Saturday, June 11, 2022

Still Life with Robin: Take a Flyer

by Peggy Robin

I started the count on Tuesday, May 31st -- the day I received seven campaign flyers in the mail or left at the door. I've been letting them accumulate, just to see how big a stack I would get by today, when I would post this column about it. Not a political column, per se, as I will make no comment on the content of any of the campaign material I've received; I'm just here to do a paper count, and then make a few snarky comments about design -- or lack thereof..

First, to the numbers. Here are the numbers of flyers received from each candidate in the Democratic primary (in descending order, without regards to position sought) over the past 12 days:
Eric Goulet 9
Muriel Bowser 8
Phil Mendelson 6
Beau Finley 4
Tricia Duncan 2
Nate Fleming 2
Matt Frumin 2
Monte Monash 2
Brian Schwalb 2
Robert White 2
Anita Bonds 2
Erin Palmer 1
Bruce Spiva 1
Phil Thomas 1
TOTAL 44 (averaging between 3 and 4 a day for 12 days)
And now for my comments on the visual impression made by all these flyers. First, let me cite a few sources that lay out the fundamentals of graphic design. There are a handful of generally acknowledged principles that graphic design students learn in any introductory level class, concerning balance, alignment, hierarchy, contrast, color, and space. Here's a quick tutorial from London College of Contemporary Arts with a basic definition of these concepts. If you would prefer a short video version, watch "The Basics of Layout and Composition" at For a even more compact lesson using six simple graphics, there's this excerpt from an online course at
Judged on graphic design alone, not one of the 44 flyers was outstanding, or even striking, in design. Most were adequate. There are no winners here. Almost all of were too cluttered. There are however, three definite standouts -- for BAD design. I will take them from least bad to worst:
Bad but not completely awful: Flyer for Bruce Spiva (produced by Spiva for DC AG campaign). The main design mistake is the large photo of the candidate in a dark suit, standing against a dark column, photographed to make him seem half-hidden in the shadows. He's standing next to a woman wearing a vibrant pink jacket -- that pink suit is the first thing you notice -- but her face is also indistinct. The overall impression of the two of them together is of a pair of empty suits. No one with any sort of discerning eye would have selected this photo, much less given it prominence as the main photo of a flyer.
Awful, but still not the worst: Flyer for Anita Bonds (produced by DC Association of Realtors Independent Expenditures Committee). Never choose a muddy brown as the color of the type. Or gray. Neither one is bold enough. The soft gray is especially hard on the eyes -- and for most readers over 60 (a big cohort of likely voters), it's really quite a challenge. Then there are those brown horizontal bars used as bullet points. They look like giant minus signs! On the flip side of the flyer (pictured), there's a panoramic shot of DC, taken from a vantage point on the Virginia side of the Potomac, looking straight across to the Kennedy Center. This photo takes up three-quarters of one side of the flyer -- and says absolutely nothing about the candidate or her goals. It's not even a sunny day in the photo! There are ominous gray clouds hanging over the city. It certainly doesn't suggest a bright future for the city.
And now to the undisputed loser: Flyer for Phil Thomas (produced by Phil For Ward 3). Every major principle of good flyer design is shattered. One side has a lot of dense copy, all of it in Italic ALL CAPS. Only major headlines should ever be in ALL CAPs. And even then, only to announce an earthquake of 5.5 on the Richter scale or above. Otherwise, use normal sentence case. And the color scheme is all kinds of green -- on both sides of the flyer. There's grass green, lime green, mossy green. The type is mainly in white lettering, and on the lighter green background it doesn't stand out much and is barely readable. But that's not the main color problem with this flyer. The problem is in the big photo of Phil Thomas against this greeny-green background. You know what can happen to certain contrasting, lighter shades when shown against a bright green background? They will take on an orangey glow. And that is just what has happened to Phil Thomas's face in the big photo. He appears to be almost orange-colored, with a pinkish undertone. He's smiling, but he doesn't look at all well. This flyer looks like something a dirty-tricks opponent would cook up. And it wins, hands down, as the the worst flyer of the 44 that have crossed my doorway during the campaign so far.
I must close with this disclaimer: You can't judge a candidate by what their graphic design team does. But why does our talented city have so, so many untalented graphic designers? What does that tell us about our future?
Still Life with Robin is posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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