Tag: American design

HHH: Vote for Hubert Horatio Humphrey!


Just three letters said it all. In 1968, “HHH” could mean only one thing in the United States: Hubert Horatio Humphrey. He was the vice-president of the country, and more importantly, the Democratic Party candidate for the upcoming presidential elections.


Like countless candidates before him, Humphrey’s face and name became integral visual elements of an election campaign. From picture posters to matchbooks, ceramic plates to calendars, and even cushions—Humphrey appeared everywhere and anywhere that year.

One of the cheapest and most widely available platform for advertising then was the button. Candidates gave out this small fashion accessory for free, and supporters who wore them became personal billboards for their campaign. The button is usually circular, although it has also been produced as tabs, lapels and other forms. Regardless of shape, the size of a button is always limited—typically ranging between 1 to 4 inches—so the message it carries has to be effective and economical.


Recognizing what a mouthful his name was, Humphrey condensed it to “HHH” for the ‘68 campaign. He must have learnt from President Lyndon Baines Johnson, better known as LBJ, whom he had successfully run for office with just four years before. While the portrait of a candidate or his name was commonly used on a button since this marketing device was first introduced in the 1896 elections, the times were a’changing. As television took over the role of giving a face to the candidate from the 1950s, buttons could look more abstract. “HHH” not only fitted easily into a button, it combined to create a distinct logotype that was paired with different designs in various styles

This particular set of buttons have nothing else on them except “HHH” set in what looks like an extra condensed version of typeface News Gothic Bold. While the buttons of his competitor, Richard Nixon, came in the traditional patriotic colors of red, blue, and white, this set of Humphrey pins were unusual with their colorful mustard yellow and aqua green background. Perhaps it was a reminder of how Humphrey stood  up for the colored and was the main author of the Civil Rights Act. Or had the psychedelic ‘60s crept into the politics of this liberal candidate?

Additionally, these buttons do not match the official ones given out by the Democrats’ national committees. They could have been issued by local offices or commercial companies eager to cash in on the growing popularity of collecting campaign buttons. Just as how money and politics are so intertwined in the US, campaign buttons were commoditized. By 1973, a Hobby Protection Act was even enacted to protect collectors from imitation items that had flooded the market.

Several clues on these buttons suggest they are legitimate. Instead of having a separate safety pin on their backs, these buttons have bent pins integrated in them just like early designs. The edges of the buttons also have printed labels that read “Allied Printing”, presumably a historical union printer.


One thing is for sure: Humphrey’s campaign was unlike the orderly arrangement of the buttons’ design and their celebratory colors. In 1968, he not only struggled to overcome a Democratic party divided by the Vietnam War, the nominee kept coming up against angry anti-war protestors, which even led to police violence. Humphrey narrowly lost to Nixon, rendering “HHH” just another slogan of a failed presidential campaign.

Written for Steven Heller’s Researching Design class at D-Crit.

The Meme: Democratizing Graphic Design and Politics

Any significant political event today is often quickly marked by the release of a meme into cyberspace. These simple graphical messages seize on an event’s most controversial moments, translating it into a digital file of less than a hundred kilobytes. In a matter of seconds after its creation, a meme is shared and read, and if effective, its message spreads like wildfire through the Internet and is received by a global audience.

Such memes, often created with just a clever juxtaposition of a tagline on an image, is an act of graphic design as its most basic—combining graphics and text to create meaning. Just as how graphic designers often tap on popular culture to create an attractive visual language for communication, these memes also appropriate images from popular films and iconography to grab attention for its messages.

One could trace political memes to political cartoons, as both take on the subject by injecting humor to create a graphical product whose goal is to make its readers laugh, and often implicitly criticize. While political cartoons have had a long history and is considered a discipline in its own right today, memes looks much more raw in comparison and are often plain ugly. Yet, it is their Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, cobbling together seemingly disparate graphic elements, that gives it legitimacy as a message that originated from the grassroots. Political memes are not the works of a professional cartoonist nor is it a slick advertisement from a politician or group with an agenda—they are the voices of the masses for the masses, an online version of the political poster.

Unlike professional graphic designers, meme creators only need to know where to Google and appropriate the image that is best suited for the message in their heads. Sometimes, it is the reverse, becoming a game of who wrote the funniest caption. The rise of memes has been aided by the emergence of simple web tools that allows anyone to quickly ‘generate’ one and share it, using a series of templates that codify how a meme works. One signature form that is characteristic of the genre starts with a lead-in text, followed by a ridiculous but somewhat relevant image, and ends with a punchline for impact. This three-step design process shows how readers often encounter memes, while scrolling in the web browser environment.

Although there are more complicated memes that allow a longer narrative to be played out, such as those based on the design of comic panels, they are mostly short and to the point. The choice of publishing memes via social media also explains its design. Clearly catered for viral transmissions that ride on platforms filled with competing messages, the design of political memes prize speed and compactness over cutting-edge aesthetics and depth.

Political memes are essentially a fragment—and at times, not even the most important—of how the masses see politics today. This is perhaps a sign of how everything in our lives today take on a certain ‘entertainment’ turn—even something as serious as politics. With so many other things in life to do, politics has to be reduced to punchlines and attention-grabbing antics in real-life and also in the form of memes.

This political form that is born from the convergence of technology, design, and society has become so popular that there are now websites dedicated to the generation, collection and distribution of such memes. Even politicians have got into the game, when during the 2012 US Presidential campaign, both candidates’ social media teams unleashed their own memes into their World Wide Web.

This new form of political expression of the times is another medium of society’s democratic conversation, adding richness to the online chatter amongst the masses, and definitely a good laugh too. But is there anything more after that? On the one hand, it can serve a vigilante function, cutting through heavy political acts by seizing on dubious messages and magnifying them through humor, but on the other, political memes often takes things out of context, mostly for the sake of entertainment.

Just as how computers made visual expression simpler for more, the simplicity and ease of creating and distributing memes is another example of how graphic design is being democratized, in this case for online communication on political matters. And like most media, memes are value-free, but entirely up to where designers — in this case, citizens — want to take them.


This was originally written for a graduate programme application.