Winning Votes with the Right Visual Cues

It’s election season again and as some of you may remember, I’m a student of political signage. I wrote an article two years ago on political sign design which got a lot of attention and got me interviewed by the New York Times.

One of my theories in that article was that there were certain color combinations and stylistic elements which identified political inclinations in a way more subtle and perhaps more effective on a subconscious level than simple party affiliation. In particular I identified a specific design style which uses purple and green and a wavy white dividing line as a way of communicating to voters in a non-partisan election that a particular candidate embraces an environmentalist agenda and ideas like “smart growth.” As an example I included the sign used by a city council candidate in California (shown to the right), though I have seen a number of others which follow the same model.

In our recent municipal election here in Austin I saw a demonstration of how effective these visual cues are in political advertising. Austin is a city totally dominated by a small left-leaning political elite which believes in the ideas of smart growth and green cities – moving people downtown and into high-rise condos instead of suburban homes, discouraging the use of cars, expanding mass transit, strong environmental regulation and green energy. It’s an environment in which conservative candidates and Republicans usually do very poorly, rarely getting more than a third of the vote in a city council election.

Austin municipal elections are non-partisan, but engaged voters usually find out the political leanings and history of the candidates. Yet in this recent election we saw a known Republican candidate named Laura Pressley come within a few points of defeating a Democrat incumbent. The campaign had a variety of strengths, but I think one of the factors in Pressley substantially outperforming other Republicans was her choice of sign design. As you can see from these images, she adopted a design which was directly out of the green candidate playbook and very similar to the Lawson sign I had previously used as an example.

I suspect that when voters from the wealthy left-leaning neighborhoods of central Austin went to the polls, instead of remembering rumors that Pressley was a Republican, they remembered the look of her signs and that visual cue influenced enough of them to vote for her that she came surprisingly close to winning. Picking that sign design was a smart move. Maybe someone on her campaign read my article from 2010.

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