Political designs: How Beto’s basic black and white and Ocasio-Cortez’s revolutionary look defined their candidacies

 

Good day Austin:

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at the end of June won a Democratic primary for a congressional seat in New York City against one of the most powerful politicians in the city, soaring into the national political consciousness, have a few things in common.

Both project an upbeat, youthful vigor — or, more properly vigah, because O’Rourke is a virtual Kennedy and Ocasio-Cortez cut her political teeth working as an intern in U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office while going to school at Boston University.

Of course Ocasio-Cortez is very young — at 28, a generation younger than the 45-year–old O’Rourke (she’s a Millennial, he’s Generation X).

Both also are masters of political virality, not to be mistaken for political virility, though maybe they are, these days, one and the same.

And both Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke have benefited from campaigns with very distinctive and effective graphic design that have gone a long way toward branding them in ways that complement their strengths.

From n+1 magazine on June 30:

The democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory in this week’s Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district has rightly provoked enthusiastic commentary and analysis. If she beats her Republican opponent in November, as seems assured, Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Her grassroots campaign against the business-friendly incumbent Joe Crowley, who until Tuesday was a likely candidate for speaker of the House, sends a significant signal to the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez’s election to Congress would be the clearest sign yet of the electoral viability of the left in the US.

Her campaign also marks a major step forward for graphic design in American politics. Rather than the tired repetition of white letters on blue backgrounds, white letters on red backgrounds, and American flag iconography, energetic diagonals cut across Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign materials in an unexpected yellow and purple. When paired with the instantly iconic photo of the candidate by Jesse Korman, the vibrancy of the system is infectious.

And from Didi Martinez at Politico on July 7:

One of the year’s most distinctive, break-the-mold campaign designs belongs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the giant-killing New York progressive who recently pulled off the upset of the primary season by defeating veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley.

Using purples and yellows and drawing inspiration from old United Farm Workers of America posters, Ocasio-Cortez’s logo and campaign signs are a dramatic departure from customary practice.

Scott Starrett, who oversaw the creation of Ocasio-Cortez’s posters — which embraced Spanish-inspired inverted exclamation marks to highlight her Puerto Rican heritage — said they could afford to take design risks as they reached for a “bold, revolutionary look” for the campaign.

 


From Aileen Kwun at Fast Company on June 29:

Opting for bold lettering and a flat design treatment that forgoes drop shadows, gradients, American flag motifs, and other visual cliches, the identity intentionally avoids pretentious signifiers to refreshing effect; one might even liken the energetic campaign visuals to a local poster bill. In place of red, white, and blue, Ocasio-Cortez’s color scheme draws upon purple–a symbolic blend of the two-party system’s red and blue, also used by Brand New Congress–and yellow, as its aesthetic complement.

Enlarged, all-caps text–set bilingually in English and Spanish, in equal weighting–frames Ocasio-Cortez’s countenance with similarly angular effect, and her name, proudly flouted with inverted exclamation marks and stars, is emphatically, unapologetically multicultural. It’s an outward display of Ocasio-Cortez’s roots as a third-generation, working-class Bronxite with Puerto Rican heritage.

(Campaign volunteers for Beto O’Rourke, left to right, Canan Yetmen, Debbie Cahoon and Bessie Tassoulas, prepare yard signs at a rally at Mount Sinai Baptist Church on Monday August 27, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

O’Rourke’s design went the other direction — no photo, no color, just BETO in black and white, in keeping with his stripped-down punk sensibility and perhaps also in subliminal homage to a particular Texas comfort zone – Whataburger.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Anna Tinsley wrote on Aug. 9:

What’s black and white and reminds some people of a tasty Texas treat?

Apparently it’s the campaign signs and logo being used by U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat embroiled in a battle with Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for the Senate.

Some are taking to social media to say those campaign messages remind them of the design on the Whataburger spicy ketchup container.

 

On Sunday, I wrote a story about following O’Rourke on a three-day swing through South Texas the previous weekend.

The last rally was in Brownsville, emceed by the local state Rep. Eddie Lucio III.

From the story:

Was O’Rourke getting a late start in the Rio Grande Valley?

“I don’t think so,” Lucio said. “You’ve got to peak at the right time. You’ve got to conserve your energy. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and I think he’s peaking and moving and gaining speed right when he needs to.”

But O’Rourke, 17 months into a relentless Senate campaign that has already taken him to all 254 Texas counties, is running the marathon as a sprint. Last weekend’s stops in Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville, drawing raucous crowds amid the campaign’s fecund fundraising and with poll after poll showing a competitive race — combined with his uncanny ability to draw national attention with viral video clips, most recently showing him skateboarding in a Brownsville Whataburger parking lot and another in which he explained his support for professional football players kneeling for the national anthem — suggested a campaign on a roll.

Following a candidate on the campaign trail is a time-honored way of reporting on politics. There were several other reporters following O’Rourke on his border swing.

It is, in fact, the next best thing to not being there if you are interested in what really matters — which is what’s going on on social media — Facebook, Twitter, likes, retweets, clicks, etc. The demands of the road can only distract from a disciplined attention to these coordinates.

Case in point, this viral tweet from Josh Billinson, the editor of the Independent Journal Review and a very talented tweeter, based in Washington, D.C., who I don’t believe was in Texas at all, but rather was, I assume, observing O’Rourke via his campaign’s  Facebook live stream of virtually everything he does on the road.

Up until Billinson’s tweet, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the skateboarding story, if that’s what this was.

I had asked O’Rourke about his newly acquired board as he clutched it at a gaggle with reporters between his Saturday evening rally in Brownsville and his dinner at a Brownsville Whataburger with some 32 El Pasoans who had come by bus to Brownsville with Veronica Escobar, the Democratic candidate to replace O’Rourke representing El Paso in Congress, to help rally support for their hometown hero.

O’Rourke was in a punk band — Foss — as a young man and I asked about his skateboarding background.

O’Rourke:

My dad bought me a skateboard when I was in the sixth grade for my birthday, so I must have turned 12.  I met the guy who sold my dad that skateboard. He now lives in San Antonio. So I skated in elementary and little bit in high school and then my kids have a skateboard and I’ll jump on that. They have a long board. This is the opposite of a long board but it’s got these nylon wheels, really good wheels.

Filling out the profile of a punk skateboarder, I asked O’Rourke if there was any graffiti he wanted to cop to. Beto would be a great tag, after all, and I’m sure the Cruz campaign is scouring freight trains and overpasses in and around El Paso for incriminating evidence.

O’Rourke: No, no, no, no, no.

I didn’t follow O’Rourke to the Whataburger that night because, while I heard the El Paso crew was headed there, I didn’t know he would be joining them — though I should have assumed he would be. And frankly, I had a Whataburger for dinner the previous evening while waiting to get a new tire in San Antonio to replace one of the two new tires I had purchased the previous day in Austin that went flat on my way from an afternoon O’Rourke rally in San Antonio, to one that evening in Laredo.

Worse still, in order to get the quarters needed to turn on the air to see if I could revive the flat tire at the gas station where I had pulled over about 20 minutes outside San Antonio,  I had to make a purchase, so I grabbed the first thing at hand, an orange package of Trident gum, though I don’t generally chew gum. But as the tire hissed air as quickly as I added it, and without a full-sized spare, I called AAA for a tow, sought comfort in my pack of orange Trident, and began chewing, quickly dislodging a crown.

I shoved the crown back where it belonged — where it remains to this day — got the tow to San Antonio, and while I waited for a new tire I repaired to a close-by Whataburger to do some research.

From Tinsley’s story on the resemblance between the Beto logo and the Whataburger spicy ketchup package:

Cruz’s campaign responded to the likeness.

“Unlike the spicy ketchup, when Texans unwrap the O’Rourke packaging, they are definitely not going to like what they see underneath,” Cruz campaign spokeswoman Emily Miller said. “He’s like a Triple Meat Whataburger liberal who is out of touch with Texas values.”

This was apparently not a good riposte.

I confess in the my five-plus years in Texas I have only had a couple of Whataburgers, all via drive-through. The experience was fine but not life-altering, though I acknowledge and admire the fierce devotion of Texans to the chain. Like for HEB, only that one I actually live and feel.

In any case, unaccustomed to being inside a Whataburger, I looked around for the spicy ketchup package, and before I ordered my basic burger, I asked the guy at the counter how to secure a spicy ketchup in the Beto-like container. He looked at me as a bit of a security risk. I didn’t realize that a young woman would come around, when I received my order, with a condiment tray, like a cigarette girl in a 1940s nightclub.

Very classy.

 

The burger was pretty good. A single meat Whataburger was hefty. I doubted a triple-meat Whataburger was ever a good idea. And, at first glance, the resemblance between the ketchup package design and the Beto logo didn’t seem to me to be all that extraordinary.

But let us pause here to consider Ocasio-Cortez’s eye-catching design and how, there but for a former Austinite’s search for an acceptable taco in New York City, it might never have come off the way it did.

From that n+1 piece:

We were curious about how such a complex and impressive visual schema emerged, so we sought out the designers responsible for it: Scott Starrett, cofounder of Tandem (along with Shaun Gillen), and Maria Arenas, lead designer on the campaign. (Tandem’s Carlos Dominguez also assisted the campaign.) We spoke by phone on Friday, June 29, three days after Ocasio Cortez’s victory.

—Rachel Ossip and Mark Krotov

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.

Aha. Austin. I spoke to Scott Starrett back in early July.

Starrett, 34, moved to Austin from Lawrence, Kansas, where he was the director of marketing for the University of Kansas Memorial Unions, when he was 27. He was hired by Katie Naranjo at GNI Communications where his clients included state Sen. Kirk Watson, Mayor Steve Adler and Hugh Fitzsimons, who finished out of the money in a three-way race against Jim Hogan and Kinky Friedman for the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner four years ago. Despite that fact that Starrett did this beautiful map of Texas for his campaign.

Fitzsimons campaign effectively ended the day he filed his paperwork to be on the ballot.

Starrett: It meant a lot to him, it was meaningful and he asked he go in alone to put his name on the ballot because it was sentimental. He put his name on the ballot as Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III. He came out and showed us that and we were all like, “What have you done to us?”

Starrett subsequently moved to New York and co-founded Tandem.

I asked him about his comment that he didn’t think the Ocasio-Cortez design would have worked in Texas.

STARRETT: New Yorkers “are exposed to so much in their visual culture that — I don’t want to use the word sophistication, because that’s condescending to you guys — but (in New York) you are bombarded by the different visual languages and meeting that visual culture halfway we found to be a really positive thing and it may have been too much for Texas, and that also sounds condescending.

The Ocasio-Cortez design, he said, “borders on sentimental and dramatic, right? Like the ethos is excessive on some level and Sandy’s a bombastic candidate. She’s a firebrand, so when you hear her talk, you instantly go, ‘Oh, Ok, the poster fits, so it works.'”

“It might have been a little high-falutin’ for Texas.”

 

Originally, he said, the campaign “wanted a ton of inspirational text packed on there and we tried and we tried and at first we said, `I don’t think it’s going to work, it just doesn’t work, it was overbearing.’ They said, `Make it work.'”

“Some campaigns force you to do things that won’t work,” he said. But, ultimately the Ocasio-Cortez campaign relented.

Why?

“Not only was Sandy our friend, but she trusted us and believed in us.”

And they came up with a selection of buttons that each emphasized an issue.

Starrett and his partner became friends with Sandy because of Starrett’s yearning for tacos like the ones he’d grown to love in Austin.

“Oh man, I miss all the tacos, but Pueblo Viejo, that was my taco lunch,” said Starrett of the taco truck in the parking lot next to the GNI office on Brushy Street (it’s since moved inside the North Door).

(Note that the Pueblo Viejo color palette is to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign what the Whataburger spicy ketchup black and white is to O’Rourke’s look.)

STARRETT: New York does not always have the best tacos. Our office is in Union Square. So I was roaming around looking for something to eat and this new restaurant had just opened. I think I walked in on the second day and, I said, `OK, this could work out. You know there’s a taco joint less than a block from our office. This is a good thing. I could see good things happening for us.

“It’s called Flats Fix. It’s attached to the Coffee Shop,” a Union Square institution known as a hangout for models, he said.

It turned out that the bartender/waitress at Flats Fix was Ocasio-Cortez.

As she explains in a clip from Knock Down the House — a documentary being made about four women candidates for Congress, including Ocasio-Crotez — “I started waitressing after the financial crisis because we were about to lose our house.”

STARRETT: We’re fairly down-to-earth people. Over time my business partner, Shaun Gillen, and I,  we gravitated solely toward lunching and having business meetings at Flats Fix.

We’re pretty much always talking business so we made friends with the staff and they could see we were up to something and so that, along with politics — everyone in New York was talking politics in 2016 leading up to the race — so we really hit it off being politically inclined folks and when Sandy went to Standing Rock and she went to Detroit (Flint), we let her borrow our office studio’s GoPro to help document her trip and then later, as things started heating up, she got me in touch with … and we started working for Brand New Congress and justice Democrats (both groups supporting Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy) and then I let her borrow my car to drive upstate to attend endorsement meetings.

She calls us out on Twitter as her Day One Brothers. So we were there from the start just encouraging her, telling her we thought she had it in her, just encouraging her every step of the way.

She is fierce now in a way that I think has impressed and surprised all of us but she’s always been gregarious and intellectual and kind.

Starrett said she worked at Flats Fix until about 10 months ago. (Her image, working the bar, continued to adorn the Flats Fix website after her election, but is now gone.)

She apparently previously worked at the Coffee Shop, which had a different clientele but the same ownership.

“The owners are clearly not fans of her politics — they are wealthy and they want to keep as much of their wealth as they can,” said Starrett. And, indeed, since our conversation they announced they are closing the Coffee Shop, blaming increases in the minimum wage, though they are keeping Flats Fix open.

Before heading down to South Texas, I spoke with Tony Casas in El Paso who designed the Beto logo.

Casas is a partner and part owner of Stanton Street, a web design and development company and digital marketing firm founded and formerly owned by O’Rourke, who hired Casas as a junior designer in 2008. O’Rourke turned the firm over his wife, Amy, when he was elected to Congress, and she in turn sold it just before O’Rourke announced for the Senate to Casas and Brian Wancho, the president and CEO.

He really took a chance on me and I’m glad that it worked out,” Casas said of O’Rourke.

I told him what Starrett said about the Ocasio-Cortez campaign being too bold a look for Texas. I wondered whether the O’Rourke campaigns choice of black and white confirmed that assessment.

Casas said that what guided O’Rourke to like the spare black and white design was his punk sensibility.

“Beto was real big on black and white to begin with,” Casas said. “It goes back to his punk rock roots, which are very black and white.”

Cases who, at 36, is a decade younger than O’Rourke, also grew up in the El Paso punk scene, designing posters and flyers for groups appearing locally.

CASAS: A lot of his campaign is based off of transparency and honesty and being straightforward about who he is and no sham about that, and the black and white more appealed to that and I think he just identified more with the black and white than the color, and it was less about what Texas was going to think.

He didn’t want the smoke and mirrors that everybody else has. He wanted it to be as bold and straightforward as he possibly could.

“I am punk rock at heart too so I knew about his band,” Casas said.

Had he ever seen him perform?

“I’m pretty sure I have, I know I’ve seen him on fliers,” Casas said. ” I did all the punk rock posters for bands after he was already out of the scene but I’m almost positive that I have (seen him) but I just don’t recall off-hand because it wasn’t as significant as it would become — who would ever have thought.”

Casas also designed the retro RFK Beto buttons in a more traditional red, white and blue.

CASAS: That was mine. A lot of people kept on making that comparison early that he looked a lot like Robert Kennedy and we were talking about it and I’m, “That’s an awesome statement for people to make the comparison.” I was, “we’re already working on some retro designs,  let’s play off that,” and we created those buttons and passed them out during the launch.

Casas said the punk palette is black, white and bright pink.

I asked where the pink was in O’Rourke’s campaign and he said Veronica Escobar, the Democrat running for Beto’s seat, was using it in her campaign, which is being designed by another El Paso outfit.

Having said all that, Casas’ original design for the Beto logo was in color, and that’s what he presented to O’Rourke and the campaign team. But, because it didn’t feel quite right to him, he had also prepared a black-and-white version that was not part of the presentation.

CASAS: They didn’t hate them but at the same they had the same feeling, they’re good but, uh, oh i don’t know. I said, “Let me show you one other thing. I made the same logo in black and white. Let me know what you guys think.” And the second I showed it to them, Beto was the first, “That’s it, that’s what I’m going for,” and everyone else was, “Yeah, that’s more or less what we wanted,” and then we tweaked it until we got it right.

His whole campaign has been, “This is me and this is what I’m doing, transparency and honesty and what  better way to do that than simple black-and-white signs saying Beto’s running for Senate.”

Prospective first-time voters at San Antonio rally.

 

Casas said it’s the black and white that most draws comparison to the Whataburger spicy ketchup package. That and the lines on either side of Spicy, on the ketchup lid, and For Senate on the Beto logo.

CASAS: At one time the lines from the E were extended all the way through to the end of the logo and that looked weird to me, so I cut the lines off and left them there, and then centered the “For Senate”, and then added the lines to the other side. so those lines are just the extension of the E and then when I did that it was, OK, it looks symmetrical, it looks a lot better like that.

When he showed the final version to O’Rourke, Casas said, “I was talking to people in the office and it hit me, you know this feels very Whataburger, but at the same time, the consensus was, that could work, you know, it’s OK. It’s not like we copied it, but I mean it could work. It’s Texas. People love Whataburger and I’m included, and one of the funniest things, the very first time I sat down to talk to Beto about the logo, I kid you not, the entire campaign was there (in the campaign office) eating Whataburgers, and I think back to that now, and it was a sign from the beginning.”

After he finished the final design, Casas said, “I didn’t want to look at it.”

CASAS: I knew this was potentially going to get national attention and I didn’t want to read the comments. I know what the comments are like on social media and I don’t want to be a part of it. I know how mean social media can be. Up until maybe the last week I have never felt proud of it, not because it wasn’t good but just because I was scared. Now that people are embracing him and embracing it and sticking up for a logo they had nothing to do with, it’s empowering. It feels great.

Not leaving well enough alone, I asked Casas the ultimate question — is Whataburger objectively good or just a home state favorite.

CASAS: I don’t know. Whataburger is always just a thing for us. My wife and I have been friends since we were 13 years old and her loyalties are always Whataburger. She says, “I like the taste more than anything.” She orders a plain Whataburger, no cheese, no nothing on it,  just a burger and bun and she says it has the best meat of anybody.

Either we were raised to like it or it’s plain good.

Indeed, Casas recalls how his father, who used to work at Wendy’s, would bring Whataburger home for the family.

Which brings us to the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign and the popular Wendy’s ad that Walter Mondale used to truly devastating effect against Gary Hart, when it appeared Hart had Mondale, who had seemed a prohibitive front-runner, on the ropes.

 

Four years later, New York Times political correspondent R.W. Apple wrote that, “Walter F. Mondale’s memorable ‘`Where’s the beef?” response to Gary Hart’s ‘new ideas’ …  may have enabled the former Vice President to wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Mr. Hart in a very close race.”

Now, 34 years later, comes a Cruz spokesman suggesting that O’Rourke has too much beef, albeit of the liberal variety, with O’Rourke and company offering a playful reminder of the miscue by ordering triple meat Whataburgers in Brownsville after O’Rourke worked up an appetite with a block walk in Laredo, town halls in McAllen and Brownsville, and the quick skate seen ’round the world in the Whataburger parking lot.

I stayed at the same hotel that night as O’Rourke and the next morning saw him in the breakfast area.

I quickly recounted for him my conversation with Casas and my earlier conversation with Starrett about Ocasio-Cortez’s design.

I asked if he had met Ocasio-Cortez and he said he hadn’t. I said I thought she had been at the Father’s Day march he led on the immigration detention center in Tornillo to protest the separation of families at the border, but it turned out she was there a week later on the eve of her primary.

“I would love to meet her and I should probably  get her phone number and just reach out to her and talk to her,” O’Rourke said. “I am just really impressed, not just by her victory, but she is on the march. How old is she? 32? Is she that old?”

I asked about Casas and the decision to go back and white with the Beto logo.

“I just remember having a conversation with him — I don’t want flags, I don’t flames of liberty,” O’Rourke said.

“I don’t want the stuff you see all the time in logos. Just make it as plain as you can, and then I remember, he was showing us the color version and I said, `Just black and white… Beto.”

“It’s turned out well and I don’t know what we sold in t-shirts and what we’ve sold in yard signs and bumper stickers for 3 bucks. That’s actually been a big part of what we’ve raised, people wanting to buy that gear or the signs. So Tony did good.”

And, O’Rourke said of Casas, “He’s a skater, actually.”

“In his free time,” his company bio says, “Tony pops crook grinds, trey flips, and back tails at the local skateparks.”

With that, I checked out of the hotel and as I put my stuff in the car to follow O’Rourke’s pickup to the block walk, he rolled by me.