, rather than taking a precious, distant, or overly “professionalized” approach. The campaign also balances familiarity with innovation, or surprise; working with Harris’ experience as a congresswoman and attorney general, and utilizing her foundation of recognizability as a springboard for taking a new approach.
So far, it seems to be working; Harris’ campaign is clear and single-minded, and yet it appeals to a wide audience. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and one that’s also reflected in her tagline. “I actually think the smartest thing about the campaign is not the graphics, but the tagline,” says Bierut. “Remember, our current president rode to victory not on a logo but on a simple, reductive message: ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Harris sets up her campaign mantra this way: “It was just a couple blocks from this very spot that nearly 30 years ago as a young district attorney I walked into the courtroom for the very first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work: “Kamala Harris, for the people.’”
“In those five words, she’s got a phrase that reminds voters both that she rose to prominence as a prosecuting attorney, and that prosecutors act on all of our behalf,” says Bierut.
In her approach, Harris has shifted the conventional campaign marketing by tweaking something familiar to deliver something fresh and surprising. She’s marked out a spot between the two poles, both in terms of design approach and in the way her campaign communicates; It’s distinctive and reliable, solid and open, catchy and memorable, without being reductive or gimmicky.