Editor's note: Micheline Rama is a designer, writer, artist, and activist working to promote human rights advocacy with her organisation, DAKILA. She has a BFA in Visual Communication from the UP Diliman College of Fine Arts, and completed a Design for Social Change Residency at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She recently graduated with an MSc in Social and Public Communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening Scholar.
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every few summers, the political poster temporarily unseats the jeepney as the undisputed king of Philippine streets. Early in the election season, sheets upon sheets of colorful election paraphernalia start creeping onto posts, walls, and makeshift scaffolds, like a big top tent rising to signal the arrival of a circus. In the past, I would scan this multi-colored mosaic, searching for the election posters that I designed to check if my font and color choices stood out from the competition.
As a former designer for national and local campaigns, I was keenly aware that each design decision would be duplicated in the thousands, joining reams of others for the passive consumption of the voting public. Despite — or perhaps because of — this ubiquity, campaign posters are often relegated to the background of political drama, recently taking a backseat to memes, GIFs, and other internet-based sources of political discourse. The humble political poster, however, remains a treasure trove of information hiding in plain sight, a simultaneous source of entertainment and insight during the campaign period.
Why are these posters so omnipresent in the first place? While broadcast airtime and print advertisements are limited by the implementing rules of the Fair Elections Act to help ensure equal mass media exposure, rules for campaign poster placements are far more lenient. Candidates are only restricted in terms of where posters are placed but not in how many are produced; thus filling our streets come campaign season.
The onslaught of repeating visuals — photo, name, photo, name — seems to suggest that the format of candidate posters may be regulated by the Commission on Elections as well. Surprisingly, that is not the case. The Fair Elections Act only goes as far as describing “posters made of cloth, paper, cardboard or any other material” with a maximum area of two by three feet. In my experience, despite this technical leniency for poster design, candidates rarely stray from a strict checklist of elements: Name and photo plus optional ballot number, party name, party color scheme and/or tagline.
The standard format dominated by a candidate’s name and face can be dated close to the beginning of our independent nation. When the first president of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo, ran for reelection against Manuel Quezon in 1935, he had distributed flyers that would only seem slightly out of place alongside today’s tarpaulins and digiprints.
The historic 1986 election between Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino saw campaign materials even more closely mirroring the posters we see on our streets today (in terms of graphic design, of course — but also notably in the family names). The use of two contrasting colors simultaneously takes advantage of advancing color print technology while also working around the prohibitive expense of full-color printing. This “old school” look harkens back to the days when solid color graphics and clean lines were not design choices but limitations of past mass printing methods.
Despite small stylistic and technological shifts, the essential visual language of political posters has generally remained static. This suggests that Aguinaldo and his contemporaries hit upon an effective format that only requires slight tweaking from successive generation of political combatants. Standard, but not generic, the composition of a typical election poster allows for enough familiarity so that the ordinary Filipino can efficiently assess its contents but also enough customization to allow for the candidate to stand out from the pack.
It is rare for true design innovation to emerge from the tight constraints of political poster design. Local designers often have to look abroad for inspiration, citing campaign posters for Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as gold standards for the medium. From a technical standpoint, these American examples do no differ greatly from Filipino versions, using the same four main elements: branding, photos, colors, and text. But how can choices and combinations of these elements make or break a campaign poster?
The Fair Elections Act describes the content of any “political advertisement” or “election propaganda” as any “name, image, logo, brand, insignia, color motif, initials, and other symbol or graphic representation that is capable of being associated with a candidate” — in other words, the elements of a brand identity. Branding communicates not only who the candidate is, but also how they want to be perceived. The eponymous stone, steel, and wood look of Bato dela Rosa’s branding connotes strength and solidity for example, while the soft pastels and warm smiles of many women candidates’ posters is an expression of conformity to a traditionally feminine look and feel.
Another thing that branding can reveal is the candidates’ advertising budget. It takes a certain level of expertise to translate campaign promises to design elements, and that kind of expertise comes at a cost. Many candidates hire freelance designers such as myself, or engage entire design firms, as in the case of Ocasio-Cortez who worked with Tandem, a New York-based communication design agency. Tandem combined elements from historical grassroots campaigns and Ocasio-Cortez’s cultural heritage to execute a sleek but authentic-feeling set of campaign materials.
Often, the investment in a branding kit is a shared expense of a whole political party, especially in the case of local elections. The disparate branding of today’s Senate candidates may indicate a lack of party unity or loyalty, and a representation of individual interests over long-established principles. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find many common design elements among Duterte-backed senatoriables except for one: a candidate’s photograph with the President, hands clasped, arms upraised.
Using up valuable photo real estate is a big deal. Candidate photos often take up a third to half of the printed sheet — a mystifyingly large proportion considering that ballots on election day do not contain images. A political client nearly threw a fit when I suggested that a version of their poster could do away with their image in order to focus on name recall. “A name is a name, but a face is a person,” they argued, emphasizing that a photo was absolutely necessary for their constituents to connect with them.
Perhaps the most compelling proof in support of this argument is the iconic “Hope” poster from the 2018 U.S. presidential election. The design is dominated by a stylized image of Obama but omits his name altogether — a mortal sin in campaign poster design. This deviance can be explained by the fact that the “Hope” poster was not meant as an official campaign poster in the first place. The stenciled design was created by street artist Shepard Fairey as a portrait of Obama, produced as screen-printed posters and then distributed digitally. The power of the image transcended its initial intent, overshadowing more traditional posters to become the main visual of the campaign.
It is possible that the purpose of a candidate’s image is to help undecided voters make up their minds about candidates they are unsure about. The human mind is capable of making fairly accurate split-second judgements about people's’ character based on their faces and demeanor alone. The larger the face on the poster, the more information can be made available to the public.
In the case of the Duterte endorsement photos, politicians consciously prioritized communicating the support of a backer over allowing their own merits to shine through. This is noteworthy in that it is quite rare to share space on an individual poster. One other deviation from this norm is the case of Bam Aquino, who chooses to share his poster space with constituents.
Bam Aquino’s posters are unique in another way. He is perhaps the only remaining candidate to use yellow as his primary campaign color — it is somewhat his birthright in any case, though it is interesting to note that he wears black during the campaign trail. The much-maligned hue of “dilawan” name-calling fame has otherwise been shunned by his Otso Diretso allies. Such is the power of a color in that it can unite people in a peaceful revolution but at the same time be debased as a symbol of that revolution’s apparent failure.
As a contrast, color can also indicate new beginnings. Campaign neophyte Chel Diokno describes his signature mint green as “a shade of green that’s new and fresh, which is exactly what we need sa Senado.” The choice is new given that other campaign color schemes tend to revolve around the colors of the Philippine flag. Any color outside of these are sure to pop in a sea of white, yellow, red, and blue.
As an example, the bold color palette of Ocasio-Cortez’s posters stands out from traditional Republican Red and Democrat Blue of American political posters. Moreover, the unusual color choices allow her campaign graphics to communicate values and emotions beyond party affiliation: purple for red and blue coming together in bipartisan cooperation, yellow for positivity and dynamism.
These three design elements — branding, photos, and colors — only serve to draw attention to the fourth, most important element: text. These are printed words that relate directly to what appears on the ballot — the most prominent of which is the candidate’s name. This is usually splashed at the top or bottom of the layout with the family name in bold.
In the case of text, recall is the name of the game — from nicknames and straplines to ballot numbers and party names. Rhymes like “Magsaysay is my guy” and “Kay Binay gaganda ang buhay” still ring in the ears of Filipinos long after they stop being relevant. An excellent political advertisement is one that leaves you remembering the candidate and not the details; the same applies to election posters.
The Obama “Hope” poster conveys an incredibly effective message by breaking the rules and playing around with text. By placing the word “Hope” in the spot traditionally occupied by the candidate’s name, the poster equates “Hope” with the candidate himself. By risking name recall for a more powerful visual, the poster succeeds in its intent to evoke the abstract feelings so essential in winning elections.
It is a testament to great design that its impact lasts beyond the lifespan of paper and ink. No matter how many posters are plastered outside around our neighbourhoods, they soon will fade, crumble, or wash away. The only proof of their lasting impact will be inside the halls of our government offices, in the seats of power soon to be occupied by our newly-elected officials.