Greening your Political Backyard

A series about design & communication in Canada’s 2015 election campaign

Let’s Get the Party Started - The Basics of Responsible Campaigning

Getting elected isn’t just about being a “good” politician, it’s about communicating why you are the preferred contender. Many of us involved in campaigns donate countless hours to support a candidate and what they stand for. Canada’s upcoming election will see many of us step forward to donate valuable design services. If one practices sustainable communication design, one might ask, how can an election campaign be more sustainable?

Value Yourself

Before you commit to a campaign, consider your “personal sustainability.” Is your work valued? How much control will you have? Campaign managers may have experience running political campaigns but many have never had the benefit of working with professional communicators. Be clear on your expectations before committing. Are you being paid? If not, are you able to use the work you create in your portfolio in advance of the election results? And how much will be asked of you? Be prepared for work that must be turned around in a few hours.

Start at the Top 

Like any client, work that is undervalued can be compromised. Involve decision-makers from the beginning. Help them understand the design process and desired outcomes. Show them samples of your work, and explain with case studies. If you are not already the communication director, ask that all design work be filtered through you especially if volunteers are involved in their creation. Avoid being critical of poor work that may have been done by past volunteers. Instead, focus on bringing the entire team along with your strategies. Acknowledge their efforts, explain your process and your plans. When everyone is on the same page, the issues and your candidate’s potential will be clearer to potential voters.

The Tick Tock Once the Writ Drops

One of the primary barriers to sustainable communication design when working on a campaign is budget. Budgets, especially before the “writ drops” and an election announced, may be small. Remove the need for large investment by developing concepts that goes beyond the ordinary and expected. If sustainable options are considered “too” expensive, consider other stakeholders in those discussions. Can you work in partnership with vendors instead of contracting their work?

Now that the writ has dropped, there is a whole new high-intensity campaign, with restrictions on spending and on donations. This four to six week time span is intense. You will be immersed in urgent design requests. If volunteers see something needed that you might not have time for, they may simply do the work themselves. Build your relationships with all volunteers. Make yourself the go-to person for approvals and be the first point of contact for design regardless of who completes final work.

First Strategies

Printed brochures, lawn signs and office signage are often the first deliverables that offer partnership opportunities for sustainable communication solutions. Incumbent candidates likely have existing, established relationships with vendors, while new candidates likely do not. Find the opportunity in all relationships. Work with other campaign leads to make best use of these supporters. 

If your campaign, for instance, must use a union printer that is limited in capacity or offerings, discuss possibilities directly with the printer. Get them excited about your approach. They may have their own solutions, or together you might find a work around. It might take time to get them on side. Be clear on WHY your approach is appropriate and you will have more success. 

Local vendors appreciate being recognized. Boost your messaging. Include content about your values, including your use of local vendors. If your budget doesn’t allow an upgrade of materials, ask the vendor to contribute the upgrade and credit them for it on the signage or brochure. There are many local vendors looking for more exposure who may not have advertising budgets. Help them to help you, especially if their contribution aligns with your candidate’s values.

The Generous Donor

There is always a passionate donor who wants to donate something specific to the campaign. They may feel theirs is the best approach. Try to move the donor to another idea when appropriate. If you are suggesting alternatives, consider something that recognizes them (if that appeals to them) and attracts media. But if your efforts to guide them in another direction is met with resistance, give them what they want and make the best of it.

Recognize their investment first and then suggest alternatives and the benefit to the candidate. In the end, you are likely not to convert someone who has definite deliverables in mind but its always worth a try. Regardless of final decisions, remain enthusiastic. Remember that your work must align with the party’s policies. If sustainability is a mandate, remind others when a suggestion is not sustainable. Donors who offer unsustainable gift options should be persuaded to seek out alternatives that align with the party’s policies without judging their suggesetion as wrong.

It's a Sign

Signage is a thorn in the side of all sustainable communication designers. The substrates offered today are most often plastic based, the holders often ineffective and the costs high. It is especially difficult to know how many signs are needed. Collective ordering is sensible though many campaigns end up paying top dollar due to poor planning and last minute decisionmaking. Get on top of the communication tools in order of need. Use recyclable substrates and create a “take back” system after the election. Note it in your communications and use the strategy as a reason to connect with potential voters.

This is an intense time and a lot is at stake. Embrace responsible communications, share your strategies with others and communicate your efforts with potential voters. As always in elections, “it’s time for change” and a first good design step by all parties is communication that respects the environment, people and our diverse cultures.

Watch for our next article that will take a look at the ethical language used in political communication and the social impact of leading by example.

Valerie Elliott is a graphic designer and engagement strategist who has worked as a communication director on political campaigns for over 15 years. 
National Supporting Partners