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What political design looks like in the U.K.
5 things I learned about political ads, merch, and design in the U.K.
American eyes, British political design looks just similar enough to seem vaguely familiar.
We use the same main colors — excuse me, ~colours~ — except opposite from the U.S., Conservatives there use blue and the liberal Labour Party uses red. The fonts look similar. They sometimes reflect American visual trends back to us, but filtered through their own visual culture and political system.
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I spoke with three British political design experts about what politics looks like in the U.K. Here’s five things I learned:
1. Political ads are designed for posters and leaflets, not TV
American campaigns spend billions on TV ads every election cycle, but in the U.K., all political advertising on television and radio was banned in 2003. Rather than TV-centric political ads, British campaigns are known for their posters.
“In the U.K., when you speak to someone about great political advertising, it’s almost always talking about posters,” said Benedict Pringle, founder of political advertising.co.uk. “Some of the great political advertising, usually it’s got some sort of visual pun in it because it’s usually been designed for a billboard.”
One of the most famous campaign billboards is “Labour Isn’t Working,” a Conservative Party poster for the 1979 election showing a snaking unemployment line to criticize the Labour government.
The poster was the work of Saatchi & Saatchi, an ambitious London ad agency that rebranded Conservatives from stiff and posh into something more mainstream. The agency helped sweep Margaret Thatcher and Conservatives into power, and they revolutionized British political design.
The campaign was “the first time that a political party had used a proper commercial advertising agency, and they have a very distinctive style to their advertising,” Pringle said. Since then, individual British elections can often be defined by their most memorable poster.
“Visual ideas are a bigger part of political advertising and political design [in the U.K.] than what I see in the U.S.,” Pringle said.
A 2001 Labour poster depicted Conservative leader William Hague with Thatcher’s hair and the copy “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” In 2015, Labour Leader Ed Milliband was shown in the pocket of former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, suggesting the Scottish National Party would have influence over Labour if there was a hung parliament. Conservatives went with boxing gloves in 2017 to hit Labour with accusations of “1. More Taxes, 2. Higher Prices.”
“Sometimes the headline will use a pun or be slightly cryptic, and it’ll be infused with a wry kind of humor that I suppose might make a powerful message in a kind of very sober, understated, slightly amusing way,” said journalist Sam Delaney. “That’s very British.”
British politics is also designed for leaflets left at people’s doors. Leaflet trends have changed over the years, but one approach popularized by the Liberal Democrats is a tabloid magazine-style pamphlet that includes photos and stories about candidates, according to the BBC.
2. It’s centered on the party
American presidential candidates run as individuals, while British prime ministers get to office when their party or coalition takes the majority, the way the House speaker takes office in the U.S. That makes for a political visual culture that’s more centered on the party.
“Every four years over there [in the U.S.] you can basically reinvent the brand. You can come up with the new image, new logo, new website,” said Tom Edmonds, former Conservative Party creative director. “In the U.K. we’re all basically legacy brands. I’ve changed a Conservative Party logo twice, and the furor is just unbelievable.”
Both major parties have plant logos. Labour uses a rose icon, which is popular with leftist parties outside the U.S., while Conservatives have an oak tree logo that was introduced in 2006 to replace a logo of an arm holding a torch. There’s not much deviation outside the party branding.
“Everyone stays in their lane design wise,” Pringle said. “Labour is red and it’s always red and any candidate who’s standing for election anywhere in the country at any level, whether it’s local government or whatever, you can tell Labour a mile off.”
Candidates will have their party logos on everything, Pringle said.
“Quite often, the central party will provide templates to use and they’ll be like, your name goes here, this is where the logo goes,” he said. “So it’s really quite templated.”
3. Trends are a few years behind the U.S.
The current home pages for the U.K.’s two main parties each use slogans used by Democrats’ past two presidential nominees. Conservatives have President Joe Biden’s 2020 slogan “Build Back Better” and Labour has 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together.”
To be fair, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually used “Build Back Better” before Biden, but regardless, British political design today is heavily inspired by the U.S.
American trends makes their way across the Atlantic within two or three years, Edmonds said. For political professionals, pointing to what works in the U.S. helps get things greenlit.
“When I was with the Conservatives, the way you can get anyone to agree to anything is you say, well, Barack Obama did it,” Edmonds said. “It’s the easiest way to get people to buy into it.”
The geometric sans serif look of American political type has influenced font choice in the U.K. “You’ll see the sort of big, blocky fonts,” Edmonds said.
British campaigns have also followed Americans’ lead on investing heavily in digital advertising and they’ve copied the style of American attack ads too.
“Attack ads in the U.K. have come to resemble more and more the classic U.S. attack ads on TV, you know, newspaper headlines, archive footage, the dramatic glass-shattering sound effects,” Edmonds said.
Sometimes American political consultants get side gigs advising foreign campaigns, like former Obama strategist Jim Messina, who was tapped by Conservatives in 2017.
4. Merch is for inside the house, not the outside
“When Jim Messina came over, he said, ‘look, if you guys want to make money, sell bumper stickers,’” Edmonds said. “In the U.K., literally no one has bumper stickers.”
In the U.S., campaigns sell items for supporters to show off their politics on the outside, like bumper stickers, yard signs, and hats. In the U.K., what sells are items that are much more private.
“The two things that make political parties money, and they’re so English it’s almost embarrassing, is mugs for tea and tea towels,” Edmonds said. “We’ve tried t-shirts, we’ve tried bumper stickers, posters. It’s mugs and tea towels, and those are the two things people in Britain will buy and nothing else.”
Though former rightwing UKIP leader Nigel Farage once wore a “Make Britain Great Again” hat, the U.K. doesn’t have the sort of political culture where a MAGA hat would sell.
“No one’s her come up with the equivalent of the ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball cap,” Delaney said. “There’s something about the British electorate that would find that a bit cringe. They don’t want to be fed anything by a party, even if you’re a big supporter.”
5. Patriotism is more restrained
“American posters and ads are far more patriotic on both sides,” Delaney said. “Whether you’re Democrat or a Republican, you will have the stars and stripes on your campaign posters and they’re on everything.”
The U.K. has a different relationship to its flag than the U.S., something best illustrated to me by Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell being cautioned against wearing her iconic Union Jack dress to the 1997 Brit Awards by a stylist because it could be seen as rightwing. That’s why she added a peace sign to the back. That caution around the flag shows up in the more reserved way patriotism is displayed in British politics.
“The Conservatives will use it more readily,” Delaney said, but “you’ll notice things like they will never just have it as it is. They might do a slightly artsy version of the Union Jack, to soften it.”
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