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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a catchy logo and now progressives everywhere are copying it

  • NEW YORK TIMES / APRIL 28
                                Michelle Caruso-Cabrera campaigns for New York City comptroller in Manhattan.

    NEW YORK TIMES / APRIL 28

    Michelle Caruso-Cabrera campaigns for New York City comptroller in Manhattan.

In her three years in the national spotlight, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the undisputed face of unabashed progressivism. But there is another hidden-in-plain-sight legacy of her 2018 primary victory: Her campaign logo and poster have reshaped the visual branding of the left.

If Donald Trump redefined the red hat as a symbol of the right, Ocasio-Cortez’s slant and her break from the traditional red, white and blue color palette has formed something of a new graphical language for progressivism. Political designers say her logo’s vibe has come to convey insurgency, youth, diversity, liberalism — and winning.

“What AOC did is she changed what it is to run for office,” said Amoy Barnes, a 34-year-old Black Democrat running for City Council on Staten Island. When Barnes’ consulting firm presented her a set of past political logos to provide inspiration, she immediately gravitated toward the Ocasio-Cortez design. “Being a young woman of color with her bright purple and the slant and her full name — she set a bar to say we don’t have to do things the same way.”

Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor in the business school at Duke University who studies the impact of branding in the unconscious minds of voters and consumers, said that familiar design can trigger powerful associations.

“Voters that see those elements are unlikely, at least initially, to notice the similarity with the AOC design,” Fitzsimons explained. But, he added, “what happens cognitively is it shines a light in your head.”

“Essentially what they are doing is borrowing from all the work she has done on the progressive side of the Democratic Party,” he said of look-alike logos.

The distinctive AOC typography has even found itself on T-shirts sold by politicians of both parties — serving as a visual shorthand of sorts for the left.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 presidential bid inspired Ocasio-Cortez’s own political career, is using it to sell shirts supporting the Green New Deal (the signature policy initiative of Ocasio-Cortez).

While Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary for Trump now running for governor of Arkansas, has adopted the tilted text for her anti-left clothing line demanding, “Let’s cancel cancel culture.”

All of which has been amusing to the design team that created Ocasio-Cortez’s logo, and who have begun cataloging various duplications that pop up on the campaign trail and in popular culture. “They’re everywhere,” said Scott Starrett, who helped design her logo. “Finding them is actually quite fun now.”

Starrett socialized with Ocasio-Cortez before she was “AOC” — in an interview he kept lapsing into referring to her as Sandy, as her pre-politics friends and family knew her — and said they had discussed her ideology long before he and Maria Arenas at the design firm Tandem sketched out her logo.

The color palette and speech bubble in the final design drew inspiration from Rosie the Riveter, Starrett said. The poster with her outward gaze was drawn from a Cesar Chavez stamp. And the overall look came from boxing, farmworker unionizing and luchador posters.

The inverted exclamation mark with a star punctuated her Puerto Rican heritage, and simultaneously turned her name into a rallying cry. “We wanted this idea that she was shouting her name to get attention, and also the idea that people were shouting her name,” Starrett said.

The slant and condensed font, though, was as much a typographical necessity as anything. Starrett said they had lobbied for not spelling out her full name, but Ocasio-Cortez held firm. She wanted her whole name. They tilted and stacked it to make it fit.

“The way she went with that angled typography, that has entered the vernacular,” said Sol Sender, who led the design team that created former President Barack Obama’s famous 2008 logo — a red, white and blue “O” for his name, and a rising sun, signifying a new day — which itself spurred a raft of copycats.

As impressed as Sender was with Ocasio-Cortez’s iconography — “she was announcing herself as a candidate that was going to stand for something different — and the whole design language supported that” — he is disappointed at the glut of imitators.

“Dig deeper,” he urged fellow designers. “Come on, don’t you have your own ideas?”

Almost no design is truly original. Others have used angled text before — including the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992. And some archconservative Republicans are still using it now, including Trump-aligned Rep. Mo Brooks, who is running for Senate in Alabama.

Ahead of her 2020 reelection, Ocasio-Cortez queried her team about redesigning the logo to “stay ahead of the curve,” as Starrett described it. He successfully rebuffed the idea, making the case that the original logo was still shaping the curve.

That race only reinforced the power of Ocasio-Cortez’s design. She faced a primary battle against former CNBC journalist Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, whose logo was flat with a blue forward arrow.

Ocasio-Cortez won in a landslide. Now Caruso-Cabrera is running for New York City comptroller — and has refreshed her logo to tilt upward, mirroring the woman she had run against.

“First time I’ve thought about that,” Caruso-Cabrera said when asked about the logo similarities as she walked through the Union Square farmers’ market on one recent afternoon. “The upward tilt,” she said, “was always about optimism.”

Moments later, a young woman walked past carrying a canvas sack of groceries, and wearing a yellow Ocasio-Cortez T-shirt.

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