Mark Krotov I first saw your campaign poster months ago, in a storefront on Queens Boulevard, in Sunnyside. At first I wasn’t sure if I was even looking at a campaign poster, but whatever it was, I knew I’d never seen anything quite like it. That poster was the first I’d heard of Ocasio-Cortez, and she more or less had my vote right at that moment. I was trying to remember when it was that I had that first encounter, and it feels like a long time ago—long before the articles began to be written. How did the process of working with Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign begin?
Scott Starrett We’ve known Sandy [Ocasio-Cortez] for some time. We started talking politics before she began her bid for Congress—we even lent her our GoPro when she went to Standing Rock. But the seed of the campaign identity came from the fact that our whole studio really loves Sandy. That was a big part of why the design turned out so well.
Maria Arenas We really knew Sandy well, and we knew we had her complete trust. She trusted us to represent the campaign authentically.
Rachel Ossip How did the identity for the campaign evolve?
SS We’re in a revolutionary moment, so we went straight to the history of grassroots, civil rights, and social justice movements in search of a common language we could participate in. One that Sandy could participate in and that she belongs in. The most inspiring figures to us were Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the cofounders of the National Farmworkers Association. They had a positive, uplifting message about bringing power to the people. It resonated so deeply with who Sandy the person was, and who Sandy the candidate became, that it was a good fit.
We also researched revolutionary posters, union badges, et cetera. But the National Farmworkers Association inspired us a great deal. We looked to a lot of low-fidelity activist materials bred from necessity, and we knew we couldn’t have too much polish. We wanted the identity to have a populist look, in the sense that it was simple enough that it could have been cut out of construction paper or made by hand in some way. But it also had to have a modern bent, with a nod to the visual culture of subway posters.
I’ve worked in politics for years. I had my first political clients in Austin almost seven years ago. The cultural and visual language there is so different. Had we run Ocasio’s identity in Texas, I don’t think it would have resonated to the same extent. In the Bronx and Queens, people speak and understand a different visual language. So when they saw it—and when you yourself saw it, Mark—they and you recognized that it kind of spoke to the visual language of New York and New York street advertising. People are advertised to differently in the subways than they are in, say, the Midwest or Texas.
MA I’ve never worked in politics before. I’m the complete opposite of Scott. I think the combination of my inexperience in this field and Scott’s experience was really crucial. The process involved a lot of risk-taking and trust. Everyone took risks, and they really paid off.
There’s one specific Cesar Chavez poster I gravitated toward. It had this illustration of Chavez looking not directly at the viewer, but slightly to the right and upward. This really resonated for me—it looked like Chavez was looking toward the future, toward positive changes for his community. That really informed the language of the logo and the typography that followed in the posters. The photo that we used in the poster wasn’t actually taken under our art direction. It was just really serendipitous that of the few pictures we could choose from, it happened to fit so well with our vision for this identity. Both kind of came together. Even if you’re not well versed in design history, you kind of have this feeling that you’ve seen something like this before. It had that feeling of empowerment.
RO It’s been interesting to see the online commentary about the campaign design. People associate it with a tremendous variety of different things. The design seems to be leading folks to free-associate. I’ve seen references to boxing posters and the Works Progress Administration. Rosie the Riveter, of course. It’s great that you tapped into something that doesn’t have a direct parallel, which would feel like cribbing, but something that’s instead truly associative. It conveys everything you’re talking about: this sense of a revolutionary moment. The photo of Ocasio-Cortez’s face made me think of the Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster, of course.
SS We were aware of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign poster and were interested in the yellow. But as far as the “Hope” poster, it wasn’t a big influence by any means. We did start with illustrations to see if that approach would have a more populist feel, but we ditched that pretty quickly. I was very interested in the Westinghouse “We Can Do It!” poster, which has since become known as “Rosie the Riveter.” That yellow background may have influenced us as well, because we were steeped in that visual culture, but we didn’t take any direct references from any of those. Maria did an excellent job, and we as a studio did an excellent job of taking just enough from each reference point to ensure that nothing came off as 100% appropriated in a way that people could articulate definitively.
It’s been interesting to see the discussion—“no, it’s a speech bubble from a text message! No, it’s Rosie the Riveter!” I think that shows that we were successful in creating something unique by paying homage to the people who laid the groundwork for Sandy. We were able to strike an authentic balance—I think that was important.
RO What was your process for critique as you started to develop the identity?
SS We started with a really familial roundtable discussion. Everyone was excited and throwing out their thoughts. So we were really just shopping ideas around—we all came in with our own ideas, and we tried as much as we could to integrate them all, to work them all together in a stew.
MA At the beginning the discussion was very casual, and the identity came together as the campaign moved forward. There wasn’t a lot of time. We’d call the campaign manager, Sandy would chime in, and then we’d discuss in the studio. The turning point was when we found the direction of the poster, because it informed everything that followed.
The thing about the poster was that the final design wasn’t what we were planning to show Sandy and her team. It’s something that came together three days before we were supposed to go to print. I was talking to the campaign for weeks and presenting these three designs that were different from what has become the most iconic print collateral of the campaign. When we were going through the process of finalizing the design, something didn’t sit right with me, with Tandem, and with the campaign. We made this last-minute decision to scrap those last three we were pitching and start from scratch.
And at that moment all the typography came together. Scott and I had to discuss whether it was worth it. That typeface, Norwester, didn’t come skewed, so we had to manipulate everything, which was time-consuming. But when it started to come together it just made sense. When we finally shared it with the campaign, everyone’s reaction was “we love it, let’s go with it.” That was a key moment in the development of the identity. This poster would inform the colors and the tone for the rest of the campaign. People really gravitated toward the yellow. There was a blue poster and a yellow one, and—unexpectedly—everyone loved the yellow.
SS The campaign manager and Sandy weren’t sure about yellow, but volunteers started reacting to it and responding really positively. It’s a little out of the box, but there were enough volunteers who came forward to give it the edge, and it ended up being everyone’s favorite.
The whole thing felt like it was meant to be. That sounds a little sentimental, but it’s true. When Sandy came in and we presented to her and briefed her on our concept, she was like, “perfect, that’s exactly what I wanted.” It all just unfolded so smoothly, which is so rare in design. Especially when it comes to political identities. Most politicians are so ego-driven that they feel they have to get their hands into the design to take ownership. What makes Sandy such a powerful leader, such a good leader, is that she trusts the people around her.
RO In retrospect, what wasn’t working about the other versions? And what made this one stand out?
MA They didn’t feel inspiring. They didn’t spark any real feeling of wanting to do something. That was the goal of the poster. It was going to be the first thing to have Sandy’s face on it, and we wanted to represent her on it and inspire the community. It had to give a sense of what kind of candidate she was. We needed a nontraditional identity for a nontraditional campaign. If people see that this poster has a revolutionary tone, they also hear that same tone when she speaks, they see it when they read her platform. Those older posters lacked that authenticity—that ability to embolden people and inspire them.
SS For the first poster the campaign wanted nearly a paragraph of inspirational text, and it was just too much. It was so type-heavy that it was taking away from the message. We pared it down, and Maria did a fantastic job fitting the puzzle pieces together. We showed it to Sandy and the campaign, and they listened to us. They trusted us. It speaks volumes about the kind of campaign Sandy was running.
MA That was the key turning point. At that moment they saw that we understood them really well.
MK I’ve seen this poster hundreds of times over the last few months—and hundreds more just in the last week—and yet it wasn’t until this morning that I realized that it’s entirely bilingual. How did you negotiate that? Was that part of the brief from the very beginning?
MA That was one thing the campaign really wanted. It was really important to really integrate the Spanish language, instead of throwing it on as an afterthought. As Scott said, the demographics in NY-14 aren’t like in many other parts of the country. There are a lot of Spanish speakers, and we wanted to show them that we were putting them on the same level. We didn’t want to slap the Spanish on and make these voters feel like they weren’t part of the moment, because they are. You can also see it on the logo with the exclamation marks. It was an interesting challenge for us to take on—and a worthy one—to try to incorporate more text on top of already text-heavy material. You don’t see that often—the Spanish is usually an afterthought. I think it’s good to be able to dignify a whole other demographic just by visually showing that Spanish speakers are on the same level as English speakers.
SS It was important to emphasize that Spanish speakers were not a footnote.
MA One element I really liked was how we were able to use the speech bubble as a device for two different languages—and also for conversation. Democrat / Demócrata. That version came from Sandy herself. The first version had the speech bubbles facing each other, but then I took that away and they were facing the same direction. But Sandy really liked that the speech bubbles looked like they were in conversation with each other. It was a very successful treatment, and I’m glad she picked up on that and wanted to keep it.
SS We spent a lot of time belaboring hierarchy. And when you’re putting Spanish and English on the same level, it takes a lot to make that feel natural. Maria had to do a ton of work to make that happen. You’re talking about identical, non-transferable (for most people) information fitting side by the side on the same plane. It was a huge challenge, and Maria met it impressively.
MA I think it was really important to seamlessly integrate the languages. Beyond the print collateral, the campaign put out video content in different languages. They’d reach out to different communities. All of this showed that they really knew the district—that they wanted to reach out to different people that lived in the district. The campaign wanted to emphasize that, and we wanted to achieve that, too.
RO It would have been an easy solution to produce one poster in different languages, but what Maria mentioned—about the sense of dialogue between languages—was most striking to me. We published a book recently where we also had to balance two languages, and along the same lines, we were curious about the challenges of dealing with a hyphenated last name. Was that a natural decision, to highlight Ocasio?
SS At first Sandy wanted to keep it all in focus. I won’t credit us with ultimately opting for the emphasis on Ocasio, but we did point out from the start that we were struggling with the length of the name. So it was important for us that the campaign let us choose a focus.
MA They made a good decision in letting us do that. Highlighting Ocasio made it look like a rallying cry. It’s inside the speech bubble—it made it look like people were lifting up her name and yelling it out, since she’s her representative. Ocasio-Cortez just sounds different and would have looked different.
MK We’ve talked about inspirations and antecedents, but I’m wondering if you gave a lot of thought to modern campaign designs. It seems like a pretty dull and dreary landscape.
SS I’m obsessed, of course. I go to talks on the subject. I read any article I can find. I’ve been obsessed with politics since I was young. I used to watch C-SPAN as a kid. It’s really meaningful to me to be having this conversation about why we’re not communicating better in one of the most important and relevant platforms in modern society. To me it’s so important to communicate effectively within a campaign, so that voters can understand how they fit into the civic process and understand their place in democracy.
I came in with the baggage of being forced to add more stars to campaign designs over the years. “Can I get more stars? Can I get another stripe?” I was so frustrated so many times, whereas Maria came from a completely different angle. It’s not that she wasn’t informed about modern political identities—she just didn’t go in that direction. A lot of my sketches became more radical, but they still began in a more traditional format. It’s a really tricky balance. We talked about that a lot. How far can you deviate before people don’t recognize it as political communications? We were worried: Without traditional political coding elements, will this look like a Netflix poster for a new show? But maybe there’s something positive about making it look like a Netflix poster, because once you realize it’s an actual political poster, the reaction is one of delight.
Branding is like giving an organization one pair of clothes they have to wear all the time. We knew we couldn’t put Sandy—a true David and Goliath story—in the same old clothes. You look at Joe Crowley’s identity, and you swap colors and suddenly it’s a Republican campaign. That’s the majority of political identities today. There’s no who and why, and we knew we needed to get the who and why. I think our paths aligned in the perfect way: Maria’s experience with more modern branding, mixed with my experience in politics. It just worked.
RO Are there specific lessons from your work on the campaign that you’ll be able to carry into future projects?
MA Tandem was my first job after graduating from Pratt two years ago, so it’s a big learning experience for me. Just the entire process. To learn that if you really understand your client—in this case your candidate—you’ll be able to come up with something good that’s authentic and really represents whatever you’re trying to communicate. I’d never worked in political design before, and my perception of it was that everything was kind of stale. Even when campaigns try to be cool, they usually end up looking contrived and boring.
SS Part of that is because they’re all trying to sell you something—sell the candidate, sell a message, trying really hard to convince you. Sometimes you don’t need to sell anything, you just need to communicate really clearly.
MA And they’re derivative. The variations are always just a brighter blue, a bolder shade of blue. It’s the same thing over and over again. Good design that is really different—that breaks away from the standards of the industry—isn’t an attempt to craft an image or a device to catch attention. Good design can come from honest visual communication. If it’s informative and also gives people the right impression about who a campaign is really for, that’s good design. In the case of the Ocasio campaign, the visual identity did not overshadow the candidate, but rather lifted her and amplified her message up. Alexandria is a very special candidate, charismatic and very passionate about her community—we saw that and simply tried our best to translate that visually. No bells and whistles, just honest visual communication.
I hope people see that these risks are worth taking, that making design more representative of the candidate herself is OK. You don’t have to revert to red and white and blue and stars and stripes all the time. People will get it if you do something different.
SS It can be tough in politics, because when you brand someone or something, when a piece of collateral is the first point of contact, the first impression, your branding has to be honest about who the candidate is. Not all candidates are exciting. Not everyone has the energy and the ferocity that Sandy does. So that’s where this conversation gets tricky. I’ve been thinking about this for years but especially in last few days. Politics is ultimately a zero-sum game, and if Sandy had lost by twenty votes, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation today. She pulled it off.
It really is in part a game of luck. If you think of an identity as the one pair of clothes a company gets to wear or a candidate puts on for the entire campaign and the race, some companies need khakis and a polo. It just so happens that we got to do a designer piece for Sandy because that fits who she is. And she backed it up. If she had fallen flat, or stumbled in debates, our identity would have felt wrong and misleading to people. We just want to be honest. It doesn’t have to be manipulative marketing—it’s just communication. But that’s the tricky part. We need exciting candidates to get involved in politics—we need exciting, interesting people.