Deroy Peraza didn’t work directly with candidates before last cycle. As a partner and creative director at Brooklyn-based Hyperakt, his political work focused on advocacy groups and causes. But in 2019, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential approached with a request for help.
Five days later, Hyperakt signed on to lead the branding for Mayor Pete and, in the process, helped drive an evolution in political design on the left.
In a recent conversation with C&E, Peraza looked back at the state of political branding, offered his take on what impedes good work in the space, and recalled his first visit to South Bend, Ind.:
C&E: How do you see the state of political design?
Peraza: Design often plays an important role in remembering a candidate, and stands for what a campaign is or was. You can’t argue against the red MAGA hat as something that immediately unlocks all kinds of ideas and loyalty to a candidate. That is a piece of design. It might be ugly design, but it’s effective design. Our job is to use design for good. It should be taken seriously.
In 2020, there were a lot of candidates running for president, which means that all those candidates were competing for attention. A lot of differentiation was needed to help people understand the differences between the candidates. We were, and still are, at a point in our society where identity is very much at the forefront of the conversation. I think those two things together yielded branding that tried to highlight the different perspectives within the Democratic Party, all of which are in a different universe from what the Republican Party has become.
For most branding categories, trying to reflect what makes you unique doesn’t sound very innovative or cutting edge – that’s our job. But for presidential campaign branding, if you look back at the last seventy years of campaign branding, it’s kind of hard to derive much difference. They all use red, white and blue with very few exceptions. The expected symbols of America — they were intentionally all designed to look the same, presumably to evoke that a candidate is a safe, status quo choice as opposed to intentionally trying to represent why the candidate is unique and a different leader.
C&E: What is holding political design back?
Peraza: The way that the majority of candidates approach branding is fundamentally broken. I think they underestimate the importance of the work. They underestimate the importance of design, and how much access the designer needs to do that job justice. Generally, I would say that any designers, including ourselves, are under a ton of pressure to do something that feels moderately well executed and on point in two weeks. I see it as kind of miraculous to get close to the mark. It just warrants more time. It warrants more of an investment in doing the job well.
I’ve heard a lot of stories from colleagues who have worked with other campaigns and have had zero direct contact with the candidate — all information was second- or third-hand. It’s just very surface-level information to build a brand with. A lot is left to the design team to figure out. That’s often why you get kind of surface-level brands that are picking a font and picking a couple colors that feel right and the rest is sort of built on the fly. Brands are much more powerful when they have a real story that is authentic behind them.
C&E: How did you end up doing the branding for Mayor Pete?
Peraza: We’re in the business of really getting in deep with our clients and understanding who they are, what they’ve been through, what their values are, what they want to impact. The situation is quite different on a presidential campaign. There tends to be fewer decision makers, there tends to be less access to the primary person you’re representing, and it all gets compressed into a lightning-fast process and you roll with things at what feels like breakneck speed compared to our usual engagement.
Five days after we signed a contract [in February 2019], we were in South Bend spending time with Pete’s core campaign team who were fantastic and gave us their full attention for a full day. We workshopped with them to extract as much of Pete’s story as possible, and then they gave us a tour of South Bend. They explained to us why it’s such a meaningful place for Pete. They shared with us places that are important and symbolic to the city like the old Studebaker Factory, Jefferson Blvd Bridge and Claeys Candy.
They told us how Pete went to minor league games with his dad, explained his family’s connection to Notre Dame — all things that were very biographical and informative in nature — and allegorical of a broader American experience. To us, South Bend became a metaphor for the quintessential Midwestern American city and most cities — cities struggling to re-invent themselves in the post-industrial era.
A few days later, we were able to have a call with Pete himself. He’s the kind of guy who is just an amazing communicator. In that phone call he talked about the Jefferson Boulevard Bridge, which he sees as a symbol of the rebirth of the city — a century old bridge in the heart of South Bend which now comes to life each night in a glowing blue light installation created during his mayorship. This idea of building on and adapting our past to create and innovate for our uncharted future laid the conceptual ground for the brand identity — Pete as the candidate who can bridge past to future, heartland to coasts, millennials to baby boomers, moderates to liberals.