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The Art & Science of Signs and Graphics

Jim Fleming

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

Want a cleaner, brighter, more readable graphic image for your campaign?  

White Letters on a Dark or Contrasting Background are Better, Especially at Night.

Rendering your name in reverse—white against a contrasting bright or dark colored background—makes your name look larger and improves visibility, especially at night. In fact, according to a study by the Outdoor Advertising Institute, reverse messages are up to 40% more visible. That is the reason that Departments of Transportation use white type against dark green or dark brown backgrounds on their highway signs.

Study roadside signs and billboards on your next trip across town. At night, reverse white letters are much more readable.  During daylight hours, white sign backgrounds blend in with the neutral sky (the closer the angle to the horizon, the lighter and whiter the sky). This actually constricts the apparent size of the sign to the size of the lettering.

Putting a border around a white sign background tends to restrict the size even more. Borders are a bad idea anyway because they clutter up graphics with an unnecessary design element.

Perhaps owing to traditional concepts of heaven or the sterile white environment of hospitals, white letters have the added advantage of conveying a sense of purity and honesty.  Thats why, in the movies, the good guys always wear white hats.

Primary Colors and Shades of Victory

What's your favorite color? Whatever it is, it should never be the primary criteria for selecting your campaign graphics. Mass merchandisers pay psychologists and graphics gurus millions to find the color for their product or packaging that will elicit specific emotional responses from shoppers.  You have probably read that corrections officials decorate prison cells in a certain shade of pink that actually makes violent criminals feel weaker and more docile. Thats how potentially powerful, beneficial or detrimental, the right or wrong color can be.

To learn more about the psychology of color, check the psychology section of any large library or bookstore. There are all kinds of books and research papers on the subject.

Here, from my perspective as a career advertising professional, is a brief overview of the psychological and physiological effects of the basic colors in the spectrum:

Green and Blue are the most prevalent colors in the environment, so they tend to have a comforting and calming effect on people.

Green, of course, is the color of nature and is therefore the preferred color of products, companies and candidates who want to be perceived as environmentally friendly.

Blue is the color of trust (true blue) and quality (blue chip). Thats why blue is the predominant color used in Fortune 500 logos. IBM is often referred to by its nickname, Big Blue.

Purple, which is also calming, is an interesting color. It reminds people of royalty, bravery, chivalry and honor. The military Purple Heart is a time-honored tradition that traces its roots to Medieval times. The problem is that some shades may be too garish or foppish and, with so many variations in hue, it is difficult to match in different graphic applications.

Yellow and Yellow Orange are the colors of danger and caution. Thats why highway caution signs are rendered in black-on-yellow.  Also, research has proven that the black-on-yellow combination is the most visible for all people (including those who are color-blind) in all kinds of lighting and atmospheric conditions. Dont be too tempted to use that combination, however. The color yellow has a bad reputation, and connotes bananas, lemons, chickens, cowardice, jaundice and worse. For those reasons we generally don’t use yellow in campaign graphics unless it’s rendered and read as “gold” or used as a an accent or secondary color.

Red and Red Orange elicit excitement, tension and nervous energy, both good and bad.  Food product manufacturers use a lot of red in packaging because it makes people tense and hungry.

Black and Brown are generally considered melancholy and foreboding. Black, however, is an essential color when you are printing a political brochure or flyer.  The familiar black type on a white page is easier to read.  Never allow a printer to sell you on the idea of not using black to print your picture in the interest of saving money on fewer colors or press runs.  (We discuss this in detail in our book WINNING BIG.)

Red, White and Blue is, of course, the color combination of choice for 80% of all political campaigns—a strong reason to consider not wrapping your name in it.  Not that the flag image isnt positive. If you were the only candidate who used it, you would be way ahead in the patriot game.  Unfortunately, the red, white and blue combination has become such a political cliché, you run the risk of drowning your image and your message in a confusing red, white and blue ocean.  How strongly do we feel about this? Check it out—you won’t find a single flag or red, white and blue graphic anyplace in this book. 

If you absolutely, positively feel you must have red, white and blue graphics, be 100% sure you are true to the flag colors, format and protocol. You dont want the VFW picketing your campaign headquarters because the flag on your sign is the wrong color, or is facing the wrong way.

Its always red, white, and blue, in that order. Its not blue, white and red—thats the French flag. Its not white, blue and red—thats the Russian flag. Its not blue stripes and a white star on a red field—thats the Cuban flag. And its not any shade of red or blue that doesnt match Old Glory e-x-a-c-t-l-y.

Dont ever tell your printer or sign shop that you want flag red and flag blue.

Artype and other graphic arts professionals use a universal color standard called the Pantone Matching System, usually referred to as PMS colors. Flag blue is reflex blue, and flag red is PMS #185.

NOTE: Reflex Blue is not a blend or a mix, it comes right out of ink can with mass production consistency.

If you plan to use flag colors, write these two down and repeat them to everyone who reproduces your artwork. In fact, whatever colors you choose, make sure you get and use the PMS numbers every time. There is no absolute guarantee, but its the best quality control method there is.

Also remember that, to be true to their solid PMS number, these colors must be printed solid, never screened.  Screening—printing dots of color in patterns of various density (often inaccurately called a halftone)—reveals more of the background paper and therefore lightens the color visually.

Red screened against a white background becomes pink. Blue screened against a white background becomes a weak baby blue. Dont laugh.  One Florida state senators literature had a pink and baby blue flag printed on it, and, as a result, he incurred the wrath of the veterans groups in his district. Make sure you get a book on flag protocol, and study it before you display the U.S. flag in any graphics.

Try to find out what color combinations your opponents are using, and avoid them like the plague. (The risk of me-tooism is a compelling argument for not being the first candidate to distribute signs and campaign literature).

If youre concerned about choosing the same campaign colors as those in another local race, call and ask about it. After all, the other candidates are probably just as anxious about it as you are, and they would appreciate the call.

About the Author

Jim Fleming / Artype, Inc

Jim Fleming was a national award-winning writer, lecturer and author of Winning Big in Small Budget Campaigns. He passed away in 2005. He will be missed.

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