What are the candidates’ signs really saying?
Tens of thousands have taken hold across Boston like an invasive species, clinging to fences, stuck to buildings, taped inside shop windows, stapled to trees, plunked in lawns.
They are red, white, and blue, mostly blue, and adorned with stripes or random constellations of stars. Most important? The name, screamed in letters large enough to be read from a passing car.
Political yard signs have inundated Boston as 12 candidates scrap and scrape for votes in the most volatile mayor’s race in decades. And then there are the 49 City Council candidates adding to the clutter.
In this time of the signs, a font choice can suggest decisiveness, warmth, or a new direction. Color selection hints at which candidate might play it safe and who is a rebel. Slogans can invite people to join a cause or tell voters how the city could be.
“Some candidates actually took a little time to think about what will be on their posters,” said Edward Boches, a Boston University advertising professor. “The ones that are nothing but a solid color background and a different color typeface have a less visual attraction.”
Boches and a graphic design specialist, neither of whom works for the candidates, critiqued mayoral signs for the Globe.
Boches’s analysis, which looked only at the candidates’ basic yard signs, concluded that the more complicated posters worked better, with two-toned backgrounds evoking depth.
“There’s something very, very subliminal that adds a little more dimension and texture,” Boches said. “Perhaps it suggests there is a little bit more there, that it’s a candidate that’s a little more complex.”
Lindsay Kinkade, a graphic designer in Phoenix, suggested that the simplicity of the signs connected with the city’s Colonial roots.
“In Boston, you need to be campy and old timey,” said Kinkade, a former Globe designer who has taught at Rhode Island School of Design and Arizona State University. “That’s kind of nice, straightforward, and no frills.”
The goal of any political yard sign, of course, is not to set new trends in advertising or win awards for graphic design. Signs give a candidate a presence, alert voters an election is coming, and give volunteers a flag to plant in their grass.
“The primary purpose is name recognition,” said Ben Donahower, a Pennsylvania-based political consultant who operates the website campaigntrailyardsigns.com. “When you have a dozen candidates, for the average voter, it’s hard to keep the names straight.”
Many campaigns have more than one type of sign, with iterations in Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages. Some signs include pictures of the candidates, while others evolved, like the transition of Councilor Rob Consalvo’s slogan from “Making Boston Better,” to “All in for Boston,” to, finally, “The Public Education Mayor.”
In this election, seven signs are blue. State Representative Martin J. Walsh stands out as the candidate with red. The color emanates strength, Boches noted, but Walsh also includes his full name, Martin, his grandfather’s name, and his nickname, Marty. “Seems indecisive,” Boches said, tongue-in-cheek, of the two-name strategy. “I want a mayor who is less wishy-washy.”
Former health care executive Bill Walczak distinguishes himself with a bold green sign and muscular type similar to that used by President Obama, analysts concluded. “Clearly a rebel,” Boches said. “Breaks the rules of red, white, and blue.”
It’s a matter of truth in advertising: In the mayor’s race, Walczak has played the renegade, making his opposition to a Suffolk Downs casino the centerpiece of his campaign. The green is intended to evoke the Green Monster, the left field wall at Fenway Park.
“He wanted something different and reminiscent of Boston,” said Walczak’s spokeswoman, Dee Dee Edmondson. “We went with Red Sox colors.”
Seven candidates' signs have stars. Only five include slogans that hint why someone actually deserves a vote. Eight proclaim the candidate is running “for mayor.” Walczak skips the ambiguity and gives himself the title “Mayor of Boston.” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and Councilor Michael P. Ross distill it to a single word: mayor.
Ross’s sign stands out for another reason. He turned the tried-and-true horizontal campaign poster on its head.
“I had never seen a political sign that was vertical,” said Ross’s campaign manager, Cayce McCabe, who designed the up-and-down poster. “I thought it was a simple way to do something completely different so it stood out.”
It worked for Kinkade, who noted Ross’s use of Gotham, Obama’s winning typeface.
“His sign looks more like [the screen on] your phone or your Facebook feed,” Kinkade said. “In that way, it feels supermodern and fresh. Design-wise, it’s very nice; it reinvents the form a little bit.”
The critics also took note of Councilor at Large John R. Connolly’s sign. (Boches described it as boring. Kinkade appreciated the “friendly, quirky typeface,” which made the J in his first name seem as if it was smiling.)
Former city housing chief Charlotte Golar Richie has a sign with a classic design, Kinkade said. Red banners move the eye from her last name to the word mayor, said Boches. The sign, he said, feels more contemporary and energetic than the others.
The analysts liked the green and gold sign screaming “Felix,” as in Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo. The colors suggest a candidate who is environmentally friendly, with a focus on social justice, Kinkade said.
Both critics agreed the best-designed sign belongs to former School Committee member John F. Barros. His two-toned, blue and green background adds depth, Boches said, and the two different-sized stars pointing to his name suggest Barros is contemporary and young. “It’s modern and clear,” Kinkade said, “but more considered and beautiful.”
Beautiful? A campaign sign? Does that matter?
“People want voters to see their name at least seven times,” said Kevin Connolly, owner of Woburn-based Connolly Printing, which is responsible for many of Boston’s mayoral signs. “Signs don’t vote, but if you don’t have signs people don’t really know you.”