Thanks to Hillary, the Humble Campaign Pin Is Making a Big Comeback
To celebrate Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination, her campaign unveiled the Forty-Five Pin Project—45 campaign buttons by notable, contemporary artists and graphic designers. But this is about more than showing you’re with her; the pins highlight a new wave of creativity in political design.
The Clinton campaign invited designers to decorate 1- or 3-inch buttons with a design brief containing just one directive: Keep it simple. “These buttons are for Hillary Clinton, not against Donald Trump or anybody else,” says Scott Stowell of the New York design studio Open.
Although campaign buttons date to the dawn of the Republic—George Washington supporters wore metal pendants bearing his initials—the pin-back button as you know it dates to the advent of mass-produced celluloid pins just before William McKinley’s 1886 presidential campaign. “That was a revolutionary period at the turn of the century,” says Tony Lee, president of the Big Apple chapter of the American Political Item Collectors. “Illustrators went nuts, and from 1900 to 1912 you had some gorgeous stuff.” Gold filigree frames and art deco geometries dominated as prissy Victorian design sentiments waned in favor of the Art Nouveau.
Design homogenized by the middle of the century, and post-war pins in particular adhered to patriotic themes and color palettes. That changed in 1968 with the race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. “In 1968 and 1972, you had the Vietnam War raging along,” says Michael McQuillen, who owns the campaign memorabilia website Political Parade. “A lot of those buttons would have peace and anti-war symbols and doves, because the war was so greatly on Americans’ minds.”
What sets these eras apart, from a design standpoint, is the readiness with which campaigns welcomed artists. This is particularly true of the Democratic party of late. “One could make the argument that the 2008, 2012, and 2016 campaigns present another Golden Age of button design—a modern Golden Age,” McQuillen says. Just as film did in the late 19th century, the Internet has expanded the distribution of political imagery. Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster went viral before Obama’s team incorporated it into campaign merchandise. It became one of the most iconic political symbols in recent history.
With the Forty-Five Pins Project, the Clinton campaign took a more proactive approach, soliciting contributions from dozens of people. The result is an impressive array of beautiful buttons that you can order online. “It’s like an Etsy store for Hillary,” says Ellen Lupton, senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. It’s an apt description for a collection of designs that veers again and again from typical political design motifs. Joslynn Hupe, calls her design of a prismatic pink, purple, and yellow “H” deliberately offbeat. “The silhouette of the ‘H’ is purposely irregular, to represent my belief that Hillary will break out of the mold,” she says.
Some designs bring to mind earlier eras. Robynne Raye, cofounder of Modern Dog Design Co., designed a pin featuring a line drawing of a dove, a daisy chain, and the words “clean energy.” “If I just glanced at this, I would think it’s a Hubert Humphrey button, or a Eugene McCarthy button—both Democratic candidates that relied heavily on environmental messages,” McQuillen says. Others draw from digital culture. Hyperakt studio’s “Pantsuits for President” riffs on a popular meme. The button from Open features the triumphant “Praise” emoji.
The variety of styles “opens up the Hillary brand,” Lupton says. The diversity of Clinton supporters makes it easy to see the buttons as avatars, each representing a different kind of supporter. Though Lupton does note the absence of one micro-demographic, in particular: “There could have been a great Bernie Bros for Hillary button.”