Sign Season, Part 1: Color Wars

As the September preliminary election approaches, one indication of a competitive race is the “sign war” that may break out between leading candidates and their supporters. The war, which involves the placement of window & yard signs, as well as larger, 4’x8′ billboards, is an attempt to saturate a voting district with so many examples of a candidate’s brand that an indelible image is left in the minds of local residents, along with the information that image contains.

The most critical part of the brand is the candidate’s name: a good brand will create positive associations with that name, using colors, words, or graphic elements (which may be emphasized enough to become a logo). The only other element that almost certainly must be included is the office the candidate is seeking. While design decisions may best be left to professionals, an amateur can make a respectable showing in this department by using inexpensive computer programs and avoiding the errors of her competitors.

One of the first elements considered in a brand design process is color. A consistent use of color throughout a politician’s career can create long-lasting associations in citizens’ minds. For example, most Bostonians would recognize the stately green of late Mayor Thomas M Menino, whose signs were once permanently affixed to the sides of warehouses and watering holes throughout the City, an omnipresent reminder of the colossus bestriding Boston. Choice of font or typeface is also important: Menino’s brand used capital letters only, to indicate strength and stability. As a district City Councillor from Hyde Park, however, Menino’s original colors appear to have been blue and yellow. I am unaware of what, if any, significance these colors may have had for His Honor. Blue is a common color for Democrats, and yellow is known as a color that can be easily seen, even at night. Menino, a traditional politician rather than an upstart, who as President of the Boston City Council¬†maneuvered into the Mayor’s office without having to run (at first) for the position, was known as a practical leader, an “urban mechanic” who used established means to pursue progressive ends.

Tom Menino, Your District City Councilor

Color choice could also be influenced by the circumstances of a particular race. If one were opposing an incumbent, for example, one might choose a color OTHER than that of one’s adversary, in order better to distinguish one’s brand. As I have learned, the principle of “seniority” sometimes plays a role in party politics, so that a young politician might also be well served by not encroaching on a color used to notable effect by a more senior member of the party.

Acting Mayor Menino

A color can indicate personality, gender, or another aspect of a person’s identity; color combinations can suggest patriotism, inclusiveness, or another ideal or basic principle. When did Menino adopt his signature hue, and was its selection determined in part by the 8-way race for Mayor held in 1993? I asked Jim Brett, former state Representative from Dorchester, and Menino’s general election opponent in November of ’93, if he could tell me what had prompted Menino’s choice. He could not; but he did recall vividly his own political colors: blue and white. Brett also related to me a singular signage strategy of his own: employing five attractive female campaign volunteers to hold and carry five huge letters spelling out his last name, at events, during parades, etc.

I was aware of existence of these letters, one of which adorns the home office wall of a West Roxbury politico and Democratic State Commiteeman, a loyal Menino supporter who removed it from the roof of the West Roxbury Pub, during the Truman Rally, which is held in the municipal parking lot located at the corner of Hastings and Centre Streets, adjacent the pub. In ’93, Brett supporters had arrived early and installed the five letters on the roof, where they would be visible to rally-goers. An impressive trophy from an historic sign season, it is now a piece of art, used by its owner to display campaign buttons of all years, colors, shapes, and sizes. Perhaps Menino, an Italian, chose green as a subtle appeal to Boston’s Irish, who heavily supported his predecessor, Ray Flynn of South Boston? Jim suggested I ask one of the two co-chairs of Ward 11, another long-time Menino supporter, if she happened to know the tale.

Truman Rally, circa 2011

Colors can also be used to reinforce pre-existing associations. For example, when Felix G. Arroyo (former Chief of Health and Human Services for the City of Boston) first ran for Boston City Council in 2009, many Boston voters naturally assumed that he was his father: former At-Large City Councilor and current Register of Probate¬†Felix D. Arroyo. Politics, like other professions, can be a family affair: the children of elected officials may inherit their parent’s name recognition, fund-raising network, and cadre of volunteer workers. If the child of a politician takes an active role in her parent’s campaigns, this transfer of political resources can be a smooth and perfectly natural one. In 2009, in his first run for office, Felix the Younger made a shrewd decision in adopting the colors of his father: yellow & green (but with the background and lettering colors reversed, in a playful twist).

Once the color scheme is in place, a decision must be made about what design elements to include. The LAST name is the most important element: should one also include the candidate’s first name? Middle name or initial? These questions are affected by several considerations, including name length, as well as gender (I have noticed that female candidates are more likely to highlight their first name in signage, possibly as a play for the single most dominant voter demographic – women). In addition to issues concerning the name, decisions must be made regarding how to express the office sought and whether to add other elements like a website URL, a slogan (Moving Boston Forward was Mayor Menino’s, written in italicized¬†letters visually suggesting motion), a logo, a party affiliation, and a union bug. I will discuss all these concerns (and more!) in another entry – Sign Season, Part 2: Hard Choices.

Jim Brett Way, Savin Hill