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Front lawns become front lines in political advertising

Front lawns become front lines in political advertising

Design experts rate what signs work "? and what ones need help

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It didn't take very long for Rodger W. Jennings, the Green party candidate vying next month to unseat U.S. Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Belleville) in Congress, to decide the color palette for his campaign ads. Really, it came down to one choice.

"Green. Because I'm Green," he said.

Turns out the question of what color to use on a candidate's advertising materials is an important decision in the long process to win elected office. So much that some candidates, even for small offices, spend huge sums on getting the most effective designs.

And nowhere is the issue of color, fonts and design more important than on the most ubiquitous of ad materials: yard signs and billboards.

J.W. Arnold, a former Congressional staffer and principal at Washington, D.C., marketing and ad firm PRDC, said design is vital to getting the message to would-be voters.

"Name is most important. It must be front and center, bold and easy to read, to link the candidate with the names on the ballot," he said.

To test the theory, the St. Clair County Journal last week asked Arnold and two experts from journalism and design to critique the political signs of five candidates vying for two closely-watched local races: U.S. House of Representatives 19th District and Illinois House 112th District. We also included a sign for Jennings, who starting last month is advertising heavily with lawn signs in Madison County.

We asked the panel, which purposely did not include local political and policy officials, to overlook party affiliations and any preconceived notions that might taint opinions about the ads.

Rather, the focus was purely on the message of the sign - and whether it was effectively delivered.

Heather V. Kniffel, a graphic designer and marketing manager for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who helped judge the samples, said effective signs have the same common traits: simple wording, contrasting colors and consistency.

"With four to seven seconds of oftentimes divided attention," Kniffel said, "simplicity is key."

Illinois House of Representatives, 112th District

Democrat Jay C. Hoffman, incumbent

The big "Hoffman" makes the sign easy to read, said Kristen DiFate, a visiting communications and journalism professor at Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo., who assisted with the study.

Kniffel likes the tilt on "Jay," which "adds a touch of casualness to this otherwise traditional sign."

But DiFate also takes issue with the stacking, saying the "visual hierarchy is askew."

"Each section - last name, first name and affiliation - being almost equal in size makes it difficult to establish importance at a glance, forcing the audience to read the entire sign," she said.

Final score

The design leaves Arnold confused.

"I don't understand why the sign is divided into thirds with the white horizontal lines, especially when the flag crosses over," he said.

Republican Dwight D. Kay

"A traditional color palette and stars and stripes symbols are used, but this sign design balances traditional with modern," said Kniffel, calling it a "modern twist."

Still, Arnold thinks the flag is lost in the blue background, "making the flag motif less effective."

Final score

"Effective, clean design," says DiFate, who also praised the design for the subtle flag background. "The colors tell you what: politics. The bold, san-serif font tells you who: Kay."

United States House of Representatives, 19th District

(Also running is Green Party candidate Dennis Troy)

Republican John M. Shimkus, the incumbent

Kniffel likes the serif font and the patriotic palette, which "gives this sign a traditional feel."

Arnold, however, criticizes the layout.

"Instead of spreading the information top to bottom to cover the sign's face evenly, I would recommend tightening it up at the top and living with the dead space at the bottom," he said. "It's a little challenging to connect the three lines like that."

Final score

Despite a clunky font, DiFate thinks the size and design make the sign readable and clear.

"The over-exaggerated leading between lines gives further focus to the subject: Shimkus," she said.

Democrat Daniel Davis

DiFate likes the clear name, which "makes this painless to read at 35 mph," and Kniffel gives kudos for the coloring and white space, lending the sign a modern feel and helping it "stand out from the traditional red white and blue, heavily inked signs."

But the void of colors makes the sign boring, DiFate said, and "won't be effective in catching anyone's attention."

Final score

Good call on the name placement and nontraditional color scheme, Arnold said.

Davis "bucks the trend by choosing campaign colors other than the traditional red, white and blue. It stands out, but elections tend to emphasize the patriotic," he said in the critique.

DiFate, however, thinks the Web site address,, is too small and confusing: "Why not opt for something more memorable like"

United States House of Representatives, 12th District

(Also running are incumbent Democrat Jerry F. Costello and Republican Timmy Jay Richardson Jr.)

Green Party candidate Rodger Jennings

"The exclusive green ink color on this sign makes it stand out from the crowd," Kniffel said, and draws in Green Party voters looking for a local candidate, said Arnold.

"For the issue-oriented voters Jennings is trying to attract, his party affiliation is probably more important than the candidate," he said.

But the one color and no contrast between the elements also makes the design difficult to read, Kniffel said.

And it makes Jennings one-dimensional, Arnold said. "People just don't look good in green, blue or red," he said.

Final score

"Jennings utilizes common conventions with surname prominence but, beyond that, the hierarchy is hard to decipher," DiFate said.

And the color just doesn't work with the photo, Arnold said.

"If the candidate can't look great, don't put her or him on the sign!" he added.

The experts

- J.W. Arnold, principal at marketing and ad firm PRDC in Washington, D.C.

- Kristen DiFate, visiting professor of communications and journalism at Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo.

- Heather V. Kniffel, graphic design artist and marketing manager at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

How do you feel about political signs? Are they are an eyesore or helpful to voters? Leave a comment.

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